Today we’re chatting with the Sonder sound team: sound designer Kevin Dusablon, and composer and sound editor Mike Forst (who also voiced our main character, Finn). Kevin and Mike tell us all about diving into snowbanks, grunting in recording booths, and other adventures that went into creating the incredible sounds of Sonder.
First, can you tell us a little about yourselves—where you live, what you do, noteworthy projects past or present?
Kevin Dusablon: I am a sound designer/composer based in San Francisco, hailing originally from the great state of Vermont. In addition to being a member of the Soba sound team, I head up the audio division at Xandra, a conversation design studio. I've gotten the chance to work with incredible properties like Westworld, Spongebob and Halo, cut sound for an Emmy Award winning VR film, and of course love to throw down on beautiful indie films—most notably Sonder! I dabble with the occasional freelance project or guest musician gig, field record often, and am perpetually starting a new project with Mike. I am also a family man and appreciator of many fine things such as film, music, steel bicycles, old Toyota trucks, food (the most important), drink and great company.
Mike Forst: I’m a composer/sound designer based here in S.F. as well. I’m currently working as a UX Sound Designer at Amazon’s Lab126. In the past, I’ve had the pleasure of working in an array of different audio disciplines (music, sound design, audio experience design, etc.) on multiple types of projects including emerging technologies, film, music projects, video games, and even toys with companies such as Google, Amazon, Anki, Facebook, Mattel, etc. Besides my professional life, I make a ton of music for fun, I love field recording, am always on the search for new great food, and love spending time deep in the woods searching for inspiration where I can’t hear cars or planes.
How did you get involved with Sonder?
KD: More than 4 years ago, it was [director] Neth Nom that wooed me with his earnest vision of the Soba team and the notion of creating the very unique film that would become Sonder. I was lucky to have been involved early enough to have seen it transform from words on a page, through many script and pre-vis iterations, all the way to a fully polished, theatrical execution.
MF: Just a little after Kev had joined the team, I got a chance to sit down with him and Neth over sandwiches and beers and heard about the project. Like Kev, I was excited to be looped in so early on and felt like it helped the audio and music so much to understand the idea and how it grew from inception.
Q: When you began working on Sonder, how did you determine how you wanted the film to sound?
KD: Neth and producer Sara K. Sampson were open, and were eager to share and to hear our ideas about sound from day one. Because of that spirit, the sound of the film developed very organically, through research, design iteration, discussion and strong direction. One of most amazing periods of development was getting to see the first glimpses of the truly incredible concept art that came out of the visual department. When we started seeing the light, color and mood of our characters, we were incredibly inspired and pulled together eclectic music playlists and started recording ambiences and source material that we then fed back into the crew to keep the inspiration going.
MF: Yea it was the great cycle of inspiration! Such a kick-ass team.
Q: How would you describe the music of the film? And what tools and instruments did you use to create it?
KD: Let's call it Ghostly-Wave-Ballad. Mike Forst honestly killed it. Neth and I certainly worked with him to decide on the direction, but Mike himself explored, wrote, recorded, manipulated, mixed, remixed and warbled an incredible score into existence. That's really the tip of the iceberg too.
MF: Thanks Kev! Yea, it was truly one of the most fun projects I’ve worked on to date. Neth and Kevin gave me incredible guidance but also the freedom to explore all different types of sounds before landing on what’s in the film. I really wanted each instrument and the arrangements to play the parts I was experiencing on screen. The piano was the foundation; notes slowly falling further and further apart. The old tape warble and noise was the fragility of the relationship; beautifully nostalgic but far from perfect. The scratchy bowed piano was the relationship’s frustrations, and so on and so forth. I also wrote the score so that if you played each flashback scene back to back on piano it would be a whole piece of music, which I used for the credits. So fun!
Q: Wow, clever! OK, let's talk about dialogue—specifically the two main characters, Finn and Natalie. How did you decide what their voices should sound like, and who should voice them?
KD: Neth always had an idea of what he wanted them to sound like, but we had a constraint initially to record our voices from within the Soba crew. We recorded several actors from in house and ended up with performances from Mike and Jessica Kitchens that we were pretty pleased with for our pre-vis cuts. As the characters evolved visually though, we decided that we needed to cast a wider net of voice talent so that we didn't end up with the wrong voice just because of our limited talent pool. Funny enough, after auditioning a few dozen professionally-sourced voice actors, we ended up comparing them to Mike and Jess again, and none of the outsiders even came close. Mike and Jess ended up capturing the spirit of the characters exceptionally well and knocking our socks off with their performances. To be fair, Jessica Kitchens is a professional, kick-ass actor in her own right, but Mike has now proven his mettle too.
MF: Wow thanks Kev! I’ve never had more fun in the booth doing grunts, breaths, sighs, and about 100 other efforts. I did almost pass out due to lack of oxygen a few takes deep. Jessica Kitchens is a masterful actor. We’ve all worked together a ton so it was immediately comfortable.
Q: Glad you didn’t pass out, Mike. Where did those recording sessions take place? And how long did it take?
KD: The dialogue was produced in several studios in San Francisco, and although the final film only consists of a few minutes of dialogue, we recorded dozens of scripts and iterations. Natalie's monologue for instance, since it is so central to the story and the only overt exposition in the film, was something that took many iterations of writing, performance, editorial and mix to get just right.
MF: What Kev said.
Q: There are a lot of incredible sound effects in the film. For example, there's a very intense scene involving tree vines. Can you tell me what went into giving those vines their unique sound?
KD: The vines were a creature/vegetation cocktail that included at least all of the following: stepping on creaky floors, bending and breaking tree limbs, rocking old barn frames, recording and manipulating tiger and boar vocals, ripping tree roots...and a handful of other things dragged, twisted, tortured and broken.
MF: Kev’s being modest—his design and editorial work on this scene was awesome. It’s not just dropping these sounds into the scene, and then going and getting a beer. There’s a lot going on in this scene, and it all happens pretty quickly. Kevin was able to hit the highest level of intensity, while still keeping a great range of dynamics.
Q: OK, so creaky floors, tree limbs… what other real-world recordings did you make in creating sound effects for the film?
KD: We recorded animals, wind, fire, snow, rivers, thunder, and many, many layers of voices. At various points we were hurling ourselves into snow banks, smashing ice and rolling boulders into studios. We may have melted a mic cover over fire, “altered” a studio floor with said boulder, and injured at least one field recordist as a result of snowbank body falls. All equipment and personnel have made swift recoveries as of this interview.
MF: Ha! Good times... I definitely did too many snowbank body falls! My shoulder hurt for week. Special thanks to Emillie Stephenson and the Blumenfelds for throwing themselves in the snow as well!
Q: You mentioned that sound was one of the earliest departments involved with Sonder, and with the final sound mix it was also one of the last. Can you tell me about how the sound of the film evolved from the early days to the end of production?
MF: To be brought in that early on a project like this is a blessing. We had ample time to explore options and really dive deep with Neth and other team members. I kept waiting for Neth to say “OK OK, let’s reel it in, boys” when we came to him with ideas, but instead he said, “TRY IT!”—and because of that we came to an end result that felt true to its origins and the best version of itself.
KD: As Mike said, we had the privilege to realize the soundtrack in real time with the evolution of script and picture. So much good comes from exploration and iteration!
Q: Definitely. Before we let you go, is there anything else you want folks to know about the sound of Sonder?
KD: I want folks to know about Steve Orlando, our mixer. We were so thrilled to be able to finish the film with our friends at Skywalker Sound, but in particular, Steve added a layer of editorial to the final track that truly elevated the film.
MF: Steve absolutely crushed it. We were super fortunate to have had a chance to work with him. Sonder was such a special experience and one that will probably never happen again. Neth and Sara brought together a huge, super talented team that all worked on this film as a passion project. Not only that, but the team stayed true to its vision, made awesome twists and turns in its journey, and landed on an amazing final project. I think I can speak for Kev on this one and say that we both feel super fortunate to have worked on this film.