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Surreal Sound, Toy Cameras

As a sound designer, I am always searching for new and interesting ways to re-create sounds, hoping to avoid that dissatisfying, heard-it-before feeling

As a sound designer, I am always searching for new and interesting ways to re-create sounds, hoping to avoid that dissatisfying, heard-it-before feeling that plagues so many films (and CDs!) today. In our field, there are directors who perceive sound almost as an afterthought, and from their point of view, who really cares that we’re using the same child giggle or bird squawk? Granted, sometimes in this business, the only answer to an audio solution is the quickest and easiest sound, due to time and/or budget constraints. However, on occasion, a director comes through who really seems to understand the possibilities of sound, whether there is a budget or not.

When I first met writer/director Zach Hansen, it was for a spotting session of his feature, Killer Me, a serious psychological drama photographed by Neal Fredericks, who also shot The Blair Witch Project. It soon became obvious that he was a passionate screenwriter and director; upon experiencing first-hand his work with the actors during ADR sessions and his control of the entire event, it was clear that he cared equally about sound.

When Zach and I first began researching the kinds of sounds and music he desired for his film, I presented to him, at the very least, dozens of sound sources and libraries, all to which he responded with a definitive, “No!” As Killer Me continued to play on the monitor, Zach kept talking in surprising specifics about certain sounds he wanted to hear in each scene. He then stuck his hand into his bag and pulled out a 15-year-old, battery-operated toy video camera, a Fisher Price PXL 2000. “I was thinking we could do some of the moodier sound effects on this,” he told me. “The sound quality of this toy might give our recorded sounds a different color.”

A PXL 2000 (which is no longer for sale) records video and audio onto a single audio cassette tape. No smoke, no mirrors, just plain old, down-and-dirty, ’80s tech. The tape moves at 12 times a regular cassette deck’s speed to record its low-res image and sound. When you play the PXL-recorded material back on a standard audio cassette player, a whole new sonic door opens. Not only is the sound slowed down to a crawl, but there is also a distinct warp to the audio, and when the sound source recorded is too soft to be picked up by the camera’s audio input (its external mic), the whir of the camera motor is brought forward in the mix. At slow speed, this motor buzz turns into a very haunting, vibratory lull.

At first, I was bewildered that Zach would make such a suggestion, but by that point, I was willing to try anything. We played the sounds on the cassette deck while simultaneously watching the movie, communicating with glances and gestures as we painstakingly married audio and picture. The project quickly found its own rhythm, and on many occasions, nary a word was spoken as we sat in awe, watching and listening as our PXL pieces magically completed the puzzle. This drone/music became the main score of the film.

Zach and I then became obsessed with using the 2000 to record everything we could get our grubby little ears on. The sounds had to be in a high-frequency range, as everything below about 1k was inaudible when played back at normal speed. We recorded bells, birds, pingpong balls, floor creaks, pots and pans, whistles, carrot munching, dog toy squeaks, kalimba, and on and on. Upon playback, we continued to get a most eerie array of tones, a marked departure from any previous sounds used in any media that I have seen or heard to date.

Although many of the sounds from the PXL worked fine on their own, we also wanted to experiment with today’s technologies. With Pro Tools being our main mixing environment, I used TC Electronic and Waves plug-ins for chorusing and associated reverb and spatialization effects. Of course, the reverbs tended to give some sounds more of an ethereal feel — but at a higher level, due to the unique foundations of the sound’s source. Because the original source was mono, chorusing added an extra dimension in the stereo field. Layering sounds on top of each other and panning left to right created very somber, unsettling entities that felt like they would pass through your body tenfold because of the low-end frequencies and their uncommon nature. We also used reversing, phasing, equalization, limiting and delay, in various combinations.

In one scene of the film, the main character takes a slow walk in a remote part of the woods. With a recording of a rubber ducky quack, the PXL’s audio track — the score, essentially — transformed it into a most ominous bellowing, one that would fit well in any sci-fi film. Placing it at various locations in the mix gave the scene a suspenseful, shock-value effect that is one of my favorite spots in the film. During test screenings, this scene forces one to cover their eyes and look away, which I simply enjoy, considering it’s just a walk in the park, with a rubber ducky.

Needless to say, we spent hours of editing to make things work. In the end, the score for Killer Me is now more than 90% PXL 2000 music/effects. This original soundtrack has an unmistakable fresh feel to it. No symphony, group, synthesizer or tone generator can make these sounds. With imagination, the work with the PXL 2000 has helped this film’s sound become unforgettable and one-of-a-kind. I believe this to be a significant mark in today’s audio post, achieved by using yesterday’s childhood trifle.

Killer Me premiered at the 28th Telluride Film Festival this past Labor Day, and was scheduled for an East Coast premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival from October 17-21. It’s creating quite a buzz for its originality of sound and picture; rumor has it that even Roger Ebert commented on the track. I found it to be an extremely innovative feature film, a story of a man’s shocking inner conflicts and how he deals with them — not for the squeamish. But then again, you can always close your eyes, but you can’t close your ears.

Since 1990, Arlan Boll has been owner/operator of AB Audio Design Studios in Long Beach, Calif., specializing in custom sound design and music for all media, all under one roof.