Supervising Sound Editor Frederic Dubois Talks Peppermint, Guy Ritchie and Sergio Leone, & the Genius of Recreating Iconic Sounds
Sipping espresso with Frederic Dubois, who’s fresh off being Supervising Sound Editor on the recently released Jennifer Garner-starring revenge, action drama, Peppermint, you quickly realize you’re in company of someone who believes that sound is as important to the storytelling as the visuals. Consequently, he’s gone out of his way, sometimes even putting himself in danger, to capture very distinct and awesome sounds like an LAPD chopper on the hunt. He quips:
“I was awoken in the middle of the night, grabbed my microphone and recording device and crept out in the dark to capture that very specific sound they have when circling over clusters of homes in an enclosed area. I kept hidden in the bushes because you don’t want to be mistaken for a criminal on the run. I mean, I had my microphone held out and you don’t want anyone confusing that for a weapon. Later when I saw another movie, with a chopper sound, I realized I’d captured that very unique whirring for my own sound library.”
French-born but LA-based Dubois likes to expertly mimic the sounds he hears and records like the distinctive cry of a Kookaburra bird or the badass A-10 Warthog plane, and the eerie ‘wooorrh’ sound that comes after it strafes a target — “it’s like a distorted horn, almost alien.”
And, he’s developed an expertise for weaving natural sounds, special sound effects and background dialog into multi-layered soundscapes on the many projects he’s worked on, including: blockbusters Taken 2/Taken 3, McG’s 3 Days to Kill, Pierre Morel’s Peppermint and The Gunman, Olivier Megaton’s Colombiana and Transporter 3, and Guy Ritchie’s underappreciated Revolver, among many others, including the TV series The Exorcist and Queen of the South.
A lifelong fan of all sorts of movies and TV series, from classic black/white movies to Spaghetti Westerns and modern action flicks, Dubois is a master storyteller, himself, culling examples from these movies about the importance of sound or how certain iconic effects were created and effectively used.
Studying at ESRA, France’s prestigious film school, after attending Institution Guynemer, a private high school, he’s now worked both in the American and French film industries.
And as a supervising sound editor, he’s a department head who oversees the entire post-production sound crew, answering to the producer and director, and therefore being ultimately in charge of the completion and quality of all sound editing. That’s some responsibility. But always prepared Dubois says he loves the workload, sometimes working for seven months like he did with director Guy Ritchie on Revolver.
Englishman Ritchie has directed some classic British street movies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, along with Sherlock Holmes and stylish remakes like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. He has a very different style and is compulsive about what he wants. Dubois recalls learning from Ritchie on Revolver:
“It was produced by French producer/director Luc Besson, so the post was done in Normandy and Guy gave my team extensive notes on sounds and sound effects. He went on vacation and one month later we gave him a DVD of what we did. However, he came back with more, phoning me for a three-hour call, saying, ‘Yes, I gave you notes, but I’m going to be more accurate. So, at three minutes, take down the music 10%, raise the dialog by 30%.’ It went on and was a very precise conversation. In sound, 10% means 20–30%…and I quickly got what he was meaning. Two days later, we played back some reels we’d worked on, and sure enough what he’d told us to do was awesome, a very powerful point of view.”
So, Dubois comes totally ready for anything, with access to many production music libraries, like sounddogs.com, as well as his own extensive library of sounds and effects, like that police chopper.
And from his vast and still growing experience working with A-list directors, he tells “sound” stories that are fun, insightful and informative. About a recent project, he relates:
“My team recorded a few people singing Jingle Bells, including the director, and we used it with a moving toy Santa — but the director may still not know it’s his voice we used. As for the Kookaburra, it’s one of the most iconic sounds in Nature, and I wanted to visit Australia to record it. But, I was in France, and a friend had one. So, I got a beautiful sound from it in the city not in the wild.”
Sound editors often have to use their “magical” skills, for example, to make a winter shoot seem like summer. Dubois explains, “You can cheat visually with light but with sound, you can’t really cheat in real time. For example, you don’t have birds and Nature’s noises in winter like you do in summer. In post, we’re adding crickets, birds, dogs, lawnmowers.”
He’s also been fascinated by sounds of weapons and war. He cites “that specific diving German Stuka sound,” or that “terrifying Warthog and the sound of its guns firing.” As a child he was also mesmerized by the iconic “ping” of a submarine, recalling, “I remember watching the TV series, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and I was in awe.”
His love of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns from the 1960s also inspired him to research those very unique gunshot sounds:
“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a masterpiece in directing, musically, production and also the sound, because the gunshots are so memorable. Later, when the digital era appeared, it became possible to watch the waveforms of sounds. So, I picked up one gunshot from the movie to view its waveform, visually. I wanted to know the secret. It was a real gunshot but it had been cut part of the way through, and another sound had been inserted. The new sound lasted like two frames, so someone in post, cut the original gunshot effect, inserting two frames of something new, and stitched it all together. And it created an iconic sound. It was like a ricochet in the middle, this is the secret, Oh, my god. This person did it with a razor blade and two frames in the 60s, it’s genius.”
And, Dubois continues to research, reading historical books from the Middle Ages, and excitedly telling:
“Maybe you think that Louis XIV’s Palace at Versailles was quiet with people all dressed up enjoying tea and cake. But books describe the Palace as actually very noisy. One prince was living on the first level, and was sick and to dampen the sounds, they spread hay everywhere on the second floor. When reading these books, you hear walking footsteps, loud conversations, all this activity. Then out in the city, horses, animals, wheels on the cobblestone, a real cacophony of sounds. I love immersing myself into these scenarios to understand what they really sounded and felt like.”
Frederic Dubois will continue expanding his sound horizons, because as George Lucas once noted, sound is 50% of the movie-going experience.