An inside peek at the sounds of STAR TREK

Allison Loring

by: Allison Loring
October 21st, 2009


One of the many pluses to living in Los Angeles is having the opportunity to go to amazing events like the one held by the MPSE (Motion Picture Sound Editors) last night at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The MPSE holds events where sound editors, sound designers, composers, and re-recording mixers come together and dissect the ins-and-outs of creating the world of sound in movies such as JURASSIC PARK, THE MATRIX, and last night, STAR TREK.

For a film like STAR TREK, the element of sound effects, both newly created and those that rang true to the original series, were just as important as the emotional resonance provided by the score and, of course, the dialogue of the actors. Mixing all these elements together was no small task and we were lucky enough to spend some time speaking with a portion of the sound crew that brought the film to life: supervising sound editor Mark Stoeckinger (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III, THE LAST SAMURAI), co-supervising sound editor Alan Rankin (WINDTALKERS, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR), picture editors Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III, ALIAS), composer Michael Giacchino (RATATOUILLE, LOST), music editor Alex Levy (THE INCREDIBLES, LOST), and re-recording mixers Andy Nelson and Anna Behlmer (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III, CLOVERFIELD). To top it off, director J.J. Abrams (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III, ALIAS, LOST) rounded out the group, giving us his perspective and creative vision as the film’s director.

Since this is a sci-fi film, creating the sound effects for the Starship Enterprise, the creatures encountered on alien planets, and the combustible red matter allowed the sound designers free reign to create, but it also gave little in the way of a starting point of what these different elements should sound like. Abrams has a little-known talent in that he can make or mimic most of the sounds he is aiming for, giving his sound crew a base to work from. Markey and Brandon revealed they kept a recorder in the edit bay so that Abrams could record his sounds to then be passed on to the sound designers and editors as the film came together.

The crew paid particular attention to the reveal of the Enterprise and the first moments spent on the ship. They wanted to make sure they used sounds that original fans would recognize, but they also wanted to make it exciting and interesting for new fans. While getting ready to take off at warp speed, Lt. Sulu (John Cho) punches a series of buttons and, if you listen, the last button he hits makes an almost “uh-oh” sound as a little nod to those paying attention that maybe he did not hit the right sequence. This is proven true when all the other ships warp and Spock points out Sulu’s error before they are able to take off as well.

The roars and growls of the intimidating creatures Kirk (Chris Pine) encounters on Delta Vega are loud, but also alien. Recordings of bears, wolves, and (my favorite) the roars of a speed boat engine were stylized and layered to give the full, piercing effect. Playing each recording individually was certainly loud, but it wasn’t until each were combined and played together that the true impact was achieved.

Abrams really wanted to hear Kirk, Sulu, and Olson (Greg Eillis) breaking through the atmosphere during their skydive to the enemy drill platform. This was achieved through stylized wind whooshes and clothing flaps edited in quick cuts to sound like violent popping as the atmosphere was broken through. It is a sound you probably don’t immediately notice while watching the film, but playing the scene without it is almost like having a scene of people walking without hearing footsteps, proving that every sound matters. In a sound effect-heavy movie like this, you want lots of options, and it is the responsibility of the re-recording mixers to make sure the impact of the scene is not lost because every sound option is used.

One of the final scenes, in which the Romulan ship is destroyed was not playing right in the final mix and no one could figure out why, until they muted all the effects and just let the score play over the scene. Rather than being just another “loud scene” it now had an emotional impact on the audience as this race was essentially destroyed, evil or not.

Abrams spoke highly of his composers and music editors, noting that music cues intended for entirely different scenes, could be placed in new ones that needed music, and sound like they were meant to live there all along.

Abrams left us with a fun behind-the-scenes moment from filming the skydive scene that wasn’t related to the sound of the film, but tidbit film fans, and STAR TREK fans, would get a kick out of. Getting the image of Kirk and Sulu grabbing each other as they fell towards the platform was not coming out right. They tried hanging them from wire and rigging, but all the shots just looked like too much blood was rushing to the actors’ heads. In the last minute, they had the two actors stand on a mirror and look up at the camera, so the sky was reflected beneath them, but they were standing rather than hanging. This worked, and the crew began filming Pine and Cho as they hugged each other and spun around in a circle, looking up at the camera. This also happened to be the day Walter Koenig (the original Captain Chekov) was visiting the set. Abrams said he promised Koenig the silly-looking scene he was watching would look amazing on film, while Koenig looked horrified that Abrams was ruining the franchise he was once a part of.

For more information about these events and the MPSE, visit the MPSE website HERE.

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