Sound It Out

Skywalker Sound's Pete Horner on what makes sound design sing

Sound It Out
Photo by Gary Miller

If you hear a regular heartbeat in a movie, worry. That's what brain death sounds like.

If a person feels anything, the beat is irregular. Emotion becomes sound. Emmy-winning sound designer Pete Horner explained that "a lot of people think sound design is making cool stuff, lasers and things. That's part of it, but for me it's about asking, 'What is that character on the screen feeling?'"

Fresh off a collaboration with Austin's own Kat Candler, with whom he worked closely on Hellion, Horner set aside another misconception – that the talk was about sound mix in isolation. He said, "The idea is not that sound is the emotional language of film. The idea is that there are any emotional languages to the film, and our job is to translate those emotions."

Even though his first major job was a dream position at Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope studio, Horner initially resisted film as an expression of emotion … until industry legend Richard Beggs took him to one side during the mix of The Virgin Suicides and showed him how to reconstruct music to match the tone of the scene. "My mind just went bwoof."

He cited the wisdom of friend and mentor Walter Murch ("for whom the term 'sound designer' was invented"), who told him: "When you send an intern to get the sound, you'll get that sound, if you're lucky. If you send a sound designer, the microphone becomes a divining rod." Few experiences verified that more than Coppola's Youth Without Youth. Horner and his team were in Hungary, recording a church bell. Within the clock tower, they found an instrument museum. They recorded one of the mechanical pianos they found there – not just the music, but the clank of its handle and grind of its gears. In the final mix, it became a key component of the film's opening sequence.

The Emotional Language of Film With Skywalker Sound

Friday, March 7, Vimeo Theater

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South by Southwest, SXSW, SXSW Interactive 2014, SXSW Film 2014, Skywalker Sound, Pete Horner, Kat Candler, American Zoetrope, Richard Beggs, Walter Murch, The Virgin Suicides, filmmaking

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