Dane A. Davis: "The Matrix"

Photo of Dane Davis

Dane A. Davis, MPSE

Hello, I’m Dane and I design and oversee the sounds in movies.

Bill Pope, Director of Photography, told me after the premier of one of the Matrix movies that we were the “Invisible Crew” and that even if he turned the camera around 180° on every shot nobody would see us. So nobody knows we’re there. They just know that in the theater those Styrofoam and wood sets sound like heavy iron. You know that three-foot tall tower they crashed and blew up on the set and STILL looks three-foot tall in the dailies? When they go to the theater it's scary and huge and heavy and dangerous. And they know that somehow those amazing visual effects people are cooking up monsters and spaceships and all these amazing things that don't exist on earth, that somehow the sounds for all those visuals go through their light pens into the movie theater as well. But that's not quite how it happens. There are people like Gary and me and all of the people on our teams and the people in the MPSE, and we have to cook up all of those sounds. It's a little sad that all the people that create and edit and mix all these sounds for these movies to make everything feel real and exciting and dramatic are invisible. In fact, on most of the “making of” videos that you see, they're still all invisible. We do our job so well we disappear.

So I had a hypothesis I thought I'd try out. Since turning the camera around 180 degrees didn't really help, let's try turning the projector around 180 degrees. Now let's watch some highlights from "The Matrix."

[Clip with no picture but the sound effects mix exactly as heard in the movie in narrative order.]

So, how did it look? You take away the actors that everybody can see and everything else on the set you can see and even the orchestra, which most people can pretty much imagine is there somewhere, and this is what's left. What you just heard.

When we're brought onto a project, we can't always see a whole lot. It's great that Gary played some of those animatics. That's very often how movies like "The Matrix" look when we first see them.

How Dane Began the Project

In the case of this movie, when I was brought on I already had a good creative relationship with the filmmakers -- which was a good thing because I ended up having very, very little time to work with them. So a lot of times we're kind of on our own to understand the vision of the filmmakers.

In this case I went to Australia for a week to spend some time with the directors to talk about things. I'd been sort of making a database of sound design ideas and possibilities for a couple of weeks already. I stayed for the whole week looking at dailies and assembled scenes and making more notes and I didn't really get to talk to them until the last 45 minutes before I had to catch a plane and they were both very very sick. I had to talk really fast -- and luckily I can type really fast -- so I got it all written down. But that's kind of how it is. So I flew back to L.A. and worked in a semi-vacuum for a few weeks.

But you have to imagine when you're looking at a movie like this, it's all very much green screens as well as these pre-visualizations that are very primitive animations. So, we have to kind of hear these movies up here {points to head}. It's a process of going out and recording lots of things and just stewing and playing with things and manipulating those sounds until that movie that we're hearing up here and the movie we eventually see up there can fuse together into a movie that works dramatically and esthetically and in every way -- and hopefully commercially so you get to do it again.

Concepts of the Matrix Code Sound

So, in a movie like this, interestingly enough it's about the world that's in people's heads. A world that people think is real, but they discover in the course of the movie that it's not so real. There are, in fact, machines that have to fabricate all these sounds as well as all the visuals for what we see, so in a way those machines that constitute the Matrix are kind of like filmmakers for the theater of the reality of living in the Matrix. Even though their bodies are just floating in these pods with jacks in the back of their heads.

There were a lot of interesting conceptual ideas to work out on this movie about how the real world sounded different from being in the Matrix. We decided that the rules were somewhat different between the two. The general esthetic principles of the movie coming from Larry and Andy the directors, was that first of all make everything sound cool and fun and exciting. But we had to maintain a sense that the real world was very different, that it was real grungy and kind of falling apart and dirty, and that everything humans make in the real world is constructed out of spare parts left over from battles, since they didn't have access to foundries or ways of making things from scratch. And also the idea that everything is a weapon was very important.

One guiding principle in the movie from the directors was to make the sound effects and the music work together like it's the same “orchestra.” I'll talk a little bit more about that later.

Those were basically the key concepts here. So we went out and tried to construct these sounds to make both the Matrix and the real world that these people eventually discover sound believable and relating it to the world that we know.

The Development of the Code Sound

One of the first things I had to work out was the sound of this Matrix code. The code is, in fact, kind of the machine language that can be decoded by people's consciousness as being a real world -- all the sensory information that we would need. Visual, aural, olfactory (smell) information, tactile information; it's all coming through this code through these jacks in people's heads and makes them think that they're really alive and really experiencing it. Having no clue that they're inside this slime filled pod in these power plants.

So I played around with a lot of sounds for this code. The only real instructions from the directors was that they wanted it to sound wet, and I couldn't really see it yet at that point. But once I started to see the development of it I knew what they were talking about. They wanted it to be wet, but it also had to be believable that it was some kind of digital encoded data containing information, so I wanted it to also have that kind of granular digital quality. I tried a bunch of things and one thing that was pretty successful was the sound of rain falling into a barrel -- [it] had the kind of dripping quality I liked. And I started manipulating it in the digital realm with some programs that kind of disassembled and reassembled it in ways that keep the original qualities of the sound, and then I would take things like digital noise reduction programs and remove all of the uninteresting obvious frequencies and just expose the interesting ones and then manipulate them some more.

And I've cut together a little thing that's sort of an aural montage of the evolutionary path that this code took.

[Clip of Matrix code dripping down the screen repeatedly with different audio elements, gradually becoming the sound we recognize.]

And there we have it. That became the raw sound of the code that these people could see on their monitors and presumably hear from their monitors -- we made a sound anyway, assuming that. You don’t hear anybody on the movie say directly that they heard a Cadillac or thunder or a cat. But we do know since they've trained themselves to decode this code into reading visual information like the blonde, brunette or redhead scene. So I had to assume that there was some aural information in there, but it couldn't be anything that all of us could decode because we weren't trained yet. But there were some exceptions, like when we go into the restaurant scene where Cypher makes a deal with Smith to go back into the Matrix. There's a harp playing in the restaurant and I thought it would be kind of cool to start hearing that harp over the monitor in the ship as the camera zooms into that monitor. You hear a few half-decoded notes of the harp music that morph into the harpist playing when it goes into the Matrix. I loved that idea that for a moment we could hear what these characters were hearing in the code world.

So once this basic sound was established we had to shape this code into everything that we saw, including this title sequence. And part of the goal of the title sequence was to take the audience into the code, to actually pass inside of it, which in the course of the movie becomes the journey that Neo takes -- where he's actually inside the code and can actually read things around him as they're happening real time, live.

So, here's an example of how we shaped that. The amazing Eric Lindeman had a lot with how well this works.

[Clip of opening of movie with just sound effects and dialogue.]

Now we'll play it with the music. This is the full track.

[Clip of opening of movie with full track.]

So that takes us into the Matrix.

There are a lot of interesting ironies in working on a movie where man is fighting with machines. Every day it would seem that some of our machines had joined the ranks of the enemy.

The Sound Effects Are Talking

Another key scene in “The Matrix” – and one of my favorites – is the scene where Neo is first starting to get an inkling that something is seriously wrong with his world; when he’s called into his boss’ office, of course to be yelled at for his performance. This scene is important in the story. It’s also a very important central metaphor in the whole movie about transparency and clarity. And there's a conversation he's having with the boss. But if you look at Neo's face, the boss' voice is kind of appearing to him at best like somebody else's transistor radio on the beach. You can see in his face that Neo's having a completely different conversation. Our challenge was to provide the other half of that conversation. Luckily, through the brilliance of the script itself, there were a couple of window washers outside the office. (That may or may not be the directors, depending on whom you believe; I won't say.) So these two window washers are, in fact, communicating to Neo in this sort of almost animal, non-verbal language, and he's getting it. And it's very important, because, as we know, he basically heeds that call to abandon the slavery to authority that he's experiencing working for this software company, and start to pursue another life. Which ends up being the real world that we all know.

So, I'll play you the scene the way we saw it the first time with just the dialogue.

[Clip of office conversation with window washers in the background, just dialogue.]

So that’s the scene that's on the surface. In creating the other half of the real, significant conversation here, we had to use something that was justifiable and explainable in this scene, being the window washer sounds which we did on the Foley stage to picture with Foley artist John Roesch and Foley supervisor Thom Brennan. We worked very hard cooking up this vocal track with squeegees. We had to get a sense of intonation and rhythm and communication there that normally is not something you'd try to do with window squeegees. But then, we're in the sound effects business, so we basically never use anything the way it's intended to be used. It's one of our creeds.

So, we played and played and tried a lot of different little rhythms and ways of executing this to get the kinds of shapes that we make when communicating with language -- without being so obvious that it became silly or goofy or contrived. It had to play in a way that if I were the boss sitting there behind that desk I wouldn't be distracted by the squeegees.

[Clip of office scene with just sound effects. The squeegees are prominent.]

I'll go ahead and play both of the conversations.

[Clip of office scene with full soundtrack.]

So, moving on to bigger and louder things.

The Sound of Fighting

The bigger and louder things are not necessarily more difficult, but they're different challenges. In addition to all of these really fun conceptual games that we can play with the audiences' ears and heads, there are a lot of different cinematic genres that are being played with, subverted and combined in all kinds of fun ways in this movie. One of those genres is the martial arts movie. One of the things that the directors wanted me to do before I got started on it was watch a whole bunch of Hong Kong martial arts movies and I did, dutifully -- several times each. And I came away with that knowing what I loved about it and what I didn't love so much about the way those movies sounded. Most of those movies are executed, in terms of the sound, very quickly. I don't think they have a whole lot of luxury of time to play with the sounds, but they usually come up with something that's very dramatically effective. It gets the point across that these people are strong and they hit hard. Even if what you're hearing is two-by-fours whacking a table, it gets the point across and I loved that. What I didn't love so much was the repetition and the redundancy of a lot of those sounds and I thought that maybe we could get that kind of impact and intensity without being quite so similar and have a little bit more variation.

Another thing that came to mind was "Hey!" the physics are a little different in the Matrix than they are in the real world, so let's play with that fact. I thought that maybe if, let's say the rules of the Matrix for the way air molecules sound when you move them around were a little bit more exaggerated, a little bit more fun, then that would enable us to create a sense of power and strength and effort and intention when these people are swinging and punching and kicking at each other. Or throwing each other in the air. Or landing on people all day. There could be a very clear sense of the air molecules parting and being moved around.

So to that end we went and recorded tons of things whooshing.

We went out to a technical junkyard area out in the Valley someplace and spent four hours picking all these great little unidentifiable things that were used in some technological experiment someplace and stacked them all up on the counter and one by one the clerks there said "Oh, no. No. You can't have this. You can't rent this. No, this is not for sale. I'm sorry." So I said "Well, why can't we have those?" And they said "Well, these are the kinds of things that art directors really, really like for building movie sets, so we just keep them there in case they need them" because apparently they rent them for longer than we were proposing. So there we were, we were the invisible crew yet again.

And so we went back out and spent another two hours and found more stuff that had no visual interest whatsoever, but seemed like it would make a cool sound if we'd put it on the end of a rope and swung it around microphones really, really hard.

So from all of those sounds we spent a lot of time in the studio manipulating those whooshes to get a lot of layers that suggested the effort required to part all that air and thus the strength that these people had doing it.

So I'm going to play a section of the first dojo fight. We could talk for hours about the hits in this movie, but we don't have hours, so we'll talk about the whooshes today. But I thought it would be fun to play this one little scene with just the music and the dialogue to see what the music is giving to this scene. It's a completely different kind of reality, as you'll see.

[Clip of Morpheus and Neo fighting using martial arts but no sound effects.]

One advantage that we have making these kinds of movies -- and this particular movie -- is that nobody really knows what a fight sounds like. Anybody here know what a fight sounds like? {Light giggle.} Ah, those guys in the back row. I fortunately have heard a few recordings of people actually breaking someone else's jaws inadvertently on movie sets and it's a horrendous sound, but it sounds nothing like the conventions that have been established in Hollywood movies or in Asian movies, either. So, it was kind of open season because we're assuming that all those people sitting in their pods in the Matrix -- they don't know what fights sound like, either. So we can play around with the very nature of flesh hitting flesh and bone and cartilage splitting and all of that wonderful physiological stuff that we destroyed lots of vegetables and dead animal parts to get.

So, hearing it with just the music and dialogue is a very, very fun way to watch a scene. Zig Gron, the source music editor, put together a very, very nice piece there, I forget what the band was, but he made it really work to the rhythm of the scene {Zig reports that the temp music was a piece from the Japanese percussion group Kodo transitioning to a techno piece the group Tsunami One called “Number 42 with Steamed Rice Please.” The final score came from Crystal Method and the composer Don Davis.} -- but it's not very physical, is it? So here is, without the fun and the drive of this rock and roll, just the physical part.

[Fight clip with just sound effects.]

So that's pretty physical. And Julie Evershade, who is the queen of hits and whooshes at Danetracks, among many other things, cut all these amazing fight scenes in these movies, and our guiding principle was "If it moves, it whooshes." But you can see if you watch that clip there's actually many, many things, I counted about 42 things, that move and don't in fact whoosh. There are a lot of knees, toes, ankles, there's all kinds of little motions. Because you can't actually make everything that moves whoosh or you would just have this cacophony. {Dane vocalizes, the audience laughs} It would take away from that… You like that? Don't get me started. I do a lot of vocal sound effects. But if we had everything make a whoosh it would take away from that gestural sense of the important movements. The commitment to put that fist in that face had to stand out with that whoosh. We have to actually be very judicious and careful when doing all this.

So here's what happens when we put this really driving music together with all this physical stuff and we end up with a scene.

[Fight clip with full sound mix.]

It's all about rhythm. When you're cutting things like this it's all about rhythm. You have to make all those whooshes and those hits have a rhythm of their own that create these sort of sequences of ba-ba-ba-ba-BA-BA, you know, with their own kind of development within the scene. But you have to be pretty respectful of the rhythms that you see in the picture itself. The way that you see and cut the scene, it's not exactly the same. You have to kind of fudge quite a bit to make these scenes have that groove rhythmically but still fit the movie in the right way. Then you have to think about what the rhythms are in the music itself and if the composers and the music editors are really thinking it through, you can have it all merge together in a really nice way. And I think that scene did.

Another consideration about the fights in this movie is that we wanted to have a developmental arc from the first fight to the last fight so that we didn't use up our whole arsenal right off the top with this first training fight. We kept it deliberately very restrained and pretty naturalistic, comparatively speaking, so that in the final sequence between Smith and Neo in the subway station we could pull out all the stops and make that extremely physical and huge and explosive and painful on every level. As it turns out, because of the two sequels, we had to in fact extend that arc another five hours to the end of "Matrix Revolutions," at which point we were cutting in cannon blasts and you name it to make those hits between Smith and Neo in the air even more powerful than anything else you'd heard in the previous two movies.

So these are things we had to think about. We're always very aware of dramatic structure. Like Gary was saying, it's a storytelling function and we think of ourselves in the sound design world as storytellers.

What Does a Slow Bullet Sound Like?

Moving on, there are lots of conventions in the movie world. And I'm not really going to talk about them. But there are as many conventions in weapons and firearms as there are in hand-to-hand combat, I am sure probably more. But in doing this movie, we didn't care. Basically, we all know the conventions really well and, once again, people living in the Matrix, they don't know what anything sounds like and they never saw any movies. All they saw were the movies that the Matrix made that they thought they were watching. {Dane shrugs at the levels.} So that liberated us to a great extent from worrying about what other movies that people like us in the audience might have seen.

But then there were lots of firearms in the movie and we went to great lengths, and again with Eric Lindeman, who was Mr. Firearms on the movie, we had to create all these different weapons and have the same kinds of dramatic distinction between the different weapons that we have on screen and also develop them as things get bigger and bigger. But then there was this thing called "bullet time," where these characters, the rebels themselves, Neo, Trinity, Morpheus and the rest, they could actually slow down time. And we had to think a lot about what that would sound like because obviously if we're slowing down WITH it, it's all sounding the same to US. We had to play these games where "Well, it's slowing down -- but we're not slowing down as much as it's slowing down, so things are slowing down -- the way they sound." That gave us a lot more freedom. But it turns out that it was even way more difficult than we thought it would be, because we had to get the energy of things slowing down and staying in this sort of low pitched realm.

But luckily, we aren’t scientists – and neither are the directors – so we could break all the rules. But one of the fun things was doing the sound of these bullets flying around in “bullet time.” And I thought just for fun I would take this one “bullet time” sequence… All of these bullets are made up of slowed down jets and rockets and airplanes and ricochets and bullet-bys, and there’s some diesel trucks going by that have been sped up and all kinds of sounds like that just to give this raw sense of massive, massive dangerous power of these little bullets going through space, to basically make us all completely in awe that this guy Neo can actually move around and manipulate time -- he could move around and dodge bullets but they still had to feel dangerous. If you slowed things down as much as they looked it would just be this “wwwwra wwwwra wwwwra” thing, and it couldn't be that, so we had to keep kind of a full range to the sounds to keep it piercing and painful and all that stuff. So what I did here is that there are three clips and I staggered the bullets so that you could hear the individual components that go into these.

[Clips with slowed bullets.]

Part of the challenge was to create a full, dramatically effective sound for each of those bullets going through the air but somehow keep them out of each other's way so that they didn't just mesh into this big wad of [noise].

And the other challenge was because Eric did all of the gunshots in the movie and I did the bullets moving through the air in "bullet time" and Eric did the bullet stops generally, so we had to make sure our timing all worked out right because a lot of it was off screen.

The other challenge, of course, was that the visual effects were always evolving while we were working so we never quite knew where you could see the muzzle flares and where the bullets went off.

But here's all of those individual bullet bys together.

[Clip with full soundtrack.]

You know, all of us on the crews on these kinds of movies, especially in the sound post production part of it where all of the money is used up and all of the time is used up, too, and the movie's going to come out on that date no matter what. So we're feeling a little bit like Neo all the time. Swinging around, trying to slow down time. "Just another night! One more day! One more week! Please, please, please!" But it never quite happens. So we're always just dodging in real time. That's why we're in pretty good shape. Constant movement.

The Sound of the Nebuchadnezzar

Another fun thing in these movies were the vehicles. I had read the script and I was down in Sydney tromping around these Styrofoam and wooden sets of the ships like the Nebuchadnezzar. I was told that they were "electro-magnetic hovercraft." It's stuff like that that gets sound effects people really excited. "Wow, we get to invent technologies here." And, in fact, we did. And I was told that eventually these ships, that were basically little cartoons floating against green screens when we started out, would eventually be these big ugly jury-rigged clunky metallic conglomerations of left-over spare parts, but they worked. They really did work. All that I knew in terms of the functionality of these things is that they would have some kind of propeller or rotor that was electro-magnetic. It would be represented by some kind of arcing or sparking, something. We never really know what it’s going to be.

So my little brain is cooking and cooking and cooking on all of this stuff and I had a recording of this huge metal gate on this farm in the middle of west Texas that I had recorded a few years earlier. If we sat on it and very slowly moved it, it made these beautiful singing sounds with all these rich dissonant harmonics and luckily I'd recorded it. For no particular reason. But that's how it goes in this business. You just hear stuff and you record it and someday it works perfectly with something.

So I had that sound that I thought had the quality of the bending of the ship itself, but it seemed that it would be really great to have some kind of central flywheel that was kind of turning all the time to give this thing some stability as it flew around. I played with various things. I ended up taking this hand massager that somebody had given me and I took all the parts off that I could so it still functioned and I would squeeze this thing -- it kind of fit in your palm -- and do these really fast Dopplers around the microphone.

Like Gary was saying earlier, giving things motion in Doppler is a way to keep sounds always feeling real, because in reality nothing is really static or still. So, we're always moving everything that we record, and if it’s not moving enough we manipulate it later on in ways to give it that sense of acoustically bouncing around in irregular ways.

But in this case I wanted something that really spun around to give a sense of a gyroscope. So I would take this thing and just go {makes fast motions and vocals around microphone} as fast as I could around these expensive Schoeps mikes – and as close as I could to the capsule, of course. That's the challenge in all of these sound effects recording sessions, [that] you really have to get close [to the microphones] because there’s no such thing as a “long lens” for microphones. It doesn’t work that way. You may think of these parabolic dish mikes and shotgun mikes… No, it doesn’t really sound good that way. You have to get those mikes in close. So, the potential to destroy microphones is huge in our business. That’s one of many many stories along those lines.

But in this case I wanted to go right by the [mike] really fast and I slowed that sound down and made loops/cycles out of it so it would go “rwong-rwong-rwong-rwong” in a very cool way. And I had to make a sound that didn't sound quite musical, otherwise it would get in the way of the double basses and cellos in the score. That was an interesting challenge.

And there’s some other sounds in the ship as well. The most important sound was the propellers – once we started to see them. We rented this huge, six-foot tall Jacob’s Ladder, you know that thing you see on all those sci-fi movies that have the rods going like this and it goes “Kajjjj-yah! Kajjjj-yah!” in a giant arc. Well, this thing was six feet tall and had a 30,000 volt transformer on it, and we put it in Julia’s room and I would stand up on a chair with a huge screwdriver with a microphone in one hand and I would try to pull the arc off of these arms of this ladder and pull it in the air and manipulate it so that instead of just going “Kajjjj-yah! Kajjjj-yah!” it would go “Krjrrrrrwwwayeh!” or it would go “Rjrwrwrwrrrrewyeh!” Meanwhile, I’m following this giant arc, trying to keep the microphone really close to it, but trying not to destroy a few thousand-dollar mike at the same time. Which I did barely succeed in doing.

So then I took all those sounds that somehow I managed to survive recording and created little reverse/forward loops and put them in a sampler along with a lot of these other sounds and then had to create a sense of motion through space as the different parts of the ship are moving through these tunnels and going by the camera at different times. I had to both create a sense of acceleration and deceleration, which is very important in these scenes because, again, like Gary was saying, no sound ever stays the same for 15 nano-seconds or it gets thrown out or covered up, basically. So all these sounds had to have these "accels" and "deccels" all the time, but also I had to sort of obey the rules about the way Doppler Shift affects sound. It’s kind of a cheat between the two requirements.

So here, I took a short section of the Nebuchadnezzar parking, which is another one of my favorite scenes, and I’ll just play the individual elements and then we’ll hear the whole thing together.

[Clip of Nebuchadnezzar with different elements.]

So here's all of that stuff together with the beautiful score by Don Davis.

[Clip with full soundtrack.]

We’re running out of time here, should I do a quick version of the sentinel attack or just skip it and go on to “Neo goes to the real world?” {Audience urges “Quick!”} Quick? Is that OK? Are you still awake? I’ll do this really quickly.

The Sound of the Sentinels

The sentinels are these horrible, horrible machines that have to have the danger and menace and malice to them that animals have. It’s kind of the similar challenge that Gary was facing with "Jurassic Park": here are these gigantic dinosaurs that have to be scarier than anything any of us have ever experienced. Well, that sort of applied to these sentinels, but they had to be completely mechanical. And I couldn’t really see them for the longest time. But I experimented with a lot of different sounds that had that frightening quality, and this is what great sound effects work has to always be about. It’s all about the emotional associations of sounds. It’s not about whether they’re really technically correct or not, it’s about whether they’re scary or relaxing or threatening or whatever helps tell the story… you get the idea.

So, these are some examples of the individual elements that every sentinel had, but we’re playing a different element for each of the different five sentinels. It’s kind of random, they way we did this presentation, but you get a sense of these horrible sounds. [Screen lists: 1. Gears; 2. High resonance; 3. High sick toy motor; 4. Scream loops; 5. Leg screeches; 6. Servos; 7. Ratchets; and 8. Foley, clanks, and swords.]

Almost all of these sounds are some of my kids toys that were malfunctioning in some way or another.

The third one is "High Sick Toy Motor.” It was this thing you got with your hamburger at some burger joint that you were supposed to blow into and it was supposed to go “wheeee” and instead it went “WREEEEAEAEY!!!” I just loved that thing. So I just played the hell out of it in the studio and got all these great sounds and manipulated them to make this horrible scary element.

The “leg screeches” source was a little space shuttle truck toy that one of my son's friends had. It had twelve little axles under it with these little tiny wheels and when you pushed it on a carpet every single axle would go “schwe-de-de-de-de” – this horrible, painful… everybody in the house would just cover their ears and I loved it! Perfect!

So I made a lot of sound of them moving around and put them all together and here are the different layers of the sounds.

[Clip with sentinels with different elements.]

I love the irony that all of these horrible machines were made with sounds from kids toys. It just appeals to me.

So, I’ll play the whole thing together with the music.

[Clip with full soundtrack.]

That was pretty quick. Still awake? {Audience “Yeah!”}

Pulling Neo Out of the Matrix

I'm going to play the sequence where Neo is basically connected to the real Neo laying in his pod in the real world. It includes all kinds of different challenges. One of the primary challenges here was to make all of the effects dance with the music properly. This doesn't happen all the time, but I always did try, but in this case it did happen where I communicated with Don Davis, who is in fact NOT my brother; but Dion Davis, who is in the audience IS actually my brother. Don is not. He IS a terrific composer.

We had to communicate all the way through the beginning of the scene where they’re plugging Neo in, all these little machines made from spare parts are whirring and clicking and all this stuff. We, as we often do, blocked out the scene in terms of frequency bands – the kind of orchestration that Gary was referring to earlier – we could only have one type of sound in a particular interval of frequencies. We tried to block it out so if Don needed to do something with the ‘cellos we would avoid doing something in the ‘cello range for that spot. Conversely, if I needed to introduce some machine off screen before we see it that had kind of a “whwe-whwe-whwe-whwe” he’d try to not to anything that had a “woo-woo-woo” in the music. That only helped.

One of the funnest things in the sequence was creating the sound of Neo experiencing himself being digitized and connected through that digital portal to his real self laying in a pod. It was one of those things that was enormously time consuming, but ended up working very well. How often do you get to do that? And it’s all made from Neo’s actual screams, three sections manipulated in different ways.

That takes us into the pod where he wakes up and he's in this power plant. And there are all these other people in pods there, and it’s the worst possible nightmare you could have. You’re in the pod of goo, you’re attached to this really horrible thing, and then this really creepy machine starts disconnecting you and then you get flushed down this sort of toilet into these tubes and you end up in the sewer. And THEN this machine sends this giant hook down after you and scoops you up and it gets way worse from there, of course.

We had to create all the sounds of all of that stuff happening. I’ll play the effects stem off the DVD and then we’ll play the scene off 35mm film with the Dolby Digital stereo track so you can hear how the orchestra and all these different sounds had to work together.

[Clip of Neo taking the red pill and coming into the real world with sound effects only.]

A couple of quick facts about that scene before we play the film. The mirror sounds, all of the bending mirrors and monitors where Neo sort of bends the world towards the end before he takes over Smith is all made with a great big piece of glass that I had in my studio. It was very late at night and everybody else had left, unfortunately. I figured out that if you bang this piece of glass and then you moved the microphone around very very close to the surface, you could find these sort of veins of resonance in the glass, because the glass was kind of oddly shaped, we’d broken corners out of it. So I was standing it up diagonally by holding the top corner with one hand and wielding the mike with the other. Unfortunately, the only way to bang was using the microphone, because I had headphones on, so I lost 15.7 percent of my hearing that night – which happens, it’s one of the casualties of this kind of work.

But I would cringe and bang this thing and move the microphone around and I found that if I crossed these little veins it would create this Doppler, making these “wrrrrung, eeyungggg, wunggg, eyuhhh, wrung, eyungg” sounds that were absolutely beautiful and I ended up just slowing it down and not having to do anything much else to it for scenes like that when he’s dipping into the fabric of reality and when he’s squeezing things. That was a great discovery.

Another thing is the thunder sounds in that room which is in the Matrix. We had to be very careful about that because the thunder couldn’t sound like the latest, hippest, coolest, expensive thunder recordings that you hear in the latest, expensive, coolest, hippest movies at your neighborhood theater because we figured that the Matrix would only have access to a sound effects library that was just SO good. I didn’t think there were little ‘bots out there recording new thunders all the time like we’re always doing. So we had to find these sounds that sounded a little bit like old monster movies. They had a little of that optical mono quality to them. We had to cut them very carefully through the whole scene to get the rhythms right and to work with what you see. But it also had to sound a little cheesy all the time. That was kind of fun.

In the Power Plant there is the scene with what was called the "Dockbot," which we didn’t see until much later in the process. In fact, I remember at one point after we’d built the sounds for this machine and the Wachowski Brothers had come over to hear some stuff in my studio, on the way out they said "Oh, by the way…” And they had this look on their face. The usual look. “The Dockbot has changed. Now it’s got like 15, maybe 20 little tools on the front of it that are all moving and snipping, and whirring. Currently, on screen, it didn’t have any of that stuff. I thought that was one thing I was done with in the movie. Of course I was far from done. So at the very last minute we recorded a million little air tools that were not electrical, I didn’t think it should have any electrical motor sounds that we could relate to in our own lives. An editor named David Grimaldi put all those things together for all those little horrible twitchy tools on the front of it.

The last thing in the scene I want to mention is when that dockbot reaches out to grab Neo, we made all these great sounds of that thing scooping up to him, and latching around his neck and the bolt coming out and all these beautiful sounds of the rig ratcheting out of his head, but we found in the final mix that no matter what we did with it, it seemed like it was killing him. And that’s not the way the story is supposed to play. You’re supposed to believe that he survived this process, but everybody that watched it thought this thing was killing him and the movie was over and it was the second reel. So we ended up basically not playing any sounds but it just kind of goes {minimal sounds} and it worked beautifully because the music was conveying the emotional situation there, which is Neo is just scared out of his mind and has no idea what’s going on nor what’s coming next. So we didn't need all this great grinding and cartilage splitting sounds that were in there as the thing was screwing itself out of him.

So now we’ll play the film of this whole sequence. Have fun.

[Film clip with full soundtrack of Neo getting pulled into the real world.]

Questions & Answers

Scott: That is so cool. Ladies and Gentleman, Dane Davis!

Dane: Thank you. It’s a great sequence. I love that scene.

SH: So, Dane. You’re a sound designer. What would you call a sound designer?

DD: I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that. I told him this yesterday. I hoped nobody’d ask this question. My definition of a sound designer is probably the same as Gary's in a lot of ways. It’s somebody that oversees the entire process of putting all these sounds onto the movie and rendering them believable and all of that. There are a lot of different definitions. I personally tend to do a lot of mixing as I’m working, but I love in the final mix to not be sitting at the board. It works great for me and I feel like more of a sound designer when I can sit back and let very talented mixers, like Gregg Rudloff, who was the effects mixer on this movie, do the physical mixing so that I can keep more of an aural overview, again there's no aural equivalent for “overview.” “Overhear?” That’s one difference in the way I work from a lot of people who consider themselves sound designers, but I’m very hands-on in the recording process and in making the sounds and designing the contraptions that make these sound acoustically that have to be captured. It’s the most confusing question there is, really, in our business. “Sound Designer” often refers to, depending on the crew and the structure of the movie, somebody that’s creating sound effects that are then given to the sound editors that are overseen by the supervising sound editor. That’s another way of saying it. And there’s sound designers that are making sounds and editing it, so it varies a lot.

SH: So, you’ve been tied to this Matrix the whole stretch. After doing the first movie, you did the sequels, you did the animated shorts that were done, you did the video game… But you’ve done a lot of other projects, like you can see on the filmography, “Drug Store Cowboy” and “Go” and “Boogie Nights” and a movie that’s coming out now that sounds fascinating, the documentary “Riding Giants.” Can you talk about this surf documentary that you worked on. In theaters now.

DD: Yeah, we had done Stacy Peralta’s first documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” which was hugely fun. Isn’t that a great film?

SH: And it played here at the Egyptian.

DD: That’s right, a few nights ago.

Eddie Kim and I did that one together. Eddie’s the skateboarder on our crew. A champion skateboarder. That was a big challenge to come up with the esthetic for that movie as well as making all these sounds that were believable. Documentary sound effects -- it’s all fake, of course. My friends the documentarians over there, I see you laughing. It’s still fake. We all know that in nature documentaries, the sound is all fake. Everything’s fake. It’s just as fake as these narrative movies. But somehow in that movie we got across this believable feeling about skateboards and the esthetic that skateboarders haul around with them.

And then Stacy went on to make this "Riding Giants,” and now we had surfers – in fact big wave, really big wave surfers from the 1940s until the present. And unlike skateboards we couldn't really take a surfboard on a wave and hold the microphone over a surfboard on a 40-foot wave and get this sound. But we knew that we were kind of in trouble from the start because there were going to be a lot of hard core surfers watching this movie and listening to it. And Stacy, in his great way, laughed at the agony that he knew we would be experiencing because there is in fact no way to record these giant waves. We came up with all these schemes like dropping a microphone on a 500-foot cord from a helicopter or going out on a boat with all these waterproof rigs… No. Nothing will work.

You CAN record smaller waves. We did a lot of stuff in swimming pools and out in the ocean. We had a fire department in one case come out with a huge fire hose at Brian Watkins’ house and blew huge amounts of water over these surfboards, and stuff like that. So it had to be contrived from acoustical events that we could actually make happen.

And I've been hearing from several of those hard core surfers out there that it’s the first surfing movie they’ve seen where it’s sounded like it sounds when you’re out there on the waves. That’s a huge, huge compliment for us because we don't believe any of it because we know it’s all fake. And I, believe it or not, having been born and grown up in Southern California I’ve never been on a surfboard. But it was fun to try to achieve that.

SH: We all look forward to hearing it. We can take a few questions from the audience.

Audience: Just wondering about your work with Gus Van Sant.

SH: His work with Gus Van Sant.

DD: Well, it was very, very fun. We did “Drugstore Cowboy.” Gus and I have talked about doing other movies, it’s never quite worked out. But one of these days I hope that we will. "Drugstore Cowboy" is one of my favorite movies of all time personally and certainly one of my favorite movies to work on. Gus had done a feature film previously, “Mala Noche,” and in that film, which is a pretty bleak, very intense movie about the lives of male prostitutes in Portland, as I recall, he had not only shot the movie and directed it but he did all the sound effects work and all the mixing himself on a four channel porta-studio in his house. That was kind of a great way of working for him. This is a bit technical for some of you, but it was a nightmare because it didn’t really synch up. So he had to do all these little sections and then transfer them to film and synch them up. It was all kind of done halfway wild, which is how I liked to do Super 8 films in the ‘70s.

But, I love that kind of attitude and approach, and when we worked together he was very, very open to experimenting with dynamics of things… like one of the sound design principles was the idea that the more strung out these people were on drugs the more intrusive the sound of the world was. So everywhere they go there’s trucks and planes and babies crying and people practicing trumpet and all this stuff; and then when they scored these drugs and got high on these things their focus became completely narrow and you would hear one little sound at a time, and then slowly as they came down off of these drugs the sound would start to intrude again – and that was a very, very fun principle to play with.

So in getting to do conceptual things like that on a movie is always a gift, and he’s one of those filmmakers that handed that gift to me.

SH: Anyone in the balcony? OK, no.

Audience: When you're recording those mechanical devices, do you do it to picture or do you do it wild?

DD: With the exception of the Foley we record everything wild. On most movies, for the vehicles, we generally will make a tape of whole sequences of vehicles, you may all know this, but generally on a movie you can’t use any of the sounds of those cars, whether they’re Mustangs or Honda Civics or whatever it is. That all has to be recreated, so generally we go out to the desert where the ambient noise is very quiet and restage all the moves that you see on camera, usually in stereo so you can isolate the sound of the car. It’s a huge pain, but that's how it has to be done with cars.

So we’d make a tape of all these scenes and we used to have a Hi-8 deck that we’d take out the desert and we’d look at them and record, but we couldn't do it really synch sound but it would remind us of all the moves on screen.

That’s generally true of all the things we did for this movie, all the things with the massager and all the little toys and the metal clanking and recording the bullets going through stuff. We did this huge session where we fired bullets through all these walls that we’d built with microphones in between them and inside them to get sort of an expanded sense of bullets traveling through walls for some of the later scenes. It's all done wild, then we created hundreds and hundreds – if not thousands – of these sounds from these sessions and then figured out how we were going to edit these things together and mix them.

The Foley – and there’s some beautiful Foley in that last sequence, like Neo in the pod [with] all that sloshing and the way that sort of gelatinous skin across the pod is going flum flump with snapping and all that stuff, that's all done to picture.

Keanu's favorite sound in that movie is that wrrrrreh sound that his hand makes as he’s scraping the side of the pod. That was done by John Roesch on the Foley stage, as well as a lot of the water and splashing.

But usually, our recording ratio – like when you shoot a movie you have a shooting ratio, and you figure if you shoot 10 to 1 then ten minutes of film for one minute ending up on the screen, that’s pretty good. Our shooting ratio is 152,000 to 1 or something like that because we have to experiment, like Gary was saying with animals, no matter how many times you've heard a particular contraption make a sound or vehicle or airplane or in the worst case scenario, animals, when you’ve got a microphone there it won’t do it. So you just waste what used to be tons and tons of hours of tape and now it’s just quadrillions and quadrillions of bits on disk recorders, but you spend a lot of time trying to get these things to make that sound that you know they're capable of doing. So the nature of that is not conducive to recording sound to picture, and it would take you a thousand years to do a movie.

SH: One final question, way in the back.

Audience: You said that you got the squeaky gate in Texas at some ranch. Do you just walk around with a $3,000 microphone and some kind of recording equipment with you everywhere?

DD: Yes. Ask my wife, she's out there someplace. We went on a vacation before we were married, thirteen years ago, and I’ve always kept a stereo Nagra and mikes in the back of my car wherever I went. Can you think of anything more annoying?

I remember when we were on this little vacation somewhere on the California coast and we were in this campground and she was out going for a walk. She came back and said, “You’ve got to record these incredible frogs!” It turns out there's this little canal coming off this farmland area and there’re all these biohazard signs everywhere. From this canal you hear these beautiful frogs and so we snuck down into this canal.

Of course, they all shut up. Which is how it is with insects as well as small creatures like frogs. So I set the stereo mike rig down by the pond where I was pretty sure there were a couple of frogs, and then waited for them to forget about me. You know, their memory/attention span is very short. So they would start doing this unbelievable chorus of “ribbit, ribbit, ribbit” and we got some beautiful recordings that night and I’ve used them in maybe twenty movies, these “San Simeon Frogs” they’re called.

My mom, who’s also out here, she will call me and say, “My stepladder makes the most HORRIBLE screech when I fold it up! You’ve gotta record this thing!!” Which I did. And now my kids are always hearing things and saying "Daddy, Daddy! Check this out!"

So people come to me all the time with sounds they’ve heard that are particularly exciting or scary or unique in some way and the idea is to record it. Luckily, now I have a whole bunch of people working with me that are going out and recording all the time. We have a lot of mikes and stuff and every day there’s a mike rig somewhere recording something. Because you never know, like Gary was saying, you never know when that quirky sound is going to happen.

SH: And thanks for capturing those sounds and sharing them with us.

DD: Thank you very much!

SH: And a lot of thanks to the American Cinematheque for having this great big theater where you can hear the sounds off of these big speakers and thank you all so much for coming. Please come to more of these!

* * * *

{overheard from a small crowd gathered around Dane afterwards}

Audience: How about the conceptualizing of the “drug focus” theme you were talking about in “Drugstore Cowboy.” Who came up with that conceptual idea… because it’s very, very interesting. Like you have to either do drugs or know someone who does drugs.

DD: I’ve never done any, personally, which gave me a kind of objectivity about it. But it seemed to me that that would be the case. Gus hadn’t done any either, so we were all just guessing. But the writer that wrote that movie, of course, had. It was based on his life.

Audience: {???}

DD: Well, he was in prison the whole time, so we didn’t really end up talking. But you just think, emotionally if I were doing this what would it feel like, what would it look like, what would it sound like and conceptually these things just come out of the process of just making a film. I don’t know where those ideas came from, but it’s the kind of thing I would do, so I probably just tried it on Gus. Maybe Gus said, “Let’s do this.” That’s usually how it is with the directors, you just throw ideas around. When you work with people that are willing to not just play by the rules, and try to invent new rules, then cool stuff happens.

Audience: How much time did you have for that film?

DD: Three months or something like that. It was very fun. I could talk about that one for hours. It was very fun. It was a challenge.

I do a lot of different kinds movies. In between this movie and the second Matrix movie I did “8 Mile” and “Treasure Planet” and a whole bunch of Joel Silver movies, “Romeo Must Die…”

Audience: Oh! I loved that movie!

DD: Do you? Yeah, that was really fun. So, you keep working on these movies. And then “Matrix: Reloaded” finally comes in and you jump onto that one. I’d have loved to have just sat around for that year and a half thinking about the Matrix sequels, but you can’t do that. But while I’m working on all these other movies I’m getting all these ideas and writing them down and eventually getting to do them.

Every movie is a challenge. We try to make every movie as cool as possible. And as interesting as possible.

Audience: How many have you done?

DD: I have supervised… “The Matrix” was my 64th feature film. I think I’ve now done 79 feature films. Scary, isn’t it? Actually, it’s probably more like 84 or 5 if you count the ones I was co-supervising. You know, I’ve been doing it twenty years, so you figure if you do two a year…

Audience: So seven and a half months is actually a long time for you to get.

DD: Very long. Very long. Basically on “Matrix: Reloaded” and “Revolutions” we had about eight months for each of those which was absolutely brutal… savage… sadistic. Because those were so much work. It’s unthinkable. But there isn’t time.

A lot of the smaller movies you get five weeks to develop the tracks and you start mixing. That’s another reason why you work night and day. You’re talking about doing four or five months of work in one month. And you can choose to not do it and just do this flimsy basic job, which some people do. You know what I mean?

Audience: So why don’t you take any time off between jobs. Is it a financial thing or an artistic thing?

DD: It’s all those. I would love to take time off. Two main problems. One, it’s just very expensive and I have a company and so if I’m not working it costs tens of thousands of dollars because the bills keep coming in, and I have a lot of great people that are supervising shows on their own and that’s helping. The biggest thing is that you cannot plan anything because the schedules don’t mean anything. Ask my wife, for the ninth straight summer we planned to go to Europe in August and once again, the show I’m working on, they’re stretching the schedule two and a half months to accommodate reshoots. So that plan is gone.

I’ve gone on ten percent of the family vacations because some show always delays or has a new temp or something like that. So you block out time between shows, but that time always disappears and they always overlap. And you can’t jump ship from one show, if you do you lose that client. And you can’t not go on to the one you promised you’d do, because you’ll lose that client. So you end up doing both for the two or three weeks they overlap or whatever and you kill yourself, but you get them both done. The net result is that there’s very little time off. You do what you can.


DD: …I have my own studio and company here in West Hollywood, where I generally do all the work, and I have a studio at home with ProTools, but I generally do my own music there and I do photography and stuff. I try to not bring the sound effects work home with me. But sometimes I do. I do a lot of writing and thinking at home. I just have my laptop and I have the movie on there.


Audience: Do you ever get sick of it?


DD: …and now I have another five hours of stuff I gotta have done there tomorrow, so it’s those moments when I really question it. And I’m really tired of the scheduling problems. It’s a cruel world in terms of budgeting and that stuff, and it’s getting worse every day.

Audience: Do you think it will get better?

DD: I hope so, but there’s no indication of that so far. It’s like everything in the film industry – like every other industry, they’re just squeezing and squeezing and squeezing and squeezing… We get less time and less money to do way more work every month. And so you have to keep making that decision “Is this worth it? Do I love this enough to keep doing it?” When everything you ask the studio for, they take it away. And I wish that, like tonight, if the studio people could come here that need to come to these things to see what goes into these movies, it would help us. It would help the cause. But they’re not really that interested in making the invisible crew any more visible.