11 Secrets of Sound Effects Editors

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Sound effects editors assemble the noises that bring viewers into the physical world of a movie or TV show, whether it's the meaty sound of a fistfight or the ear-shattering roar of a T. rex. They're more important than many people realize—after all, sound is half of the viewer experience. Mental Floss spoke with three of these sound magicians to learn about creating the illusion of reality, going undercover to capture sound, and when a trip to the grocery story is sometimes necessary.

1. THEY DON’T JUST MAKE THINGS GO BOOM.

The phrase “sound effects” may conjure up thoughts of explosion-packed action movies or the buzzing and clashing of light sabers. But sound effects editors don't always work on noises that dramatic. “It can be as subtle as crickets,” says Ric Schnupp, a New York-based sound editor and mixer. “[Sound effects] can be super detailed or super huge.” Heather Gross, a sound effects editor on films such as Into the Woods (2014) and TV's Quantico, adds that this fact can sometimes be lost on the average person. “If something isn’t exploding they don’t think of it as an effect,” she says. “Those birds, the car that drove by in the background, all these mundane things that always surround us—people don’t think about them in life and they certainly don’t think about it when they’re watching something.” But these small sounds are still a crucial part of a sound effects editor’s job, helping to create the reality onscreen.

2. THEY’RE OPPORTUNISTS.

Young woman working in a recording studio
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Sound effects editors are highly attuned to their environments and ready to capture unique sounds at a moment’s notice. Fortunately, sound recording equipment has become so small and portable that an editor can carry a high-quality recorder with them at all times. That's handy, since some sounds you hear all the time in life are actually pretty difficult to find in a sound library. Gross, for example, says she's always ready with her recorder whenever an opportunity presents itself. “There are life things that you are always thinking about recording. Any time someone has a baby, I record the baby,” she explains. And while attending a recent U. S. Open tennis match, she didn’t lose a chance to capture crowd sounds: “That sort of crowd, you can’t fake that,” she says. “You’re never in a situation where you can get 10,000 extras to do crowd reaction.”

The small size of some modern sound recording equipment also makes it possible to collect sounds without attracting a lot of attention. Schnupp calls his portable setup “incredibly covert.” “It’s a little thing that looks like an iPhone," he says "so it’s very easy for me to look like I’m checking my email, when in fact I’m getting sound.”

3. THEY’RE LIBRARY PATRONS …

But not the regular kind of library. Capturing live sound adds authenticity to sound design, but sometimes it's much more time and cost-effective to use sound effects from an established commercial library instead. Case in point: Schnupp relates a story about working on a forthcoming documentary that needed the sound of women screaming at a rock concert, and making the decision to purchase a sound library specifically for that purpose. “I’m not going to go spend $100 for a concert ticket and try to sneak in mics that I’m not allowed to have,” he explains.

While a sound studio will typically purchase the rights to several sound effects libraries, individual sound effects editors often also amass their own personal libraries based on recordings they’ve done, giving them the ability to draw on multiple resources.

4. THEY HEAR THE WORLD DIFFERENTLY THAN MOST PEOPLE.

Smiling man holding his ears and looking up
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Whether due to natural inclination or years of practice, sound effects editors have a sharper sense of hearing than most of us, and a more imaginative way of listening to common sounds. Schnupp recounts sitting on an airplane while the stewardesses ran through safety protocols, and noticing that “that little seat buckle thing” evoked the metallic click of a gun. He somehow convinced the stewardess to give him the buckle. “I brought it into the studio and we used it for a ton of different shows and films ... When someone holds the gun up like they’re going to shoot someone and you hear a little ‘click click’ sound ... We use that for everything and everyone loves it.”

5. ONE PERSON’S JUNK IS ANOTHER PERSON’S SOUND EFFECTS GOLDMINE.

Schnupp says the studio where he works contains a number of physical objects used to create sound effects. This includes slabs of marble and tile surfaces for recording footsteps as well as wooden boxes and palettes that imitate the hollow sound of porches, docks, or boardwalks. Schnupp says that the studio also contains “a large pile of props that we use to make sounds. It’s sitting in the corner and we kind of look like hoarders.” In the pile: bins of different shoes, paper articles, ceramics, metal objects, and broken toys.

Using objects of this sort to create footsteps and other sounds falls more properly under the role of a Foley artist, whose responsibility is to create sounds intimately associated with onscreen characters—like the rustling of clothing or sound of setting down a coffee cup. There is a fine line between Foley and sound effects work, however, and depending on a project’s budget a single person might assume both roles.

6. THEY MIGHT HAVE TO MUTILATE A (DEAD) CHICKEN.

A raw, whole chicken on butcher paper
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Speaking of unique ways sound effects editors work their magic—horror movies sometimes require resorting to techniques almost as gross as the content of the film. Schnupp says that one of the best ways to mimic the sound of ripping flesh is to buy a raw chicken at the supermarket and tear it apart. “If you really want it to sound real, sometimes it’s got to be actual flesh,” he explains.

Of course, there are ways of imitating the sound of breaking bones that might not make a vegetarian wince. “Celery is really good for bone breaks,” Schnupp says.

7. THEY SWAP SOUNDS.

Sound effects editors not only pull from commercial and personal libraries, but sometimes borrow from the personal libraries of other sound effects editors. As with many creative disciplines, the people in the sound effects field are both familiar with one another’s work and willing to help one another out. If a particular sound effect is missing, it can be helpful to think about sounds heard in the work of colleagues and to ask around. Roland Vajs, a sound editor and mixer known for his work on Green Room (2015), says he’s typically happy to share and that there’s no point in being stingy with sound effects since editors will alter them to fit their project anyway. “It’s what you do with the sound,” he says, “not what sounds you have.”

8. THEY HATE LOUD NOISES.

A "quiet please" sign lit up
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Along with heightened sound sensitivity, some sound effects editors have an aversion to loud or jarring noises. “Most sound editors hate noise and hate loud music,” says Vajs. “I am always covering my ears.” One of Vajs’s peeves is cavernous restaurants with concrete walls that amplify sound—an effect that a good sound mixer on a film would seek to avoid.

9. THEY LEND PERSONALITY TO INANIMATE OBJECTS.

Sound effects editors are not just concerned with sound effect accuracy—they also aim to strike the right tone and mood. According to Gross, automobile sounds in particular are more than just noise. “If you have a specific car or a car that is a character, then you always want to get your own library,” she says. For the Sophia Coppola film Somewhere (2010), which prominently features a Ferrari, she and her colleagues created a library of sounds recorded while performing various maneuvers in a Ferrari (tough job, but someone's got to do it).

10. THEY PLAY ON YOUR PSYCHE.

While audience members may be conscious of everything they see unfolding on screen, sound can work on a more subconscious level. Vajs argues that because sound is more abstract than visual information, it has the power to heighten emotion by working on a more intuitive, less literal level—it can “subtly influence how the viewer perceives the film,” he explains. “Psychology is always involved.”

Schnupp agrees, particularly when it comes to horror movies. “The sound is what makes you scared ... and that’s why it’s so crucial,” he says. “It can make a huge impact in horror, perhaps more so than in any other genre.”

11. EVERY SOUND IS THERE FOR A REASON.

Two professionals working in a sound studio
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From stray background noises to gunfights to subtle sounds, everything that the audience hears in a film or TV show has been put in place with intent. “Every single sound is there for a reason,” Schnupp says. “Nothing is by accident ... And even if something was there by accident it would never make it through the final mix.”

Many people, however, may not realize the extent to which soundscapes in film and TV are constructed. “Maybe 90 percent of what they’re watching has been replaced,” Gross says. “But if we’ve done our jobs well you can’t detect it.”

13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Dog Show Handlers

Dog handler Kellie Fitzgerald poses with her English Springer Spaniel 'James' after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club's Dog Show in 2007
Dog handler Kellie Fitzgerald poses with her English Springer Spaniel 'James' after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club's Dog Show in 2007
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Every year, roughly 3000 dogs from around the country flock to Madison Square Garden to strut their stuff at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. In all, some 190 breeds can enter the ring, each competing to look and act exactly as required for their breed’s ideal standard. But it takes a lot of hard work from dedicated handlers to produce a dog that can compete with the best of them. “What you see at Westminster, that’s the very final touch,” says Karen Mammano, who handles dogs with her husband Sam. “That’s the final product of everything we do.” We talked to a few handlers who have been at Westminster about what goes into training a dog with a shot at Best In Show.

1. The dogs have treadmills.

Among the qualities the judges take into consideration is the dog’s trotting pace. Many handlers put their pups on doggy treadmills set at a certain speed to get them used to keeping a particular trot. “It teaches them foot timing and the right kind of gait we want them to have,” Mammano says.

Some doggy treadmills cost more than $1000. But, according to dog handler Sharon Rives, that’s just part of these athletes’ training routine. “They’re developing their muscles just like any athlete,” she says, “any runner or football player or any athlete that has to train muscles to do something over and over again.”

2. Soup cans might be a dog handler’s best friend.

Judges also look closely at a dog’s stance—how it holds itself while standing still. “It’s kind of their supermodel stance,” says Rives. Every breed has an ideal stance, but teaching a dog to maintain that position while a judge pokes and prods often takes some creative training techniques. According to Rives, when her parents trained dogs in the 1980s, they used to have the dogs stand on four soup cans placed the correct distance apart.

“Everybody has their own way of doing it,” she says. “Now I have what we call stacking blocks, sort of a wooden device with four feet on it for the dogs to stand on and it’s adjustable. I start when they’re puppies with that and they stand on it for a couple minutes and as they get older they spend more time on it, maybe 15 or 20 minutes a day, to help train their muscles and body to remember to stand in that correct position.”

3. The dogs have ridiculously long names.

'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Professional pups have very fancy monikers that reflect their pedigree. For example, Rives’s Australian Shepherd answers to “Wiggle” but her full name is “Veritas Sexy and I Know It.” “Typically the prefix of the name is the kennel the dog is from,” she explains. “Veritas is my kennel name, so whenever I breed a dog, every dog has the word veritas in their name.” As for the rest of Wiggle’s full name, Rives says the litter theme was Top 40 Songs, so every puppy had a different song title in its name.

4. Handler cars must be inspected.

According to Mammano, the American Kennel Club inspects handlers’ vehicles before they can be listed as a "registered handler." What are they looking for? A car that could keep a dog alive in the most dire of conditions. “We have a generator, air conditioning, heat, a 30-gallon water tank,” she says. “We have to have fire extinguishers that haven’t expired and a heat monitor in the vehicle so if the air conditioning goes out the monitor knows. We’re pretty much self-contained.”

5. Dog shows aren’t natural.

Handlers are the first to admit that dogs weren’t made to trot around a ring. “Golden retrievers were never meant to run in circles in a show ring,” Mammano says. “They were meant to be out hunting and doing that job and other breeds were meant to be out pulling sleds. So I try and make it as fun for them as possible.”

6. There’s one quick way to get disqualified.

“If a dog bites a judge or a handler or another dog, that’s pretty much it for the rest of its career,” Rives says. “Aggression is not ever acceptable.”

7. You’re not a real handler until …

... you trip and fall in the ring. “I think we’ve all had a moment where we’ve fallen,” Rives says. “That’s always embarrassing. But I think I like to say that’s sort of like the dog show hazing. You haven’t been fully initiated into dog showing until you’ve completely wiped out in the ring.”

She also shares a hilarious story of one of her earliest shows, when she was just 16 years old. “Normally I use hot dogs or string cheese as bait, something I could put in my mouth, and I happened to only have liver that day, which I’m not gonna put in my mouth. I was wearing a suit that didn’t have pockets, but I had panty hose on so I thought I’ll just real slyly stick this in the waistband of my pantyhose under the flap of my jacket and when I need some bait I’ll just break off a little piece. Well, the liver made its way down the waistband of panty hose to my ankle and dog starts licking it. The judge is going, ‘Ma’am, the dog is licking your leg.’ I was just mortified.”

8. Handlers’ wardrobe choices are strategic.

When deciding what to wear for the big day, handlers have to make sure they’re not overshadowing the dog with fancy flair. “You want to dress to compliment the dog’s colors,” Rives says. “If you’re showing a black dog you don’t want to wear a black skirt because then you’re obscuring the dog.”

The more prestigious the show, the better the handlers dress. “We always joke that last week was fashion week for us because we were all trying to get suits for Westminster,” says Mammano.

And for the bigger shows, they invest in nice footwear, not only because they’re on their feet all day, but because their feet and ankles are going to be on TV. Rives is wearing the shoes she wore to her wedding. “They’re little silver ballet flats that have sparkly crystals on the toes,” she says.

9. It’s hard on the body.

Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

“A lot of my peers have had their knees and hips replaced,” says David Fitzpatrick, a professional handler who works with the Pekingese breed. “You get tired just from being at the show.” And because dogs are always making left-hand turns in the ring, the handler’s left leg tends to take a beating.

10. They have lucky leashes, toys, and rubber bands.

Dog show people are quite superstitious. Fitzpatrick, for example, has a lucky leash. “I have one I’ve been using probably since 2004 because I know many dogs have had great success with it.”

Mammano won’t re-use a leash once it’s been used on a winning dog, opting instead to retire it. And she always wears three rubber bands around her arm to hold her number.

Also, Fitzpatrick says some owners carry around special toys for dogs, similar to the “busy bee” in Best In Show. “Most of these dogs do have a favorite thing and when you go into the ring and you can’t find that toy you do kinda go crazy like ‘Where is the busy bee?!’”

11. The dogs eat whatever they want.

Well, in the ring at least. “I had one dog way back in the early 2000s and all he wanted was filet mignon,” says Fitzpatrick. “He wouldn’t take chicken or liver, but the filet he would eat. So they get whatever they like. Or I had a Pomeranian that only liked potato chips. I had another dog who liked apples.”

12. Chalk and dryer sheets keep the dogs looking sharp.

Show dogs are some of the most pampered, well-groomed dogs in the world, but it takes a lot of work. “Every breed is going to have their own quirky thing they do to make the coat look a certain way,” Rives says. “One handler told me you should put dryer sheets on a wavy coat. Others say you should wash your dog’s coat in Dawn dish soap if you want it to be straight.”

Chalk is often used to make a dog’s coat look whiter, Fitzpatrick says. “Whatever it is to make the dog look better for the show, there’s probably a product out there for it.”

But according to Rives, grooming is a taboo topic among handlers because “people don’t want to share their secrets, and because there are things that are not allowed.” Indeed, too much grooming is considered cheating, so owners keep their tips and tricks to themselves. And if a handler sees another handler crossing the line, they’ll snitch. “It’s a self-regulating sport,” Rives says. “If you see somebody doing something they shouldn’t be, you’d report it.”

13. Best in show doesn’t come with a cash prize.

“You don’t win any money,” says Fitzpatrick, who won Best in Show at Westminster in 2012 with his Pekingese Malachy. “You get trophies and a lot of swag. We came home with bags of loot, but not one penny. It’s not about the money. It’s about competing at this historic event.”

This list first ran in 2016.

8 Secrets of Air Traffic Controllers

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As the United States enters into the second month of a government shutdown that began on December 22, 2018, federal employee shortages are becoming an increasing problem. On the morning of January 25, 2019, the FAA announced that due to air traffic control staffing shortages along the east coast, they were halting flights into New York City's LaGuardia Airport. It's a potent reminder that while pilots and flight attendants are key to making air travel safe, air traffic controllers—though less-visible—are just as essential in getting you from Point A to Point B.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employs more than 14,000 of them to choreograph the flow of airplanes on the ground and in the sky, whether that means using radar and other tools to direct aircraft at take off, communicating with pilots about flight paths and weather, or helping pilots land their planes safely. Take a look at these secrets of air traffic controllers to learn about their unique lingo, high degree of job stress, and occasional UFO sighting.

1. Many of them don't work at airports.

When you imagine an air traffic controller, you probably envision someone working in a tall glass tower at an airport. However, many controllers toil at either a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility or at a route center, which may be located far away from an airport.

According to air traffic controller Chris Solomon, who controls planes for the military, controllers in each of the three types of facilities have different responsibilities. “The typical tower controllers get the planes from the gate to the runway and then airborne to within five or so miles of an airport. The aircraft then becomes under the control of the approach controllers [TRACON],” he told the website Art of Manliness.

These TRACON controllers usually control the plane during its ascent and descent from the airport. When aircraft reach an altitude above 18,000 feet, the route center controller takes over, using radar to guide aircraft at cruising altitudes until the plane begins its descent. Then the approach controller takes the reins, followed by a tower controller who guides the plane’s landing.

2. Age is a major factor.

Some air traffic controllers begin their careers in the military, while others apply to the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Academy. But no matter how they enter the profession, they must have good vision, a sharp mind, and the ability to think quickly and clearly under pressure. The FAA requires that applicants be 30 years old or younger when they apply to the job, and controllers must retire at age 56, before most of them experience any age-related mental decline.

3. They have their own lingo.

Inside an air traffic control room

Pilots and air traffic controllers around the world must speak English to communicate (it's required by the International Civil Aviation Organization), but they also have their own flight-related language. This phonetic alphabetic and numerical system, which replaces letters (A to Z) and numbers (zero to nine) with code words, minimizes confusion and misunderstandings between air traffic controllers and pilots.

For example, controllers say “bravo” instead of the letter “B,” “Charlie” instead of the letter “C,” and “niner” instead of the number “nine.” (Theories explaining the origin of the code word “niner” differ, but aircraft enthusiasts speculate that the extra syllable differentiates it from the German word for “no” or distinguishes it from the pronunciation of the number “five.”) Air traffic controllers also have their own slang and, for instance, use the phrase “souls on board” to refer to the number of people on a plane.

The phonetic system is spelled out in detail in the FAA Order 7110.65 manual [PDF], along with other key code words, phrases, and procedures. Controllers call the manual their "bible," study it during training, and review it regularly to keep apprised of any updates and additions.

4. Pilots with heavy accents can frustrate them.

Although English is the official language of aviation, not all pilots speak it well. Air traffic controller Brandon Miller, who works for Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) in northern Virginia, tells Mental Floss that it can be difficult to communicate with foreign pilots. “However, we are in the business of communication,” he says, explaining that learning to solve potential communication issues is part of their training. When talking to a pilot who has a heavy accent, controllers may speak more slowly, enunciate words more dramatically, and try to avoid changing routes as much as possible.

Stephen, an air traffic controller with the FAA, echoes Miller’s point. “We mainly just bitch amongst ourselves, say things very slowly, and do the best we can” when dealing with pilots who have heavy accents, he wrote on Reddit.

5. They alternate between stress and boredom.

An airplane and an air control tower

Because they’re responsible for thousands of lives 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, most air traffic controllers experience a high level of job-related stress. “We often miss birthdays, we work on holidays and weekends, and often operate on alternative sleep cycles,” Miller explains. Staying focused is essential, especially during times of busy traffic and bad weather, so most air traffic controllers take a break every hour or two, depending on the rules at their facility.

According to Miller, the diversity of tasks in his work day keeps his job challenging. At any given time, he may be directing Air Force One or other VIPs (from our country or a foreign one), sequencing commercial passenger jets into a variety of airports in the Washington, D.C. area, assisting police or paramedic helicopters, expediting military fighters and military transport planes, or looking for suspicious aircraft in the Washington, D.C. Special Flight Rules Area.

On the other hand, graveyard shifts and periods with less traffic can be tedious and dull. “Hours and hours of boredom combined with moments of sheer terror, as we like to say,” Stephen told Reddit. “But if you like the challenge and want to be where the action is, it's a great job!”

6. They're probably overworked.

In a 2011 article for The Daily Beast, Bob Richards, who worked as an air traffic controller at Chicago O’Hare International Airport for more than two decades, described his job as “thrilling, fulfilling, and utterly exhausting.” Richards noted that four of his coworkers died of sudden cardiac death, two died of pancreatic cancer, and many others suffered from stress-related gastrointestinal illnesses. In his early 40s, Richards himself suffered from atrial fibrillation, which eventually progressed into congestive heart failure.

A secret study conducted by NASA in 2011 found that almost one-fifth of controllers made significant errors, partly due to chronic fatigue caused by their lack of sleep and busy shift schedules. To combat fatigue and address controllers who were allegedly asleep on the job, the FAA issued a series of new rules that increase the mandatory time between controllers’ shifts.

7. UFO sightings definitely happen.

A screen showing radar

During the course of their careers, most air traffic controllers have personally spotted (or have a coworker who has spotted) some sort of unidentified flying object. UFO sightings are more common at night, when air traffic controllers may see an unexplained blinking light that doesn’t appear to be coming from an aircraft. But strange sightings aren't necessarily alien life forms—radar is so sensitive that it may pick up items such as clouds, a flock of birds, or even a large truck on the ground.

8. RObots won't be replacing them.

Commercial aircraft landing

Although air traffic controllers rely on radar and other technology to do their jobs, they’re not in danger of technology replacing them any time soon. With so many lives at stake, air traffic control will likely always require humans to ensure that automated systems function properly and technology doesn’t malfunction. And controllers enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes with using their knowledge and skills to help passengers get from point A to point B safely. “There is a great amount of pride that my coworkers and I take knowing that safety of air traffic control is the last thing on passengers' minds when they get buckled in the airplane,” Miller says.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2017.

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