What does a smash hit sound like? No one knows better than Christopher Boyes, the aural wizard behind the summer blockbuster "The Avengers."
Author SAM POLCER
THERE’S A BIT OF cartoonish retribution toward the end of The Avengers that ranks among the most satisfying moments in superhero movie history. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that a certain villainous Norse deity gets what’s coming to him. The scene doesn’t take viewers by surprise, exactly: The plot has been building to that point; the audience is gleefully primed and ready. But as any comic book writer will tell you, to achieve maximum thrill power an action scene needs precisely the right sound: THWIP! FOOM! BONK!
Or, in this case: SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! (Cue cheers, laughter.)
Even as high-tech visual effects pave the way for ever more fantastical big-screen narratives, sound design is playing a huge role in giving these films the heft of reality. And The Avengers posed an even bigger challenge in this area, seeing as how some of the most iconic noisemakers in pop culture—Thor’s hammer, The Hulk’s fists—are prominently featured. To make every smash, bang, whir, clang and roar as convincing as it could be, director Joss Whedon looked to four-time Oscar winner Christopher Boyes of Skywalker Sound, who’s lent his aural wizardry to such films as Avatar, Titanic, the Pirates of the Caribbean series and both Iron Man movies.
Play recently caught up with Boyes to chat about what goes into making a soundtrack, how creaks and crunches can help define a superhero and why, when it comes to roaring, two Hulks are better than one.
In the world of comic books that The Avengers sprang from, writers are kind of the original sound designers— deciding, for instance, that the noise a punch makes is “KER-PLOW!” Would you be able to spell out one of your sounds for me?
[Laughs.] That’s a challenge no one’s asked me to do before! Well, in a vocalization, for example, sometimes you’re looking for whether it’s going to be pure noise or if it’s going to have syllables. Like “ahhrrr-GAH!”
For the record: How would you spell that?
And who makes that sound?
Oh, that’s gotta be The Hulk! He’s straining to break something, and then you get the “GAH” just on the break.
Speaking of The Hulk, how’d you come up with his roar?
My initial approach was to go quite animalistic, and that was completely wrong. Joss [Whedon] said, “No, you really have to stay in the human world.” So we recorded actor Mark Ruffalo as well as Lou Ferrigno, who did the original Hulk. And it was good stuff! I started playing with it, doing different types of processing to give it girth, but it wasn’t enough. My girlfriend came up with the notion of sticking her head in a garbage can and screaming into it, and I suggested we try that with some of our sound team down in New Zealand. And that became my palette: a little bit of Ruffalo, a little bit of Ferrigno, two guys from New Zealand and a few animal sounds.
What was it like working with Whedon overall?
Joss was really good at directing the [sound team] in terms of the characters’ motivations. At its heart, The Avengers is about a group of people who are trying, despite various forms of dysfunctionality, to come together toward a common goal. Joss helped us understand that, yes, we needed to create that big, explosive Hollywood-summer-film track, but at the same time we had to help give each character an identity, to define their character arc throughout the film.
In tailoring bits of sound design to fit each of the superheroes in The Avengers, what sorts of things jumped out at you?
In contrast with Iron Man, who has all these bells and whistles, Captain America doesn’t possess any kind of accoutrements other than his own strength. Thor is all about his hammer. And then you have The Hulk, a man who transforms into this rage-filled creature; the challenge was to retain [the Bruce Banner] character within, so you really felt that this was a man enraged as opposed to somebody who turned into a werewolf or something.
I got the sense that you had a lot of fun with Thor’s hammer—especially when it was smashing into things like Iron Man and Captain America’s shield. Was that a sound designer’s dream come true?
Absolutely! When Thor’s hammer hits Iron Man, it’s go a sound like an anvil ringing a bell. When Captain America’s shield comes into contact with Thor’s hammer, we wanted it to be this vibrating metallic sound that nobody’s ever heard before. We finally created something with a giant Big Ben bell clang that had a vibrato to it—wwwowwwowwwowww—receding out into the ether.
And after coming up with all the right clangs, crashes and wwwowwwowwws as sound designer, you did double duty on The Avengers as sound re-recording mixer. What’s the difference? Where does sound editing come into it?
Those things happen at totally different times in the process of making a soundtrack. One way to think of it is: The designer is gathering ingredients to make a soup, the editor is preparing and chopping those things up and the mixer is the one who puts everything in the pot and blends it all together.
Excluding your own hefty list of films—Titanic, Avatar, etc.—what movies have impressed you with their soundtrack?
Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. And there’s Apocalypse Now, of course. The scene I’m thinking of specifically is when Martin Sheen is looking up at the fan in his hotel room and it morphs into helicopter blades. That was a good one for me.
Do you ever close your eyes at the movies?
All the time, yeah. And that’s usually a positive sign, because I’m having a good time with the soundtrack. But more than that, the sound is helping to tell the story that’s onscreen. My favorite part of working on any film is what we call the final mix, when the music, dialogue and sound effects all come together to fuse with the images. That’s where the magic of movies takes place. Suddenly, all these disparate elements become one. I love that part.