And, as regular readers of the A Sound Effect blog will know, I’m a huge horror fan – so I’m really excited to present this exclusive A Sound Effect feature on the sound for The Conjuring 2!
Here, supervising sound editor/sound designer Joe Dzuban shares the story behind the creative sound work, the value of temp mixes – and how the right talents (and tools) can take horror sound to the next level.
Written by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Warning: Contains spoilers (and horror!)
Calling director James Wan’s film The Conjuring (2013) ‘creepy’ is like calling a puma a ‘pussy cat.’ Even if that warning that was released with the film — the one alerting the audience of the film’s disturbing content and offering spiritual support from a Priest, was just a clever marketing tool to fill theater seats, it was still a true warning! The film was indeed disturbing. And now, nearly three years later, The Conjuring 2 just opened in theaters.
Reuniting with Director Wan is supervising sound editor/sound designer Joe Dzuban of West Hollywood’s Formosa Group. Dzuban not only sounded The Conjuring, but he’s also worked with Wan on both Insidious films and Furious 7. “James [Wan] is an amazing filmmaker because he understands all the different components that go into making a film, from the script to editing and finally to the sound. He has a very intuitive sense of how best to make all of these disciplines work together,” says Dzuban.
Set in 1977, The Conjuring 2 once again follows paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, this time to Enfield, England, where they confront sinister spirits that possess the home of Peggy Hodgson (played by Frances O’Connor) and her daughter Janet (played by Madison Wolfe). Since the story centers on Janet, Dzuban notes that Wan wanted The Conjuring 2 to have an emotional element, in addition to being creepy of course. “He also wanted the sound to be dynamic while having a slow crescendo throughout. That was something we talked about in the temp mixes, the idea to slowly build the soundtrack so that it hits its climax at the end,” says Dzuban.
Refining the concepts
Dzuban and his post sound team at Formosa, including sound effects editor Peter Staubli, creature designer Eliot Connors, supervising dialogue/ADR editor Lauren Hadaway, dialogue editor Justin Dzuban, and assistant editor Pernell Salinas, first created sounds for a temp mix based on Wan’s initial emotional and conceptual direction.
The temp mixes serve as another spotting session and that is really where the creative fun begins
That temp track was the spring board for the film’s final sound; it’s where concepts were presented and refined, or completely scrapped. “As the film finds itself, more and more ideas come to the front. The temp mixes serve as another spotting session and that is really where the creative fun begins,” says Dzuban.
For example, in the initial approach to Janet’s possession by the spirit of an old man named Bill Wilkins, the plan was to have multiple layers of Bill’s dialogue speaking through Janet simultaneously. But, Dzuban reveals, “Conceptually, it was interesting to have many voices emanating from a single mouth, but the result looked like an error in sync. It just didn’t appear as though she was speaking. So we took the layers, put them in sync with each other, and articulated their pitch and timbre just a bit. We also pitched one layer an octave or two lower just to give the voice a more demonic, otherworldly feel.”
In addition to ADR breathing from actress Wolfe, the layers were sourced from multiple pre-recorded tracks of actor Robin Atkins Downes, who voiced old man Bill. Dzuban and Hadaway used Elastique Pitch, a real-time pitch shifting plug-in by zPlane, to alter the inflection of the selected layers on-the-fly. “We used Elastique Pitch quite a bit when Old Bill speaks through Janet. We dialed it in just until we had a pitch and tone that felt like it emotionally matched the scene. Elastique Pitch was fantastic because we could enhance the performance of the tracks as we went along,” says Dzuban.
Elastique Pitch was also used for Crooked Man’s lines, performed by Atkin Downes as well. In the film, Crooked Man is an apparition that takes its form from a figure inside a zoetrope, a mechanical toy with a sequence of images printed on the inside wall. When the zoetrope is spinning, the subject inside appears to move.
Robin [Atkin Downes] is an extremely talented voice artist, and what he was able to do with his voice was really astonishing.
As with Janet, Crooked Man’s vocals were created by layering differently processed versions of his lines. Another plug-in Dzuban used for Crooked Man was Eventide’s Octavox. “Robin [Atkin Downes] is an extremely talented voice artist, and what he was able to do with his voice was really astonishing. We processed his voice slightly, here and there, to give it a supernatural quality,” he says.
The Crooked Man coming to life was the creepiest scene to design, Dzuban admits. Wan’s direction was that Crooked Man’s sound should have bone crunching, crackling, and wood-cracking elements. Dzuban and Formosa recordist Charlie Campagna recorded wood cracks, frozen fruit crunches, and even almonds. “We explored all kinds of things to give it an interesting quality,” he says. Dzuban loaded the sounds into Native Instruments Kontakt, and used a keyboard to play them to picture.
Feeling inspired to create your own horror sounds? There are several resources available here on A Sound Effect: Check out this special horror sound guide by Saro Sahihi on how to create everything from gore, ghost and jump-scares, to terrifying monsters. And if you’re looking for sounds to build from, an arsenal of scary sounds await right here.
The sound of demons
Dzuban and his team also needed to design the voice of the demon that emerges for a swirling vortex near the film’s end. Unlike Janet and Crooked Man, the end demon doesn’t have dialogue, so Dzuban performed vocalizations into Dehumaniser, a vocal processor by Krotos, LTD. “Everything you perform into Dehumaniser just sounds enormous and instantly otherworldly. It gives it this massive demonic feeling,” says Dzuban. He passed those tracks to sound effects editor Staubli, who layered them with various animal vocalizations to craft the demon’s sound.
Dzuban feels the end demon scene was one of the trickiest to design. There are the demon’s vocals, a swirling vortex made of Doppler-processed wind tracks, body impacts as characters are thrown across the room, thunder, and rain. “We have characters yelling, and the demon roaring.
You have to pick your moments and really clear out the other sounds without taking the energy away
To get all of these elements to play in a symphony, so to speak, you have to pick your moments and really clear out the other sounds without taking the energy away,” says Dzuban, who credits re-recording mixer Gregg Landaker for making that scene an impactful, visceral experience. “Gregg did an amazing job of weaving in and around these big moments. The scene definitely is bold, but is effective and fun.”
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Horrors in the basement
One of Dzuban’s favorite scenes to design was when Ed (played by Patrick Wilson) heads into the flooded basement to shut off the water flow from a broken pipe. As he’s working, Peggy sees a shape forming behind him. Dzuban was able to build the basement atmosphere using water drips, and creaky pipes, sloshing sounds and water bubbling up from the pipe. “You have an interplay of those sounds to establish the creepy atmosphere. Also, a lot of the scene was shot from Peggy’s POV so we were able to play with tonal elements subjectively to highlight the apparition she’s seeing,” says Dzuban. “I like the scene because it’s atmospheric, there’s a nice texture to it, and it’s very immersive. It’s creepy, moody, and has a great set up to one of the biggest jump-scares in the film.”
The Conjuring 2 was mixed in 7.1 surround on Warner Bros. Stage 5 in Burbank, CA, by re-recording mixers Landaker (effects/backgrounds/Foley) and Steve Maslow (dialogue/music). The final 7.1 mix was the blueprint for the Dolby Atmos up-mix. Since the film was mixed in-the-box using Pro Tools 12 systems and an Avid D-Control surface, Landaker was able to pull effects elements from the tracks and spread them around the Atmos surround field.
Keeping everything in-the-box also meant that much of Dzuban’s temp mix, and all the choices and decisions made early on, were carried forward to the dub stage. “Steve and Gregg did a heck of a job mixing this film, and we had a phenomenal sound editorial crew. I think the end result is a movie soundtrack that will leave audiences with goosebumps for sure!” concludes Dzuban.
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