Paul N.J. Ottosson is an Academy Award-winning sound designer whose career has spanned many genres of film, from blockbusters such as Men In Black 3 to indie favorites such as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. By the grace of the Motion Picture Sound Editors, I recently had a chance to speak with Paul to discuss storytelling, Pro Tools, and The Matrix.
How do your sound edits reflect what you want the audience to be feeling at different points in a film?
My sounds will follow the arc of the story of the movie. Sometimes we underscore a moment or we emphasize something I think will be really helpful for what the actor is doing on screen. Sometimes the actor may appear to be overwhelmed and so I put a lot of sound in the scene to indicate an overwhelming pressure on the actor. Other times I take out all of the sounds to make the actor feel isolated. And so I always follow what I see as the story that is being written.
When you read a script do you decide on some of the sounds or do you wait until you see the footage?
When I read a script it's pretty clear to me what I want everything to sound like. And then when I see the footage for the first time it's 99% clear to me what I want to do, before I cut anything. After that point, it's time to work to achieve what I've heard in my head.
What are some of the factors in your decision to modify a library sound versus find or create a new sound?
There are no hard and fast rules but in general, if it's a storytelling element in the movie that feels very important then I want to make the sound unique and so I want to record it myself and manipulate it and create it. If it's something that's secondary, like us sitting in this room here with the noise of the crowd back there, then I can go library for the sound of the crowd. So if it's something specific, like some of the guns in Zero Dark Thirty, I wanted the sounds of small guns, I didn't want it to be this big, flashy event, I wanted it to be almost silent. So the determinative factor is if it's a storytelling element or if it's something interchangeable.
What kinds of software do you use and what would you like to see in newer versions?
I use Pro Tools often; I've been with Pro Tools since the very beginning. I don't use a ton of other software although I use Logic Pro sometimes for synthesized, sci-fi sounds like Independence Day. I like to do organic sounds that I can manipulate, there's something I like about the flaws in real sounds. There's a perfection in computer sound; it can sound amazing but it does sound perfect and I don't think that movies are perfect, I don't think that life is perfect. I like to work on compression and EQ, I can record at high sample rates or analog, I go into a room and record a sound at higher speed then slow it down and sample it in. I use whatever tool is needed at the time.
Something I would like to see with Pro Tools, I wish it would be scalable where I could make it five features that I use all the time. Pro Tools is a million features and I use 10 most of the time, and so sometimes there's a long way to get to things that I need right away. It should be more customizable. I wish there could be drag-and-drop with buttons, just like an Internet browser where you can customize the toolbar. I wish I could customize Pro Tools and have the five things I like on the screen.
What are some of the films that impressed you with their sound?
The first was an older movie called Once Upon a Time in the West—great cast, great movie, great sound. I remember seeing it and loving it. I first saw it when I was 12 years old and I recognized the coolness of it. I later saw it at The Egyptian Theatre and it had been restored to ultra-wide format and it had the restored sound and it was fantastic.
Another one is The Matrix, the first one. At that time I was already working with sound in movies and I thought it was the best-sounding movie I had ever heard. Not because of the sound effects but when I saw The Matrix I felt like one person had written it, the same person directed it, the same person scored it, the same person did the sound design and the same person mixed it, it had this oneness and I really admired it and it's still one of my favorite sounding movies.