Sound plays a crucial role in filmmaking. Sound effects, dialogue, background noise, and music all contribute to the pacing, the mood, and overall storytelling of a film. Sound Re-Recording Mixer Juan Peralta works with other film audio professionals at Skywalker Sound to enhance major motion pictures like Oblivion, Thor: The Dark World, ParaNorman, Super 8, Rio, and TRON: Legacy through sound.
“When you’re mixing, your first job is to help tell the story,” says Juan, a Full Sail Recording Arts graduate and a 2013 Full Sail University Hall of Fame inductee.
Juan takes the sounds that have been designed by the sound effects crew, pulled from a sound library, or recorded on-set by a sound recordist and blends them all together. He also creates the surround sound mix. “As a mixer, I’m always the last stop,” he says.
There are many ways that Juan and other members of the sound team use sound to add to the story. Here are a few examples Juan shared with us:
Sound can be used to establish the setting and time period.
Although Peralta didn’t mix on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, he cites this film as a good example of how a film can place an audience in time. “The evolution of Benjamin Button is that he was born back in the [early 20th century], and there was limited electricity when he was born. So the sound team had to make sure that the dialogue sounded kind of old, like the recordings maybe were older, and that there were no hums and buzzes of light bulbs,” says Juan. “You heard a lot of crickets at night because they were in [the South].”
Juan says the sound studio did a similar treatment with the film, Zodiac, based on the 1970s serial killer. One of the most important settings in the film is a San Francisco newspaper office. “Back when that took place, they all used rotary phones and typewriters, and there were no computers and there were no fax machines. So anytime you were in that office, [there were] really old-sounding phones playing, and a lot of typing – a lot of sounds of typewriters off to the side in the distance,” explains Juan. The director also wanted it to be loud. “It needed to be loud and people yelling at each other. They’re not texting each other. They’re yelling, ‘Hey! Get me the-thing!’ So all that hustle and bustle, the studio had to create all that.”
Sound can be used to create tension and suspense.
“In a scary scene, sometimes it’s scarier to be really quiet and to just hear the crickets outside, and then maybe just one sound coming from behind you might startle you more than music can,” explains Juan. “It all depends on what the director wants: What does he want the audience to feel? Does he want the audience to feel anxiety? Well then, if that’s the case, you [might] put in a tone, a rising tone maybe – a certain sound that’s slowly getting louder and louder and louder. That’ll create some tension. So as you’re watching it, you don’t notice it at first, and then after a while, you think, ‘What is happening? Something’s happening.’ So you can use sounds [that way].”
Sound can be used to create continuity.
Using sound to complement an actor’s movements to improve the flow of a film is also part of storytelling, explains Juan. “Sometimes with sound, we help them with what they’re doing on-screen,” says Juan. “So if the actor turns his head like he heard something, we’ll put a sound over there first. And that will help [explain] why he turned his head. ‘A phone rang, and that’s why he turned his head.’ But that phone was never there; we just put it there.”
Sound can be used to help the audience interpret an object or sound that doesn’t exist.
The hardest sounds to make are the sounds of objects or creatures that are unearthly (in sci-fi or fantasy films) or simply no longer exist, says Juan – yet they are very important to the story. “Nobody knows what a laser guns sound like because there are no laser guns to go record, so you have to make that. Light sabers – somebody had to create that. Coming up with sounds that nobody’s ever heard, but that when you hear it, you believe what’s happening on-screen – I think that’s the really challenging part,” says Juan.
He cites the example of his mentor, Gary Rydstrom, sound designer and re-recording mixer for Jurassic Park. “There’s no dinosaur in captivity to go record, so he had to make something up. He used several different animals and started layering them on top of each other and playing those sounds together to create something bigger. And what he thought it was, that’s what it is,” says Juan.
Read more about Juan Peralta’s role as a re-recording mixer in Art of the Fix: Film Audio.