11 Secrets of Sound Effects Editors

iStock
iStock

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
iStock

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
iStock

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
iStock

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
iStock

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
iStock

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.”

17 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Bookstores

iStock
iStock

For book lovers, there’s no more magical place than the local bookstore. Endless shelves of stories and characters, all at your eager fingertips. And while most of us have probably spent a significant amount of time wandering the aisles, few of us know what goes on behind the scenes. Here are some insights into the life of a bookstore, gleaned from the people who keep the shelves stocked.

1. EMPLOYEES WANT YOU TO ASK THEM FOR RECOMMENDATIONS.

“A person will say, ‘I have a really strange question, I’m sorry, but can you recommend a book?’” says Phyllis Cohen, owner of Berkeley Books in Paris. “That is the most normal question. It is my favorite question in the world! Give me some clues. I’ll ask them some pointed questions and then I make a pile for them. When they discover it they’re over the moon—it’s like they have a personal shopper in the bookshop.”

2. BUT BOOKSELLERS ARE NOT MIND-READERS.

They want to help you find your book, but they can’t if you don’t know the book’s name, author, or what it was about. This happens all the time, and it drives them crazy. “Customers will say ‘I don’t remember the name or what it was about but it has a blue cover. I think it had this word in the title,’” explains Katie Orphan, manager at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. Sometimes the questions are so vague that no amount of Googling will help, and then the customer leaves unhappy.

Even a botched title is better than no hints at all. “One funny thing that happens with customers is they get the titles totally wrong,” says Marissa Rodriguez, who has worked in a bookstore for two years. “High school kids will say ‘I’m looking for ‘How To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘Angry Grapes.’”

3. THEY CAN SPOT THE BOOKWORMS FROM A MILE AWAY.

A woman browsing near a sign for half-price paperbacks at a bookstore
iStock

Just browsing? Bookstore workers can tell. “Cookbooks is one of the sections where that happens the most,” Orphan says. “Art books and cookbooks. The people who are going to buy books, I can tell by the way they look at them, touch them, start carrying them around in a stack. I can always tell when people come up who is going to buy a book and who isn’t.”

4. THEY KNOW WHEN YOU’RE “SHOWROOMING.”

In recent years, many brick-and-mortar stores have fallen victim to online outlets like Amazon, which often offer the same books for a lower price. Some customers will browse for books they like, only to buy them later online, and they’re not very sly about it. “They’ll come in and use their phone to take a picture of the cover and barcode and just use the bookstore as the Amazon showroom,” says Keith Edmunds, a former bookstore owner. “It was awful. Seeing people do that was the height of ignorance.”

5. AND WHEN YOU’RE PLAYING THE SYSTEM.

“Some regulars would buy books one or two at a time and then within the two-week return window bring them back and be like, ‘I bought the wrong book,’” said Kat Chin, who worked at The World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto for five years. “You’d know they read them because you could see the book was a little bit worn or the spine was cracked.”

6. THE GOAL IS TO GET BOOKS IN YOUR HANDS.

A red sign advertising bestsellers at a bookstore
iStock

One trick to get customers to commit to a book is to physically put the book in their hands and have them flip through it. “You can direct them to a part of the store, but that’s only half of selling a book,” Rodriguez says. “It's important to get merchandise in people's hands so they feel there’s already some ownership happening. They say ‘I like the way it looks and feels in my hands and I like the way it smells.’”

7. YOU HAVE TO HUNT FOR THE COFFEE SHOP.

Many bookstores, particularly the bigger ones like Barnes & Noble, have incorporated cafes into their layout. Alex Lifschutz, a London-based architect, told The Economist that putting the coffee shop at the back of the store or, if there are multiple stories, on the top floor, “draws shoppers upwards floor-by-floor, which is bound to encourage people to linger longer and spend more.”

8. THE KIDS SECTION IS STRATEGICALLY LOCATED.

According to Edmunds, the kids books are almost always located at the back of a store. “If the parents want to get a book for the kid they have to go through the whole store,” he says. “They’re hoping the parent will see something they want.”

9. SOMEONE PAID FOR THAT PRIME SHELF REAL ESTATE.

A red sign advertising bestsellers at a bookstore
iStock

In many big-box stores, publishers pay for good placement on “front tables, end caps and window space, in the same way General Mills and Procter and Gamble buy space for their breakfast cereals and dish detergents in the supermarkets,” Andy Ross, a literary agent, told The Book Deal.

10. AUTHORS, BEWARE THE “SOCIOLOGY” SECTION.

No author wants their book tucked away in the “sociology” section, claims veteran publishing insider Alan Rinzler. It’s “a catchall section for ambiguous titles, and the kiss of death for book sales,” he says.

11. BOOK THIEVES LOVE THE BIBLE.

At The World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto, “the Bible was the number one stolen book of all time,” Chin says.

Other frequently stolen books? Japanese comics (a.k.a. manga), expensive medical books, and Kurt Vonnegut’s work. Chin also says Haruki Murakami books were so frequently stolen that her bookstore had to take them off the shelves, only bringing them out when they were specifically requested.

12. EMPLOYEES HATE WHEN YOU LEAVE BOOKS WHERE THEY DON’T BELONG ...

Long rows of books at a bookstore
iStock

“Neatening up a bookstore is a daunting process,” says Demi Marshall, a bookseller in Austin, Texas. The next time you pluck a book from its designated shelf slot, put it back when you’re done. Otherwise, “it’s like if you go to a clothing store and unfold all the clothes and then put them back on the shelf but don’t fold them,” Chin says.

13. ... AND WHEN YOU TREAT THE STORE LIKE YOUR LIBRARY.

“It’s nice to be able to go in and read maybe a chapter to see if you’re gonna like the book,” Chin says. “But then when you sit and read the whole book and put it back on the shelf, it gets grubby.” You’ll know a bookstore is trying to nudge you out the door if multiple employees drop by to ask if you need any help. “We would quietly pester people,” says Caleb Saenz, who used to work at Barnes & Noble. “I was at my peak passive aggressive phase when I was working at a bookstore.”

14. THE INTERNET HAS ACTUALLY BEEN A GOOD THING.

A brick-and-mortar Amazon bookstore in Seattle
iStock

Before the internet became ubiquitous, the process of looking up a book for a customer was daunting. “We had to look it up in 'Books In Print,’ which is a multi-volume, 4-inch thick, hardcover book,” says Liz Prouty, who owns Second Looks Books in Maryland with her husband, Richard Due. “It was a slow and cumbersome process and if anything was indexed wrong or a customer had the first word of a title wrong, you were out of luck.”

15. IT’S ALSO MADE US LOVE BOOKS MORE.

Some thought the e-book would surely spell the death of the bookstore. But many independent sellers say digitization has actually made people crave physical books more. “I’ve noticed in the last couple of years, so many people come in waxing rhapsodic about the smell of books, the feel of books,” Prouty says. “And they say it more now because the alternatives exist. People are deeply attached to the old-fashioned books.”

16. SOME BOOKSELLERS CAN IDENTIFY BOOKS BY THEIR SMELL.

Especially used booksellers. “These Penguins have their own particular odor,” Cohen says. That odor? Vanilla. Others might smell like almond or coffee.

17. BOOKSELLERS AREN’T IN IT FOR THE MONEY.

A blue sign with white letters spelling out the word "books" and a hand pointing
iStock

In fact, most of them have second jobs or need monetary support from family members. “It is definitely a work of passion for everyone that I know,” Marshall says. “We don’t do it for the money, we don’t do it because we have any power or prestige. It’s genuinely just that we love books and we love getting them into people's hands.”

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

13 Secrets of Crime Scene Cleaners

iStock
iStock

It’s a profession that few people realize exists—until tragedy strikes, and suddenly they have to deal with the unimaginable. That’s when they call a select group of iron-stomached, steel-nerved workers known as trauma scene restoration specialists, biohazard remediation technicians, or simply crime scene cleaners.

Until a few decades ago, the task of cleaning up after a loved one died fell to family and friends, potentially adding trauma on top of an already terrible event. In the 1990s, a small group of companies and entrepreneurs sprang up to tackle the problem, specializing in the removal of blood, fluids, human tissue, and hazardous substances. By 2012 (the last year for which reliable data is available), crime scene cleanup was a $350-million industry in the United States, and included more than 500 companies. Here’s what these hazmat-suited heroes want the world to know about their work.

1. THEY AREN'T LIMITED TO CRIME SCENES.

The phrase crime scene cleanup brings to mind police tape and furrow-browed detectives. In reality, only a fraction of the calls these companies receive—which can come from family members, property managers, hotel owners, or anyone with a dead body on their property—are the result of a major crime. Unattended natural death (i.e., a person who dies alone and isn’t discovered quickly) and suicide are the most common scenarios. Glenn Cox, general manager at Southern Bio-Recovery, which has four locations in the Southeast, says that only about 30 percent of the 60 to 100 death scenes his company handles every year are homicides.

To pay the bills, it's common for companies to supplement with other kinds of biohazard removal, whether that's removing tear gas from a property after it's been used by law enforcement or getting rid of meth labs. Cox says that Southern Bio-Recovery also cleans up hoarding situations and decontaminates homes after viral or bacterial incidents—think MRSA or hepatitis outbreaks.

2. MANY OF THEM ARE EX-MILITARY OR LAW ENFORCEMENT.

Former Marine John Krusenstjerna founded Des Moines-based Iowa CTS Cleaners after serving two tours in Iraq. “Just experiencing things out there left me kind of wondering what happened in these situations back in the United States, who takes care of it,” he tells Mental Floss. Peruse executive bios of many trauma restoration company websites and you’ll find similar military, law enforcement, or paramedic backgrounds. Exposure to death—and the chaos it wreaks on family members—also provides valuable experience in the emotional and physical challenges inherent in cleanup. "Being able to compartmentalize in your mind, to stay focused on the task, to have integrity … all of those are attributes I believe I learned from being a soldier," Cox explains.

3. THEIR TRAINING MIGHT INVOLVE PIG BLOOD.

A bucket of blood
iStock

The certification requirements for crime scene cleaners range from nonexistent to uneven, so most training happens in-house. James Michel, CEO at Bio Recovery—which has 22 branches around the country—says all of his company's employees are taken to a special training facility at their headquarters in New York state. "We stage crime scenes there using organic and non-organic types of fake blood: stage blood, pig blood, all different types. We recreate crime scenes with sheet rock, toilets, tile, and [trainees are] able to break it down. We have decontamination stations that are permanently set up so they can walk in and out of and really grasp how to do this on a day-to-day basis." All in all, Michel says, four weeks of such training are required before their techs are even let out on a crime site.

4. THE DEATH SCENE CAN SPREAD BEYOND THE BODY.

“All of our scenes are chaotic, and there's multiple things to do,” says Nate Berg, founder and president of Scene Clean, based in Osseo, Minnesota. “For example, in a decomposition [when a body has been left undiscovered for a long period], you've got strong odors and you've got all their personal property, which now have absorbed the strong odors.” The work becomes a matter of peeling the layers of contamination—bedding and linens, furniture, carpeting, floorboards, subfloor or sheetrock. And what’s visible to the eye (say, a small bloodstain on a carpet) may actually indicate a large pool underneath.

“A bad day is when we get called to a really bad decomposition or unattended death,” Krusenstjerna says, “and find out they’ve not only decomposed in a kitchen or bathroom but it’s dripping into the basement. We had an apartment building where it went from the third floor to the first floor.”

5. THEIR CLEANING SUPPLIES ARE NEXT-LEVEL.

A gloved hand holding a handsaw
iStock

As you might expect, cleaning up the blood, fluids, and tissue left in the wake of a violent death or long-undiscovered decomposition takes more than bleach and elbow grease. The first step is detection of every spot, splatter, or shard. “We use an indicator similar to hydrogen peroxide, but it’s a much, much stronger version,” Cox says. “When it [comes into] contact with bodily fluids, it foams up and turns a very bright white color. It’s also a very strong disinfectant.”

When dealing with brain matter—which tends to harden to a cement-like consistency—Berg prefers to use an enzyme cleaner that, when absorbed by the tissue, softens it just enough to allow it to be removed with a scraper. For stubborn brain tissue, or fluid that’s seeped into the cracks between floorboards, it might be time to break out the demolition tools: crowbars, weighted hammers, circular saws. It’s also not uncommon for techs to have to dismantle furniture, remove sheetrock, or rip up flooring to get at the contaminants that have seeped in or gotten stuck.

6. THEY CAN MITIGATE THE SMELL ... SORT OF.

A person dressed in personal protective equipment
iStock

There’s nothing like the smell of death. And while some techs get used to the odor, “when a body’s been there for 60 days, in moist air, you walk in and breathe that smell, and you just go, ‘This is going to be a long day,’” Michel says. Every technician wears personal protective equipment (a.k.a. PPE; think lined suits, booties, layers of gloves and respirators) to guard against blood- and air-borne pathogens, but it can be hard to avoid a quick waft now and then. “I don’t care how good you are,” Michel says, “when you twist your head in a certain way and break that [respirator] seal, that smell is coming in the mask.” To cope, and to deodorize the home, techs employ HEPA filters, air scrubbers, ozone machines, and hydroxyl generators—which use concentrated UV light to target and destroy pollutants.

7. THEY HATE SEEING CATS ON-SITE.

A longhaired cat caught mid-yawn or snarl
iStock

That's because cats could mean cat pee. “Cat pee is my fricking nemesis,” Berg says. “Most of the time we have to pull up floors or walls and make physical contact with the cat urine because it crystallizes.” Michel agrees: “When you leave a dog by himself and they [defecate] or urinate, you can clean that for the most part. Cat spray is the hardest odor to remove.”

8. THE TURNOVER RATE IS PRETTY HIGH.

Even the toughest clean-up doesn’t compare to the emotional stress of working with grieving families or glimpsing the violence people inflict upon each other. "We only go to the worst of the worst," Michel explains. He's seen professionals in his office and around the industry turn over at a rapid rate. “We’ve had hundreds of employees come in and out of these doors throughout the years and the psychological toll is extremely difficult. Some of the tough cases, where there’s children involved, there’s a somberness in the office for days.” He says that most employees, and even owners, only last about five or 10 years, max.

9. TECHS OFTEN FUNCTION AS COUNSELORS ...

A woman with glasses with her hand on the shoulder of a younger man
iStock

Because everyone deals with grief differently, a crime scene cleanup tech has to be prepared for every kind of human interaction. Usually, it’s the owner or senior tech who deals with loved ones, and that might mean listening to detailed accounts of the deceased or protecting customers from seeing the worst. “Customers tend to want to tell us the whole story, starting two months back,” Cox says. “They need to vent. I have to talk with them, and sometimes I have to give them a hug and let them know that we’re here to help. We understand their situation and let them know that time heals. This is part of the healing process as well.”

10. ... BUT THEY SOMETIMES NEED HELP THEMSELVES.

Experienced techs and owners talk about the importance of separating their work and home lives. Still, not everyone is gifted with the ability to disengage (and even those who can may find the toll adds up over time). Several of the people we spoke to said their companies provide paid counseling for techs on a confidential, request-by-request basis. "All they have to do is submit a request. We take care of everything," Michel notes.

11. THEY MIGHT BLAST THE RADIO—OR WORK AS QUIETLY AS POSSIBLE.

A "quiet please" radio sign
iStock

Techs have to find a way to work amid all that emotion. While on site, that might mean keeping things light among themselves. “We have radios in our truck,” Krusenstjerna says. “We bring the radio in the house, to help break up the time. We’ll talk amongst each other, joking about what we saw on TV the night before or what’s funny on Facebook. But the last thing we want, and where we draw the line, is if the family is in the house. Not to sound like we’re gross or gruesome but we’re not going to say, ‘Grab the tooth off the window ledge,’ because we don’t know if they’re sitting there with their ear to the bedroom door. So we’ll be quiet, and use body language and signs and stuff like that.”

12. A CLEAN-UP CAN COST $10,000.

Based on region, type of cleanup, and number of techs, the cost to customers varies wildly, from around $1000 to over $10,000. Generally, the more dispersed the fluids and tissue in the home, or the longer the decomp, the more manpower it will take and the longer the job will be—leading to higher costs. (While insurance and victim compensation will cover some of the cost, at least part of the bill still falls to the customers.) Depending on the number and type of jobs undertaken, owners of crime scene cleanup companies can clear hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, in profit every year. Techs themselves can make anywhere from $25 per hour to over $100 per hour. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual compensation for a hazardous materials removal worker hovers around $41,500, but the top 10 percent earn more than $75,000.

13. THE FACT THAT THEY'RE HELPING PEOPLE MAKES IT WORTHWHILE.

A person in a pink sweater, sitting on a couch, holding the hands of an older person
iStock

If there was a common thread in all the conversations we conducted with crime scene cleaners, it was the immense satisfaction they take from their jobs. Despite the smells, the gore, and the grief, these individuals find great reward in the help they’re able to provide to others in their hour of darkness. “When I have a family member who’s just lost a loved one give me that hug—because they could not have done this for themselves—there is no greater satisfaction in my life,” Michel says. “If I were to die tomorrow, that would be one of the greatest things I've ever been a part of. You can't describe in words. The only way I can say is, it's the beat of another human being's heart against yours, thanking you for helping them on the worst day of their lives."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios