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The Shape Returns: The Sound Design of Halloween 2018

Oct 29, 2018

What makes a mute, emotionless, silent killer one of the most terrifying movie monsters of all time? Is hearing something scary more horrifying than seeing it? John Carpenter revolutionized horror movies forever when he directed, wrote and composed the score for the original Halloween back in 1978. We asked members of the sound team behind the 2018 reinvention how they sonically shaped the return of Michael Myers.

By David Ampong, Waves Audio

The Shape Returns: The Sound Design of Halloween 2018

“Sound serves the picture,” says sound designer and supervising sound editor P.K. Hooker, “but I think that with horror films, sound is often more of a player. Creating dread and tension, along with big old-fashioned jump scares, can be achieved with sound alone a lot of the time.” We talked to the audio team behind 2018’s Halloween – P.K. Hooker, as well as re-recording mixer Joel Dougherty, supervising sound editor Will Files, and sound designer Chris Terhune – about how they combined John Carpenter's new score with creative, innovative sound design to match.

How do you give a voiceless character like Michael Myers a ‘voice’ and presence by combining John Carpenter’s iconic themes with sound design?

Will Files: Michael is a force of nature, a purely evil killing machine, so the sound design really needed to convey the almost supernatural horror of his presence. Once you understand the nature of Michael Myers you can see that just adding stabs and punches doesn’t really communicate the horror that both his victims and the audience feel from seeing him.

Chris Terhune: Michael’s physical presence was edited to have a heavier feel, and foley helped by getting the right sound on such things as his shoes on surfaces. Once we incorporated the feet from foley into our sound effects sessions, we added more detail with thick wood creaks, or sweetened them with heavier-sounding boots on closeup shots to give them more weight.

Supervising Sound Editor Will Files (left) and Sound Designer Chris Terhune mixing Halloween at the Anthony Quinn Theater, Sony

P.K. Hooker: The soundtrack lives in its movement, so it’s essential to me that sounds continue to evolve and move as they travel through the movie. When Michael is shown his mask for the first time in the prison yard scene, the huge, crazy ramps and elements are the SoundShifter plugin escalating in pitch to make the scene feel like it’s about to break apart from insanity! I used it a lot, and I haven’t found a better tool for warping the pitch of a sound over time.

Joel Dougherty: Carpenter’s themes inform the audience of Michael’s mood or intent. It was fun to let music come in hard and drive through the killing scenes. We also allowed it to gently rise up in scenes where he was threatening to kill. For the music I used a variety of settings in the UM225/UM226 plugin for upmixing and spreading the stereo stems to 5.0.

Michael Myers

How did you create creepy tension risers and the deep, sonic pulses heard throughout the film?

Chris: I actually used a lot of sub-harmonics when creating big tension risers and synth drones. I printed the synth parts in Pro Tools in real time to the picture, and once I was happy with the timing of everything, I enhanced the synth with the Renaissance Bass plugin.

Our other sound effects editor, Lee Gilmore, created the sound of the gas station attendant’s teeth dropping by combining a base layer, consisting of tiny pebbles pitched up, with a recording of peanut shells. He rolled off the high end and ran it through an IR [impulse response reverb] to try and give it that ‘tile’ floor feeling.

Brilliant sound design turns a recording of pitched-up tiny pebbles into the sound of Michael Myers dropping a handful of teeth on tile.

Take us onto the sound stage and the mixing process.

Will: We did the final mix in the Anthony Quinn Theater at Sony Pictures in Culver City. Our sessions are built to be a complete mixing environment, starting with a template aimed at mixing in-the-box from Pro Tools, and interfacing with an S6 mixing surface. This includes all reverbs, compression, and EQ; along with the mixdown busses: an isolated LFE buss, Atmos tracks, and groups/VCAs to control it all. We have limiters across our mixdowns for outputting material to the picture department. The L2 Ultramaximizer was an essential part of the design arsenal, it CRUSHED little sounds to make them huge and lush. There are so many punches and stingers in Halloween that have been run through it.

Chris: To strip away any unwanted white noise from certain sound files before spotting into Pro Tools, I had X-Noise incorporated in my VST chain in Soundminer. For the dialogue, WNS Noise Suppressor helped in cleaning out broadband noise and reducing production movement. A few scenes in this film were rescued by it! Another technical tool I like to use pretty frequently is the S1 Stereo Imager for quick M/S decoding. I’m also a big fan of the L2 Ultramaximizer, H-Delay, MondoMod, and MetaFlanger.

What is more challenging: Designing ‘real-world’ sounds, or creating a sonic palette for a sci-fi or fantasy world?

P.K.: There’s no clear answer. I have had a lot of fun creating wild crazy design for horror and sci-fi. In a lot of ways those kinds of design elements can bear a lot of scrutiny, because what do those things actually sound like? Often there is no real-world equivalent, so you can play with a much broader palette of sounds and ideas. Depending on the project, filmmakers, and the inherent subjectivity, this can be really successful or absolute torture.

The real world can be just as fun though. Recreating a time period, or a location, an old car, some type of machinery, really anything with a more objective type of quality can be so much fun. But it isn’t as free-wheeling as fantasy or sci-fi, so when it’s wrong it is SO wrong, and finding things that sound right can be more challenging. Recording sounds in the field can help you with both.

Michael Myers takes a hammer, walks into the house and…

What are some examples of how you used the soundscape to mix and create tension and scare the living daylights out of the audience?

Joel: One of my favorite examples of this is when Michael Myers walks away from the trick or treating children, down the driveway, and into the house by the TV. During that sequence, I had an idea to ride the volume of the synth hi-hat track, so some element of the music would weave in and out of the rooms like a diegetic sound effect.

Chris: Sound effects editor Randy Torres was tasked to keep the story going while Michael was out of frame in the kitchen. Randy ended up recording himself hammering a pumpkin covered in raw meat. The big sell though is hearing the table and chair scuffling around which we also recorded. Once you have all the right elements you can mix it to perspective with the right reverb and EQ to sell the realism.

In a behind-the-scenes featurette, we see the Jamie Lee Curtis character, Laurie Strode, training with firearms in preparations for the return of the boogeyman! So how do you get gun shots to sound huge and cinematic for the film?

Chris: Once we get the scene, we then layer on top of the production track to create the right sound and a more cinematic feel. With shotguns, I like creating a two-syllable sound; part mechanical on the trigger pull into the actual fire of the gun, and another layer of a distant rifle tail with the help of the H-Delay plugin, which really helped sell the space and the emotion.

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) prepares for the return of Michael Myers

How did you stay true to the tone of the original score while updating it for 2018?

Joel: Luckily John Carpenter made it easy for me by scoring the movie with the original instrumentation and themes. The tone was all there in the tracks, which came to the stage in stereo stems. My job was to maintain that stereo vibe but still make an immersive 5.1 soundtrack. I used the UM225, in variations of the ‘Stereo Preserve’ mode to make surrounds. It was clear at first listen that a simple approach was the way to go.

Legendary Director/Composer John Carpenter (left) and Supervising Sound Editor P.K. Hooker.

What advice would you give future sound designers about creating a sonic landscape that is just as scary as the visual horror occurring on screen?

P.K.: Filmmakers are always becoming more and more aware of what is possible with sound, and they also have more sound tools available to them. I think that helps to make the art of horror sound evolve and stay fresh. Sometimes the cliché works, and sometimes you derive an idea from something that came before. But film is always going to find new ways to make you scream, just like it will make you laugh and cry. The work we do with sound is inspired by creativity and innovation. Film has a lot to say and a lot of new ideas as well… and so do we!

Will: Film is all about character and tone. Part of being an effective designer is really getting into the spirit of the film and the characters in it. You never want your material to feel like it’s sitting on top of the movie, it has to feel inside of it.

Joel: It always begins with hard work and a dedication to learning the craft. The rest is some combination of people skills and a little bit of luck.

Looking for more on sound design? Discover sound design videos, interviews and tips on the Waves blog.