Many reviewers are particularly praising the sound design for the series - and it's a great pleasure to present this exclusive A Sound Effect interview on how its powerful sound was made, as told by Emmy-award winning supervising sound editor/sound designer Trevor Gates.
Written by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of Netflix. Note: Contains spoilers.
In Netflix’s new limited series The Haunting of Hill House, series creator Mike Flanagan re-imagines author Shirley Jackson’s same-titled horror novel from 1959. Flanagan deftly weaves together the past and present lives of the Crain family, who briefly lived in the haunted mansion known as Hill House. Though the family fled the house, its ghosts followed them, and the family is eventually drawn back to the mansion for a final showdown.
Emmy-award winning supervising sound editor/sound designer Trevor Gates at Formosa Group knows a thing or two about crafting sound for a horror story. In fact, he and his sound team were recently awarded an Emmy for their work on Atlanta‘s “Teddy Perkins” episode, which takes place inside the creepy mansion of a reclusive aristocrat. Gates’s aesthetic choices for that episode — oppressive ambiences and precise, articulate sound effects are evident in The Haunting of Hill House. It’s his sonic precision that makes the soundtrack on this series so effective. The restrained use of sound draws the audience in so that when a scare happens, it has space to be loud and scary as hell.
Here, Gates talks about his approach to The Haunting of Hill House and shares some advice on how to create an effective horror soundtrack.
What were series creator Mike Flanagan’s goals for sound on The Haunting of Hill House? You’ve worked with him on other horror films. How did this series compare to those, sound-wise?
Trevor Gates (TG): I’ve worked with Mike on Ouija: Origin of Evil and also Gerald’s Game. Re-recording mixer Jonathan Wales, who worked with us on The Haunting of Hill House, was also on those two films, plus one called Hush. So we have a long-standing relationship with Mike Flanagan, which is going to continue.
One of the most difficult things about this series was the schedule. Our time was severely truncated. We had a two week lead time on the first mix and then we started mixing and we didn’t stop for eight weeks straight. So to do 10 episodes in 10 weeks we had to be pretty in tune with the director, and we had to have a really good sound crew.
This project was easier than the others because I have a relationship with Mike and I know what’s in his DNA and what his expectations are sound-wise. We didn’t have to explore a bunch of directions to discover where the thresholds were, to find out what flavors we were looking for. I could just jump right in.
The best thing about working with Mike Flanagan is that his writing is so good. He likes to embrace the silence in his films. So just like with “Teddy Perkins,” we could create some very basic atmospheres to communicate isolation, like clock ticks and heavy airs. We could hold a ‘silence’ and let these really interesting monologues breathe and live in the space.
Whatever choices we needed to make needed to translate to that playback environment, to sound bars and even headphones.
Along with that, there are some pretty big, isolated scares where we have screams and banging. There were a few scenes where we had tried some sound but Mike wasn’t really feeling it and so we had to react quickly and build something else. For example, the banging sequences in the house were probably one of the most complex and difficult. We had to get the right intensity and frequency that would allow you to feel scared. The thing I had to keep in mind through this entire sound experience was that this project would be viewed on TVs and laptops and over an array of smaller speakers. So whatever choices we needed to make needed to translate to that playback environment, to sound bars and even headphones.
We actually mixed this show in a Dolby Atmos context. So anyone who is able to playback Dolby Atmos at home can hear this thing in its full glory. It’s pretty awesome.
What was your approach to Hill House? How did you communicate the creepiness of the dwelling through sound?
TG: We tried to make it cold and empty. I definitely parlayed some of the same sounds I used on the “Teddy Perkins” episode of Atlanta because it shared some of the same sound focuses. There were differences of course.
We didn’t want to make the house ‘creaky’ because we wanted to be very articulate when we wanted to scare people. We didn’t want to draw attention to the house and make it creak unless it was a very specific event.
One thing that’s particular to our approach to The Haunting of Hill House is what happens when ghosts are around. You first experience this when young Nell (Violet McGraw) sees the Bent Neck lady, who appears by her bed when she is sleeping. We play a cricket sound that starts to slow in pace and also lower in pitch. This was something we did in a few places where we didn’t want to give too much away to the viewers but we wanted to do something sonically that would signify a nonlinearity of time. Basically, when a ghost is around things are slowing down, like time is being manipulated. Or, it’s cold and things are slowing down. In the first episode, you’ll hear it a couple of times, the first was the cricket slowing down until we see the Bent Neck lady and then it stops. Then later in present day, when the father Hugh (Timothy Hutton) turns over in bed and sees a woman lying next to him, there is a frog sound that starts to slow in pace. On Nell’s second encounter with the Bent Neck lady in the parlor, there’s a clock that slows in pace and pitch and it turns into a bigger sound.
So that was something we used in a few places when we wanted to play with a texture that could slowly bring the viewer out of reality and just creep them out. It’s something that just makes your head turn a little side-ways.
I’m curious to know if the audience will notice these smaller nuances while playing back on their laptops or their phones if they’re watching it that way.
Tell me about the specific sounds you created for the house. I loved the door knobs. Where did you come up with that sound?
TG: The doorknobs were largely from my Foley crew. They gave us the doorknobs, footsteps, and anything that is humanized that could be a sound effect. If the sound needed a performance, Foley did an excellent job of that.
Some sounds were a combination of layers, from Foley and hard effects. There’s that whole sequence with the doorknob in Episode 1, where the father, young Hugh (Henry Thomas), picks up young Steven (Paxton Singleton) and runs out of the house. Those doorknobs are from the Foley crew but we had to make the sound work with the production sound — the doorknob recorded onset. Some sounds were from production — sounds that they captured on the day.
What about the dumbwaiter in the kitchen? Was that Foley, production, or hard effects?
TG: We had about 50% of the dumbwaiter as a sound effect — the motor and a little bit of the shaking. But the buttons were Foley and the Foley team also created some interesting textures of the dumbwaiter going up and down.
It was fun to allow the different departments of my sound team … to contribute different textures to some of the same places because everybody has a different view on how something might sound.
I feel like I had a really great team on this one, and that was essential for us to succeed at this task in the amount of time that we had. It was fun to allow the different departments of my sound team — my effects editors and the Foley team — to contribute different textures to some of the same places because everybody has a different view on how something might sound. When it all comes to me — all these sounds that I didn’t cut myself — I get to take the artistry from the different teammates and shape it in editing. The dumbwaiter was one of those times where taking a little bit of flavor from a couple different people made for a sound that was really interesting and special.
You mentioned the banging on the walls and doors. I loved the scene in young Shirley’s (Lulu Wilson) room, where her and young Theo (Mckenna Grace) are sitting on the bed and this banging starts to happen on the walls around the room. Can you tell me about the sound on that scene?
TG: That scene was largely cut by one of my sound effects editors who gave me some really good banging sounds on the walls. He was doing some renovations to his house and so he went and recorded some actual banging on the walls in his house. We also used some sound effects from our library. Also, Foley contributed too, for the pictures rattling against the walls.
That was a pretty difficult scene to mix as well because we had to spread the banging out around the sound field and we had to make sure that it was still impactful. Even though we had a bunch of layers already built, we were still working on that scene while we were mixing it. I had to add about 40% more sound, with some low-end impacts that you wouldn’t think would end up being in that scene, like thunder and cannon shots, to make the impacts feel big. We had to layer in some of these alternative sounds to make the banging feel impactful.
There’s been a lot of talk about how close or not close this series is to Shirley Jackson’s book. That scene is one of the scenes that was very close and like an homage to the book, which was recreated in Robert Weiss’s 1963 version, The Haunting. There are two girls on the bed and it has some of the same camera sequences. It’s interesting to go back and see that scene and then watch this one again.
In the basement scene, there is a great sound for young Luke’s (Julian Hilliard) flashlight and for the lightbulbs when young Theo later turns those on. How did you make the lightbulb and flashlight sounds?
TG: I have this really interesting iridescent flicker sound in my library that I created for a movie about six or seven years ago. It has an interesting filament/glassy element too. So that is one of my signature sounds that we used here.
We made some really good decisions about what interesting buzzes we could use and how far we could push keeping them playing through a monologue.
I’m a big fan of interesting light buzzes. You can make things buzz and it sounds annoying and not interesting. For those basement scenes — including the scene in which young Hugh and the groundskeeper Mr. Dudley (Robert Longstreet) are in the basement cleaning up the mold and they’re discussing Olivia’s (Carla Gugino) blueprints — we made some really good decisions about what interesting buzzes we could use and how far we could push keeping them playing through a monologue. Mr. Dudley’s monologue in the basement was really interesting and we kept the iridescent bulbs buzzing while he was talking. We tried to figure out how long we could sustain those buzzes without being distracting, all the while making it feel uncomfortable through the dialogue.
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Were these found sounds? Or did you help to make them feel more uncomfortable by manipulating them with plug-ins?
TG: I’m a big fan of twisting sounds with modulation plug-ins and processing that messes up the sound. Every time we make a movie or TV show, we do all three — record new sounds, pull sounds from libraries, and manipulate the sounds to make something new.
We had about 8 to 10 different layers of thunder — flavors of thunder — that moved and flowed into each other.
A good example is Episode 6 “Two Storms.” Often, I like to do the work myself just because I like to make sound and be creative and do design but because of the schedule on the show I had to let my team members do a lot of the heavy lifting. The first episode that we started with was “Two Storms” and in this episode there are only four or five minutes of music at the very end. For the rest of the 50 minutes, there is essentially no music. There’s a storm happening from top to bottom (in the present and the past). I spent about five or six hours with the sound effects editor on this episode and we found some recordings of different flavors of thunder that we could use in different spaces of the house. We took different thunders and slow them down to be even lower frequency and more rolling. We took some of those thunders and put them through convolution reverbs to make that sound like it’s reverberating in different spaces of the house, whether they’re in the foyer or the parlor. We wanted to have something that was super dynamic and interesting throughout the 50 minutes of the storm. We wanted the storm to ebb and flow and be different layers of this cake. We had about 8 to 10 different layers of thunder — flavors of thunder — that moved and flowed into each other.
We did this with the different rains as well. In Episode 6 there is a series of one-shots. The first shot is 15-minutes long and the next shot is 18-minutes long and they are moving around the house, turning 360°, moving past different rooms with different windows open and so we wanted to have different textures of what the rain would sound like and the hail would sound like. It sounds different when it’s hitting the roof in the foyer than it does when hitting the glass in the room where young Nell saw the Bent Neck lady. We spent a day just pulling these different textures and getting a palette of sounds. That’s something that’s important and it’s what we do whenever we do a project.
Light buzzes and filaments are such delicate sounds. If you push them too far then they become unrecognizable as ‘light’ sounds. What were some of the specific plug-ins you used to manipulate your light sounds?
TG: I like to use a FabFilter plug-in called Saturn that is a modulation plug-in that can saturate a sound and make it fuller. It brings up the harmonics in a sound, which is something that I like to do to make sounds fatter.
For the thunder, we used Audio Ease’s Altiverb and also Saturn as well to fatten up the low bass.
For some of the screams, I used plug-ins to modulate and deepen the vocals to make a raspier scream. We used iZotope VocalSynth and Ircam Trax (by Flux) which allows you to make some really weird, deep sounds with natural voices.
In Hill House, there’s a speaking horn that goes from the bedroom to the kitchen. What did you use to create the voices for that?
TG: We did that on the mix stage. We used Altiverb and McDSP’s FutzBox. That allowed us to manipulate the voice so that it sounds like it’s coming through that horn.
That was difficult too because you have to find the balance of intelligibility and realism. You want it to really sound like it’s coming through that horn and to sound interesting but you also can’t take it too far to where people can’t understand what young Nell was saying on the other side.
There are some buttons that Nell rolls through the horn, and that was part effects and part Foley, and then we used the same processing on the button rolling sounds that we did for the voices. That way we get the same resonance and the same feel — like it’s coming out of the same place.
That horn is a great example of how real Hill House felt in the series. You feel like this house really exists, when in reality the levels of the house were probably split across a soundstage and so both ends of the horn wouldn’t be connected…
TG: We want the audience to feel like they are in the space and to feel like what they are experiencing is realism. In a classic horror genre like this, it’s important to create that feeling of realism because if you don’t believe it then you aren’t scared.
What was the most challenging scene for sound design? Why?
TG: The banging sequences were by far the most challenging because it was a high-pressure situation. We didn’t have a lot of time with Mike to redesign and review. We just had to take what we knew about Mike and build something. Then, when he wasn’t responding to it like we wanted him to, we had to react and come up with something fairly quickly because we were on the mix stage; the train was rolling and we had to keep it moving.
The Theo ‘feel’ design (when Theo touches things she feels something) was another challenge. The first sound that we came up with wasn’t what Mike wanted so we had to come up with a sound that was subtle but also did the job of signifying that she was experiencing something when she touched things.
Overall, this was a difficult project. We didn’t have a ton of time and the project didn’t stop for three months. We literally mixed every single day of the week for eight weeks straight. It was imperative that my sound team was firing on all cylinders. I’m proud of the work that we did from a teamwork standpoint. This wasn’t something that I would have been able to do all on my own.
Want more behind-the-scenes horror sound stories? We’ve done a lot of those here on A Sound Effect over the years – here are some highlights:
• Behind the brutal sound of ‘Halloween’
• How the haunting sound of ‘The Nun’ was crafted
• Behind the creepy sound of ‘Hereditary’ (and why it’s so intense)
• How A Quiet Place’s essential sound was created
• Creating the dark, evil sounds of ‘Annabelle: Creation’ – with Bill R. Dean
• Creating the sound of fear for ‘It Comes at Night’ – with Damian Volpe and Robert Fernandez
• Behind the horrifying sound of ‘Alien: Covenant’ – with Oliver Tarney and Michael Fentum
• Behind the scary sounds of ‘Blair Witch’ – with Andy Hay
• How the creepy sound of ‘Lights Out’ was made – with Bill R. Dean
• Young UK filmmaker creates award-winning horror sound: Here it is – and here’s how he did it
• Creating the horrific sounds of ‘The Conjuring 2’ – with Joe Dzuban
What episode or scene are you most proud of and why?
TG: I would say Episode 6 “Two Storms” because it’s such a rich sonic experience from top to bottom. When I think about the series from a sound perspective, I think about what we can do within each scene to engross the audience. What can we do to hold the silence, yet make it interesting but not distract from the great dialogue that Mike Flanagan has given us? We talked about slowing down some of the sounds as we reveal ghosts, and though it’s slight it makes you feel a little weird.
Mike Flanagan does not like to shoot ADR; he doesn’t like having to bring an actor in to re-create a performance just because of sound quality. He feels the magic happens on-set.
The sound on this series was about making the spaces sound cold when they needed to feel cold and warm when they needed to feel warm. It was about making sure that the dialogue was clean and sounded clear. Mike Flanagan does not like to shoot ADR; he doesn’t like having to bring an actor in to re-create a performance just because of sound quality. He feels the magic happens on-set. When we’re preparing the production dialogue for the mix we have to be careful about how we’re providing the experience from a technical standpoint. If there is something that isn’t going to work then we have to make a case with Mike to find an alternative take or shoot ADR as a last resort.
There were a lot of creative ideas and design-building but we had to be ultra-sharp and purposeful with the decisions that we made, to be able to give the story the right amount of quiet scenes and the right amount of loud scenes. We had to look at it as a whole and find an arc. When can we get quiet in order to get loud and have that be impactful? The sound had to work not only in the theater environment where we mixed it but also work on people’s TVs and iPads and what not.
Any tips that you would give for creating an effective horror soundtrack?
TG: Don’t be afraid to get quiet, and to allow yourself that quietness so that you can get loud later.
Also, my approach is about making articulate choices. I often tell my sound editors not to make sound soup. This isn’t jambalaya. You have to craft your sound with one or two or three sounds. When you are a young composer or sound designer, it’s really easy to over compose and to put layer on top of layer on top of layer in order to create something that you feel you want when you haven’t gotten there yet. I tell people to strip things away. If you find yourself adding sound on top of sound on top of sound, then go back through your sounds and start stripping things away. Even with ambiences, I tell them to make it minimal. Make one or two choices. That’s what makes things interesting, makes things specific, and gives it texture. Even though jambalaya might be delicious altogether, when you put 12 sounds together you start to lose some of the character and the texture and the characteristics of those individual sounds.
So in making an effective horror soundtrack, be specific. Make choices. Don’t be afraid to be quiet. And then you can get loud and scare the pants off people!
A big thanks to Trevor Gates for giving us a look at the horrifying sound of The Haunting of Hill House – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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