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- Sound design of Philadelphia and Silence of the Lambs

by Elisabeth Weis 

Ron Bochar discusses the creation of sound effects in scenes from Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia.

Here's how Jonathan described Jodie Foster's first trip down to visit Lecter in the dungeon: "This is the bowels of the building. Let me hear howling and let me hear bowels.' So that's what you got. I can' t begin to list the material that went into all that. But there were animal screams and noises built into the ambience itself downstairs there. From a little movie I had made years ago called Little Monsters I took this lunatic kind of screaming that I had recorded; I took track, processed it, slowed it down, and played it in reverse. That became one of the ambiences in the room, too. It's the room tone, but the room tone has been made from some guy screaming in pain. Whenever you're down there with Lecter there's this element--it's a low tone that rises and then comes down again. It's very organic as opposed to something you can create electronically. I don't like taking sounds that start electronically; I like sounds that start organically. It' s a lot more fun."  

On Tom Hanks's first visit to Denzel Washington's office in Philadelphia:  

"When Tom Hanks tries to talk Denzel into taking the case and Denzel shakes his hand, I introduced a bus with really ugly brakes. During that whole interview the bus [which you never see--EW] just won't leave that intersection. It constantly hangs in there, filling in the little gaps between the conversation with ugly squeals that finally cease when Denzel begins to not want to take the case. To me that contributed something emotionally coming from outside . . . It's not as up front as in early versions, but it is still in there in the final print. Those things aren't meant to be in your face, but even at a lower level you're getting it across."  

On subjective ambience in the trial scene of Philadelphia:  

"When Tom Hanks begins to get sick at the trial, Jonathan said that scene was begging for something. The convention is to add reverb to Mary [Steenburgen]'s voice, but Jonathan said that would be hokey. We discussed certain colors [with tonal associations for Demme--EW] and what it's like on a seashore when you hear people talk while putting conch shells to your ears. We didn't want the sound to be a focal point but to evolve as Tom got sicker. So from the time when Tom starts to hallucinate and the camera does a slow Dutch tilt, we dropped the previous room tone and shifted the ambient sound. There's a low, subliminal thumping, almost like a heartbeat, but it wasn't. The room tone had included shuffles and dim movements. When Tom starts to get ill we created an air tone from a note being sung. We added reverb and so thinned out the tone, making it sparse and whistly like wind, so that it's not a note anymore.

There's also a conch-type sound I created on the Synclavier from some underwater sea sounds and a few other things. And Mary's voice was at least three different Marys talking at once--each once processed a little bit differently. You only heard this on Tom's POV and it was never the dominant effect. We also played with the space at that point; up to that time we had restricted sound pretty much to the left, right, and center speakers. But once the hallucination began we played more with the surround speakers, while keeping the dialog more in the center. That whole scene allowed all of us at the board to experiment, to see how far we could take it. We had some pretty wild versions, but ended up using a subtler version."  

Weis, Elisabeth, Sync tanks.., Vol. 21, Cineaste, 01-01-1995, pp 56. 

>> SYNC TANKS - The Art and Technique of Postproduction Sound  by Elisabeth Weis 

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