To Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve, sound design in movies is a dance between sound and images. Though oftentimes overlooked, sound in film and television tells as much of the story as the visual aspect of storytelling. In fact, many would say that what you hear is 50% of the storytelling process.
The sound industry overall has seen a shift in recent years and with feature films, it’s either a massive $150 million blockbuster or a low budget film, with very few films falling in what was once the middle ground that comprised the bulk of the business. Despite this industry-wide change, Formosa Group has grown at an extraordinary pace of two to 200 employees in just two years, expanding from one to a total of seven locations across Los Angeles, including the company’s Hollywood headquarters, West Hollywood, North Hollywood, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Burbank. Formosa covers five divisions that include Formosa Features, Formosa Broadcast (Television), Formosa Interactive (Gaming and VR), Formosa Music and Formosa Villa (Commercials).
In its four-plus years of existence, the company has had to become extremely innovative and diverse in the services it provides to adjust to the changes and obstacles it has faced. Strategy adherence, while responding to unanticipated market opportunity, allowed Formosa Group to successfully diversify into television, music, games and commercials, in addition to its initial launch into features.
Formosa CEO Bob Rosenthal addressed the middle ground that once comprised the bulk of the business, explaining that though Formosa continues to service tent-pole theatrical projects, they’ve also recognized that changing market dynamics have provided an opportunity to also focus their efforts toward lower budget independent projects and television. “Fortunately, the total amount of content has increased and we correctly anticipated that the television market would more than offset the fall-off of mid-level feature projects.”
Impressed with supervising sound editor Mark Mangini, who won the Academy Award for sound editing on Mad Max Fury Road, of which Villeneuve described as “a mad, dark, punk opera”, he decided he wanted to work with the Formosa sound team. In addition to Mangini, the team included sound designer Theo Green and re-recording mixers Doug Hemphill and Ron Bartlett.
Since the film opened Oct. 6, it has so far earned more than $240 million at the worldwide box office against a $150 million production budget. Villeneuve, known for his unique approach and appreciation for sound and its importance in the story-telling process, explained his decision. “The sound design of the original Blade Runner was a masterpiece. I needed masters to help me create a new exploration of this sonic landscape. So, I hired masters.”
Mangini says that with sound, the audience takes in half the information the filmmaker is conveying. “Sound works on a subconscious level to tell the story. The magic of good sound in film is its ability to suspend disbelief in the audience without them ever being cognizant of it. Sound Artists constantly manipulate, on a micro level, the architecture of what the audience hears to manipulate their focus and emotional state to move them subconsciously in the storytelling direction desired.” On films like Blade Runner 2049, he adds, they work on a film that is virtually silent. “In that sense, a film for a sound artist is like the blank canvas to a painter. This is a world that must be created from the ground up, not only visually but sonically.”
The first film had such a unique “oral signature” with both music and sound effects, explained Mangini, and he wanted to honor that with this one. Blade Runner 2049, he said, was the biggest sound design challenge he’s had on a film. The massive sound library of raw materials they created was comprised of an approximate 2,600 unique elements that were created specifically for the film, including a significant amount of underwater recordings with voices, a great deal of vehicle recordings and recordings of the rain, various musical objects and electric tools.
Hemphill and Bartlett had worked on the original Blade Runner and were more than familiar with the film’s DNA. “I thought it would be great to work with artists that wouldn’t be intimidated by this world, having themselves explored it in the past,” said Villeneuve.
Hemphill explained how the effects of sound can have a direct impact on the subconscious of the audience that can be more powerful than images. “Because it has a pure power of suggestion and evocation, a distant train whistle, for instance, can evoke loneliness, or hope of imminent arrival, depending on the narrative. It’s a common language that, in the right hands, accurately describes drama.”
Per Bartlett, it’s all about taking the director’s vision and translating that into sound. “Our goal is to give the audience a very emotional, thought-provoking experience without showing our hand. Sound for film is all about the emotional content; it helps support the mood and transports you into the story. Sound is a very powerful tool that is totally intangible. We try to choose sounds and put together a tonal landscape that can put you deep into the story. Sound can give you a very hard realistic environment or take you to a very ethereal, mystical place. The sky is the limit creatively with sound.”
Villenueve took several liberties with the visual style of the movie, but he felt the sound design should pay a direct homage to the original film. “One of the most striking elements of Blade Runner is its sound design, which added a beautiful melancholia, a nightmarish and strange sacred atmosphere and a strong tension. The idea wasn’t to be nostalgic, but to use the same language,” he explained. And, he wanted to remain as close to the spirit of the original sound design as possible. “I wanted the film to feel like a non-stop dream while awake.”
The team at Formosa, Villeneuve said, created the dreamy atmosphere that enhanced the strangeness of the world he was looking for. “The sound design was experimental with very dynamic curves that remind me of my oldest childhood dreams. There is nothing more exciting than to see artists that are excited by the work and willing to push the boundaries.”