Skip Lievsay, an unassuming-looking guy in his mid-60s with highly trained ears, stood before the stacks of speakers and giant movie screen in his office, fussing quietly. Lievsay is one of the preeminent sound designers working in film today, and whatever he does – whether it’s fussing or making jokes or padding down the hall of his New York offices to murmur instructions to employees – he does it quietly, as if his personal volume dial operates in inverse correlation to the often noisy task at hand.
On this midwinter afternoon, he was meeting with one of his effects editors, a similarly soft-spoken young man named Larry Zipf, about a film they had been hired to work on: Miles Ahead, a forthcoming Miles Davis biopic directed by and starring Don Cheadle.
The two men stood with their arms crossed and heads cocked at the same angle, reviewing a scene in which a sound cue they had designed had gone awry. The sound, originally of vintage tape decks turning, had ended up evoking a sci-fi odyssey rather than a jazz biopic. One of the problems, it was agreed, is that to the untrained ear, 1970s tape decks sound a bit like lasers.
On screen, Cheadle entered an elevator and pushed the button for the lobby. The button emitted a soft, innocuous beep. “That’s a good beep, Lar,” Lievsay muttered. “Good beep.”
As he said so, Cheadle-as-Miles leaned against the wood-panelled elevator wall, eyes closed. Suddenly, the elevator swung open to reveal a dark room of Miles’s imagination, filled only with a piano, a horn, and a spotlight. The moment was intended to feel surreal, as though you were entering Miles’s mind, but as the door began to swing, a deep rumble erupted into a volley of zings and swishes – those troublesome tape decks – as if the scene had plunged into a battle in outer space.
Lievsay hit pause and turned to Larry, shaking his head. No good.
For research, Lievsay had spent a few months reading biographies and listening through all the recordings in the Miles Davis estate: Miles interviews, Miles in the studio, Miles in concert, Miles on the street. He briefly tried to compile a timeline of every recording Miles ever made, then gave up. The film is set in the 1970s, “which is Bitches Brew Miles”, Lievsay explained, a period when Miles favoured improvisational rhythms and electric instruments over traditional jazz. The research had led to the idea of experimenting with recording equipment of the sort that Miles would have used. Lievsay thought that they might fit moments that called for more abstract sound design, such as when Cheadle wanted to evoke Miles’s agitated mental state. “He was a creature of the studio,” Lievsay explained, taking off thin-rimmed glasses and rubbing one eye. “The sounds of his mental landscape would probably have been the sounds you’d hear in a recording studio, like tape decks or the click of instruments.”
They had got their hands on some vintage tape decks and spent an afternoon recording the sound of them playing forward and backward, clicking and scrubbing. But when Zipf edited the sounds and played them underneath scenes from the movie, the result sounded like Battlestar Galactica, not old-fashioned music equipment. Lievsay sighed. “Probably because sound editors used to use tape decks when they needed space sounds. Bet you Battlestar Galactica was tape decks.” He threw the noises out and started over.
It is a central principle of sound editing that people hear what they are conditioned to hear, not what they are actually hearing. The sound of rain in movies? Frying bacon. Car engines revving in a chase scene? It’s partly engines, but what gives it that visceral, gut-level grist is lion roars mixed in. To be excellent, a sound editor needs not just a sharp, trained ear, but also a gift for imagining what a sound could do, what someone else might hear. Continue reading