Creating the Sounds of a Brutal Beat-Down in 'Killing Them Softly'

Sound can surely soothe, but so can it unsettle -- I'm sure we can all think of examples of movie movements that were made (or perhaps broken, in some cases) by accompanying sound effects. It may be the heightened styling of places or situations whose soundscapes are familiar to us, or it may be the understatement of realism to highlight the weight of a dramatic moment. Whatever the case, sound design lends a texture of palpability to the world going on beyond that living screen you've been staring at -- and in certain instances, to the elicitation of a cringe. One such circumstance lies in wait for you should you find yourself seeing the newly released crime drama Killing Them Softly.

Here's the trailer for the film, which contains a brief glimpse of a scene which was the subject of a recent New York Times article, detailing the painstaking attention to detail its sound design required. That's the scene in which Ray Liotta's character is pulled from a car -- visible at about 2:00 -- and given a nasty shakedown to elicit an admittance of his suspected guilt.

Here's an excerpt from the NY Times article, in which director Andrew Dominick and sound mixer Leslie Shat discuss the creation of the scene's punch sound effects:

Mr. Dominik and Mr. Shatz experimented with several techniques while developing the punching sounds in the scene. “You always try to make a punch that feels right,” Mr. Dominik said, “because if your punches are too big, they don’t seem real. But if they’re too small, they don’t feel violent.” In some of the hits they used the sound of flash bulbs, which provide a kind of tingly aftereffect. They also occasionally muted all the other sound at moments of fist impact and mixed the dialogue into multiple channels, with discrete sounds coming from different directions, forcing the moviegoer to experience the moment more intimately.

There's plenty more details in the original article, plus a multimedia breakdown that includes several audio clips demonstrating the final effect of the various elements that contribute to the scene. Everything from the rain (real recordings of which could not provide enough of the sharp edge desired) to the the sounds of Liotta's character being slammed against the car (also recreated for maximum control and forcefulness) are detailed in it -- reading is recommended for anyone interested in ways in which to populate such a fight scene with evocative sound design.

What sorts of things have you recorded for fight scenes in your own work? What materials or recording techniques have you used -- and what have you found, perhaps to your surprise, to give a surprisingly brutal-sounding effect?


Your Comment


Compressors are magical for hits. For power, dial in a low frequency thud somewhere
Around 60hz and push it on the eq. Then set your attack on the compressor around 30
Milliseconds with a long release. Put a breaking stick, a gunshot, (in a room, not a canyon)and a slap within 5 to 10 milliseconds Of each other's attack. put the slap and the stick on a bus'd room verb. Push the
"Body" (upper lows 200-500hz, lower mids 500-2khz) up to accentuate how much that probably
Hurt, lol. Bus compress those 2 for a balanced hit that sustains before falling off. Adjust the "slap" eq for attack
In upper frequencies. Blend all "tastefully". Think of power as you would a kick drum. Push the extreme lows,
And attack frequencies, using the gunshot body for sustain. Once your levels are set, place a graphic eq and a compressor on the master bus. Dial what frequencies you like most on the eq, cut what u don't. Squeeze the whole mix with a long release and a slow attack. 4:1 ratio.

December 8, 2012 at 5:13PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Wow, there we go! Thanks for that, Jeremy :)

December 8, 2012 at 5:28PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Dave Kendricken

No problem:) the thought of putting a gunshot in the mix sounds silly i know, but the whole thing should be about a split second long. like an average movie hit.. unless you want Indiana Jones where it sounds like Harrison Ford hit the guy so hard his whole family shit their pants. Or Roadhouse. The goal is to make all of the sounds work "together", no single element should draw attention to itself. like one fluid sound from the top of the spectrum to the bottom... but be creative. Foley guys find what they're looking for in the weirdest things, so there are no rules really.

December 8, 2012 at 7:34PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Great Article. Sound can make or break a film. It is interesting how many indy filmmakers don't realize the importance, never mind the average viewer. It's good to see the NY Times recognizing the importance of sound design.

Nice tips Jeremy. Thanks. I think a nice detail for body shots is a short sharp exhale. Like a quick grunt without much or any vocalization and the sound of air escaping. (Like you would make if you ever got punched in the stomach.) I also like a slight squishy liquid sound mixed in for face punches. Layer them in subtly. Like you said, "no single element should draw attention to itself." I find that human aspect of the sfx draws me into the reality of it a little more. Makes me feel the pain.

That added bass layer is very effective. When I was a young drummer, I couldn't figure out why some of my solos lacked impact. An older drummer told me to kick the bass drum every time I hit a cymbal. The difference changes everything.

Here is a great link to other SFX excellence and tips.

December 11, 2012 at 7:46AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


This was an interesting read. And Jeremy's comments are enlightening, myself not being a trained sound technician.

On an unrelated note, does it seem to anyone else like the picture has been really retouched or over-processed for this film? Granted, Ray Liotta has a...rugged put it nicely, but it just seems to me upon pausing the video like someone went a bit Motion happy.

December 9, 2012 at 9:20AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


That particular scene in the movie was shot at what looks like 48fps cranked up to 24fps playback. The stroboscopic look made it super gritty, and you could see every raindrop in the theater.

December 10, 2012 at 4:28PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM