CREATING THE SOUND FOR VELVET BUZZSAW’S MIX OF HORROR, HUMOR, AND HIGH ART:
Velvet Buzzsaw had its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and fortunately it’s already available on Netflix! Director Dan Gilroy’s film brings together horror, humor, and high art. Obscure artist Vetril Dease dies in an apartment building where Josephina (Zawe Ashton) lives. She happens to be an assistant to big-time art dealer Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo). Together with the help of art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) they collect, catalog, and exhibit Dease’s art. But there’s something unsettling about the artwork and soon it spreading its evil influence to the art around it, killing off Rhodora’s friends and colleagues. (Also in this film are actor John Malkovich as an artist named Piers and actress Toni Collette as an art buyer named Gretchen.)
This is the third Gilroy-directed film for Formosa Group’s award-winning sound team — led by supervising sound editor Margit Pfeiffer, sound designer/re-recording mixer Martyn Zub, and re-recording mixer Andy Koyama. They’ve all worked together on Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (2014) and Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017). Pfeiffer says there is a huge competitive advantage to keeping the same team from one film to the next. She explains,
“There’s a shorthand we have, amongst us as a crew as well as with Dan and John (Gilroy). They trust the ideas we bring to the table and let us experiment, all in a collaborative and non-neurotic environment. The best idea that serves the film right wins.”
Here, the sound team talks about blending sound and music, using thematic wind sounds to help escalate the tension in the film, and they discuss the design on specific sounds like the audio-only art exhibit, the robo-art piece called Hoboman, the Aeolian lute, and more!
The music and sound design work together so well in Velvet Buzzsaw. Design-wise, was there collaboration between the two departments? Mix-wise, what were some choices you made when bringing these two aspects together?
Martyn Zub (MZ): There wasn’t much back and forth between the music department and the post sound department, but it was pretty clear where the filmmakers Dan Gilroy and John Gilroy (picture editor) didn’t want to have music or have sound design. So there were elements that were clearly designated for music or for effects. It was really thought out, what was going to play at a particular time.
Andy Koyama (AK): It turned out to be very painless in the final mix because the music and sound design could coexist. There wasn’t any clashing elements or weeding-out that we had to do. It turned out nicely.
Margit Pfeiffer (MP): The music went through many different renditions throughout our various temps, lighter vs. darker moods, etc. But all along composers Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders and music editor Nic Ratner had our temp mixes available. I’m not sure if they used them to work against but the music and sound effects played incredibly well together. That’s rather unusual, as on most films sound and music compete for the same frequency range and moments to shine.
AK: The picture editor John had a very clear idea for what he wants where. He made a pretty good roadmap in his Avid track.
What were some ways that you used sound to help build tension in the film?
MZ: Early on, there was a discussion of using a rhythmic element to build up into a moment when something terrible was going to happen, to give the audience a sense of unease. We ended up using a muted heartbeat-type sound with a moaning wind, which was like a signifier that something was not quite right. We used that steadily throughout the whole film. There are a couple times when that sound is playing against the music and so you get that blurred line between what is sound design and what is music.
We ended up using a muted heartbeat-type sound with a moaning wind, which was like a signifier that something was not quite right.
MP: To help clarify the tie-in of the artwork with the murders and to sell that Dease himself passes through the art to execute the murders, we needed a sonic, identifiably human element to lean on. Dan had the idea to try a heartbeat and we executed upon that. It plays pretty much as a recurring theme for impending doom.
First we introduce the heartbeat when Josephina enters her dead neighbor’s apartment and discovers his paintings. It reappears in the gallery where patrons take in Dease’s haunting art.
The most prominent use of the heartbeat comes right after Bryson [Billy Magnussen] crashes his truck into an abandoned gas station and is about to find his ultimate demise at the hands of grease monkeys that spring to life from the painting in the restroom.
We get an early sense of the heartbeat for the first time when Josephina enters Dease’s apartment and finds the art. So we played with that to sell the internal life of the artwork.
I really enjoyed the tension-building in the Sawtelle scene. Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal) is standing outside the building and you hear this train going by. Inside the building, there are blasts of steam and air releases that lead up to the sudden appearance of the maintenance worker…
MP: That was Martyn’s incredible boiler room design.
MZ: The picture wasn’t finished when we played around with that. They wanted a loud type of raucous, which was playing against the dialogue delivery. So it was a fine line between the effects being loud and the dialogue being totally clear to hear – because the actors weren’t projecting as they would have been if the environment was as noisy as it is in the film. That’s a testament to Andy, to make sure everything was heard and that the dialogue played through.
It was a fine line between the effects being loud and the dialogue being totally clear to hear – because the actors weren’t projecting as they would have been if the environment was as noisy as it is in the film
In terms of creating a rhythmic pulse that builds tension, that was a fun example. The main rhythmic element was a nail gun that I slowed down over 70% and then added other layers to it and that gave me that rhythmic type of pulse. Then over the course of the scene, I cut it tighter so that it got faster and hopefully builds up the tension and momentum throughout the sequence.
There are some lovely wind sounds throughout the film! For example, near the end of the film, the winds tie all the stories together and add this creepy vibe, from Josephina outside the club to Rhodora at home staring at the Dease painting. My favorite wind sound comes in when Coco (Natalia Dyer) discovers Morf’s body. Can you tell me about your use of wind in the design of Velvet Buzzsaw? And where did the wind sounds come from?
MZ: The very first time that Josephina discovers the body in her apartment complex, we start to introduce a subtle element of the wind and the aforementioned rhythmic sound. We gradually built that up over time.
Some of those winds started out sounding light and fluffy, but once again we slowed them down. Sound Designer Ann Scibelli and I played around with them until we found the right wind and the right texture, ultimately.
Most of the winds were from libraries. Initially, we were pretty jammed for time. We didn’t have the luxury of going out for half a day to record some material. Margit and I were scrambling to get to the first preview and then after that it eased up a bit more so that we could actually play around with some conceptual stuff.
Some of the very first ideas that you come up with are — a lot of the times — the best ideas. When the editor gets the sounds into their Avid, they fall in love with it. Those ideas start in the film and then finish to the end.
AK: I know that was a big focus for Dan, to have thematic wind throughout the picture.
MP: Stylistically and for story escalation, Dan had always intended the wind to get increasingly ferocious and climax during the scene where Rhodora is almost killed by the falling statue in her backyard.
I love the sound of the wind over the Aeolian lute/wind harp that’s in Rhodora’s backyard. How did you create that sound?
AK: That’s my favorite thing in the movie.
MZ: The original sound was from John [Gilroy]. I think he found a sample in a YouTube video and started using that for the strings vibrating. Then, I recorded my guitar to get some of the handling movement. And sound effects recordist Charlie Campagna recorded some piano strings as well, so there are multiple layers to that sound. He used contact mics and then plucked the strings with his finger.
I kept playing around with the layers until it felt right. It started with John’s sound; that was a great reference for us to use.
Can you tell me about Hoboman? How did you design his vocals? And his movements?
AK: I used iZotope’s VocalSynth, just very subtly because one of the filmmakers liked it and the other one did not. So we have a subtle vocoder effect on the voice but primarily it’s the actor’s performance.
MZ: His original sounds were servos that I slowed down in Pro Tools and then exported and loaded it back into Soundminer. In there, I could slow it down and manipulate it more and send it back into Pro Tools. That was for the main movements.
Hoboman’s electronic startup sound was from a library of stuff I created in Native Instruments Reaktor. I can just load random sounds in there and play them and slow them down. I had one little element of a sound that I liked, that worked well with Hoboman’s blue veins lighting up in his neck as he’s raising his head.
As Hoboman is coming down the hallway towards Morf he’s banging his crutches on the storage unit doors. That was a combination of lots of metal hits. Then once we got to the stage, I played around with various reverbs to make it sound like he’s aggressively moving through that space.
The sound exhibit is set up in a sound-proof room with several speakers inside. It was supposed to be a sound exhibit on whales, but instead, Morf hears all his bad reviews. How did you craft that sound sequence?
AK: Ann Scibelli did all the design on that, and mixed it and panned it. It was phenomenal. She supplied me with 7.1 stems and I hardly touched it in the mix. She had very cool and inventive reverbs and echoes. I give Ann all the credit for that one.
MP: In the sound exhibit scene, there was nothing when it came to us — no AVID temp track, no playback from set, no ideas. John and Dan didn’t have any guidance other than to “make it great.” Jake [Gyllenhaal] gave a tremendous and intense performance and it needed to be matched sonically for the scene to work, to sell Morf being haunted by his past words.
Jake [Gyllenhaal] gave a tremendous and intense performance and it needed to be matched sonically for the scene to work, to sell Morf being haunted by his past words.
Within a couple days of starting the film, I laid out the concept, used the scripted lines from Dan and wrote more lines to embellish and play in unison to sell Morf’s increasing panic and confusion. To tie it all into the story and climax on Jake’s most distraught moment, I added a tire skid and car crash at the end to represent Ricky Blane’s accident. Morf particularly regrets his negative review of Ricky’s work, which Josephina had urged him to make up about her ex-boyfriend.
I shot all the elements with ADR for Jake’s lines and the various artists’ voices with the LA MadDogs loop group, cut them into place and then the phenomenal Ann Scibelli turned what could have been a boring collage of voices into a sonic masterpiece with reverbs, delays, speaker feedback, etc.
Let’s talk about Gretchen’s (Toni Collette) gory Sphere experience. She puts her arm into the Sphere and it goes berserk and rips it off. What went into the sound of that scene?
MP: Dan envisioned ‘Sphere’ to be an inviting art experience that gently lures its viewers in — playful, lustful and with a surprise element. The exhibit’s walls are lined with texts, such as “My furry animal likes to be pet.”
So we start off with furry, happy sounds as signatures for Sphere, like a trilling bird and cat purrs on the interior. Then as Gretchen progresses through her scene an element of danger appears; there are mechanical sounds and revving saw blades along with brilliant atonal music. The gore climaxes with Gretchen’s blood curdling screams for help that never comes.
Another fun scene was in Jon Dondon’s (Tom Sturridge) gallery. The Dease exhibit comes to life and the building starts groaning. What was your approach to the design there?
We had to lean heavily on sound design to sell the room’s surreal morphing, despite only subtle visual clues
MZ: There was a lot of back and forth on that scene. We had to lean heavily on sound design to sell the room’s surreal morphing, despite only subtle visual clues. The groan was created from wood creaks slowed way down. John had a clear idea of how he wanted to build the scene toward Dondon’s death. We used that as the backbone/template for what we had to create and then we elaborated on that and made it more immersive for the 7.1 surround field.
The old projector was as 16mm film projector and we added sweeteners like switches and bigger impacts to make it feel more dramatic.
Foley played a big role in that scene, from the clatter of the suitcases falling off the chair to the unplugging sound. The Foley artist John Simpson has a Foley stage in Australia. His stage is in the middle of the outback — like the proper outback. No one bothers him out there because it takes three or four hours to get there from any city. I’ve worked with him on a number of films and he did Dan Gilroy’s previous film as well. He knows what the director likes and what was needed.
Did you have a favorite scene for sound? What went into it?
MZ: For me, it’s what Ann, Margit and Andy did for the sound exhibit. I thought that was amazing, from the dialogue choices and performances, the processing and design, to the mix. It all worked together so well.
MP: What I liked about the sound exhibit was the opportunity to create something like that from scratch. Very rarely in film do you start with a completely blank canvas and have free creative reign to image an entire scene. Usually sound supports the visuals and is not a stand-alone piece in itself.
What I liked about the sound exhibit was the opportunity to create something like that from scratch. Very rarely in film do you start with a completely blank canvas and have free creative reign to image an entire scene.
AK: My favorite sound is that wind instrument at Rhodora’s house. Also, I liked the wind through the doors. I thought that whole sequence was effective, although I had very little to do with it.
MZ: There were no words there. No dialogue.
AK: And there was no music. It was all effects.
Any favorite sound tools on this film? Can you share specific examples of how you used it?
MZ: The plug-in that Andy used on the dialogue was awesome. It allowed him to put the boom and lav mic in-phase with each other so he could play them together.
AK: It was Auto–Align Post from Sound Radix. The plug-in phase aligns different mic sources. I was using dual mics from ADR quite a bit, and this gave it more vibrancy which helped me with ADR matching. I’ve been using it a lot lately to phase align lav and boom mics from production, or you can phase align the lav and boom from ADR. It’s pretty amazing. Usually when you play the lav and boom mics together you get an odd phase effect, but this plug-in dynamically phase aligns different channels. It’s pretty amazing.
iZotope RX 7 is another tool that was useful because there were no soundstages on this film. They shot in all practical locations. So the background noise was an issue and we did extensive work with RX 7.
MP: I second that iZotope is a lifesaver. All the things you would’ve had to loop in the past you don’t anymore. That not only saves time in post but the productions also save money. Kudos also for iZotope’s relentless improvement of their tools and listening to feedback from sound editors and re-recording mixers. It’s very inclusive and greatly appreciated.
I’ve heard Velvet Buzzsaw play in a variety of theaters and even the initially toughest-to-understand scenes play crisp and clear. Production sound mixer José Antonio García and his crew did a fantastic job under challenging conditions. With iZotope RX and Andy’s masterful use of it, any unwanted traces of the huge, loud and busy locations have disappeared.
MZ: In this film, I used a bundle of plug-ins by Plug & Mix. There’s one plug-in in particular called Clarisonix. It’s a subharmonic generator that I used on many of the wind sounds to add more weight. I also used it on the groaning wood sound to create what you hear in Jon’s gallery. That plug-in was pretty effective.
In terms of sound, what are you most proud of on Velvet Buzzsaw?
AK: I think it was the integration of music and sound design. It’s very seamless. At the time we weren’t sure who was doing what until we saw all of the stems. That’s a testament to the planning, all the way back to picture editorial.
MZ: I am happy with what we created as a team. This is a pretty amazing team. If I got to work with this team day in and day out on everything for the rest of my career, I would. This is the third film that we’ve done with this whole group. We all know each others’ sensibilities and tastes. The end product sounds awesome. I saw the film in the Egyptian Theater, sitting up on the concourse, and it sounded awesome up there. That’s a testament to everyone’s hard work to get it in the pocket.
MP: When it comes to work the priority is always the talent and making the movie the best it can be. But we were really lucky and got to share this experience with great friends. Top down, this has been our best experience to date — from Netflix, to the Gilroy brothers and amongst our crew. We worked really hard and had a great time in this together. That’s what I’m most proud of on this film, the teamwork.