6 min read

#386 - The Secret to Killer Sound Design

Only one earbud? There will be QC notes about this...

Ren Kylce is the secret to the killer sound design on David Fincher's latest movie, The Killer.

I enjoy David Fincher's films immensely, and I love Kirk Baxter's editing (anywhere), but what really stuck with me was how good The Killer sounded.

In researching this issue of Cut/daily, I learned how the sound team, pushed by Fincher, made numerous against-the-grain stand-out creative choices, such as:

  • Vertical cuts on the music the Killer is listening to
  • Playing this music from only one speaker (they got QC notes!)
  • Removing 'vocalisations' from the fight with the Brute
  • Vertical cuts on sound design to match the picture

You're in for a treat!

It is no surprise that Ren has been nominated nine times for an Academy Award (for either Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing or both) for Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Star Wars Episode VIII - The Last Jedi, Soul, and Mank.

What is a surprise is that he's yet to actually win any.

Despite this, he maintains a humble attitude towards it all, saying:

Actually, getting the nomination, I feel, is the win, and I don't say that just to say it; I actually mean it because the way it works is that your peer group initially nominates. So the Sound Branch will nominate, and then it goes to all the voters.

So to me, in a way, that's really wonderful because it's your peer group that does the same kind of work that you do, nominating you, so that's the best part of it, to be honest.

— Ren Kylce, Sound Designer

According to IMDB his credits on The Killer include Re-Recording Mixer, Sound Design, Sound Supervisor, and Supervising Sound Editor (uncredited).

Listen To This

If you've not seen The Killer, it's streaming on Netflix, so hurry along and watch it. I'll wait.

(1 hour 58 minutes or so later)

OK, great, now you're all caught up. Enjoy listening to the opening scene in Paris in all its auditory glory in the video above.

Headphones are a must. (I'll wait.)

There's an immersion and a distinctiveness to the sounds that (as someone who has been to Paris several times) feels very authentic.

There's an attention to detail, yet a sparing use of sounds that tunes in the audience's ears to the sonic palette of the film and establishes the 'rules' of the game for the Killer's sound design;

  • When we hear the Killers' narration
  • The vertical sound edits between the music
  • The background sounds as establishing the tone/mood/emotions

Lessons in Sound Design with Ren Kylce

In-depth Sound Design has done a spectacular job of crafting a detailed layer-by-layer breakdown of the slow-motion sequence from Fincher's best (self-described) 'b-movie' Panic Room.

Ren guides you through each of the layers, first in his rough version and then the final mix, explaining what each sound is created from and the rationale behind it.

The slow-motion sequence is one of my favourite sequences in the film and stayed with me long after the final credits rolled. All because of the tension the 'beehive' sound created as the crooks pound up the stairs...

Sounds like but isn't...

It's not the sound of the panic room door opening but the idea of something opening being represented in an abstract way.

— Ren Kylce, Sound Designer

To me, this is the most interesting part in sound design.

The selecting, creating, processing, and manipulating of one sound and making it fit the tone, emotion, and utility of the moment.

Whether that's using bear growls and walrus cries in a boxing match or a distorted Balinese Kecak singer to denote a frustrated Jared Letto, it's the creativity in the abstraction that really strikes me.

I'm sure this is the kind of things sound professionals do all the time but it's an important guiding principle for editors and younger post-professionals to lean into.

He did what now?

My favourite sound in the sequence is what Ren calls the "beehive sound" in which he took the whole mixed soundtrack to a commercial he and David Fincher had made nearly a decade before and post-processed it to create that sound.

Who thinks to do that?!

Set creative constraints

One of the things that I try and hold on to is some sort of creative constraint. So for example, one of those creative constraints might be I'm going to only give myself eight channels to edit with.

And if I can't make something interesting in those eight channels I'm gonna get rid of something and replace it with something else until I get something that is in fact interesting.

And the reason why that's an important way to work is that it helps you focus on what the music and the sound is truly about.

Because if you can't figure out the essence of what it's about, within a creative constraint of a minimal amount of channels then you probably are doing something wrong.

— Ren Klyce, Sound Designer

Sound and Music

One of the challenges that emerges during the mix stage is deciding when to weave the score in and out and how much to foreground it compared to the sound design.

What I loved about how this particular music cue is treated, when the panic room door slams shut, is that it almost becomes another object in the scene rather than one step removed from the action.

Thinking about how to bring your score in and out as best fits the moment, rather than just subtly and traditionally, can lead to some interesting creative results!

In-depth Sound Design has another excellent example of the power of this with sound designer Gary Rydstrom discussing the road crossing scene in Toy Story 2.

When it's time to final mix a movie we have a lot of choices and the choices really come down to where and how to play sound effects, how the dialogue is paced out and heard, where the music really needs to help drive the scene and where the music can maybe come underneath and be subordinate for a while.

And we're always trying to give it a dramatic shape so that it's not all at  the same level and with the mix you are trying to give something life by having different things happen all the time with contrast and dynamics.  

— Gary Rydstrom, Sound Designer

Take This Further

It's well worth watching this behind-the-scenes featurette, unpacking what each department's particular skills contributed to the epic fight scene with 'the brute'.

More specifically, you can hear how removing all of the fight 'vocalisations' made room for the “potpourri of noise, props and very specific articulations of glass” and how the different layers of the sound design and final mix combine to make this brawl in the dark so visceral.

For more issues of Cut/daily focused on sound design, browse the extensive list at the end of this recent issue - #381 - Sound Design from Scratch

Subscribe to In-depth Sound Design on YouTube and learn from their 30+ previous videos!

So remember, make against-the-grain-creative choices and cut daily.

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  • Colorist Eric Whipp = JONNY
  • Sound Designer Eugene Gearty = 3UG3NE4J0NNY (the o is a zero)
  • Editor Brian Kates = BR14N4J0NNY (the o is a zero).