By: Anton Handel
Glasses clink and silverware clatters in a restaurant. A motorcycle on the street zooms past. Someone at the next table orders a drink. We hear sounds like these everyday but our ears instinctively tune them out as we focus on the main plot of our daily lives.
But for supervising sound editor Owen Granich-Young, sounds like these are the focus of his daily life. Granich-Young has made a career out of masterfully weaving sound effects and background dialogue into soundscapes that create texture and lend believability to the television shows and movies we watch.
The world of sound editing is rich and creative, yet invisible to the eye. It’s an industry that thrives on capturing our world through sound in innovative ways. If you’ve ever wondered where realistic sound effects that create a specific ambience come from, what Foley is, or what ADR stands for, Owen Granich-Young’s work will take you there. All you need to do is listen.
Anton Handel: How did you first become interested in sound editing?
Owen Granich-Young: I got into sound and film in college. I came from a music background, playing flute and practicing music composition. At the same time, I was making short films at Hampshire College, where I went to school. My friends and I were making a lot of movies, and we knew how to light, we knew how to cast, and we knew how to edit. But, you know, our movies didn’t feel like movies. It was incredibly frustrating. And we realized the critical role sound plays in the suspension of disbelief.
AH: And your understanding of sound in movies developed from there?
OGY: Well I quickly realized that if I do my job right in sound, nobody even notices, and the audience just believes the story that much more. That was really enticing and I became interested in the ways that sound could affect your viewing of a film. Because a film is, at its core, just sound and pictures, sound is 50% of your movie-going experience. But you don’t really notice it unless it’s wrong – unless it takes you out of the story.
AH: I guess I’ve never considered that sound makes up half of every movie! That gives you a lot of power.
OGY: Absolutely! Sound is essential for telling the story. And it really begins with an understanding of how our ear works versus how a microphone works. It’s something that people don’t really think about. Basically, your brain and your ears are constantly compressing and editing and leveling the world around you, so that if you and I were in a loud bar having this interview, your brain would edit everything else out and you could still hear my voice cutting through.
AH: Are you saying you wish we were in a bar for this interview?
OGY: (Laughs) Sounds good to me. But actually, that’s an important point. You see, the problem with doing this interview in a bar is that you’re using a microphone to record this interview, and that microphone has no brain.
OGY: The microphone has no clue what it’s capturing. If we were in a crowded bar for this interview, your microphone wouldn’t pick out our dialogue clearly from the rest of the chatter and noise. So what we do in sound editing, if this interview were a scene in a movie that took place in a bar, we’d record the important dialogue first, our dialogue. Then we would add in all of that background sound – people talking, the sounds of glasses clinking together, people ordering food, people walking around, etc.… We add all those elements back in but we add them in at the level that our brains would have turned them down to – that way we believe the story because it seems natural to all of us. It’s storytelling through sound.
AH: Are there certain types of projects where the sound editor can take more artistic license?
OGY: I mean, it really just depends what the story is and how the sound can best assist the telling of that story. The idea of a microphone having a brain reminds me of my first job in Los Angeles. It was an AFI thesis, shot on 35mm film. It was a short film about an alien sound that has taken over these four people living in a Martian colony.
AH: So the sound was an actual character in the short?
OGY: Yes. The alien sound shows up and starts affecting all the characters in different ways. The sound was the monster in a monster movie. It was a dream job for a sound designer (laughs). It was a great first job to have.
AH: Yeah, that does sound like a dream. Where do you begin with something like that – how do you start?
OGY: You just start generating stuff and playing it for filmmakers, thinking of different ways to capture the feeling they’re going for. I had one trick up my sleeve that I held out on, trying a couple other things first, just to give the director options. I kind of knew what sort of sounds would work, but I didn’t want to play it right away for them cause I wanted to see what else I could find, but as they were getting more and more panicked I pulled out this trick I had been thinking about using and they were like: “Oh! That’s it!” The sound ended up being a lot of feedback looping with aggressive distortion.
AH: Sounds terrifying. So your work as a sound editor comes in generally after production has taken place.
OGY: Yes, generally the show is shot, the picture has been edited, we are locked, they turn it over to us, and we start playing. It can be flexible, depending on the specific project, but that’s the general timeline. From there, I discuss with the director or producer or whichever creative I’m working with, and together we figure it out.
AH: And part of your job includes gathering or sometimes even creating sound effects and Foley for the background?
OGY: Yeah. It can be a lot of fun. There are five general aspects to soundscaping: effects, background, Foley, sound design, and dialogue. Traditionally it all gets collapsed into effects, music, and dialogue. Those are your big three.
The effects category just spreads out into a number of smaller roles. Backgrounds, for example, are the sounds of the traffic behind us, the birds singing, or the water trickling down a stream. We do backgrounds that are often seven to 20 layers deep, where you can kind of weave between them. Then we have what you call one-offs – so that loud motorcycle that just went by, that would be a one-off that you might place in the scene. Or you might think: “What the hell is that? That’s really distracting. Can we get that out of there?” But it’s all just to fill it out and make the world of the film more believable.
AH: Can you talk a little bit about Foley?
OGY: Foley is all of the small sounds you don’t think about – feet walking, touching a glass, putting a glass down, picking it up. The best work in sound design blurs the line between Foley and sound effects. A Foley stage is just a large room for you to go create different sounds.
AH: Is a Foley stage just filled with props you can play around and experiment with like a mad scientist?
OGY: Yes (Laughs). Exactly. For example, if we need a car door, we have a car door. They also have dozens of different shoes and a bunch of different surfaces to walk those shoes upon. It’s endless.
AH: Ok, I have to ask. What’s the weirdest sound effect you’ve ever created?
OGY: That’s a classic question – I used mayonnaise once to emulate a worm crawling out of mud. There was this worm and we didn’t have anything else so we bought some mayonnaise and I was like… [squirting noises] [laughing]
AH: Wait, did you squeeze it in your hands? That’s hilarious.
OGY: (Laughs) Yep! Just me, a microphone, and a hand full of mayonnaise [laughing]. You have to think outside the box all the time.
AH: Is it true that you break celery to get the sound of cracking bones?
OGY: (Laughs) Yeah. I have a whole library called Veggie Violence, which is just different squishing, creaking, and breaking sounds.
AH: It sounds like you have a lot of fun.
OGY: For sure. I often explain my job by saying that I play with sonic LEGOs® all day. You know, I was a LEGO® kid growing up. So now it’s similar in that I need to build things, but with sound. For example, a punch. Well I need a little crunch for the impact and I need a slap sound for the really bright part, but then I need a really meaty thud to make sure it sounds nice and big. You then layer these sounds together and it sounds like a punch.
AH: You showed me footage of a glass bottle being shot and you were responsible for the sound effects. Can you break that down for me?
OGY: That’s a great example. It’s a glass bottle filled with liquid. I started by stacking several glass-breaking sounds and then decided it needed some umph, so I put a little thud on it. And then, because there was liquid inside, I put some splashes in too. For the gunshot, I had to find something that felt big and meaty, since it was a Western. And of course, to give it that real Western feel, I needed to add that classic ‘pt-oing!’ after the gunshot.
AH: I also have to ask… how often do you use the Wilhelm scream?
OGY: You had to ask about the Wilhelm scream! Well, on the show I’m working on now, we have a producer who hates it, so as a running gag we try to sneak it into every episode!
AH: For those who don’t know, what is the Wilhelm scream?
OGY: The Wilhelm scream is a sound effect originally from the 1951 movie Distant Drums. A guy is in a river and gets attacked by an alligator and just screams [laughing]. It’s this funny, cheesy sounding scream. If you look it up, you’ll recognize it immediately. It’s been used in hundreds of movies and television shows when somebody falls or gets shot or whatever.
It’s all throughout the Star Wars movies and Indiana Jones. It’s become this running gag for sound editors to sneak it into projects. At this point it’s like: “Oh yep, there’s the Wilhelm, good job.”
Personally, my favorite audio trope is the red-tailed hawk. Anytime in a movie when they cut to a desert, or a field, or any expansive, empty landscape you’ll hear caw! It’s just hilarious – just ridiculous. It’s like, there’s no red-tailed hawks living in this area, but it doesn’t matter. You put the red-tailed hawk sound effect in because it means you’re in a remote area.
AH: Oh yeah! I know exactly what sound effect you mean. Do you have a signature effect or one you like to use again and again?
OGY: Actually, yes. [laughing] I had my own little gag for a long while when I was just effects editing – now that I supervise, I do less of the cutting. I’m more supervising and making sure everyone’s on point. But while I was doing television effects editing there was this one Rube Goldberg machine sequence in Almost Human. This machine went out of control with crashing sounds, and I decided that as the crashing begins to die down, I would add this spinning hubcap sound to really milk the moment. And my boss at the time was like, “Is that a hubcap spinning, Owen?” And so every time in Almost Human when we had an explosion, I would always cut the hubcap in at the end of it. [laughing] To the point where our associate producer would think something was wrong if he heard an explosion and there was no hubcap sound effect!
AH: What is the biggest difference between sound editing and your job now as a supervisor?
OGY: These roles shift and change depending on the scale of your show and whether it’s a television show or a film. Right now I’m a supervisor on a television show, and TV moves very fast. We often have 5 to 7 days to turn a one-hour show around – that’s 42 minutes of footage. On a television show, the supervisor’s number one duty is to understand what the producers and showrunners are looking for sonically and communicate that to my team so they can execute accordingly. I sit down with our co-producer and the picture editor on that particular episode, along with a few other production staff, and we go through the whole show. We make decisions like using an alternative take or whether or not to use ADR.
AH: And what is ADR? Explain that a little bit.
OGY: ADR stands for Additional Dialogue Recording or Additional Dialogue Replacement – both are correct strangely enough. We need to do ADR when you can’t understand the dialogue. In my world, dialogue is king. If you can’t hear the story, nothing else matters. A lot of times there are big generators on set to power all the lights, or there might be loud people, or creaky floors, and the microphone doesn’t know how to cut those out.
AH: Like in our imaginary bar scene!
OGY: Yes, exactly! Or the microphone might have fallen and gotten ruffled in the actor’s shirt. Regardless, when the dialogue is unusable, we need to bring that actor into the studio where they rerecord their dialogue.
AH: Anything exciting happening in terms of audio technology that you are looking forward to using in the future?
OGY: Oh, absolutely. I’m really curious about doing directional audio work. I’ve worked on a couple of virtual reality projects. I love the idea of placing sounds so that they are coming from different directions – 360 degrees. I would love to do more of that.
What else? Oh, you know what’s cool and exciting – Dolby Atmos. It’s speakers on the ceiling to go along with speakers on the walls. It really just opens the space up in a very cool way. I’m always interested in any experience that can make you feel like you’re really in the scene, whether you’re in a forest, or that bar we keep mentioning.
AH: Speaking of which, maybe it’s time to grab a drink.
OGY: Sounds good to me!