An artist equally comfortable in the depths of outer space and in rural, small-town Virginia, in both epic and indie worlds, supervising sound editor Will Files contributed sound designs for two of this year’s acclaimed pictures at opposite ends of the spectrum, the tense sci-fi actioner Passengers and Jeff Nichols’ interracial marriage drama, Loving.
In the former case, working alongside director Morten Tyldum and picture editor Maryann Brandon, Files was committed to providing a novel, fresh sound experience for a different kind of sci-fi universe, taking the viewer fully into the luxurious and elegant Starship Avalon. Speaking with Deadline, Files breaks down his imaginative, non-literal approach to sound design, and certain sonic breakthroughs that came in the making of Passengers.
What attracted you to Passengers?
The first call I got about Passengers was from Maryann Brandon, who’s the picture editor. Maryann and I have worked on a few movies together with J.J. Abrams, like Star Trek and Star Wars—lots of star movies. Maryann knows I love working on space movies, and sci-fi, and that sort of thing. I got a call from her, went over and met her and Morten, and watched the movie with them, and was immediately struck by not only the film itself, and how artful it was, but Morten, as a new person to me, I was so struck by his approach and his artfulness in making this film, which just isn’t the norm for making big budget Hollywood movies. They’re often made more like products, and this film, I immediately could tell was being done with a more artful approach. Not only was I intrigued by the concept and the story itself, but just the aesthetic of the film really drew me in.
What did Tyldum convey to you, in terms of his ideas of the film’s soundscape?
One of the big things we immediately grasped onto was the idea of a very sophisticated, elegant sounding film. I think you can see he’s done that same approach with the visuals in the film, as well, where this ship that they’re on, it’s hundreds of years in the future, it’s all made of high tech materials, but it’s also been designed to give the passengers a very comfortable, luxurious, elegant experience. That comes through very clearly in the visuals, and he felt that had to come through just as well in the sound. It almost would feel as if Apple had designed a ship instead of an iPhone, what would that sound like? To give it that kind of thoughtful approach, instead of just industrial, or just high tech-sounding. Starting from a point of sophistication, we were able to set up that contrast with the things that go bad later in the film even more.
Were there specific sci-fi touchstones when it came to sound design?
I’m a big fan of Stanley Kubrick, and as it turns out, Morten is also a big fan. I’ve always liked the way Kubrick uses sound, as well as the image. He tends to have a sparse soundtrack—they tend to not be very cluttered— so we really wanted to try to use that, not maybe as a point of reference for how the actual sounds would sound, but in terms of the approach to the sound, keeping it elegant in its simplicity. We wanted everything to sound effortless, and like it was really there. A real sense of reality. As opposed to a film like Star Wars, which is all about being stylized for the point of having fun, this movie was all about being stylized for the point of giving the audience a certain feeling about this ship. We wanted this ship to really have a character.
There’s a swashbuckling element to the sounds in Star Wars, even though they’re obviously sci-fi sounds. In this film, sounds are very stylized as well, but in a sense they’re also very grounded in reality. We wanted it to sound both inventive and fresh, but also very plausible and very realistic. We tried to put our industrial design hats on and think about it that way.
When speaking of Star Wars, the inventive sound designer Ben Burtt always comes to mind. Were there ‘Ben Burtt’ kind of discoveries in seeking out your sounds?
We’ve had a lot of fun on this film trying to subvert the normal ideas of where we find sounds for a sci-fi film. If we’re trying to find the sound of a motor, for example, we would try really hard to stay away from using anything that was actually a recording of a motor. Whenever possible, we tried to create new sounds—it still obviously needs to function like a motor, but maybe the underlying technology is totally different, so we tried to find new sound sources to create those sounds, and sometimes that was something as simple as rolling around a glass on a table to get the glassy movement sound, or scraping pieces of metal or cardboard along different surfaces to get a sound of movement. We had a lot of fun with recording things like little chair squeaks, and slowing them down, turning them into voices of robots.
You try to find as many expressive sounds as you can. We wanted everything to have a sort of musicality to it. Even the motors, and basic stuff like doors, they all have a tone to them. There’s a musical language to the sounds of the film that are all interconnected in some way, so as you’re going through your day on the ship, it would almost sound like you’re walking through different pieces of music, even though very little of that was done with real instruments. It was all done with recordings of everyday sounds that have a musical quality. Maybe it’s a door squeak that has a cute little musical note to it, or maybe it’s a puff of air. We recorded air in various ways, through compressed air and through tubes and through pipes and that sort of thing to get tonalities, so that when we were creating the sounds of the mechanics of the ship, everything had a sort of musical tonality to it.
I think that it’s really important when you’re doing a movie like this to stay away from just using stock sound effects, because I think it has this underlying effect on the audience after watching it. If they hear sounds that maybe they’ve heard before on TV or other movies, and if things just sound normal, I think that really works against the suspension of disbelief, in terms of really feeling like this ship is a real place. The more that we can make that place sound special, and unique and custom, the more it’s a place that people will actually want to go.
What was the thought process in conceptualizing the overarching soundscape of the ship, from the interior perspective, and the perspective of space?
Of course, there’s no sound in space, as we all know, because there’s no air. We did a little bit more of a realistic version of that than something like Star Wars would do, but we didn’t go as far as a film like Gravity, where there’s no sound in space. What we tried to do was to limit the amount of high frequency information in the sound, so that things sounded a bit underwater when you’re outside the ship.
It’s important for the sake of this particular story for the ship to feel like the sanctuary, and for the outside of the ship to feel like the place that you don’t want to be, except that there’s a couple moments in the film that are actually quite beautiful outside the ship. But in general, it’s very important to understand that the ship is the thing that keeps them alive, and at the same time, the ship is the thing that becomes a problem for them.
We wanted to make sure that the ship felt huge and that it felt like a machine on the outside, but then on the inside of the ship, the experience is much more insulated, for lack of a better term. The inside of the ship would always feel very pleasant, very comforting and cozy, and then when you were on the outside of the ship you were more aware of the fact that you’re in the middle of nowhere in outer space, riding this crazy, huge piece of metal through space at light speed, and that it’s incredibly powerful and incredibly large. Trying to find sounds that conveyed those ideas was a fun challenge.
Also, the ship has a very distinctive way of moving through space. It has a sort of corkscrew motion, and I wanted to come up with sounds that would reflect that motion and give the audience that sense of the spiraling movement through space. It’s almost like a big space propeller. The whole ship is made of metal. It has this gleaming metal skin, so I was trying to think, how could I convey these feelings with sound?
I found if you take large sheets of metal, you can make them ripple and vibrate by dragging things across them, like pieces of rubber, or a mallet. You’re playing them almost like the drum or something. You’re trying to make the sheet of metal ripple and vibrate in ways that make it shimmer, giving them motion.
I would take these sounds and then run them through various processes to create the sense of motion, almost as if it was a car driving by, something we call Doppler shift. A car drives by and the sound of the horn goes, “Rrrrr.” It rises in pitch, and then it falls in pitch as it drives away from you, and that’s a sound that we all understand innately means something’s coming and then going.
So I tried to take these shimmering metal sounds that had this interesting quality that I liked, and then I gave them motion by giving them Doppler shifts, so it’s almost as if these huge pieces of metal are flying by us in space.
Having honed your craft for many years, do you have a mental library of sounds you can access when necessary?
As a sound artist, you get used to the idea that you’re always listening, even if it’s just subconsciously, with half your brain. You’re always listening to stuff, and so you start noticing little sounds in your everyday life, and I’m often recording things even with my iPhone. Something will catch my ear and I’ll say, “That would be a nice ingredient for this sound,” or, “That would be a good thing to come back and get more of later.” As a sound artist, you never know where your inspiration will come from because the world is so full of sounds. It’s often about trying to find the sound that has the right emotional character for a moment, rather than the sound that is intellectually correct for a moment.
If you do it in such a way where it still feels entirely plausible but whimsical, that’s really the magic. When you can thread that needle between the whimsical and the plausible, I think that’s what makes listening to movies so fun.
You’re also a frequent collaborator of Jeff Nichols, and edited sound for Loving. That’s a very quiet film—what was the approach there?
Loving was a different kind of approach, in such a wonderful way. It was a very minimalist experience. As we were mixing the film, Jeff and I kept trying to look for, how can we make this feel more authentic? How can we make this feel unquestionably real? A lot of times, that meant just eliminating as many layers of artifice as we could. That was very important to that movie, that it not feel over-varnished, and overworked.