With Iron Man 3 officially kicking off the summer box office race, it’s only fitting that the film also launch our new series Sounds like a Summer Movie in which we find out how the sounds that bring blockbusters to life were created. In the case of Iron Man 3, it involved stealth recording at Toys ‘R’ Us, a visit to the firing range, and some remote-controlled jets. Warning: light spoilers ahead.
“The most important sound of the movie is going to be the sound of the suit because it’s Iron Man,” says supervising sound editor Mark Stoeckinger, a three-time Oscar nominee for Face/Off, Star Trek, and Unstoppable. “Metal is usually harsh and grates on people’s nerves, but the fact is, there’s a lot of it in Iron Man, so you’ve got to find a way to make that interesting. So we just recorded a lot of various metal objects and mic’d them in certain ways, filtered and processed those recordings so they weren’t just bright and edgy, and used all sorts of plug-ins to help make a lot of different notes like a musical instrument.”
His team got particularly creative for the servo sounds (the power actuators that move Iron Man’s suit every time he moves). They went out and recorded radio-controlled jets both flying and stationary. Even more fun: “You know how little kids have those little electric cars that they’ll get in and go about two or three miles an hour? When those aren’t running, if you take the wheels and you rock ’em back and forth, they kinda make that err… errr servo sound. We didn’t really want to buy one, so we went and looked at Craigslist for ones that people were looking to give away because they weren’t working,” Stoeckinger says, laughing. “Our first foray into that,” he admits, “was going into a Toys ‘R’ Us late at night when nobody was paying attention and recording some of them on the display wall, just to get an idea of what we wanted. Some of those sounds were more for the leg sounds — the legs of Iron Patriot. You just record a whole palette of that, like, ‘Ah, I think that will be good for that.’ ‘Yeah, that might be good for this.’ There was a lot of trial and error.”
Visually, the various Iron Man prototypes (or marks) who come to Tony Stark’s rescue in the climactic scene were different, so sonically, they’re unique to a certain point, too, Stoeckinger notes. “Each suit had its own schtick, so to speak, and whatever that was had to be accentuated,” he says. “Yeah, they have to sound like big metal, but you find, like, a helicopter startup wind sound for the Hulkbuster that runs in and holds up the crane just because it has a long tension build, almost like a piece of music.”
Experimentation was also called for when the team set out to capture sounds for the house attack. “Being guys, we gathered some firearms and went and rented a range and a bunch of microphones and got all sorts of different things to shoot at. We brought stone remnants, metal plates, unfinished propane tank ends, glass, bricks, tree stumps,” he says. “We played like kids, so when your child asks, ‘Dad, what did you do at work today?’, it’s hard with a straight face to be serious and do their math homework.” Recording sounds for Iron Man’s suit coming under heavy fire was a bit like a comedy sketch, he says. “Because a big boom is all you hear — the sound of the gunshot; you don’t hear the sound of the metal you’re trying to record,” he explains. “Long story short, we found little, almost pathetic .22 rounds that you could barely hear the bullet, and if you got close enough to what you were shooting, it all became one sound event. So instead of a ba-boom, it was just a ping.”
Once they had those sounds, they had to make sure we could hear them:
Stoeckinger: In putting a sequence like that together that’s got a lot going on, and it’s big and dynamic and loud, the visual effects people spend so much time making details, that you want to find a way to articulate that where it works for the film and not just overwhelm the scene. So a lot of it is you start putting in the sounds for everything you see, and then you get to the point where it’s, ‘Well, clearly you can’t play all that.’ Or, if you want to hear a rock hit on Tony or on the back of Pepper saving Tony, and you’ve got a bunch of other stuff around it, you almost have to take everything else out so you can just play that one sound. It doesn’t sound like you’re taking everything else out — because you’re only doing it for that moment of the impact — but that’s just how you do it to make it articulate throughout. Like, there are moments underwater where the idea was to help give him a sinking sound, so there was a metal spring sound that was pitched down so it’s bum-bum-bum-bum-bum. It helps tell the story that things are getting deeper just in a simple sound.
Stoeckinger says another fun scene to work on was the Air Force One rescue, where Iron Man saves 13 people who’ve been sucked out of the plane:
Stoeckinger: As that cut developed, we were like, “What’s gonna be the most important thing?” Obviously it’s gonna be a big music moment, but it’s also gonna be the sound of the people. So one of the first things we did was get on a group ADR stage and get people to do those voices. And then we went to the Foley stage to flap muslin or sail cloth, since the sound of people flying through the air needs to be larger than life. Then we had a wind that was as simple as taking a microphone and putting it on a sunroof of a car at speed. It’s totally rough, distorted, and all messed up — but in a way, that’s the sound you want to hear.
One of the more difficult sounds to figure out was the sound of Extremis:
Stoeckinger: Frequently the question when you’re working on a movie is, “What’s the sound of that? And is it unique and identifiable, so every time we play it, or you watch and listen to the movie with your eyes closed, you know exactly what’s going on by the sound you hear?” The sound of when they glow — you just go through many iterations to try to figure out what’s gonna work out best for the story, but also, how it works best in the mix of the movie, too. Because you’ve got to play well with others. You’re thinking, technologically, what is it? It’s written in the comic book series as this kind of bioelectrical energy that people have.” So it’s like, okay, it’s electrical. Then it kinda sounds sizzly. Even if it doesn’t sound too sizzly, when you put score against it, the only frequency that you can hear of the sound effect over and above the score is a kind of high frequency sizzly, crackling thing. So that doesn’t work. So then you try something really cool and kind of hummy that sounds powerful and ominous, and that might work in certain areas, but then you put it against the score, and you just can’t force it through. So that’s clearly not gonna work. The final sound is actually kind of synthy, and it definitely has some kind of an electrical pulse, but the most important thing is that it does oscillate. Sometimes not as much as others. It’s something that needed a palette of sound: It might need a high- frequency sound when the music and everything else is low-frequency, or it might need a low-frequency sound when other aspects of what’s going on in the scene are high frequency. It wasn’t just one sound; it was about four or five sounds that all worked together. You didn’t have to play them all, you just played whatever of that palette worked best for the moment that’s happening on the screen.
As anyone who’s seen the film can attest, “There weren’t really any moments of pure silence,” Stoeckinger says. “But there were definitely moments of subtlety in the film.”
Stoeckinger: That’s the fun thing about a film like this. It’s not all big and bombastic. It’s got a lot of fun little things, like, when Iron Patriot breaks into what we called the sewing factory — as soon as it quiets down, there are a bunch of chickens clucking as the ladies are looking up at him. I don’t know if the audience found that funny, but we sure did. Or, like after Tony’s panic attack and Harley talks him through it, Tony stands up and makes his decision that he’s going to go and save Pepper, and there’s a wise owl that goes Whooo Whooo. Nobody asked for it. It’s just something that we wanted to try. A director can be specific or general as far as a scene goes, but rarely, if ever, does somebody get into all those nano details, which is the great part, because that allows you to have your own form of creativity on top of it. I can’t say that there ware a lot of real specific requests for Iron Man 3. Some movies can be really, really micromanaged. It all depends on the director. Shane [Black] ultimately gave us a lot of latitude.