Q&A: Frank Serafine, Sound Designer
From the Minimoog and Tron to Building Out Libraries of Licensed Recorded Effects
Today, in between film clients, he continues to add to his vast library of recorded sound effects and licenses those sounds to filmmakers through Soundsnap, a cloud-based effects library, and through his own site online. We talked to him about his process, including the joys of resurrecting the Moog, finding sounds that defy description and recording surround sound in the field.
Yea, in 1979, I was the youngest guy on the Star Trek team and ended up doing sound for all of the visual effects. That was really kind of the beginning of a major transformation in visual effects filmmaking. At the time, the movie was considered the most high-tech film produced, and that included the sounds. We were in a transitional phase, and motion picture industry hadn't changed since the advent of sound. I was coming from the recording industry and I brought a lot of that technology with me into the film industry. For example, we were one of the firsts to use ProTools on a motion picture because nobody else would allow it for dialogue. We used ProTools on The Hunt for Red October (1991), and a year later, I made a film called Lawnmower Man, where I finally could do all the dialogue editing, as well as sound effects editing using ProTools. At that point, ProTools kind of won the bake off. We basically proved it to the industry.
Q: What were some of the more difficult sounds to capture on The Hunt for Red October, with all its underwater and submarine effects?
I developed a system I called "Safe Sound," where I basically encased these super high-quality microphones in condoms. We had another mic on that feature that we called the "Film Can." We filled a film can with oil and put a pressure-zone mic in the center and dropped it, like a weighted float, into the water. We were able to get some amazing sounds out of it. We did these proof sessions, where I would throw some balls off of a diving board, and we'd record it on top of the water but also with underwater microphones in stereo. When we got back to the studio, we had an underwater source and an overwater source that we were able to manipulate. The way that I created the propeller sound for the Red October sub, was I took a cannonball and slowed it down and it created a total whoosh, and then actually performed it on the keyboard as I watched the propeller turn. That's how a lot of sound effects were created back in the day. On Tron, we were inventing a lot of sound effects processes right along with the ground-breaking visual effects. We were all pretty young, and we were working in a studio at Lionsgate that had just finished The Last Waltz. They were all really familiar with recording industry techniques and on film, we were just trying to break through this almost sewing-machine-like technology. We wanted to bring the machines and techniques that bands like the Beatles used to create really incredible sound into soundtracks. Also, performing to picture had been done in isolated instances, like Jimmy MacDonald did with early Disney cartoons. He was able to watch a projection and record as he was performing. But we really brought this idea of performing to picture forward with sound effects.
Q: Do you miss that process, now that sound effects editing is all done as a separate process digitally?
I think we lost a lot of that ability to perform to picture. As computers came into the picture, it became very much a library domain. Back when we were using synclaviers and emulators to record sound for picture, we were taking the samples we'd get out in the field and then would either perform them or cluster them or doing some process that would make them editable. That's hard to get that kind of performance with ProTools, so I started thinking about how to do that another way. I've developed a technology called the Serafine FX Tron, with Sonic Reality. It's a workstation that lets you bring in any effect from a library or your own custom sound and do what we used to be able to do with sampling systems of the past. All those sound effects that I did for The Hunt for Red October, I would play all ten fingers at the same time. So you'd have a cluster of ten effects making up one sound and going in live. That would take you forever to edit if you were doing it linearly. Performing it was like working with Silly Putty, really, and I think we've lost that over the years.
Q: You must have amassed a very extensive library of record sounds effects over the years. Are you able to license any of those earlier analog effects?
Yea, I have entire rooms filled with them, and digital techniques are letting me license them to new filmmakers. One of the companies I'm working with right now is iZotope. What iZotope has allowed us to do is to take these sounds effects that I recorded on tape with ridiculously high resolution – but which I couldn't do anything with because there was something else in the sound, like a mic bump or an airplane, that I couldn't use – and go in and see the full color spectrum of the sound to isolate what you want. Back in the day, you couldn't do anything with a mic bump; you couldn't EQ it, you couldn't do anything. With iZotope's spectral editing process you can go in and take out what you don't want on that one frequency. You delete the color you don't want but you don't affect the quality of the overall effect. That will let me offer these original effects at higher resolutions.
Q: When did you start licensing your effects?
In the early 1990s I was one of the first to license sound effects libraries. We did the first "The General" series for Sound Ideas, which was also partnering with Lucasfilms and other studios at the time. But I realized then that I wanted to be an independent in this field, so I started developing my own libraries, which I sell on my site and are still sold through Sound Ideas.
Q: How did your relationship with Soundsnap come about?
A few years ago, they commissioned me to go out and record 1,600 sound effects. They are highly useful effects and everybody seems to be using them. I've found that I was filling all the holes that I didn't have in my own library, and I knew nobody else had them. They were missing-link effects, rare things.
This effect Serafine recorded for Soundsnap, wild turkeys breathing heavily, would be right at home in a horror film.
Q: What's in your recording toolbox?
It's kind of like photography and it's gotten down to what is the handiest piece of equipment for me to move with effortlessly in the field. If you have to carry an overloaded bag with extra gear, it just makes it a lot harder to be spontaneous. I love my Samson Zoom H4N and I'm waiting patiently for their next Zoom, which is even more outrageous and will record full surround in 2496. I already use a couple of H4Ns to record surround sound effects. I actually I had one of the first 5.1 sound effects collections featuring high-res ambient sounds for film, really nice backgrounds. It was too hard to record in surround in the past, so what they'd do was take a stereo and gobble it to create the surround. But that's not the real science of surround. To really achieve it, you've got to have all of the reflections exist in the way they were created on site or in the field. It's highly complex, when you think of how they bounce and how the ear perceives it.
Q: Now that they are able to be licensed, how far have some of those early sounds gone through the reverberating world of production?
I've seen some of my earliest work for Star Trek make it into Preparation H commercials, if you can believe it.
Q: How often do you recycle effects, but change them up for different projects?
I've used upwards of about 40 or more effects that I created for other films in newer projects, but one effect has so many different elements that I've got a lot of variety to work with. But I still do a fair amount of custom design, too. I'm using a new Arturia synthesizer, and it's a major tool for me. Back in the day, I owned 53 analog synthesizers and I had to connect them all through various hardware devices and rack them all from the floor to the ceiling in my studio. It was a huge software and hardware nightmare. Arturia actually licensed all the electronic circuitry from every synthesizer and they recreated the front panel of each synthesizer on a high-res computer screen. So all those old synths can return into this one organized system where you have knobs to control it the way you are supposed to. The problem with all these virtual synths is you have to control it with a mouse, one knob at a time. Arturia takes all the software plug-ins and pulls them into this one panel. It's like reincarnation with all my old friends, like the Minimoog, which I used on everything. It's really great for special effects-type sound effects.
Serafine created this clip, "Lucky Spark," on his Arturia system.
Q: What are some of the strangest or surprising sounds you've ever recorded?
When we were on Poltergeist, we went out to this animal weigh station of adopted wild animals here in LA. I heard some crazy sound off in the distance. I asked, "Wow, what is that?" He told me it was a cougar in heat. It became one of the major, craziest sound we used in the film. In Tron, we got a lot of sounds in riding in the Goodyear Blimp with mics outside. I've also recorded bombs in the desert and I've gone out with the Coast Guard, and I've gone into the depths of Disneyland to record the giant turbines that turn on the air conditioning. We record everything because you never know what you're going to need. I recorded some screaming baby pigs that were going ballistic and they made it onto the first Lord of the Rings. That was part of one of my first independent licensed libraries, L2 Platinum Sounds.
Q: Is there any sound out there that you haven't recorded yet that is next on your list?
I'm building a farm studio just north of Los Angeles, and I have an artesian spring that comes up form the ground. And in the late summer, there's one area where, for some reason, 5,000 of these little water gnats come out and make this totally eerie sound, like aliens are coming. I'm going to stick my mic into them and get them before fall really kicks in.
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