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Interview: Sound Editor Mark A. Mangini on ‘Blade Runner 2049’

The sound categories are always difficult to understand for the layman. Yet Mark A. Mangini, an Oscar-winning sound designer for “Mad Max: Fury Road” can help with that. Mark understands what audiences look for in their sound design, and refuses to cut any corners. Through his process, he’s proven to be one of the best in the industry. With credits ranging from “Aladdin” to “Mad Max: Fury Road” to this year’s “Blade Runner 2049,” Mark shows once in a generation skill. I sat down with Mark to discuss Denis Villeneuve, “Blade Runner 2049,” “Mad Max” and his ACCA 1992 win.

AF: So I wanted to touch on something from your past before we jump into the “Blade Runner” stuff. At our site, we like to go back through Oscar and film years to give our readers a chance to tell us who they believe should have won certain awards.

MM: Oh no! Don’t get me in trouble!

AF: No, don’t worry! We just recently re-ran our 1992 Awards Circuit Community Awards, so I want to say congratulations! You won for Best Sound in Aladdin!

MM: I should have won! Thank you, thank you! You’ve made my day, my Mom thought I should have won too. That’s so cool, I’ve never heard of anyone doing that!

AF: Well it’s on your IMDB that you won the Awards Circuit Community Awards for 1992 so congratulations!

MM: Well a blessing to you for that! Thank you!

AF: Well as you can tell, at Awards Circuit we’re focused the Oscars, and you, of course, won for “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Do you mind talking about it some more?

MM: Not at all! It was a high point of my career professionally!

AF: Okay, how did you get involved in that project?

MM: Well it was a call from George Miller late one night and he requested I come to Sydney and take a look at the film and see what contribution I could make. He wanted that film to have a fresh approach, yet still feel like a tentpole movie. I guess he thought I was the right man for the job, so I was on a flight to Sydney two days later.

AF: How did the experience of making a big action movie like “Mad Max” translate over to “Blade Runner” which takes place in the future, but in a different version of a dystopia?

MM: Well they’re very different films sonically, from a stylistic standpoint. “Mad Max” was very much in your face, real gritty. Those were real trucks, real cars, and everything we put on screen was new, big, fresh and bold. We wanted all those sounds to call attention to themselves.

“Blade Runner 2049” is very different in that regard. Denis wanted something more languid, more contemplative. It is much slower and much slower paced. He wanted sounds that are more ambient or musical than punchy or percussive; things like gunshots or explosions. Some of the very early sounds we made for the film were very musical ambiances and pads that underpin many scenes as an environmental sound. So there is a very different feel for the two types of movies.

AF: It seems like you needed a very different type of sound library for this film.

MM: In fact, we built an entirely new library for “Blade Runner 2049.” That is to say, we used almost no library sound of any kind. Every sound you hear in this film was recorded, made, or designed specifically for this film.

AF: That’s incredible. You made everything from scratch?

MM: Almost, every film needs to rely on some library sounds here and there, but today I’m finishing mastering the last bits of sound we created specifically for BLADE RUNNER 2049. I’m up to 2850 unique and fresh sounds for this film. That’s the most original sound I’ve ever created for a film. I’m not done yet, I have at least another folder to look in.

AF: Almost 3000 sounds?

MM: Yeah, I’m thinking I’ll actually top 3000 by the time I’m finished. Either recorded new as an organic real thing, and then the designed things for things that don’t really exist, like blasters, or birthing rooms, or Wallace Corporations or spinners. It’s a long long list, those are just a few.

AF: One of the really cool things for me was how you created the street feeling and sensation from the original. How much did you use the original as a reference when creating those scenes?

MM: Well we used zero sounds from the first film, and that’s really important. What we did do, was heavily deconstruct that film. We analyzed it to understand its DNA. One of the obvious takeaways is that the first film places you in this dystopian, future L.A. that’s wildly overpopulated and oppressive. That’s the vibe we got from the first film, and the way we can honor that film is to duplicate the feel, but with new fresh sounds.

The first film took place in public spaces that are populated with a lot of Chinese and Japenese voices. We went with Korean, Hindi, Russian, German, and we cast and recorded all those spaces, all those wallas if you will (it’s an industry term for the chatter of voices) for all these spaces. We recorded all of those custom for every single scene. This helped give a depressed feel, an “I’m not happy to be here” feel because they weren’t one of the elite to go off world. Then we remind you of your lot in life with these ever-present, off-world announcements as we remembered in the first film. It’s this kind of perky, kind of coffee commercial announcer discussing the benefits of off-world living. Of course, no one can actually afford to get there.

blade runner 2049So we did our version of that and then we peppered the exteriors as well with a lot of outdoor advertisements pitching you for different products. We wanted that to always be in your ear. Advertising had kind of gone insane, you couldn’t even turn off your television to run away from these ads because if you were in a public space, you’d be importuned to buy something. Then we created the futuristic craft, like spaceships, trains, and runabouts, and crafts, so that any exterior scene was rife with all these things flying around. You put all of this together and you get this incredibly immersive experience when you’re outdoors in “Blade Runner 2049.”

AF: Oh yeah. There’s so much going on it’s crazy.

MM: Part of creating that experience is to immerse the audience by placing those sounds in individual speakers around the theater. That way it’s not just something you hear from in front of you, but behind you, to the side of you, all around you. It’s something that Ron [Bartlett] and Doug [Hemphill] did masterfully as the mixers in this film. I also want to make sure that I give credit to Byron Wilson, who created all these wallas and vocal textures outside. He was one of our dialogue supervisor for all of these public announcements and foreign voices that we put throughout the film.

AF: One of the other really cool things that stood out to me was the use of rain. How did you capture that sound?

MM: Well it was really an amazing confluence of conditions. I needed new rain, I wanted fresh rain recordings. What I discovered as I browsed for the right rain was that they’re always recorded by someone pointing a microphone at the rain. I wanted to immerse the audience in rain, I wanted to make you feel like you were surrounded by rain.

The problem is I live in Los Angeles where we get rain once every decade. God was smiling on me for this film because we were blessed with a once in a generation set of rains in January and February of 2017. I built a custom-made seven-channel surround sound microphone array with a custom-made rain screen. I went out every night at 3 in the morning and recorded every kind of rain. Rain pouring, rain drizzling, rain falling on metal, falling off leaves. I got soaked in the process, but I did it by literally standing out in the middle of the rain and recording these ambiances.

I could only last about 20 minutes before I was soaking and had to go inside and ring my clothes out so I could go again, and those are the rains you hear throughout the film. They’re beautiful, state of the art recording that you can hear in seven-channel so you can surround the audience with rain. I thought it was extremely effective, especially in that scene where K and Joy have that romantic moment on the rooftop. I’m glad you noticed it because only sound geeks notice that kind of stuff.

AF: Now did you guys use the synths?

MM: We actually used very little sound made by synthesizers, This came from early discussions with Denis [Villeneuve]. He didn’t want to create a universe made up of electronic, non-acoustic sounds. It was the electronic sounds that made him feel like he was watching a “Flash Gordon” movie where every computer or futuristic thing makes a “beep”. That was not our aesthetic, we wanted to be, instead, a very austere movie. Most sounds, even if they were a futuristic thing, were made from organic or acoustic recordings, even if that meant recontextualizing them to make it sound like what we needed it to be.

One of the early directives he gave us was to “compose” with sound. He wanted sound, where possible, to carry the dramatic weight of a scene. This would help create seamless blends between score and sound design so that the audience would never be aware of the ins and outs of the soundtrack elements. What I think he achieved with that is a masterfully integrated soundtrack, and I mean that in the highest sense of the term. This is all the “sound” in the movie, it’s all part of a unified piece. I think one of our successes is the difficulty in telling where the blends are between the sound and score. We did very clever things to create ambiances, tones and sounds with musical qualities that blended seamlessly into the score, and vice versa.

AF: How about some of the new technology in the film? There were 30 years between the original “Blade Runner” and “Blade Runner 2049.” How did you choose to make new sounds for this world that were still rooted in this world?

blade runner 2049MM: Denis’ instruction was to make everything sound like it was not in good repair. We are post-blackout, post-nuclear blast in Las Vegas. There’s no more computers, everything is being held together with spit and bailing wire and tape. He wanted to give a unique sound to this universe, and we never compared ourselves to the first one in that regard. We just wanted to be less synthetic, and instead gritty and mechanical.

For example, K’s spinner was redone from scratch. K’s spinner was probably pieced together from spare parts found in and around Los Angeles because no one is manufacturing them anymore. Think of them more as what your first car would sound like. My first car was a 1962 VW Beetle, rusted out and the door panels rattled, and bumper rattled, and the whole thing rattled. So one of the fun sounds we created was the sound of an old car rattling in flight. We took my wife’s old Honda and took a speaker, a subwoofer actually, and blasted low-frequency sound to make it rattle like it was flying in the air. We recorded those rattling sounds and placed them in every scene where K’s in his spinner. It adds this subtle texture that his car might not be the greatest thing in the world.

AF: That’s very cool, I could tell the difference between K’s spinner and Luv’s vehicle at the end of the film.

MM: That’s a modern one! K got a one from pre-blackout, Luv is a senior official for Wallace Corp, and she’s going to get the best of everything. Blade Runners, in Phillip K. Dick lore, are a low-status member of the LAPD. They don’t get the good stuff.

AF: That’s a great way to build a class difference without being overt. How about the different cities, because each one has its own unique sounds. San Diego was different than L.A., which was different from Vegas.

MM: Well we had a lot to go on visually as well. L.A. is clearly interested in being reminiscent of the first film, overcrowded Los Angeles that bombards you advertisements and sounds. We know what those sounds are. But when you get to San Diego, an area we call “the Trash Mesa,” there’s a very different aesthetic with scavengers who are pulling apart metal, using welding, or hammering on satellite dishes, old oil tankers. It’s industrial, with a lot of metal work going on, which suggested its own set of sounds.

Then there’s the Wallace Corporation, that environment wants to feel zen-like, safe and protected. Niander is the wealthiest man in the world, so he can afford wood, water, and a number of things no one else has access to. He wants to create an environment of peace and tranquility, so we used bells and chimes and light water trickling. Something you might find in a Japanese tea house.

AF: How about the introduction of K walking into Vegas?

MM: Well I’m sure Ron and Doug told you about the drum issues. While we were working on it, Ron had to take out the music for that scene so he could remix and layer in the new booms we had made. That’s when Denis’ ears perked up and he said: “what are you doing?” Ron said, “just putting in new booms you asked for,” and Denis told him to play it again. That’s when he said, I just want the booms and the sounds of K’s footsteps walking through the desert. It was a complete reversal of direction for what we had been for 9 months, but I think it created an extraordinary effect of quiet punctuated by loudness.

AF: It’s one of the most iconic scenes in the trailer, as well as the whole movie. It’s astounding. One last question about Vegas. So you have the lounge scene, how did you create that scene and have Elvis and Liberace, and their holograms shorting out?

MM: It’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie, and some of my favorite sounds in the movie. The credit goes to Theo Green, my sound designer. Theo designed every one of the sounds in that scene, but there’s a beautiful backstory behind it. In the first draft of the film, that scene was very different and had all those holograms and all that sound playing simultaneously and bombarding the audience. We prepped a version of that and played it for Denis when he watched the first cut of the film. His comment was “I love this movie, I just don’t like the hologram scene. It’s just not my movie. It’s no longer about a cat and mouse game, it’s a Hollywood bombast. I want to cut the scene out of the movie.”

Well Joe Walker, to his credit, had an idea about how to approach this. He rebuilt it because all those projections were green screen, so we had full control over what you would and wouldn’t see. So Joe recrafted it that in the intervening time, over 30 years, the projectors would be in poor repair, or malfunctioning. Some of the video pieces are bursting or popping on and off sporadically. It’s how you see it now in the final film. He handed it off to Theo and said make sounds for this. Make sounds of the sound projectors struggling, there’s not enough electricity, bulbs are broken, they just aren’t working.

Theo designed the entire sequence, not only the regular sounds but the musical bursts. We showed it to Denis and he said I love this, and I would argue it is sound that saved that scene and kept it in the film. That’s such a credit to Denis to not just stick to the original script, but to try something different. Big credit to Joe Walker too for having that concept in mind.

AF: Thank you so much for your time Mark! One last question, if there’s one scene you’d like to highlight for fans, awards voters, and AMPAS members, what scene is it?

MM: The fifteen minutes between the time that K arrives in the desert all the way through the hologram fun house. That, for me, is a pivotal section of our film, with no music or dialogue, that relies on sound design, ambiances, found sound and musique concrete to achieve a heightened dramatic effect. It also contains fifteen of the quietest moments you’ll ever hear in a film. I think there’s incredible nuance and understatement sonically that, often, doesn’t’ get it’s due, especially in this era of general cinematic audio bombast. We’ve done something really beautiful and simple with the delicacy of that design that makes it one of the best sounding fifteen minutes I’ve heard in a long time.

What do you think? Does “Blade Runner 2049” have a shot to win the Oscar? Let us know what you thought of our interview with Mark A. Mangini in the comments below! 

“Blade Runner 2049” release on Blu-Ray and DVD on January 16th, 2018. 

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Written by Alan French

Alan French is a movie buff, a TV lover, and a sports fanatic. His favorite TV shows are 'Parks and Recreation,' 'Rick and Morty' and 'Game of Thrones.' He's also a Spielberg fanatic. You can find him on Twitter and Medium @TheAlanFrench.

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