Emmy Winning Sound Editor Trevor Gates on Atlanta, Hill House, Us, the Sequel to The Shining, and the Value of Silence

Trevor Gates is the Emmy-winning sound editor of Atlanta, The Haunting of Hill House, and Jordan Peele’s Us. Gates won his first Emmy in 2018 for the “Teddy Perkins” episode of Atlanta. We discuss his most recent projects in detail, while also speaking on the art of his craft, and the underappreciated value of silence.

I think a lot of us who loves movies and TV might not know exactly what a sound editor does. Would you mind describing your work?

Our job is to be a storyteller in film and TV from a sonic standpoint. To be really basic in explanation of what we do, everything you hear in film and television that isn’t music is put together by us.

All the dialogue, all the background ambiance, all the sound effects, and other things that you hear that you might think are natural that are created. Like footsteps, or picking up glasses. Anything that has human interaction. We’re basically in charge of putting a soundscape together for the viewer.

When we are talking about the difference between sound editing and sound design, what would you say is the principle difference?

It’s a grey line. Sound design is the concept of building a soundscape with some kind of conscious decision about how to put forth that sound. Sound editing is more of a specific idea of cutting and moving and cleaning. Doing things to sound with specific tools. They kind of mean the same thing, but sound design sounds fancier. What’s important about my job is to make choices to be able to tell stories in a certain way. These conscious decisions about how to make these sonic soundscapes for the piece of entertainment.

I wanted to focus on three of your most recent projects for our chat. Atlanta, Hill House, and Us. Let’s start with Atlanta. How did you come to the show?

Four years ago I got connected to a new sound company called Formosa Group. I had worked in the field for a smaller company in L.A. for about six years. I put my hands on maybe a little more than one hundred different films then took the next step in my career with Formosa. Formosa is an independent group, but I think of it as an elite group of sound designers and sound editors and recording mixers – a huge pool of talent. They noticed some work that I did and wanted me to be a part of that family. One of my first months on the job they told me they had this really interesting project that they thought I’d l be a great part of and asked me if they could set up a meeting with the filmmakers. I kind of fell in love with them. Hiro Murai, and Donald Glover, and Kaitlin (Waldron), and all the different people in that production. We just clicked. I was in the right place at the right time. We did season 2 of Atlanta together and we recently did a fun, interesting project called Guava Island – a kind of fairy tale story with Donald Glover. I’m very thankful for having the opportunity to tell stories with them.

One of the things I noticed about the sound on the show is how quiet it often is and how natural most of the sound seems. When someone walks across a room, their footsteps across the floorboard almost sound like they are happening in your room. Was that the effect you were striving for?

It’s a unique show. It really needed to feel authentic throughout the season. I didn’t do season one – season two was mine. I thought it was important to feel real and be immersive. The quietness is something I’ve been talking about quite a bit. To my perspective, quietness is an isolation of sound. It’s not necessarily an absence of sound. It’s about making really good choices about what you want the viewers to hear at a specific time. It’s very controlled.

In Atlanta, say you are in a parole office and there’s some really interesting traffic in the background that makes you feel like you are really in that space. It’s not really a crazy concept, but the choices that I made were very thoughtful. I would take a traffic sound and use tools to and make it sound like it was in that space. In the case of the “Teddy Perkins” episode, we wanted to get this sort of cold air in this house that was devoid of technology to make you feel the vastness and the coldness and the emptiness of the space. Part of this is me making choices, but also working very closely with re-recording mixer, Diego Gat, who’s really talented. I would put forth concepts and ideas and we would finesse them and make them better when we were in the room together. It’s really cool to me that people can pay attention to some of these things that are so important to me, like these natural spaces and some of this quietness.

In talking to a number of people on the technical side of various productions, one of the common themes I’ve heard is the responsibility they feel to storytelling. I think there’s a tendency to think of those in costume design, makeup, or sound as people doing logistical work, but it’s so much more than that.

So much in entertainment is about feeling. It’s important for us to implement that concept in the stage of the production that we are working on. It adds another dynamic to the story which could either make it better, or it could make it worse. You are influencing a piece of art that is put together by filmmakers and you can make it great, or you can make it not good at all. I think one of the greatest things that is learned for sound designers and composers as we go through this journey in our careers is how to be mindful and specific and not to over-compose. Twenty-four layers of sounds or instruments are not necessarily better than three or four. You always hear the concept of “less is more,” and I subscribe to that. I love the idea of being articulate and specific and minimal. There’s so much vibe and texture in making these decisions.

You mentioned the “Teddy Perkins” episode of Atlanta, which I thought was one of the most jaw-dropping episodes of television I have ever seen. It keeps the unique tone of the show but also adds a horror component. The use of silence and quietness that you employ on the show regularly played perfectly with the creepy feeling that episode carried all the way through. What was it like watching that episode back?

Diego and I spent a couple of days mixing the episode before Hiro came in. When Hiro watched the episode after its first playback – I don’t think Donald was there – he put his hands up in the air like we kicked a field goal. He walked out of the room and came back in with a cup of coffee and he basically said we realized his vision for this episode 100%. That was a very proud moment for us as storytellers and sound people. That we can tap into a vision and be able to carve this sonic soundscape exactly the way Hiro wanted it. It’s a fantastic episode.

Going from a show like Atlanta to The Haunting of Hill House involves a change of genre, but does that switch affect your approach?

Some of the same concepts of holding the quietness apply. The DNA of Hill House is unique to its director, Mike Flanagan. I’ve had the opportunity to work on a couple of movies (Gerald’s Game & Quija: Origin of Evil) prior with him. I already knew Mike and had an idea of his sonic wants and needs are. That made jumping into Hill House very fun for me because I enjoy working with Mike. Much like Atlanta, you want to build soundscapes that are believable so you can take the audience and suspend their disbelief. You need sharply edited and presented dialogue, and immersive backgrounds when it’s important. And then we did some weird stuff. There were times when ghosts were coming around and we decided to manipulate the ambiances in a certain way. In a couple of different places we took a single cricket that was potentially outside a bedroom window and slowing it down progressively until it didn’t resemble a cricket at all. Slowing clocks down. We did a frog one time. Just ever so slightly changing the texture of the background, so that the viewer would feel something was off or wrong, but not to fully notice it until the moment you see the ghost.

One of the most challenging episodes from a sound perspective was the sixth episode, “Two Storms.” Which was a very unique piece of television itself because it was composed of only a few very long shots. There were multiple takes that were 15 minutes long. The first music cue doesn’t come until 55 minutes in. So, what are you hearing for 55 minutes? This storm you are hearing outside. We had to build this really dynamic storm that ebbed and flowed through the episode. And because of all the long shots there was a lot of 360-degree movement in the camera, and I wanted to have a level of detail in the travel. As you would pass certain windows, the rain would sound different due to its location in the house. We had a lot of fun. There are eight layers of different types of thunder, hail, and rain. Lots of detail. If you had a chance to listen to it in Dolby Atmos, you would get the full glory of its immersive quality.

In recent years, we’ve seen some great character-driven horror. I’m thinking of something like Hereditary. Hill House is much that way as well. Does that sort of character-driven approach affect your work?

I would attribute a lot of that to Mike Flanagan’s approach. He really does a great job with that classic horror genre where slow-burn and character building is a strong component of his work. I could say it makes my job easier. You don’t have to fix anything. All you have to do is make sure you get out of the way of the dialogue. All the components are already there. All you’re doing is presenting a heightened story. I really enjoy this style of filmmaking because we can be simple and we can be weird at the same time. I’m continuing to work with Mike on his next film, Doctor Sleep. Which is a sequel to The Shining. Which is also very character driven. I don’t think a lot of people are that great at this type of storytelling these days. There’s a lot of over-composition, and people are afraid of the space in-between, and long monologues, and you think that people’s attention can’t be held, and you have to put more music in. I think there’s only a handful of directors out there who are patient with their work. Jordan Peele is really good at that.

Let’s segue to Us. Not a small project (laughs). I’m seeing a signature in your work in the use of silence, natural noise, and a certain type of ambiance. Which seems like a perfect fit for what Jordan does. What was it like working on that film?

I guess I am building these sonic signatures for myself. I’m always trying to think of new ways to embrace that. I really like using things like insects and clocks that have interesting texture as a single sound. I use that a lot to create a sound between the silence and the beats. Us is a very unique film. It’s the second time I’ve worked with Jordan. He’s such a fantastic person – so artistic and patient. It’s just a dream working with him. I’m pinching myself being able to work with someone so creative and cool. Us was difficult in some ways. There was some exploration of how we wanted to present some of these abstract soundscapes. We wanted to present non-abstract concepts in an abstract way. Like the opening at the boardwalk. We mixed that five different ways before we came to where it is. It’s a lot about how it feels. To tell this part of the story, we wanted the audience to feel uneasy, but we didn’t want to tell them how to feel. I think exposition is a problem with a lot of filmmaking, where we often don’t have the patience and feel like we have to tell people how to feel. I think the best filmmaking is showing, not telling.

In the opening of Us we wanted you to feel the cacophonous environment of the Santa Cruz boardwalk and to create a feeling of dread, but not exactly knowing why it was there. There were some unique set pieces in the film. Right before the home invasion, there’s a series of bangs on the door. I think we mixed that louder than people thought we should, but every time someone new hears that sequence, they have a visceral reaction. I literally saw people jumping in their seats. Both producers and seeing it in the theater with moviegoers. There’s a sequence with the daughter and her doppelganger come into contact, and when that happens, some of the crickets stop chirping. It’s really unsettling. There’s two different ambient sounds – a close cricket and a far cricket. We stopped the sound that wasn’t close. You weren’t sure what was happening, or what the shift was, but you felt something unnerving in the scene.

I imagine seeing audiences respond to your cues like that is a very satisfying experience.

There’s been such a shift in how we consume entertainment. Through streaming and larger televisions, projection TVs, and home sound systems that can give you a theater-like experience in your home. But the one thing you can’t get that will always be unique is sitting in a room with other people experiencing something together. I’ve had the opportunity to watch Us probably five times in a theater with an audience and they’re jumping, and screaming, and clapping – it’s like a roller-coaster. I had a discussion with Mike Flanagan about stinging “jump scares” when we were shooting Ouija. There was a moment when we decided not to put aloud sound on when there was something creepy happening. When it plays in the theater, the audience stings that moment with their gasps.

There’s something about not being cued that’s even scarier.

In Get Out, when we first see Georgina in the kitchen and the door swings open and we see Georgina just staring there and it’s completely silent. It’s one of the moments in Get Out – to have that absence of sound.

There’s often something comforting about being cued as an audience member, don’t you think? It reminds you that you are watching a movie. But when you aren’t, you might not feel that safe distance you otherwise would.

There’s definitely some psychology that’s mindful of making film and TV that are hard to watch. Leaning into the realism and then leaning into something that’s not so real in a certain aspect can be part of the balance of these horror films. Which is in a lot of cases to let the audience off the hook for a moment. To make it more palatable or to remind them that they aren’t watching something that’s completely real. Which I think is a part of the campiness of some classic horror that is an important component, but it’s all part of the composition and the balance of the psychology of the film. Sometimes you lean out of the realism to give your viewers a break. It’s different for each film depending on the object of the filmmaker. With Us, we would sometimes lean into the comedic beats. With Jordan making a horror film but coming from a comedic background, that created a particular balance for Us.

I can imagine that mix of horror and playfulness can create a challenge for you.

One of the times in Us where we tried to create impact, but also a comedic release in the horror, is when one of the doppelgangers gets hit with a club and falls off the balcony and then breaks a table – it’s offscreen and you only hear it. The sound was so ridiculous that it made you cringe, but also had a comedic release.

Okay. Last thing. You can’t say you are working on the sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep with Mike Flanagan and not have me ask you about it. What can you tell me about it?

We’re working on it now. I should probably not talk about it at all (laughs). If you’re a Mike Flanagan fan, this is a fantastic piece of work. I’m excited to have the world see what a sequel to The Shining will be through the eyes of Stephen King, a little bit of Kubrick, and Mike Flanagan. I think I’d be doing a disservice to the fans if I said any more. It’s kind of a big deal. The Shining is an iconic piece of work. There’s a controversy between King fans and Kubrick fans, and Mike’s had to make some decisions with this film to navigate through that. There are those that are loyal to Kubrick’s film and those that are loyal to King’s book. But be on the lookout and see what happens.