By Mandi Bierly
Updated May 29, 2013 at 05:05 PM EDT

After finding out how sound helped move us to tears in Star Trek Into Darkness and was created for the suits in Iron Man 3, the third installment of our new series Sounds Like a Summer Movie takes a look at how supervising sound editor Peter Brown, who’s been with the Fast and the Furious franchise since Tokyo Drift and has an Emmy for his work on the “Blackwater” episode of Game of Thrones, got engines revving for Fast & Furious 6. Warning: Major spoilers ahead.

To please the film’s car aficionado fans, Brown had to make the cars sound bigger than life — but still accurate. “We can’t just take the sound of the greatest car ever recorded and throw it in for what you see onscreen,” he says. “We start out with an intense research project working with Dennis McCarthy, the guy who finds the cars and builds all the cars like the flip car or tank that don’t really exist in the real world. We talk to him and figure out what the cars are in and of themselves: Are they a V8? Are they are a four-cylinder Japanese motor? What is the reality of the engine? Then once we have a list of those, I go out and try to find who it is in Southern California or the world who has the greatest example of that particular engine. So for the case of Dom’s Dodge Daytona, I found a guy who buys retired NASCAR cars and refurbishes them and then, I think, he uses them for folks who want to go out and actually have a day at the track and drive around. It’s got a V8 in it, but a really souped-up racing engine so when it first comes off of that elevator and gurgles and burbles and boils through the room, the sound just fills up the room and any car aficionado is gonna be like, ‘Yeah, that is a big, beefy V8. That sounds correct,’ but it might be a little bit more monstrous and large than the actual car from the early ’70s was.” It’s not just about finding someone who has a beast of an engine, Brown adds. “You also need to find someone who’s got a car that’s solid enough to drive like a teenager, just completely irresponsibly: jam the transmission through all the gears, reverse hard, downshift. You know, just basically do everything a parent would be afraid that their teenage son is probably doing with their car when they let him have it for a Friday night.”

That, of course, is when the fun really begins. “What I do is I rent an airport out in the middle of nowhere, which in this case is the middle of the Mojave Desert, and bring the cars there,” Brown says. “There’s nothing out there. It’s very, very quiet. Two or three planes land during the day, and we have walkie-talkies so hopefully we can hear the talk from the pilots as they say they’re coming in so we can get off the runway. It was in October that I started recording, so as generally happens, I hadn’t seen any of the film at that point. I’d probably read a script, but [director] Justin Lin is always working on the script and changing things around, so I really don’t know exactly what the cars are gonna do. I have to record sounds for any circumstance — whether it’s just gonna be driving down the street or hit a pile of concrete and fly through the air for 60 feet — so I have a long list of specific maneuvers that I have the drivers do. We have professional race car drivers drive these things around so that they can make the cars howl and whine and scream, but not break them. It’s everything from driving in a straight line at 5 mph to doing a 60 mph sideways drift a few fight away from us poor fools standing out on the hot runway holding microphones at the cars.”

Recording sounds for crashes is more involved. “Crashes are something that you’re gonna find in anybody’s sound library, but we’re always trying to improve on it. I try to do as much recording as possible so that things are fresh,” Brown says. “We spent a lot of time abusing metal — everything from taking a crane and picking cars up about 80 feet in the air and dropping them on to other cars, to attaching weird pieces of metal to the back of a truck and dragging them all around the airport on various roads and over dirt. Things like a washing machine, a dryer, a refrigerator. So we’d just have these hunks of metal hurtling, tumbling, scraping, throwing sparks, and just careening down the road and making a horrible racket, which we would record and takes bits and pieces of those and throw them together. We also go out to gun ranges and shoot washing machines or old cars and try to get realistic sounds for bullets impacting metal.” (“Now if this all sounds like a whole lot of fun, I want to assure you that this is hard work. We don’t enjoy our jobs a bit,” he notes, sarcastically.)

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Every single car in the film has sounds recorded for it individually, although Brown is able to dip into his old library if necessary. For Tokyo Drift, Falken Tire’s drift racing team had loaned him two of their cars to record: One was a monstrous Mustang, which he reused in Furious 6 for a one-off shot of Dom revving a Mustang engine at headquarters. The other was an RX-7, the sound of Han’s fatal ride in the middle of Tokyo Drift and at the end of Fast & Furious 6. “So one of the nice things about having worked on all the different films was it was no problem to recreate that [Han] scene,” Brown says. “I took the stems from Tokyo Drift, and where there’s holes or new footage, I had all the original car recordings so I could patch the spots where needed. I feel like I know a little bit more about car recording and car mixing now, but I didn’t try to recreate the whole thing from whole cloth, as tempting as that would have been, because I thought we needed to be honest and true to the sound of the film before. So we’re always try to keep an eye on what the fans will want to hear, and I think it’s fun for them to walk down memory lane and be transported back seven years ago to the scene from Tokyo Drift, just with a little bit of augmentation.”

They do view the cars as an extension of the characters onscreen. “For example, in the beginning of the film, Dom and Brian are having a little race to the hospital on the highways of Tenerife, and Dom is driving, as always, a Dodge product, in this case a Dodge Challenger. Now he could easily be driving a Dodge Challenger straight off the factory floor. But from the beginning, Dom’s character has been about driving a ’70s Dodge Charger with an 8-71 blower on it, which is a type of supercharger,” Brown says. “They don’t do that with the newer Dodge Challengers, they’re different types of engines. But they do still put superchargers on those. So, I made sure to find a guy who has a Dodge Challenger, but with a supercharged engine. A supercharger has a very distinctive whine to it that we associate with Dom’s character and the types of cars that he drives. So even though you never pop open the hood and see that there’s a supercharger modification on there, we do it for you in the sound.”

Brown also has to consider the audience’s “sonic fatigue.” “Usually a big action film will have two, maybe three big action set pieces, and this one really had about four of them — if you don’t count the opening chase between the Skyline and the Challenger, and the fight in the subway, or the shootout, any of that little stuff,” he says. “You take the team versus team race in the beginning with the flip car, then the Dom-Letty chase, then the tank sequence — and that would be enough to polish off most any other film. But then we had the plane sequence at the end. When that first came to us it was about a 17- or 18-minute action sequence that came pretty much right on the heels of the whole tank sequence. So with a film that’s over two hours long, we knew that with such a long sequence with such difficult things to hear — like plane turbine going all the way through it, cars being smashed, cables being whipped around, things being ground up, and a huge wall of music — that sonic fatigue, even for those pink, fresh little 14-year-old ears, was gonna be an issue. So our challenge was, how do we top everything else that we’ve done in the film and in the series — which means, how do we be loud and cool — but also not fatigue the ears and have people just turn off? Finding a way to balance all those different elements and tell the story as cleanly and as simply as possible was probably our biggest challenge. After all that mayhem, eventually the plane hits the ground and explodes, and hopefully you’re not just cringing and gripping the seat thinking when is this madness gonna end? Hopefully you’re still engaged. And that’s done by a process of really careful sound selection where you try to deliver to the stage sounds that are so obvious as to what they are. Han opening up a door in a car that’s being dragged by a plane and the door hits the asphalt — does that sound like a car door scraping on the asphalt? That’s the first thing that I have to do. But then, are we hitting the high frequencies in the type sounds that are really hard to listen to? And so we try either to carve those out with equalization or choose sounds that express the same idea but aren’t so hard to hear. Then once that’s delivered to the stage, it’s the job of the mixers to put all these sounds together and continue that carving process. If the music is doing something, we’ll take the sound effects out of that area or reduce the frequencies that are in the same range. It’s a really difficult juggling job.”

There are hilarious debates, as you would expect. One of Brown’s favorite examples is over the franchise’s use of gun cock sound effects. “I feel like we didn’t go too overboard on this film, but maybe I’m actually just deadened to it,” he says, “but whenever anybody pulls out a gun in the Fast & Furious films, there’s a gun cock sound. You whip out a gun and you hear this choo-choo cocking sound, right? Ask any cop, any special forces, any gun nut — there’s no gun cock sound when you pull a gun out of a holster. You’re just pulling the gun out. If you actually cock the gun, that’s probably because there’s no bullet in the chamber. If it’s a pistol, let’s say, you need to pull the slide back, and that grabs the first bullet that’s in the clip, and then choo, it locks it into the chamber, and it’s ready to fire. In these films, [Laughs] whenever you pick a gun up, there’s a gun cock sound, which doesn’t make any sense at all. In fact, I feel like there’s often scenes where the SWAT team shows up, and you see they’ve got guns, so you hear a gun cock sound, and then they stand there and they point their weapons at someone, and then someone says something dramatic, and then there’s another gun cock sound. Well in the reality of all this, there’d be all these live rounds that would be ejected from these guns and lying around on the floor, because every time you cock a gun, if you haven’t fired it, the live bullet in the chamber would be ejected. So, I guess I should call up the guys who are doing the Fast & Furious spoof film and tell them that they absolutely need to put in [Laughs] shots of all these live rounds being ejected, so when everybody makes a comment, they cock their gun again and another live round gets ejected onto the floor.”

In this film, the debate arose when Gisele (Gal Gadot) is hanging by Han’s hand off the back of the car. “When she sees the bald bad guy [Benjamin Davies’ Adolfson], we had one of those silly discussions about that. When she pulls her gun out, you hear a gun cock sound, but she’s just quickly grabbing her gun, there’s not really gonna be any cock sound there. But when Adolfson is coming up in the background and he’s raising his gun, the thing that encourages her to shoot, I figured, well, obviously we need to have a gun cock sound here, to alert them of the danger. But they didn’t want one there, because it was gonna bust the vibe of what the music was doing.”

Another example: “In the past, whenever anything moves on a computer screen, there’s been beeps and noises. If you had to work on a computer like that, you’d throw it out the window in about five minutes,” Brown says. “But they’ve always demanded that we have beeps for every little movement or text or anything that came up. We cut all that stuff [for Furious 6] — it all lives in a pre-dub somewhere — but they decided this time that they didn’t want to have it.”

Headbutt sounds require coconuts. “Headbutts! There’s only about 17 of them,” Brown says, excitedly. “I’ve done all kinds of things to try to simulate that, probably most famous of which is I went downtown to the fruit market and bought a whole case of shucked coconuts and just beat them all up with sledgehammers, baseball bats, other coconuts, and squeezed them in vices to get that cracking skull sound. They get mixed together with different punch sounds. It’s usually a few different layers of things. We don’t actually attempt headbutting to try to get the real sound. Although I have done that with punches for the first film I did with Justin, Annapolis. I did take one of his assistants down to the foley room and have him punch me in the arm for a while to try to get that real sound, and the fact of the matter is, the real sound really doesn’t sound quite as good as other things — like taping a cedar shingle to a side of heavy bag, and then hitting that with a baseball bat. You get the crack of the wood, but you also get the sort of chesty thump of the baseball bat hitting the heavy bag.”

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