In this exclusive interview, supervising sound editors Bill R. Dean and Ron Eng tell the story about its scary sound - covering everything from recording bells and homemade crosses, designing demon vocals, how they used the Dolby Atmos surround field, to how the jump-scare scenes never got old (especially for one re-recording mixer).
Written by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of Warner Bros. Contains spoilers.
That creepy nun face has been part of The Conjuring universe for years, and now her story is finally revealed. Who is The Nun and what is her connection to Ed and Lorraine Warren? Director Corin Hardy and writers James Wan and Gary Dauberman put the pieces of the puzzle together in Warner Bros. The Nun, in theaters now.
At a remote abbey in Romania, a young nun has died and the circumstance of her death has led the Vatican to investigate. They send a novice named Sister Irene, who experiences powerful visions, and a priest named Father Burke. They meet up with a man named Frenchie, who used to supply the abbey with goods. The trio discovers that the abbey was actually a castle built by a duke (known locally as the Marquis of Snakes) who had an interest in the occult. The duke summoned a demon named Valak, which takes the form of The Nun. The demon is trying to escape and Sister Irene, Father Burke, and Frenchie struggle to safely contain it beneath the abbey.
Supervising sound editors Bill R. Dean (who sound supervised Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation) and Ron Eng (known for his work on David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, and Emmy-nominated Twin Peaks series) join forces to create the sound of The Nun. Their team also included: sound designers Adam Boyd, Steve Bodecker, and Kris Fenske, sound effects editors Bruce Tanis, Mark Larry, and Andrew Johnson, re-recording mixers Joe Barnett and Gabe Serano, dialogue editors Chase Keehn and Joe Schiff, and BG/Foley editor Olivia Zhang. The ADR crew was supervisor Paul Carden and editors Kelly Oxford, Russ Famarco, and Becky Sullivan. On Foley was supervisor Randy Wilson, artists John Sievert, Stefan Fraticelli, and Jason Charbonneau, editors John Loranger and Kristi McIntyre, and mixer Ron Mellegers. Dean says, “As is always the case, Ron and I couldn’t have made the soundscape for the film without our awesome crew, we are truly thankful for all the hard work and dedication these folks gave to us and the show.”
Here Dean and Eng talk about recording bells and homemade crosses, designing demon vocals, how they used the Dolby Atmos surround field, and how the jump-scare scenes never got old (especially for one re-recording mixer).
You two have collaborated on films before, like Blackhat back in 2015. How was your reunion on The Nun?
Ron Eng (RE): I actually employed Bill for half a day while I was working on Longmire. We were in a terrible crunch, and Bill helped us out. So, we are old working buddies now.
BD: Seems like we trade favors and work back and forth sometimes.
Tell me about your team dynamic on The Nun. How did you divide up the sound work?
BD: The schedule on The Nun kept changing. You try your best to roll with the punches but basically it ended up going on a fairly lengthy hiatus. Then when it was coming back to finish, I was going to be knee-deep in the film I’m working on now which is Shazam! I wondered how I was going to handle that and so I talked to the folks at NewLine and they said they’d like me to have full focus on Shazam! That’s when I called up Ron. I told him The Nun was in pretty good shape but they were changing it quite a bit. So I asked him to help me finish it.
BD: They had taken breaks for re-shoots. I started on it in July 2017 and we were pretty steady until about October and then we had a break and came back on it in December and then February. We had a few weeks in there for screenings and to re-work the edits. They kept refining the film.
RE: Bill tried to hand over the material in the best shape that he could but the film was forever changing. When I inherited the film, I got some of Bill’s crew and also brought some people along with me.
I’ve worked with Bill enough now and so we had a decent working relationship on The Nun. He had a lot of great stuff in the track and we just tried to add to it. That’s how we managed to get it done.
BD: I would get calls asking if we had created sound for this scene or that, and I’d have to go back to things we did six months or so ago. Scenes were taken out of the movie and then were put back in, and so we had the material but it wasn’t in place. It was definitely good that we were all in the same building so that people could come by and ask questions, or I could direct them to where things were. I could also discuss sentiments for what the director wanted and things like that.
The Nun is set in The Conjuring universe. How have those films influenced your approach to the sound on The Nun?
BD: The Nun (Bonnie Aarons) has a much bigger role in this film than in the others and her specificities are much more fleshed out. Ron and his team did a lot of work on that.
One thing that carries through is trying to raise the creep factor and to accentuate evil’s presence with low-end.
One thing that carries through is trying to raise the creep factor and to accentuate evil’s presence with low-end. Once the characters get to the Abbey, there is so much low-frequency, on-the-edge-of-your-seat type feel so you know you’re in a horrifically evil place.
RE: Low-end was used as a tool and hopefully quite effectively. We had a lot of booms and low-end swishes. There’s more low-end in The Nun than in any film I can remember.
Were there any specific sounds that have been consistent in this universe? Any direct lifts from the other films?
RE: There was a sound, a yell or tone that they lifted from The Conjuring.
BD: It’s a musical, singing sound.
RE: That was a direct lift. Then at the end of the film, there is a recap because The Nun is the prequel to The Conjuring.
BD: So there’s a little bit of The Conjuring material at the front and back end of The Nun to show the links in the story. Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) is the common character between those two films that keeps that universe tied up together in a way that isn’t just dependent on The Nun’s presence and the demon’s. There are also her aftereffects, so to speak, that reach into the other films.
The film is set before The Conjuring, in 1952, in Romania. Tell me about this location. How did you want the audience to feel about the Abbey initially? How did you achieve that through sound?
BD: When they take the trip from the town to the Abbey, there are some beautiful cinematic shots showing a beautiful mountaintop and grasslands, and a beautiful forest and a stream. In the town, we went with production design and made the area around Frenchie’s home sound very agricultural, very simple. It’s family oriented and there are kids running through this provincial town and there are these beautiful surroundings. When you get to the Abbey, all the life just falls out of the track. The only things that you hear are really nasty bugs and sparse and creepy creatures. Whatever is there, and is alive, is not pleasant. Even though the evil is contained in the Abbey, there’s an aura or halo around it that is infected. The people in town speak about that. When they talk about the Abbey, they spit on the ground to keep the evil spirits away because it’s so bad. No one goes there but Frenchie, and he only goes to the ice-house to deliver supplies every couple months.RE: Bill had found some interesting sounds for these shots of crows in the film. The crow sounds are some of my favorite in the film. Bill found a crow sound that is unique.
The crow sounds are done tastefully. It’s not the cliché crazy bird sound. There’s just a hint of that. The sound surrounding the Abbey was more about the absence of life, the absence of crickets and birds. There are just some interesting choices that give it an uneasiness that you are looking for.
BD: The crows came from recordings that I had captured on a trip to Ireland with my wife Elizabeth. One of her films was in a film festival out there and she really wanted to go and see the nearby medieval castle. So we hopped in the rental car and drove out to Bunratty Castle. We got out of the car and there were a ton of crows I could use. Of course, I had my recorder with me so it ended up being a big win for me. Oftentimes, the recordings were too thick for the single crows that we see in the film but I was able to use them a little bit to create the background element of the forest.
In addition, there’s this cackling crow sound. Early on, the director Corin Hardy liked the feel of crows in the film and said there would be more of them, but he didn’t want the stereotypical crow caw all the time. So we found him some more interesting things. When I presented him with the cackling crow, he loved it and he wanted to use it for Daniel as well, when he screams and does his snake hiss in the tomb room. So we tied all of those elements together.
RE: As we go through the film, when you’re in the forest there are a lot of tonal sounds happening, both through music and sound design, to add to that mood.
Can you talk about the creation of the atmospheres inside the Abbey? And what it’s like for the different levels?
We come in from the outside where there is wind and creepy bugs and we enter this room and it’s very still aside from the sound of ice being formed.
BD: Sound effects editors Adam Boyd and Bruce Tanis and I were dividing scenes up and cutting them with everything in — the background, the hard effects, the design, to see where we ended up and what we liked. I remember one of the things that I asked Adam to do was come up with this crystalline, ice-crystal type sound for the ice-house room. I know that sounds very esoteric, but I wanted that room to sound different to be a sign that they’re in this transition area. It has to be spooky but still germane to what the room is. He came up with this really interesting shimmery, cracky type sound. That was a fun atmosphere and it plays really well in the film. It really sets that room off. We come in from the outside where there is wind and creepy bugs and we enter this room and it’s very still aside from the sound of ice being formed. That’s not a sound that you usually hear and so it is very creepy.
RE: One of the more difficult things we did while trying to finish the film was to make all the rooms sound different. Once you get into the castle, you don’t really leave that much. As you go from room to room, we had the challenge of trying to offset each one somehow. I hope that was effective and that people get a different feeling from each one of the rooms.
BD: We try to keep the sounds of the rooms thematic. When they first go in to meet the Abbess, there’s a theme of snake hissing and candles, and there is a lot of reverb on it because it’s a big place. These little sounds help to set the rooms apart, and add to the subtle creepy factor. When there’s not a whole lot of action going on and there isn’t a whole lot of music happening, there is still this interesting texture that is keeping you on the edge of your seat.
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There are a lot of references to snakes in this film. The boy Daniel has a snake tongue, and The Nun throws up a snake…
BD: The person who started the Abbey onto this evil path was very into witchcraft and his nickname around the village was the Marquis of Snakes. You’ll see snakes a lot, for instance when they reveal these interesting artistic images they created for the books in the film that Corin and the production designers came up with. The images are beautiful, technique-wise, but super creepy. It’s one of the avenues of power the demon chooses to use in the film, quite significantly.
Do snake sounds factor into the demon’s sound? Or into the battle with the demon near the end?
RE: There is a snake attack on Father Burke (Demián Bichir) near the end of the movie. The snake has its own sound moment there.
The snake is also used in the vocal design, very subtly. We had recorded a female voice and a male voice for the demon. For the female voice, every time she spoke there was this modulation of a snake hiss that went underneath her voice. That was filtered in to augment her voice.
Tell me more about the vocal design. How did you create the final sound for The Nun’s voice?
RE: When Bill handed the film off to me that was one thing that was still in flux. Performers hadn’t been recorded yet and out of the placeholder sounds there were elements that they liked and other things they wanted to try.
After I watched the film, I wanted the demon to sound a little female and so we got a voice actress who could do animalistic growls. There are also a few spoken words that The Nun does, and she possesses the main character Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) and we had to create that.
I was using Envy to analyze the voice, whether it was a growl or a line of dialogue, and then would transpose that onto other animalistic sounds like the snake hiss and an elephant growl or a panther growl.
The male voice actor recorded for the entire movie as well. So they both went from reel one to reel six and so we had this array of material. I treated the voice with four processes. We had the natural voice pitched down — a little less for the female and a little more for the male. We used Serato’s Pitch ‘n Time. Then I took the iZotope Nectar plug-in and figured out an interesting process that distorted the vocal a bit and added some chorusing. I used Krotos’s Dehumaniser 2. That was really great for the growls. It made them super aggressive and would transform any human growl into something really big like a lion or tiger. I also used Envy by The Cargo Cult. Its modulation is based on envelopes. It analyzes a sound source’s pitch and amplitude and EQ and then superimposes that on any other sound. I was using Envy to analyze the voice, whether it was a growl or a line of dialogue, and then would transpose that onto other animalistic sounds like the snake hiss and an elephant growl or a panther growl (it was about seven or eight tracks). I would do that for both the male and female voice for the whole film. It was intense but that was what got the team happy with the vocal treatment.
BD: I’m glad that Ron was able to come on and really make the demon voice cool and unique, so that it wasn’t just a matter of grabbing this or that from a library. The sound was really tailored to the film, when they had a clear direction on which way they wanted it to go. Ron and his team really made the voice play in the scene.
RE: The sound went through a lot of hands. The ADR supervisor that was working with me spotted the entire film for all of the growls and vocal sounds. Then we had a recording session and afterwards I did all the raw vocal design and then we handed that off to Kelly Oxford and he went through and picked and leveled out the best vocals for each instance. Then we brought that to the dub stage and as we were going through and mixing there were choices that were made live because there was still so much to choose from.
BD: An early item Corin wanted to hear sound design wise was the evil prayer chant in the chapel with the giant nun shadow moving along the wall. He wanted to hear the various nuns’ repeated chanting in Latin helping to draw Irene out of her bedroom all the way to the chapel until the group of nuns stood up and turned around to face her. It certainly wasn’t something you’d find in a sound effects library and I wanted the words they were praying to relate to the story so I wrote up 2 “prayers” and had those translated into Latin.
The first was, “Evil is here between the living and the dead. It takes many shapes and holds us captive between spiritual worlds.”
Translated to: Adest inter malum vivorum et mortuorum. Multiformis illa spiritualium captivum tenet saeculum nostrum.
The second was, “Cold dark forces are near. They draw closer the more we speak. All who are living beware. We the imprisoned dead are here to warn the living.”
Translated to: Frigus tenebris sunt copiae prope est. Sic propius et plus magis adolescit loquimur. Omnes qui habitabat cave. Nos sunt hic ad vincula mortuus vivos monere.
After doing some test recording and cutting in my wife’s voice doing evil, low, ghost whisper, and deep mournful readings I determined the first prayer worked better rhythmically and the repeated pace fit the scene well. I grabbed some folks around the building to add some more voices to the track then mixed in some spooky reverse whispered readings and mixed it in 7.1 to match the camera panning and keeping the evil nuns moving around the room in relation to camera perspective. Corin liked it and we fined tuned it for a few temp mixes and previews, then the group actors re-recorded it for the final mix. So if someone is fluent in Latin and listens closely they can pick up that interesting story point within the scene.
What other sounds went into the supernatural encounters?
BD: In the film, Sister Irene has had visions her whole life. When she has these visions, the audience is along with her. The audience doesn’t realize until she realizes that a lot of the experiences that she is having in the Abbey are actually her visions. So the big reveal for the character happens at the same time as the audience figures this out. It’s a fun aspect of the film to be fully invested in that character’s experiences and then come to realize that it’s all been supernatural, in her mind, and her spirit hasn’t actually been in the real world.
So what do we do when the demon moves into the real world and is attacking everyone else as it’s trying to get out of the Abbey? That was interesting. To make her visions feel like reality, she has conversations with the other nuns and interacts with them, and we treat that as a real world event. We fully realize it with Foley and sound design. We’re not giving any clues against that. There isn’t any special musical tone or the absence of ambience in the background to signify that we are in one of her visions. The audience is fully immersed with her in those moments so that when the reveal happens, it’s a surprise.
How do you play the reveal?
BD: The scene where that happens, it’s this huge attack against Sister Irene. When Father Burke and Frenchie bang on the door, they basically interrupt her vision. She’s pulled out of that experience into reality. So the growling of the demon and the shaking of the walls and her flesh being cut and her habit being torn, all those events just recede away into the background. When she fully acknowledges that someone is at the door, everything just slips out. It becomes super calm and quiet in the room. This room that was just full of noise and wind and growls is nearly dead silent.
And Corin reinforces that visually. As she gets up, she passes by the nuns and the room is clean and in decent condition. The pews are usable and the candles are lit once again. When Sister Ircrene opens the door for Father Burke and Frenchie, we see the room through their eyes and it all looks decrepit. The pews are broken down and there are cobwebs everywhere. The stained-glass windows are broken. And there are no other nuns there, except for a body in the corner. So it’s all one shot that does the whole reveal.
Sound-wise, what was your favorite jump-scare? How does the sound there play a role?
RE: We spent a lot of time on the jump scares. We took great care in setting up the jump scares, almost to the point where you can feel them coming. It gets super quiet before them. We did a lot of work to make sure there were lots of dynamics in the soundtrack so we could get super quiet before the jump-scare and the audience would jump out of their seats.
The dialogue mixer Joe Barnett is one of those people who gets freaked out … There were a couple jump scares that would get him every time we did the scene.
Funny story, the dialogue mixer Joe Barnett is one of those people who gets freaked out by that kind of stuff. So the first time he saw the film, we got him a couple times. There were a couple jump scares that would get him every time we did the scene. That was funny to watch him flinch every time the scares happened.
There’s one scene that takes place outside the Abbey, and there’s the body of a dead nun on the ground and it jumps up and stabs Father Burke in the side. Then the nun catches on fire and Frenchie shoots her. That one is quite effective.
There’s another where Frenchie is walking through the woods and the corpse of a nun falls down and lands on top of him. That scare is quite effective too.
BD: Before that one, it’s almost inordinately quiet. Frenchie is outside at night in the graveyard and there is hardly anything going on. He’s looking around and you see something in the distance and it makes you tense up a little. You think that is the scare and so you get reset, but actually it’s not the real scare. The body falls and then it tries to attack him. It really ramps up. You think you know what’s going to happen and you get yourself ready for it, and then bang! And that’s followed by an even bigger scare. It keeps ramping up.
RE: Did you see the news about all the trailers being taken off YouTube because they were too scary? It was a couple weeks before the film came out and I was thinking that was the greatest publicity that anyone could ask for. As soon as you take all the trailers off of YouTube, people are going to be compelled to go see it because it can’t be that scary so they want to see it for themselves.
Did you do any fun recordings for this film?
BD: I did tons of recording for this film. At my house, I banged on my bedroom window with a branch for a scene where Irene is walking to the chapel and we first see the demon nun eerily just watching her. So one of the first sounds I recorded at home was this branch. My wife says, “Oh, you’re home early.” And I said, “Yeah, we got a ton of recording to do so get ready!” She inevitably becomes my defecto recordist. So we recorded some scraping on the window with a branch I cut off from our lemon tree.
Rob Salazar … comes into my room and I have pieces of wood that I had cut up the night before and I’m screwing them all together into crosses. He says, “What’s going on?” And I say, “We’re working on a demon movie.”
I also picked up some material from the hardware store, rocks and wood, because I had to make a sound for the turning of the cross on the wall. There’s a hallway of various crosses hanging and stuck in the ground and things like that. So I built a rig of about eight or nine crucifixes that I built from various sizes of wood so they would have different tones and resonances. I strung them up on one of my flyfishing rods from the different eyelets so I could have them dangling at varying heights. I could move that assembly organically to get some nice, different, non-dampened wood cross sounds. Rob Salazar, one of the runners here at Technicolor, was helping me build that rig. He comes into my room and I have pieces of wood that I had cut up the night before and I’m screwing them all together into crosses. He says, “What’s going on?” And I say, “We’re working on a demon movie.”
I also ordered and recorded every bell I could find on Amazon for the bell scene in the graveyard. The main bell we use is actually my wife’s bell. It’s a family heirloom antique that’s over 100 years old. I knew we couldn’t have the same bell; they all had to sound slightly different. I got about seven or eight different bells and I gave them all names so I knew which ones I was using where in case the cut changed. I had a specific practical bell for each different bell we see on screen. One was named ‘red-handled bronze’ and there was ‘black-handled silver’ and ‘tiny silver.’ Those names were in the file so as we went along and cuts were made to the film, we could keep the different bell sounds straight.
When the radio gets taken over by evil and turns on in the middle of the night repeating the song Irene and Father Burke listened to during dinner I really wanted to add to the period of the film by using proper AM radio interference. In 1952, FM radio hadn’t really come into consumer use yet and AM static and interference is much more interesting and varied than FM “white noise.” Alex Van Haaff, one of the engineers at Technicolor had an old (early 1980s) analog Realistic receiver amplifier with old school analog AM tuning fins and wheels which he let me borrow to record a set of the unique and different AM tuning static which I placed into the scene. I enjoyed adding that small detail to give the audience another small taste of something we hardly ever hear today in our modern digital world.
What are you most proud of in terms of sound on The Nun?
BD: The scene I’m most proud of is when Father Burke is in the graveyard. ‘Daniel’ attacks him (it’s actually the demon, of course) and he ends up falling into an open grave. The coffin lid closes on him and dirt falls on top of it. That’s a really fun and effective scene because it puts the audience in with the character. To me, it’s really fun to use sound in those situations to bring the audience into where the character is and into the trauma and torment that the character is going through. He immediately gets trapped and isolated from Sister Irene who is the only person out there who can help them because all of the other nuns you think you’re seeing out there aren’t really there. The only person who can help him is Irene.
When they buried Victoria near the beginning of the movie, it was shown that they had bells on the graves for the bubonic plague victims just in case they weren’t actually dead. If they were buried alive they could ring the bell. So he’s trapped in the coffin and he rings the bell. Irene escapes from her turmoil in the chapel and hears the bell and goes to rescue Father Burke. The audience gets both Irene’s perspective and Father Burke’s. The demon makes all the other bells in the graveyard ring to try and confuse Irene but she taps into her abilities to find him and we augment that through sound. We have all these different shots of all these different bells, and Irene is able to discern the wrong bells from the right one. She hones in on that one and goes to save Father Burke.
Inside the coffin, Father Burke hears scratching and he knows that something is in there with him. So the panic ramps up a notch, and now Irene has to hurry to save him. That’s a fun scene for sound because we go from above ground to being in the coffin.
RE: The mix there is really effective in Dolby Atmos. There is some cool panning happening with the bells. When we’re in the coffin with Father Burke and he hears something scratching and rubbing against the wood that sound goes all the way around the theater in the Atmos mix.
BD: It’s fun to watch that with an audience to see how they react to it.
RE: It’s a great scene.
I’m really proud of the vocal design in the film, and all the low-end work that we did. There’s a scene in the very beginning of the movie where The Nun is coming down a long hallway towards the camera and as she’s going past all these lit candles they blow out. There are these successive low-end hits, these massive booms that happen when the candles blow out. That whole scene was really cool. There’s a ton of great sound work from everyone there, from the Foley, the sound effects, and the sound design teams. There’s vocal design in there. That’s one of my favorite scenes that I worked on. The bell scene that Bill was talking about was mainly his work. That was his baby and we only added a little bit to that scene.
A big thanks to Bill R. Dean and Ron Eng for giving us a look at the creepy sound of The Nun – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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