For a guy who makes sounds for a living, Steve Boeddeker sure is being quiet.
When asked about having a sound removed from M. Night Shyamalan's new horror movie, The Village, to get an R rating changed to the more accessible PG-13, he pretty much clams up. Graphic scenes of sex or violence are what usually raise the Motion Picture Association of America's red flags. But a sound?
"A sound had to be dropped in order to get the rating," confirms Boeddeker, The Village's sound designer. "I wouldn't want to tell you what that sound was. It was a compromise with the MPAA, but it didn't compromise the scene. How's that for vague?"
Boeddeker - a designer for Skywalker Sound, a widely used movie sound company based in Marin County, Calif., founded by Star Wars creator George Lucas - may be coy about this particular sound. But he's very vocal about the way it illustrates just how powerful, significant and crucial sound is in modern cinema.
"That tells you right there about the power of sound," he says. "What has happened in recent years is people have become more aware of sound design and more educated to the fact that there is someone pulling the strings of sound and leading them on emotionally. But if your work isn't noticed, if you can create an environment that helps people get so enveloped in the story that they don't realize someone is making those sounds, then you're winning. That's our goal."
That goal was met to an unprecedented degree in the 1970s, when movies such as Star Wars and Apocalypse Now ushered in a whole new era of sound effects. Transporting moviegoers to another place, lifting them out of reality and plopping them into fantasy through such effects became a way of life for people like Benjamin Burtt, who, along with Lucas, spearheaded the groundbreaking special-effects sounds of the first Star Wars movie.
"I've built movies and TV shows frame by frame, and I will assure you, the most important element is the sound; it's what brings it all together," says Tommy Habeeb, founder of the Dallas-based American Television and Film Co., which develops, produces and distributes filmed content.
Sounds we have known
Other sound makers who have made pivotal noise: Fred Brown, the sound-effects editor for The Exorcist, a creepy classic driven by screams and thumps; Bernard Herrmann, who dreamed up the woodwind introduction to Citizen Kane and the shower-scene violin screeches of Psycho; and Walter Murch, who led the sound teams behind The Godfather and Apocalypse Now.
Murch is often cited as a maverick and groundbreaker in the field. He has been nominated for eight Oscars and won three, including a double-Oscar win in 1996 for editing and sound on The English Patient. For 1979's Apocalypse Now, another Oscar-winner for him, he created the Dolby 5.1 sound format that has since become industry standard.
"Walter Murch was a true innovator," says Richard King, whose sound credits include Shyamalan's last two films, Signs and Unbreakable, as well as Magnolia, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Waterworld.
Horror movies in particular have always depended greatly upon sounds. Some have been so successful, they've turned into pop-culture markers.
Friday the 13th's Jason chasing someone while wielding a machete just isn't the same, for instance, if you don't hear the chi-chi-chi/ha-ha-ha whisper that precedes each disembowelment. Similarly, the house in The Amityville Horror might be an OK place to live if the nightmare-inducing phrase "Get out!" had not been exclaimed by a demon.
`He's a sound junkie'
More recently, a stroll through the cornfields in Shyamalan's Signs would not have nearly given Mel Gibson's character - and viewers - a heart attack if the stalks hadn't been rustling.
"Sound is what makes your heart beat quicker," King says. "Whatever way the director or producer want to sway you emotionally is based on sound. There is nothing more powerful than, in a horror movie, the sound of someone walking across the floor, those footsteps you hear in the dark. That makes the whole film. ... It drives that moment."
Shyamalan is widely regarded as "the" contemporary horror moviemaker, so it's also no surprise that he's a sound junkie.
"He thinks about sound early on," King says. "He thinks about it when he's shooting. To him, it's part of the same fabric as the rest of the film."
For sound creators, recognition within the industry has arrived only recently.
"It's just been within the past four or five years that filmmakers are starting to realize the potential of sound effects and their value," says Andrew Plain, supervising sound editor for In the Cut and the forthcoming Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid. "They make films into physical experiences. In the last couple of weeks, I've seen I, Robot, Spider-Man 2 and King Arthur. All totally immerse you in sounds."
The Academy Awards started honoring sound soon after the awards were born in 1927 but did so somewhat generically. The vague Best Sound category has been around since 1930. The Best Sound Effect Editing category wasn't created until 1982 - five years after Star Wars.
"Star Wars was such a cultural phenomenon that any kind of association with it is big and meaningful," Boeddeker says. "Those sounds that were made were signature. Kids walking out of the theater imitating Darth Vader and the light sabers - that's big. That's the dream of every sound designer, to be that much of a part of the storytelling, to make that big of an impact."