Guillermo del Toro is a filmmaker and collaborator who is always looking for new and exciting ways to tell stories. In his latest stop-motion venture, Pinocchio's beloved story is given a layer of whimsy and nostalgia.
The detail and craftsmanship in the frame-by-frame, stop-motion images, are accentuated by the carefully crafted sound design created by Supervising Sound Designer Scott Martin Gershin. As a long-time collaborator with del Toro, Gershin knows how to push the boundaries of sound design by experimenting and constantly searching for the right sound for each moment in the film, which is no easy feat when the main character is made mostly from wood.
Gershin sat down with No Film School via Zoom to talk about the intense and detailed process of creating the sound for this unique film, and how the “art of sound design” has changed for him over his lengthy career.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: How did you discover that you have a passion for sound design and how did you get started working in film and TV?
Scott Martin Gershin: I came from music and I've always liked how the music made you feel. While everybody was listening to The Beatles, I was listening to Yes. I realized that not only did I like the melody, but I liked the tone of the music. Such as orchestras and music that was rich in instrumentation and music that utilized unique sounds, which drew my attention to say, “What's that?” I love the drama that music can bring, rather than just guitar, bass, and drums. Little by little, I just became a tone junkie for sound.
Then, Star Wars came out and I thought, “Well, I want to either be a visual effects person or an audio person.” I went to music school at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and when I moved to LA, I was doing the music thing, mixing, playing, and I was also programming synthesizers for a lot of session players in town.
Instead of recreating sounds such as just french horns, trumpets, clarinets, etc., I started creating lasers, spaceships, dark ambiance, and all kinds of weird sounds. Then, somebody told me, "You know, you can make a living doing that." So I ended up learning how to edit and design sounds for cartoons. I did Transformers, GI Joe, and Defenders of the Earth. Then, I got into TV and eventually made my way into working on movies, and my first movie was Honey I Shrunk the Kids.
Several decades later I'm still doing it and I've been able to make a living. I was one of the first guys to use a computer at that time everyone was still cutting mag. At that time, there was some technology that allows you to sample sounds, put it in, manipulate it, put it back out. I was one of the early adopters of editing and designing on computers.
The thing is if you take synthesis, which has made a resurgence recently, such as modular synthesizers, that's where I started–Buklas, Oberhiems, and Moogs and stuff like that. When I looked at filters, I saw a EQ. Such as, "Why couldn't I run sound effects through a modular synth instead of a console to design?"
So having a big synth background, I found interesting ways of manipulating sound at the beginning because I saw the similarities between synthesizers and outboard gear and mixers, where most people weren't thinking in that way. I could put an LFO against a filter or do envelop following, do stuff like that. At that time it was very unusual to ever do that. That led me to all sorts of cool ideas and opportunities.
NFS: I appreciate that you have an experimental nature, which is, it's just a great mindset to have while working in film and TV.
SMG: I sometimes see myself as the yin of the yang of visual effects. Many times there isn't a library for the custom desingy stuff. Such as, "I need a Kaiju," or, "I need a cute little gelatinous green guy, Flubber that can emote emotions through sound." Or the client wants a SHE dragon that can flirt. These sounds didn't exist already. They had to be created. So you start with a white page, a sonic white page, and you go, “Okay, I've got a movie and it's a character made of wood.”
Pinocchio was a massive challenge because you start doing what you think makes sense, where you take a lot of wood and then you bang it around. Then you realize that you found more interesting-sounding wood that has character.
I worked with my foley artist, Dan O'Connell, and he foleyed a bunch of stuff for me throughout the run of the show, as well as my library of material I had collected or previously recorded. As time went on I had this giant collection of different types of wood. I also contacted a guitar company called PRS Guitar, and they were gracious enough to send me 50 lbs of special types of unused tonal wood.
While creating and editing the different uses of wood for the different characters such as Geppetto's wooden clogs, the different puppets in the circus, and, of course, Pinocchio, I realized there's a lot of clacking wood.
When the obvious doesn’t work, you have to ask yourself, “How do I manipulate, bend and mangle wood to give it a personality?” For Pinocchio, I added metal squeaks and creeks and rubber squeaks and little things to give him a sonic vocabulary. There was a lot of experimenting, a lot of uh-oh, this can get really annoying. I came up with a mixture of what I thought would work. I brought that to the mixing stage and then Guillermo [del Toro], Frankie Montano, and I would push and pull the different elements around the music and dialogue. "Let's do a little more metal here, let's do a little wood there. And, oh wait a minute, the music's doing something so now we want to change it up." It gave us lots of options on the dubbing stage.
NFS: I know you've worked with del Toro before on films like Pacific Rim and the Hellboy films. How was your collaboration different this time around?
SMG: Originally, I was going to start in January, but Guillermo wanted me to start in September, which gave me time to experiment. I've worked a lot with Guillermo, so I can get a good sense of what he likes. This was more about, we don't want it to be big like Hellboy and BladeIIand Pacific Rim. We didn't want these big moves. We want it to be more subtle, more jazz, minimalism, but at the same time, it's got to be magical.
When you see the performances and you see the visuals and the acting, it just creatively propels you to go down a specific road. Sometimes I'm leading, sometimes I'm following, and sometimes all I'm doing is giving the presence of reality to an inanimate object.
When Pinocchio was first created, I needed to show fragility like a four-legged baby just born trying to walk for the first time. Gepetto is wondering, "Is it real? Is it a creature? Is it, what is it?" As it's moving, I used walnut cracking as it starts to move. "What is it?" Then as the show progresses, I sonically wanted to make him less of an “it” and more of Pinocchio, more of the character.
The actor [Gregory Mann] does such a wonderful job vocalizing Pinocchio. So as the audience starts to fall in love with him, I wanted the audio to do the same thing, to become far less of an object and now more of a character. Each character in the show has its own sonic signature and I was trying to support the uniqueness of each character with their own signature sounds.
NFS: I read that your hope for this film is that the audience eventually no longer sees Pinocchio as a piece of wood but as a real boy.
NFS: I think that the heart of Pinocchio is about finding your humanity and what makes us human. Sound is a very unique human experience. When you're sitting down and you're reading the script, how does this hope that you have for the film influence your approach to sound design?
SMG: Look, ultimately, I'm a storyteller and everybody's got their toolbox and bags of tricks and what they bring to the game. Mine just happens to be sonically rather than visual. I do have quite a bit of experience, but what I try to do is come to the project and try to figure out not what I want to do, but what does the movie want, and what does it need? How can I support it? If it's just one flick of the paintbrush and then I walk away and that's all it needs, that's what I'll do. If it needs to be more, then I will explore those opportunities and work in that way.
For instance, when we get to Dogfish, which is the whale, he's big. It needs to rock the room. It's a contrast to the innocence of Pinocchio. Every point within the show is a progression. What makes the show so rewarding is being able to create a sonic vocabulary and palette, but at the end of the day, it's not even about what I use as much as it's about why I use it.
And there are a lot of different story threads. There's the thread of a loss of innocence. There's also the thread that Guillermo likes to talk about a lot is that he doesn't conform, he's a non-conformist. While everybody's trying to fit him in a box, he goes, "But I don't want to be this. I want to be like that." Little by little without the characters knowing it, they end up bending to him. They're influenced by him, and he changes them rather than them changing him. It's a very fascinating underlining story. The reason why I say that is because I need to get my head into what the show is about. I think that's what makes the art of sound design great, in that it's not just seeing a piece of wood, hearing a piece of wood, clack it together and we're moving it forward. It's trying to understand how to propel the many different threads of stories that are happening within the show.
NFS: I'm so curious about your whole process and how you know when you feel like it's the right sound for a specific moment in the film.
SMG: Everything starts with massive fear and anxiety. Like, "Oh my God, how am I going to do this?" Then you go, “Well, let me start with the obvious."
It's sort of hard to tell in sound design. How do I know when it's good? It just feels good, it feels right. Then I go back the next day, does it still feel right? Because sometimes it doesn’t. It's just really about it clicking into place. I kept going back and seeing if I could do better. Sometimes I do a little more and I go, no, I like back the way it was. But I think it's because I've had so many years of experience that I can, once I find it, I know it's good. My indecision is not like, “Oh my God, is that good? Maybe, maybe not. Let me try six other ideas.”
I like to experiment to push myself. I think that the pros and cons of doing it for a long time are that I can make everything work quickly, but can I make everything work uniquely? The challenge for people that have been in the business for a while, they go for the tricks that'll work. But I like new tricks, so I keep pushing myself to go out of my comfort zone and try something new and then see if it works.
NFS: That's great advice for the older sound designers who are stuck in the same pattern. I'm curious what you would say to those young or newer sound designers who are still experiencing those insecurities.
SMG: The big thing I teach, because I do a lot of lecturing, to all filmmakers starting in the business is that you need to listen. People tell me, "You must hear really well." I say, "No, I listen really well." In our lives, we are taught to stop listening. For instance, in the room you're in, there might be a ceiling fan and an active kitchen, and a group of people next to you sharing a conversation, but you probably don't hear it because you're not listening.
What you should start doing is becoming an audio photographer. You start creating an internal vocabulary in your mind of what things sound like. Everything from old movies, sounds in nature, sounds of animals and how they communicate...there's an endless amount of sounds to study and experience.
References change. Sounds change. How each generation of audiences experiences sound changes and where in the world you live exposes you to different sonic vocabularies. Some sounds are universal and don't change, such as certain animals, a baby cry, etc...they are understood by all cultures of people. As your audio vocabulary expands you can hear sounds in your mind, I call it your inner ear, so when you read a script you can hear the sounds on the page and imagine what they could sound like. I've got a massive library of things that I've captured, I've bought, I've licensed, and I'm still constantly recording because you never know when you need that sound.
NFS: I love that so much. For you to be able to recreate those sounds for films is astonishing to me. I just think it's so fantastic.
SMG: I don't differentiate sound and music differently. So everything to me is rhythms, pitch. When I lecture, I tell my students, I can tell what people think by hearing the way they walk.
When I do foley, I need to make sure that the footsteps match the personality. Is it a boot, or is it a sneaker? Is it dominant? So when we have Podesta in Pinocchio, I wanted him to be a lot more sure-footed and a lot heavier-footed compared to the priest or Geppetto. So all of a sudden what I'm doing is psychological. Part of being an audio photographer, you're also an audio psychologist. Nails on a chalkboard make everybody cringe. There are reasons for that.
As I study people and I study audio, I start getting a good inner ear and a good sense of what makes people have certain types of reactions. All of a sudden it tells you a lot about that character without you ever even seeing them yet. I'm always trying to find psychological ways to enhance the characters and the stories I'm helping to tell.
NFS: What were some of the unique challenges that surprised you on Pinocchio, and how did you combat those challenges?
SMG: I started with what I knew, knowing that it may or may not be what I end up with. Sometimes, you have to go down the path just to either get it out of your system or you got to start exploring by going in a straight line. Then, after you go in a straight line, you start veering off in one direction or another. I started with vintage puppets. It didn't work. I knew I needed different types of wood more delicate I needed squeaks and creaks. Where do I go from here?
It was an exploratory journey on how to manipulate organic objects, phrase them, and give them a personality.
There are all these rhythms, there are pitches, and there are ways I filter and EQ different types of woods. Geppetto's clogs sound very different from Carlos. And even Pinocchio sounds different throughout the show. When Pinocchio stands his ground, saying, "I don't want to do it," his shoulder moves as he firmly crosses his arms. With a distinct clack and snap, you hear metal and wood, but it no longer feels like he's going to fall apart. He sounds strong. How do I know that? I don't know. I just chose, manipulated, and combined sounds that felt good.
NFS: The gut feeling mixed with experience mixed with experimenting. The holy trinity.
SMG: That's a lot of what is at the core of a good soundtrack.
NFS: Do you have any advice that you would love to give to new or aspiring sound designers?
SMG: My son is just starting college and he wants to go into visual effects. First of all, you've got to be a little bit crazy. You have to. Everyone's going to tell you this is a bad idea. It's better to be an accountant. There's nothing wrong with accounting, but if you feel you've got a dream, you have to follow it. I think that you need to learn. The difference, I think, between being a session guitar player and a guitar player is that you have to practice. It is a craft. You have to learn. But a lot of learning, sometimes, is just watching shows, and having a vocabulary. Then once you start learning the tools of your craft, whether it's a photographer, a writer, or a sound designer, learn the tools because, eventually, you're no longer going to think of the tools. Now you're going to be thinking of what's in here.
Then how do I use the tools to create that? A chisel doesn't create a great sculpture. The mind creates the sculpture. You just need to know the techniques of how to use it. Then it's all about your imagination.
What's great about college and school and learning, whatever age you are, is experimentation. Do weird stuff. Make mistakes. This is the place to make all the mistakes you want. There's no pressure, there are no deadlines because mistakes become brilliance. You want to be able to do the ABCs. I can do all the notes, I can do all the scales, but you want to be able to be comfortable enough to experiment. Then, you start listening to all the people that have been doing it. It's just listening and learning.
The other biggest part is once you learn your craft, or the beginning of your craft, because you are always learning for the rest of your career, is that you have to have sustenance. You have to be aggressive in taking “no” for an answer. Most people will come to the city of entertainment and say, "Hollywood. I'm here. Hire me, and make me big and famous."
Of course, nothing happens. Now it's up to you to be persistent. You can't take “no” for an answer. The other part is, most of the people that don't succeed, interestingly enough, don't succeed because they don't feel they'll succeed. They'll go, "It's not working out, forget it. I'm just not going to do it." So they're the ones that end up blocking themselves. I've seen people do it in two weeks. I've seen people do it in six months. That's why I say you need to be a little crazy in that everyone's going to tell you 20 reasons why it's never going to happen.
Selective hearing can be useful at times. I was told many times, "You're never going to make it." One person said I had no talent for it, which is hilarious. You just need to be a little crazy and you've got to be in a mindset that goes, "If I'm not good enough, I'm going to get better. I'm not going to take no for an answer. I'm going to keep pushing, I'm going to keep learning, I'm going to keep working at it.” Eventually, something will happen.
For the people starting, move into the city or the location where all the work is happening. If I want to be in movies and you live in Oklahoma, it may not be the best place. But move to that, get into the network, get into those people that are doing it. Eat, live and breathe it. Spend the next 10 years just eating, living, and breathing that industry. So if you want to be with a writer, find the best writers, just learn, dissect it. You gotta put the time in. Then, eventually, things open up because you want it bad enough. If you want it, I'd rather hire someone who maybe is not as good, but has a drive to want than a person who seems to be very good with no drive.
A person with the drive is guaranteed to succeed.
It's hard. I remember coming to LA and going, “Oh my God.” I remember several times thinking, “I'm out. This isn't working.” My girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, said, "Well, okay, but you want this, are you willing to give it up?" And I went, "No, not yet." You then get little kernels of progress and the kernels get bigger and you get more opportunities and you work it and you just need to want it.
Last, I'll say this, you have to dream. Dreaming is everything, but do understand that only dreams come true when you work it. Many, many actors and actresses will come to LA and say, "I will be found," and it rarely happens. You've got to make it happen.
I found that having a large amount of fear and insecurity is very useful. You can make insecurity and fear paralyze you or you can use that to sharpen you, to make you hyper-focused, and to go, all right, you know what? I have to. I've been doing this for a long time, and at every show, I get a certain amount of nervousness. If I'm doing something, especially something new, I’m nervous because there's nowhere to hide. It's every little, everything you hear on purpose. It's not an accident. There's nowhere to hide. I can't hide behind the music or other sound effects. Everything is heard, or not.
You can watch Pinocchio on Netflix on Dec. 9.