Harrison Abbott chats with John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum sound editor Mark Stoeckinger…
From the outset, John Wick has garnered much attention for its impeccably crafted fight sequences, building up a rabid cult following in the process. Even those who aren’t as bowled over by the movies are forced to admit that – from a purely technical standpoint – their balletic action is a sight to behold. Indeed, critics have taken note of everything from the franchise’s propulsive editing, to the dedicated stunt work, to the ingenious choreography, right through to the assured direction from Chad Staleski.
However, one element of the technique that often goes unappreciated is the stellar audio track, which gives a palpable sense of weight to every punch, every gunshot and every stab wound that is inflicted by the legendary Baba Yaga (Keanu Reeves). If you want to see just how much of a difference it makes, just try watching these visceral brawls on mute. It’s not the same!
To shed a little more light on this sorely overlooked area, we had the opportunity to speak with Mark Stoeckinger – supervising sound editor for the entire trilogy – about his contributions to the series’ latest offering. Highlighting the important role that audio plays in storytelling, sharing fascinating behind-the-scenes tidbits, and explaining how he gets those guns to sound just right, he gives plenty of insight over the course of the interview. So if you’re curious to see how much painstaking work goes into these dizzying productions, then read on!
To start things off, could you talk a little about how you got into your current role?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in sound. When I was little – and long distance phone calls were still relatively expensive – my family would record these short audio messages for our grandparents to listen to, which we’d then send over in the mail. They would reply in a similar fashion and for years that is how we’d communicate with one another. You see, it was cheaper back then to send a 5-inch reel of tape than it was to make a phone call. I guess that was my first exposure to the world of audio recording and it must have stuck with me.
Later on in life, I was fortunate enough to go to USC film school. It’s not like I went there [specifically] to learn about sound […] but I ended up gravitating towards the craft. After graduating I pursued this newfound interest, pitching in with other people’s projects wherever I could, before eventually getting to supervise my own. For all intents and purposes, that’s the lineage of my career.
And how did you become involved with the first John Wick?
I had previously worked with a post-production supervisor, named Michael Tinger, who was aware of my eclectic taste in movies. He knew that John Wick was something I’d be super interested in and arranged a meeting with the directors [David Leitch co-directed the first film alongside Stahelski, but passed on the sequels]. I suppose the rest is history.
We just hit it off straight away and ended up forming a team of collaborators that has remained consistent across the entire franchise. From Andy Koyama, who mixes our dialogue and music; to Martyn Zub, who deals with effects; right through to Alan Rankin, who designs all the gun sounds – everyone has stuck around for the long haul. Which is great, because it means that we’ve been able to learn alongside each other and develop an efficient shorthand.
Speaking of which, we’re now three films into this series and the action has somehow managed to ramp up with each installment. How has that escalation impacted your work?
Yeah, the production value is probably doubling every time and it’s our job to ensure that the sound evolves at a comparable rate. In that sense, Parabellum is probably more sonically complex than the previous two entries put together [as] we’re taking things to foreign locations, depicting large scale car chases, and so on.
And whilst It’s certainly true that the sound is busier than ever, it’s also far more ambitious in terms of its storytelling function. In fact, one of my favourite aspects of the movie is that there’s more going on beneath [the surface] than just mindless violence, especially in terms of the unexpectedly deep worldbuilding. We contribute to that particular aspect of the film, through what I like to call ‘’non-literal’’ effects.
Could you explain what you mean by these ‘’non-literal’’ effects?
They’re basically subtextual sounds that aren’t really based in the reality of the scene. Do you remember the furnace bit in Chapter 3?
When Winston and the adjudicator are inspecting the body?
That’s the one! Well the furnace they used sounded like a jet engine, drowning out a lot of the dialogue. When we heard it we were like: ‘’Oh shit, what are we going to do?’’ Luckily, we were able to minimise the vast majority of that background noise and make the recordings a little more cohesive. But we still had to think about creative ways of masking it further.
Which is when I realised we could make use of these non-literal effects I’ve been talking about. You see, we’re kind of in the bowels of the Continental at this point, where they dispose of all their victims. So I thought, ‘’Let’s make it sound like a meatpacking plant!’’ After all, they’re cutting things up, they’re putting them in furnaces and so on. Obviously we don’t see any of that activity on-screen, but our audio makes the connection for the viewer. That’s what I mean by these non-literal effects.
Gotcha. So it’s kind of like non-diegetic sound to communicate ideas to the audience?
Yeah, pretty much.
What’s it like seeing the raw footage for one of these movies, before you’ve had a chance to work your magic on it?
In a word: Daunting [Laughs]
A good example would be when Evan Schiff [the editor] presented us with a chunk of the museum fight. As you can imagine, real knives couldn’t be used here for safety reasons and blocking, and the glass cabinets couldn’t be broken [either]. And nobody got stabbed in the eye of course! Which meant that there were a lot of gaps we needed to fill with audio effects.
One thing that we did have going for us was David Schwartz, the production sound mixer. He always makes a huge effort to record everything that is going on during these shoots, so that we have a decent amount of original material to work with. He captures as much of that ‘’real’’ on-set sound as he can, especially the exertion noises that are made by the stuntmen because it’s very hard for us to recreate their performances in ADR.
That’s honestly quite surprising! Given all the moving parts and the complexity of those fight sequences, I just assumed most of the sound would have to be taken care of in post. So how do you record on set?
We try not to put wires on the actors for the sake of safety, but we do plant some mics here and there. Granted, it doesn’t always result in the cleanest of tracks, with everything that’s going on, but it does add a sense of authenticity to the mix.
A lot of other films get ‘’looped’’. They decide that the production audio is unusable and throw it out, relying too much on [ADR]. They will spend a lot of time trying to perfect it, but you just can’t recreate those little nuances that you only get with the real deal. Which is why it’s so important for John Wick that we have on-set audio available to us. Chad is very adamant that we retain as much of it as possible and, if you ask me, that’s the secret sauce.
In those instances where the production audio isn’t salvageable, how do you handle the ADR? Specifically. all the exertion sounds that the fighters have to make. Do the actors come in and record grunts for each individual scene, or do they just give you a library of generic noises to play around with?
Well, it’s really a combination of both. Having done the two previous movies, we obviously have an extensive library of Keanus to draw from [Laughs]. So if there’s ever an opportunity to reuse any of those, then we obviously take advantage of it. The same goes for the non-descript characters, like the guards or the thugs. We recycle old effects for those guys.
At the same time, Chad is very appreciative of what we need in order to do the best possible job. So he gets his stunt performers to come in and re-record the [exertion] sounds that they would otherwise be making on set. That’s hugely beneficial, as they really understand their own physicality and what it takes to perform some of these daring feats. They know how much it takes out of you and can [thus] give us the appropriate noises.
But again, we always try to minimise how much ADR we are doing in the first place. We pick and choose what stuff needs replacing and what can be retained, and then our ADR supervisor spends an awful lot of time weaving the two together.
Over the course of those three movies, I think it’s fair to say there’s been an awful lot of shooting. How do you ensure that the gunfire never becomes repetitive or monotonous?
Well, a single gunshot might have 6-10 elements that we can adjust in order to make it sound a little different. Whilst some of these factors might be unchanged between shots, the way in which they are combined will always be unique. We might switch the frequency, fiddle with the compression, or use a different noise for the shell ejection. Sometimes we even add reverb so that it matches the space that the characters are in, as well as their position in relation to the camera. That’s the trick for avoiding repetition.
By now you must have listened to those effects over and over again. Has it reached the point where you’re no longer just an audio wiz, but also something of a firearms connoisseur? Can you identify weapons by ear?
I can actually. One thing I quickly picked up on is that every weapon has a distinct audio signature. For example, pistols are quite poppy, shotguns produce a very ‘’round’’ noise and assault rifles basically use all frequencies at once. This knowledge, combined with the real-world samples we have access to, helps us to figure out what effects we should be using and how we might best manipulate them. So for an M16, we might want something that sounds bright and snappy. Meanwhile, an AK-47 rifle needs to feel boomier.
Chad is very clued up on this stuff too. He knows his armaments inside out and he tries to make sure that they’re represented with a degree of accuracy on screen. He knows how many shots each pistol can fire and when John would [accordingly] need to reload. Details like that which keep the gun enthusiasts on board.
And does that strive for realism extend to the sound design as well?
Not always. For example, at one point we got to meet with Taran Butler, who does the [firearms] training for John Wick. And whilst we were together he let us shoot all the guns that were featured in Parabellum.
Much to my horror, we discovered that the weapons the black ops guys have at the end of the movie [the ones who raid the Continental] are actually supposed to fire 9mm bullets! I just assumed they were assault rifles, given their appearance, but it turns out we had given them completely the wrong effects. Fortunately, Chad preferred our version to the real thing and whilst the assault rifle sounds might not have been strictly accurate, they helped the scene come alive.
You know, sometimes you want to go for realism and sometimes you want to support the story instead. In this particular case, we really needed the black ops guys to come across as dominant and aggressive, something that the 9mm sounds were just incapable of conveying.
Do you find that you are often embellishing sound effects like this to give them a little extra impact?
All the time. Granted, it’s not like the old days when you would use a Howitzer to make a gun sound larger than life but, at the same time, everything is somewhat embellished. For an action movie like this, a real gun firing in a real space sounds oddly anemic. So you need to layer and mix effects a reasonable amount to make them louder or more powerful.
Speaking of those black ops guys, I think my favourite sound in the entire movie is when we hear John’s bullets bouncing off their armour plating. It’s such a cool effect. What are we actually hearing there?
Well, it’s a combination of a couple of things. We’ve got a bullet hitting a metal plate, and then there’s also a ricochet noise that draws out the sound out a little. Because we needed it to last long enough for you to be able to decipher what it is happening amidst all the carnage.
That last part was actually really important to Chad. He wanted to make sure that you could always follow what was going on so that the studio didn’t get on his case about trimming the sequence . And sound was absolutely crucial for making sure you could understand why those guys weren’t going down. Just by listening you can tell when the bullets are bouncing off the armour and when John [has] found a weak point.
I never thought of it in those terms. The sound effects are essentially aiding our comprehension of the action.
Exactly. The hard ricochet sound [communicates] that the armour is impenetrable, whereas the softer impact noise tells you when the bullet has gone between the plates and hit flesh. At one point, Chad said that he actually wanted it to be so detailed that you could hear when a bullet had passed through somebody and hit the wall behind them [Laughs].
The other thing that was quite tricky about that sequence was the sheer volume of guns that were being fired at any given moment. John has a pistol, a shotgun, and an assault rifle, plus there are all of the bad guys shooting as well. So we had to make it clear who was firing and from what position in relation to the camera. If we’ve done our job successfully, you should be able to piece it all together without looking at the picture.
Moving on from gun sounds, I thought we could talk a little about the role that audio plays in establishing a sense of place? Specifically, how did you approach depicting Morocco compared to say, New York?
The characteristics of those settings make the [juxtaposition] rather straightforward. I mean, both are pretty cacophonous environments but with New York that’s largely down to machinery – like cars, subways and the general din of the city. Morocco, on the other hand, is more alive with throngs of people and mopeds. So they’re already pretty distinct from each other.
And then if you make a point to differentiate the language that’s being spoken by the crowds, then you give the locations [an idiosyncratic] voice. To that end, we used archive recordings that had been done for other [Morocco-set] films, as well as some original tracks for John Wick. Of course, there’s the score as well, which always changes to suit the location and to tell you where you are. It could be Russian music for when you’re at the ballet, an Asian motif for when you’re with the triads, or an Arabic theme for when you’re in Morocco. And then you have John’s theme itself, which lets you know that he’s coming for blood! I love that music, it’s like we’re paying homage to spaghetti westerns or something!
Do you work closely with the music composers then?
We do! The most important part of that relationship is the spotting, as we pinpoint when the music is going to be [prominent] and when it is going to take a backseat to the sound effects. Chad is pretty specific in that regard – he’ll say things like: ‘’This here is a sound effects moment’’ or ‘’this is a music moment’’.
For instance, you have the horse and motorcycle chase in Chapter 3. The score for that bit had a screaming electric guitar that was really cool but, as you can imagine, it was on a very similar frequency to our motorcycles.
Were they clashing then?
Yeah. That created a dilemma in terms of: ‘’where is one part of the soundtrack going to hand over to the other’’. Sometimes in cases like that, you have to turn the music down or lose some of the sound effects. It’s a balancing act and you just need to figure out which is going to best tell the story. That’s one of the aspects that I’m most proud of with John Wick 3. There’s so much texture in terms of how the music and sound are weaved together.
Does it help having a director –
[Laughs] Fair enough. But from what you’re saying, it sounds like Chad is very supportive of you guys and is considerate of what you need. In that sense, would you say that he’s especially attentive to sound?
Absolutely. He just knows his stuff! As well as being big on martial arts and competitive shooting, he’s a proper movie fan and [as such] he is interested in every aspect of filmmaking, including sound. He just wants you to bring it and will drill down on specific instructions if he knows exactly what he wants. Yet at the same time, he gives his collaborators plenty of latitude and never once micromanages.
Another key element of the John Wick series is obviously its emphasis on dogs. How do you go about selecting the specific growls, whines, and barks that characterise these important animals?
It’s all about how we want them to be characterised, rather than having strict fidelity to their breed. For example, I think Sofia’s dogs are Belgian Malinois, but we use all kinds of sounds to give them the personality we’re looking for. When they’re being all docile and cuddly, we use recordings of certain dog breeds, but then it might be a different one entirely when they’re attacking people. In fact, we used wolves for a lot of the action sequences and then adjusted the speed and pitch in order to make them sound even more vicious.
To answer your question, it’s basically a case of selecting the sound that is most dramatically appropriate, even if it is coming from the ‘’wrong’’ animal. The dramatics run the day on that one for sure.
And finally, the New York sequences in Parabellum are besieged by near-constant rainfall. How did you keep that sounding fresh when it’s so pervasive?
Yeah, I was little intimidated by that [laughs] You see, the rain itself wasn’t a visual effect. It was done practically and in order for it to register on camera they had to use a ton of water, especially since it was all done at night. That posed a real challenge for us because it meant that any audio recording had to be done in the midst of a downpour, [resulting in] a lot of white noise. We captured it anyway and did a load of work to filter out the unwanted sound.
However, what we really needed – in order to make it crisp – was the detail of what the rain was actually hitting. So was it splashing on the canopy? Was it landing on debris? The audience needs that kind of information to help them comprehend scene transitions and to help them differentiate environments. That’s what we focussed on for the most part and I think it works really well.
Many thanks to Mark Stoeckinger for taking the time for this interview.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.