Demons & Zoetropes: Sound Editor/Designer Joe Dzuban on ‘The Conjuring 2’



The Conjuring 2 has received impressive critical praise to complement its already stellar box office performance since its release on June 10th. Those who have seen the film surely squirmed and recoiled in terror at its numerous highly effective thrills and chills, and these moviegoers, in large part, have Joe Dzuban and his team to thank for that, as the film’s lauded sound design beautifully reinforces the on-screen scares. Dzuban was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to talk with us about his experience working as the film’s supervising sound editor and sound designer.

How did you first begin working with [director] James Wan?
I met James on Insidious, and since then I’ve gone on to do The Conjuring, Insidious 2Fast and Furious 7, and most recently The Conjuring 2. It’s been nearly the same post-production crew of Kirk Morri, Joseph Bishara, and myself throughout, so by now we’ve developed a nice shorthand. James is just an absolute pleasure to work with. There’s a level of trust that has developed, and I can usually anticipate where he wants to go. He understands that there’s a process involved in making a soundtrack, and he allows the sound team space to find the sounds as the film evolves. He’s a phenomenal director who understands all the components of the filmmaking process. He loves sound and gets excited about how it tells the story and adds emotion, suspense, tension, and drama to a scene. He understands all this innately. So any time he has a film coming up, I always get excited because I know there are going to be so many opportunities for fun, intricate, subtle, and dynamic sound work.

Joe Dzuban

Joe Dzuban

Tell us a little about your design process.
During production, I’ll provide the picture department new sounds that they may need specifically for the cut. I’ll read the script, do some field recordings, and try to get a sense for what types of sounds are needed, but I usually start my design work once the picture has begun to take shape.

James has me come on board full-time during the director’s cut. We’ll watch the film through and talk about it, not really specifically, but more in generalities and broad strokes and emotional undertones. We’ll try to get to the essence of how a scene should feel. Of course there is a good bit of “This is the type of sound we’re looking for here” and “We need to figure out how this demon is going to sound” or “Let’s nail down the clackity-clack of the zoetrope,” but James allows a lot of creative freedom on my part, which is really refreshing.

My team and I work against the goal of a director’s screening for the studio. I have typically four to eight weeks of sound editorial to build ideas, gather more sound effects, and slowly learn the general shape and flow of the film. Then we’ll do a temp mix for three or four days and go through the film slowly and further discuss ideas. We sit and listen to the sounds. Some things work, some things don’t. There are a lot of “works in progress.” It’s always an evolution because the film itself is developing. The temp mix is essentially a second spotting session, and this serves as a template for moving the sound process forward.

Who was on your post sound team, and in which facility were you working?
I’m based at Formosa Group in Hollywood, where we have state-of-the-art mixing stages and equally state-of-the-art personnel. For this film, I had an incredible team. I worked closely with sound designers Peter Staubli and Eliot Connors. I’ve known Peter for years, but this was our first time actually working together. Charlie Campagna, head librarian and ace sound effects recordist also based at Formosa, was another invaluable asset for the team.

Lauren Hadaway did a fantastic job supervising the ADR and dialogue. Whenever the film’s victim, Janet [Madison Wolfe], who is a young girl, was possessed by this entity named Old Bill, she would speak in his voice. So a tremendous amount of work went into creating dialogue effects that were terrifying but still believable. Justin Dzuban edited the dialogue and helped with editing ADR, as well. We had a great Foley artist up north – John Sievert and his team in Toronto. I’ve worked with them in the past, and he does really intricate and very nicely textured work. I would be remiss if I didn’t give a big shout-out to my assistant Pernell Salinas. He did a great job of keeping the ship running, so to speak.

What types of equipment, software, and plug-ins did you use?
I normally try to keep things fairly simple. I build my sessions in Pro Tools 12, with each reel built as a template. The same session we start our edit with on day one is the same session we carry through the temp mixes and all the way to the final mix. Dialogue and music will ultimately get split out in the final, but we never lose our sound effects work. I’m always tweaking and the process is always evolving. Nothing gets thrown out.

For plug-ins, we used Altiverb, Lowender for sub, and Avid Channel Strip for some EQ and compression. For the vocals, there’s a company called Zplane that makes an amazing plug-in called Elastique Pitch, which allowed us to do some interesting layering work with Old Bill’s vocals as he speaks through Janet. We were able to inflect and articulate the performances to get everything to sit in Janet’s mouth, and to give the sound an otherworldly timbre. We also used a plug-in called Octovox by Eventide to augment the voice of the “Crooked Man,” who’s an apparition in the film that manifests itself from a toy zoetrope.

How much of the original production track did you use?
Quite a bit in terms of production dialogue, but not much in terms of “PFX” or production effects. First off, this film was shot on set, and some sets react in different ways and can even sound like an old house – which might be desirable for PFX. But this set was fairly sterile. We had a tremendous amount of Foley work and sound effects layered in to get the floor-board creaks and all the other supernatural subtleties. Also, there was quite a bit of lavalier work on this film, which is kind of unusual. The camera work and movement in this film was so intricate that booms weren’t always practical or feasible for capturing audio, so we had to rely on lavs.

For an example of James’ complex camera work, there’s one sequence where Janet’s mother finds her sitting in this chair very late at night. They move to go up the stairs, and the camera stays on the chair, which creaks as Janet gets up. We see her walk up the stairs, and then the camera slowly pans to this window and pulls back, and it’s suddenly the next day. The outside light has come in, and we hear rain hitting against the window. Then the camera pulls back further, and Janet’s sitting there watching TV. Well, it’s a practical effect involving difficult camera movement and this perceived time change, and it’s all one single shot. So the actress playing Janet went up the stairs, and then she had to literally run back around really quickly and sit down on the couch, making it appear as if she had been there for hours watching TV.

The fun thing with that was we slowly fade up the rain hitting the window and gradually work our way into a rain-type atmosphere. Another interesting detail is that, in this shot, at one point the camera goes through the bunny ears on this TV Janet is watching, and because the camera goes through the bunny ears, one of the camera guys had to place the bunny ears back on the set in just exactly the right way so that the audience doesn’t notice. When the camera finally does pull back, the bunny ears are on top, and no one’s the wiser. There are a handful of shots like that throughout the movie that were especially fun to work on, because there’s a certain flow that needs to happen with the sound.

How much collaboration and interaction was there with the production mixer during and after production?
James and Kirk are very good about making sure there’s full collaboration. For example, James needed his character Janet to have the voice of Old Bill speak through her. So they recorded a selection of wild tracks performed by Robin Atkins Downes for playback on set. James coordinated with the production mixer to record those tracks so that Janet could accurately speak in the rhythm and pacing of Old Bill, which helped the performance immensely.

What sort of significant collaboration did you have with other post departments?
We finished this film only a month ago [May 2016], which means it was a pretty tight schedule. The VFX department would show us a lot of different shots. We’d have to wait on some other aspects, and we’d try to anticipate so that if there were outstanding visuals still pending, we could apportion editing time and resources appropriately for those scenes.

Did you use sound libraries for screams or were they organic?
The female screams were all organic and recorded on set. Eliot did some treatments with the demon roars. He worked with animal sounds and some of his own vocals. Then we pitched them down, played with it, and added some processing to get the proper heft for the demonic vocals.

Were there any other sequences that stood out as particularly challenging or memorable to work on?
Ed Warren’s interview with Janet was a great opportunity for some fun sound work. There’s this static 200-foot shot with Ed in the foreground and Janet’s out-of-focus silhouette in the background. As the scene unfolds, Janet’s silhouette gradually takes on the form of Old Bill. It’s subtle and creepy and very well done. While all this is happening, the sound reinforces the emotion of the scene. There’s a relentless rainstorm, and Ed responds as the house shudders, groans, and reacts. As far as the sound, it was a great opportunity to play up the visceral intensity of being in that room with the characters while this chilling interview is taking place.

What are some similarities and differences between working on this film and working on the first The Conjuring?
It was a slightly shorter schedule this time around, and again, the crew did a fantastic job. We had a great deal more to do in a tighter amount of time. We had a great workflow for moving ideas back and forth. The director temp helped out a lot because it established a template for the shape and the types of sounds that were going to go in the movie, which determined where we would be spending our work. Having established a sonic style in the first film also helped the second time around.

Director James Wan

Director James Wan

What about the similarities and differences between working on the Conjuring series compared with other horror films?
James is just a master craftsman. He has a truly original eye for the camera. The staging is always compelling and in the service of creating this tension, suspense, and nerve-wracking atmosphere. He doesn’t rely on jump cuts. He does it with rhythm and with the pacing, and the sound supports that.

What’s unique to sound design for the horror genre in general?
Well, honestly, I wouldn’t even consider this to be a horror film, because I feel that horror films are over-the-top and in-your-face. I consider this a “haunted house” subgenre. In horror films, you expect a great degree of visual violence, whereas haunted house movies are different. And James’ movies are very different on top of that. James’ films leave much more to your imagination. They are, at their heart, dramatic pieces about the cohesion of families. So it’s different in that sense, but there’s always a certain flow that James builds into these movies allowing for, in my opinion, greater dynamics than your typical horror film. It’s less about the density of sound, and more about silences and the placement of each little sound to take us from beat to beat and from scene to scene. It’s all about the flow and build.

One trick is to differentiate between “smooth” and “sharp” sounds. For this film, we created a few “stingers,” which are the big aural jolts that augment the on-screen action and, hopefully, send viewers into the backs of their seats. But you have to smooth out the preceding sounds to give a space for the stinger to hit. For example, if we’re going into a scene and we want to set up a sharp sting that follows thirty seconds later, we will smooth out all the sounds in that lead-up to the stinger. I’ll always volume graph or take the attacks down on these lead-up sounds so that there’s a smooth building-up. And then you zap ‘em with the stinger.

Looking back, The Conjuring 2 was as much fun to work on as I’m sure it will be for audiences to watch. I’m really extremely satisfied with how the film came out. It’s a great ride that really builds. When it starts, you think it might even be a kid’s film, as it opens with children in a schoolyard, but it builds and builds until the final culmination where there’s this demon ripping through a vortex and our heroine getting flung against a wall and the rain pouring down with crosses flying off walls and demon roars all around. So I was very happy with the dynamics of the movie, and I think it was a great team effort to give James this powerful soundtrack that could be both subtle and bold where it needs to be, at times bloodcurdling, and overall very effective and, perhaps most importantly, just plain fun.

Photos courtesy of Warner Bros.


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