One of Blade Runner 2049’s most memorable scenes was designed to make you feel like the world was about to come crashing down.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Blade Runner 2049.]
The scene takes place toward the end of the film. K (Ryan Gosling) is trying to save a kidnapped Deckard (Harrison Ford) from the grips of Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). After crash landing on the edge of the seawall, K is tasked with fighting Luv as the craft fills up with water, slipping and sliding. The scene drops in and out of intensity, the movie’s powerful score reverberating in between moments above water and below the surface.
It’s a remarkable piece of sound design that required a number of mixers, editors and director Denis Villeneuve’s vision to make work. Polygon sat down with Mark Mangini, supervising sound editor, Doug Hemphill and Ron Bartlett, two of the movie’s sound mixers to talk about how the scene was developed.
Mangini said every scene begins with a discussion about what the director wants to achieve. Villeneuve describes what he wants the audience to feel when they’re watching something unfold on screen. For the scene in question, Villeneuve used words like “claustrophobic” to describe what he wanted to do, Mangini said, making the audience feel like they were “entombed in a metal casket.”
Designing how a scene sounds always begins with visualization, Mangini said. Taking a second to sit back, figure out how the visuals make you feel, and then working on creating a sound that accentuates those images.
“Luv and Deckard and K are trapped in this underwater coffin,” Mangini explained. “It’s becoming an underwater coffin as it takes in water, and sinks and slips off the edge of the seawall. We always wanted to remind the audience with sound that this kind of fragile metal shell could implode at any second. It was nothing against these forces of nature, these giant waves crashing around and pressuring the metal and the glass. We created these interior spaces of metal creaks and groans and ronks (the sounds of metal bending under pressure).
“Creating these crushing sea wall waves and surf that pound on the hull constantly remind the audience that they’re in jeopardy; that in any moment, one of these waves would take them out.”
Once the sound design was conceptualized, it was up to Hemphill and Bartlett to figure out how it all came together. The scene is broken down into three areas for the duo: dialogue, music and effects. Breaking down those three and arranging them until they fit properly and tell the story the entire team is trying to convey is the giant puzzle that Hemphill and Bartlett love working on.
One of the biggest challenges they had with the scene was figuring out how to work the dialogue spoken underwater in with the gurgling and other discomforting noises that should leave the audience antsy in their seat. Bartlett said they tried a variety of methods to get the dialogue sounding just right, adding in music and effects, before figuring out a way to record the audio they needed.
“It’s about showing when you’re underneath water and above water, and accentuating that,” Bartlett said. “We even recorded an actress in our hot tub screaming. We were going to the mat trying everything possible.”
Once the dialogue was figured out, it was time to move on to incorporating the film’s phenomenal score. Bartlett said the entire scene “was meant to be a long, sustained, tense, and operatic view of that score.” The score couldn’t just be loud, booming through the bodies sitting in the theater, it also had to be immersive. Bartlett said size was the most important aspect of the score for Villeneuve, adding “he loved that it just enveloped you and carried you through the whole scene.”
Hemphill added that Villeneuve always wanted it to be a scene about two fights; the obvious battle between Luv and K, and the far more bigger fight between all three of them and the power of the ocean.
“The idea was to put them in the position of being in harms way of this incredible force, trying to annihilate them,” Hemphill said.
The sound of Blade Runner 2049 is a big part of the experience the entire team is trying to create for the audience. As we said in our review, it’s the score and the sound design that aid Villeneuve in telling the story he and writer Ridley Scott are trying to get across. Mangini said that sound design can only work in partnership with great cinematography and directing, though. It’s because of the sound department’s collaborative efforts with cinematographer Roger Deakins and Villeneuve that Blade Runner 2049 is as effective as it is.
“We spend a lot of time underwater in these beautiful images of Roger Deakins and Luv and K strangling each other, and we created underwater atmospheres,” Mangini said. “The sounds of what it feels like ... it’s sort of like a womb sound. You’re in this very, very underwater-y space and you’re really not ever going to get out of it.”
Blade Runner 2049 is playing in theaters now.