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Oscars: ‘Blade Runner: 2049’ Sound Designer Theo Green Creates a Stunning Dystopian Soundscape


All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Dying replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) speaks these iconic words in Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner as he reflects upon what it means to be alive. Thirty-five years later, Blade Runner: 2049 director Denis Villeneuve has breathed new life into Scott’s stunning neo-noir dystopia. This compelling next chapter follows LAPD officer K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner who discovers a profound secret with the potential to tear society apart at the seams. This leads K on a quest to locate Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former blade runner who vanished without a trace over thirty years ago.

Sound designer Theo Green worked closely with Villeneuve, editor Joe Walker, and sound editor Mark Mangini to develop Blade Runner 2049’s richly-detailed, dynamic soundscape. Villeneuve brought Green on set in Budapest so he could begin crafting otherworldly ambient atmospheres while principal photography was still in progress. Green, who is also an award-winning film composer, fused subtle sound design elements with music to weave together a nuanced, beautifully-realized world.

Green and the Blade Runner: 2049 sound team have now earned many honors for their extraordinary work on the film, including a Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing and Oscar and BAFTA nominations for achievement in sound. Here, Green shares his approach to achieving the film’s uniquely captivating sound design.

Sound designer Theo Green

S&P: How did you become involved with Blade Runner: 2049, and what interested you most about the project?

Theo Green (TG): I got the call from Denis Villeneuve and editor Joe Walker in August 2016. The filming had just begun in Budapest, Hungary, and in a very unusual move, Denis had brought Joe on to work on the film right from the start and wanted to do the same with sound. It had been a dream of Denis’ to develop sound at the same time as picture since his first films, but Blade Runner 2049 was the first time there was the budget to really make that happen. Sound design is traditionally seen as something that should start in post-production only. It was Denis’ unique vision that Blade Runner, with its alternate universe defined by richly-layered atmospheric sound, could be a testing ground for this idea. A director normally focuses on image-making and works with an editor to assemble those images either without sound or with temporary “off the shelf” sounds from the editor’s library. Then, much later, when he has already worked on those images and become utterly familiar with them, sound will normally start to come in during the final weeks before the film is finished. Denis questioned this: why shouldn’t sound be developed simultaneously, so he has a chance to live and breathe the sounds for as long as the images? If a sound is wrong, perhaps it will take a few months of hearing it before a director starts to identify what it is about that sound he doesn’t like.

So I got that call, and Joe and Denis felt I could provide a left-field, offbeat, abstract approach to the sound design partly because of my background as a composer and the industrial and ambient nature of my composing work. I’d also worked as a sound designer with Joe and the composer Ben Wallfisch on a dystopian prison film, The Escapist, so they’d seen examples of how I could work in the medium of sound, but blur the lines and tightly integrate my work with a music score. I went out to Budapest with my kit and started making sounds of spinners [flying vehicles], the “Deenabase” DNA records machine, and the interior and exterior atmospherics.

S&P: How did you collaborate with director Denis Villeneuve to develop the film’s unique, dynamic atmospheres?

TG: Denis has this great passion for sound and how it can play a part in his films. I know that sounds like praise that anyone might give to a director, but in Denis’ case, I just can’t stress enough how much this passion enables creativity in the sound department. He scopes out scenes for how sound can tell the story well before production begins. He brought me on unusually early, as I mentioned before, to allow those ideas time to develop and mature. Most importantly, he encourages creative freedom — the ability to think laterally, not literally. His initial guidance: “Don’t be afraid to not be logical” and “Compose with sound” resonated throughout the process.

In practical terms, the collaboration with Denis was initially a triangle of collaboration between him, editor Joe Walker, and me. When I started creating those densely-layered atmospheres, suggestions would be coming from both Joe and Denis as the first versions of each scene were handed to me. I’d then try to give them as many layers to listen to as possible in a couple of days. So many of those early ideas stuck around till the final film. Take Officer K’s apartment interiors and exteriors, for example. I started with him walking up to his apartment in the snow, bombarded by adverts projected from above, spinners passing overhead. Denis suggested this idea that the different levels of the city could be defined by how hectic the sounds were. Street level is a hellish bustling multilingual mess. As you go higher up, to K’s apartment, you can hear some Korean advertisements and language courses being advertised and spinners passing outside his window. Inside, a warbling organic tone suggests that some machine — perhaps in the kitchen — is doing its work automatically. But when K goes up to the roof of his building in the rain with a newly-liberated Joi [Ana de Armas] experiencing the outdoors for the first time, Denis suggested that the upper levels of the city could have this calm, meditative prayer, as if it’s being beamed around the city by the Wallace Corporation, a tranquillizer for the richer upper crust of the city.

So I’d work on these layers of ideas, pass them back to Joe and Denis, and get daily notes from them. They’d have the ability to mute out anything they didn’t like and pass it back to me. We’d go back and forth like this until Denis said he loved it!

Later, in Los Angeles, Mark Mangini joined the process and we worked together to enhance scenes with new ideas and further details and supervise the work of the fine detailing that other sound editors, Foley artists, and group “walla” (crowd dialogue) could add. We also worked together to continue the process of making semi-musical background ambiences, as that’s such an important part of the Blade Runner universe. All the time, Denis was closely involved and listening to every new element before it went in. Sometimes he would love a sound for its character but would suggest another place in the film where it could be used, which is a fantastically helpful and open-minded way to work with sound designers.

S&P:  How did your experience as a film composer influence your approach to the film’s sound design?

TG: It completely shaped my approach. Rather than composing lots of orchestral film music — although I’ve done that as well — my main passion is to create music from unidentifiable instruments. For instance, why use a traditional set of percussion drums if a scene is set in a metallic environment? My approach for that would be to hammer away my own percussion on sheets of metal, then process it electronically to sound deeper and more like percussion. So in a way, I feel like I’ve always been on a mission to break down the barriers between sound design and film scoring. When I first started composing there weren’t many big Hollywood films with this approach. Now, it’s starting to happen, I think. Composers like Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, and actually, Hans Zimmer, are now breaking those boundaries very effectively.

So I followed Denis’ advice and composed with sound. In the opening scenes, I formed a chord with the bass hum of K’s spinner engine and the dual-tone of a jet whine from the wind passing by, and Denis loved it. I continued in that vein throughout, always using the tools and methods of manipulating and layering sounds to form chords and rhythms, just as I do in my composing work.

S&P:  How did the original 1982 Blade Runner influence your approach to this film’s sound design?

TG: Well the 1982 Blade Runner has stuck with me since I first saw it at age 12. I’ve revisited it and the soundtrack so many times since then, partly because it’s a great example of the integration of sound design and music score. So many times, you’re not sure if what you’re hearing is Vangelis’ score or sound design. In fact, he contributed considerably to the sound, which is one of the reasons for those blurred lines. Listening to the “Los Angeles 2019” release of that score and sound — where the atmospheres and sound design are mixed with the Vangelis score — has been one of my favorite “ambient” albums of all time.

So when this project came along, it was daunting and exciting at the same time! How do you honor the beloved original, return to the same universe, and at the same time innovate and create something new? After all, we’re returning to that universe some 30 years on from the first film. I think the mechanical, non-digital sound of the machines in the first film was something I consciously followed, as were the multilingual crowds and adverts and oppressive heavy weather. Also, those musical atmospheres for the interiors. Other than that, I really tried to let my imagination go free and not be constrained by memories of the first film.

S&P:  Tell us about working on set in Budapest during the production of the film.

TG: What was extraordinary about that, other than the opportunity to work on sound design as the first shots came in, was that almost every scene was shot in-camera on real sets. So you could walk into the world of Blade Runner and feel it and smell it! Bibi’s Bar, the busy streetwalker zone, the vast deserts around Las Vegas — all of this was built in huge sound stages where you literally couldn’t see the horizon. Sapper’s [Dave Bautista] farm was built outdoors right outside where my sound editing room was. So we all lived and breathed those environments.

Can’t tell you how much that helped — so many films with the visual scope of Blade Runner would, these days, just shoot green screens and composite everything in later.

S&P: How did you collaborate with Mark Mangini and other members of the post sound team?

TG: Mark was the supervising sound editor for this and I knew his work from Mad Max: Fury Road most recently, but he also created the sound for so many of the films I’ve loved like The Fifth Element and Joe Dante’s films. It was particularly the rusted, post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max: Fury Road that got me, Denis, and Joe interested in working with him.

So Mark joined in January after I’d worked for about four months preparing the first cut with Joe and Denis. We immediately got down to the fun stuff together, with Mark contributing musical atmospheric ideas that were just beautiful, which layered so well with what I’d started. And then we got on to the difficult stuff like untangling and developing the spinner engines that I’d begun in Budapest. I’d recorded ancient Native Australian “bull-roarers” as the main tone and drive of the engine. But we needed much more detail, interior and exterior. Mark, together with sound effects editor Chris Aud, helped to rework the engine I’d started into a much fuller, complex mechanical beast. Then Mark and I had this crazy idea for the interior. Denis wanted the craft to feel a bit clapped-out, on its last legs. We needed that horrible rattling, squeaking that you get from a real rust bucket car or van. So we used a Honda Element that belonged to Mark’s wife, which was actually a fine car, but we decked it out with old bits of rusty metal and a vast sub-bass speaker. I then connected a tone-generator app on my iPhone to the bass speaker and blasted the car with low bass frequencies that made it shudder and shake while Mark (partially deafened inside the car) recorded!

Another good example of how our different approaches came together to make the right sound is Officer K’s blaster gun. Mark recorded a huge gun, a Barrett 50mm sniper rifle. This gave us the clarity and reality of a big gun firing. Meanwhile, I added a bass drum hit from a Roland 909 put through massive distortion, the kind of thumping sound you’d get from an aggressive techno track! Together the sounds made this super-punchy blast of explosive sound that just stomps out K’s enemies.

S&P:  Tell us about the systems, software, and plug-ins that you used to design the film’s sound.

TG: Well, the ubiquitous Pro Tools for amassing and layering all the sounds, of course. But creatively, I love granular synthesis, where you can scan in a sound you’ve recorded and fragment it into a million microsecond slices. I used the granular synthesis module in Omnisphere 2 for this — the millions of lightbulb “tinks” for the hologram projectors in Dr. Ana Stelline’s [Carla Juri] memory lab and the broken Elvis projectors in the casino. Other plugins like GRM Tools and Zynaptiq Morph are useful for radical transformations. But most of all I love working in iZotope RX, both for cleaning up and transforming sounds, but also just scribbling bits out of sounds! K’s eye scanner used on Sapper in the opening fight scene is a stun gun recording where I’ve scribbled with the brush tool and deleted bits in RX to make it sound like data is being read. But the stun gun origin gives the necessary pain and aggression!

S&P:  The casino fight between Deckard [Harrison Ford] and K in the casino with the Elvis hologram is a very memorable sequence. How did you work with editor Joe Walker to develop those dynamic bursts of sound and silence?

TG: This is a scene I made the sounds for alone. It was originally a very different scene where Elvis performed a whole song and Marilyn Monroe started to sing on top of him, then Liberace played on top of that, then Bollywood and Cirque de Soleil-style performers and music would crash in on top of that! It was madness, cacophony, mayhem. And that was the idea! Deckard was confusing K with this madness while he hunted him down. But it also felt like a break from the tone of the film, too funny and musical, too hard to see what was actually going on.

Denis was considering removing the scene from the film completely. But Joe Walker, always thinking outside the box, started to strip down the layers that had been filmed until we just had a dark room with a ghostly, malfunctioning Elvis occasionally cutting in and out. He handed this to me with no sound and said, “See what you can do!” So, using the dark room, I focused on the breathing and footsteps in the dark, then broke the silence suddenly with bursts of Elvis, which I glitched out heavily, so you really get the sense that there’s something wrong with the hologram! I wanted to disorient K and feel Deckard’s fear too — he’s afraid that K will kill him and wants to finish him off first. So I made these weird noises in the dark. We never see what they are coming from, but the intention is that the hologram projectors are moving around in the ceiling and lots of little projectors are blinking, like a faulty fluorescent strip light. Then, BAM! A bullet rips through a seat right next to K and we know Deckard’s deadly serious. So this dance of sound and silence, light and dark, was constructed between Joe Walker and I, and when Denis watched it he was like, “Yes! It’s back in the film!”

S&P:  Which scenes were particularly interesting or memorable to complete from a sound design perspective?

  • The opening fight with Sapper
  • The arrival at LAPD and first Baseline Test
  • Joi experiencing outdoors for the first time
  • The DeenaBase DNA records machine
  • Dr. Ana Stelline’s Memory Lab and devices
  • Crash landing in the Trash Mesa
  • The Las Vegas Casino arrival and Deckard Fight
  • Ending Sea Wall fight and drowning
  • The snow outside of Dr. Ana Stelline’s Memory Lab at the end

S&P:  What did you enjoy most about working on this project?

TG: The company and ideas of Joe Walker and Denis Villeneuve!


Images courtesy of Warner Bros.


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