When filmmakers talk about building the world of a movie, it is often in terms of its visual components – production design, special effects and cinematography – but necessarily not sound. But for a science fiction film set in the future, sound editors can’t rely on sound libraries or modern day sound effects; instead, they have to imagine and construct sounds based on how the world has changed, and in the case of “Blade Runner 2049,” how the dystopia Ridley Scott created in 1982 has evolved.
Most movies don’t really start dealing with sound design until post-production, but because of the demands and scope of the “Blade Runner 2049” soundscape, director Denis Villeneuve was able to put into practice an idea he had considered for a long time — bringing on sound designer Theo Green at the beginning of production, and supervising sound editor Mark Mangini just weeks later. Both men are currently nominated for Oscars for Best Sound Editing; it’s Mangini’s fifth nomination, and Green’s first.
“Usually, you start the sound design almost when the editing is finished,” said Villeneuve in an interview with IndieWire. “So to start on the sound for a year full time, designing sounds for each aspect of the movie and sculpting those beautiful ambiences – that are like music sometimes – it became part of the DNA of the film that my editor Joe Walker and I can edit to.”
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One of the guiding principles Villeneuve gave Green early on was that the dystopia of Los Angeles in 2049 had multiple levels. The world became quieter as viewers moved above the ground of the city and into the air, until the soundscape reached an almost zen-like calm. “It’s a socio-economic leveling, on the bottom people are struggling and the top levels this is where the remaining elite live,” said Green. The audience is first introduced to this sharp contrast when K (Ryan Gosling) travels to BiBi’s Bar. “It’s hellishly busy and it’s oppressive,” Green said. “You are being bombarded with advertisements in many different languages and people and from every angle – even above you there are things projecting.”
To introduce the world of BiBi’s bar, following the quiet of the previous scene unfolding far above the city, Mangini created sounds to emphasize the contrast. “I wanted to smash cut into the scene, as if to say, ‘Here we go, you are going to really experience the dystopia and mad crush that is Los Angeles 2049,'” said Mangini. “I remember being really struck by those gorgeous drum booms [composer] Vangelis used in original ‘Blade Runner’ and I wanted to use something like that to jump start the scene and mark the transition. It’s really the only piece of sound – although we created our own version of it – that harkens back to the original.”
The boom is followed by a cacophony of sounds that form the cityscape: PA speakers blasting advertisements in different languages, very distant but crushed sounds of thousands of voices, a disturbing, almost motorcycle-like sound composer Benjamin Wallfisch created and the endless array of vending machines. Collectively, they create a mounting sense of unease.
“We were really tasked with getting in the head of Ryan Gosling in this movie, almost psycho-acoustically describing his emotion through the environment around him and yes,” said Green. “At Bibi’s, we are inundating you with layers and layers of sound, and it could be a mess [all these sounds at once], but we reveal layers piece by piece through a single, subjective perspective, which is K’s.”
The sounds also plays a key storytelling role of the world itself, yielding a complete vision of 2049 that grounds the futuristic world in realism and allows the audience to suspend its disbelief. To accomplish this, each sound plays a role in defining how Los Angeles has evolved since the first film.
Mangini took an innovative approach for the BiBi’s scene. “You are surrounded by thousands of people speaking different languages – Hindu, Korean, German, Japanese,” he said. He custom-recorded conversational sounds known in industry parlable as walla – nondescript crowd sounds – “to create this polyglot sense of the city,” he said. “Our instruction to our native speakers was to make up discussions about the concerns someone who is living in 2049 at the lowest level of society would have – finding water, finding food, finding employment and finding happiness. It’s almost an actors’ exercise.” The approach was designed to have a subconscious effect on the viewer. “Many linguists will argue that while you don’t understand the words in German or Hindu, we are intuitive enough as humans to get the sense of the conversation and the mood, the feel of that walla will convey the information anyway,” he said. “We are helping to build the world in these very economical and albeit sub-conscience ways.”
Villeneuve and Walker — who was composer before he was an editor — tend to treat sound design as if it were part of the score on all their projects. However, it was only by starting the collaboration with Green at the start of production that they managed to blur the line between score and sound design.
“One of the early requests from Denis to Theo and I was to ‘compose with sound,’” said Mangini. “He had this goal that sound could work on this other, more emotional, maybe even expository level in the way that score could. Part of his technique with Joe Walker, our film editor, is to create the first edit of the film without any score because, as a smart filmmaker, you need to know when scenes are working on their own merit. Theo and I went off and spent months creating, for lack of better term, sound sculptures and sound architecture, sound that didn’t have any relationship to a sync point in the film, but have their own unique kind of musical ambience to them without having a melody, but they have a mode or feel to them.”
By the time composers Hans Zimmer and Ben Wallfisch came on board, the sound design was in place. This allowed for the composers to create music that played off the soundscape in a complementary and almost improvisatory fashion. “We had such a long time to the sound design and the music was more done in very jazzy way, very spontaneous, very intense working session,” said Villeneuve. “We were very solid with the sound design, which had been so carefully planned and researched, so it became this spontaneous dialogue with music off that.”
Green marveled at how well the score melds with the sound design, to the point where it’s often unclear where one begins and the other ends. He also emphasized that, although Zimmer and Wallfisch are two composers who think about score like sound design, that level of synchronicity is only possible because he and Mangini were able to start their collaboration with Villeneuve and Walker so early.
“It’s the first time Denis had the budget to [start sound design early], but at the same time it’s something we would like to evangelize about, that other films could do this,” said Green. “It’s considered that sound is post-production and shouldn’t be started that early, but I think the proof is in the pudding.”
To see how the sound design of the BiBi’s Bar scene was built layer by layer from scratch, watch the video below.