Later this month, the Motion Picture Sound Editors will present Guillermo del Toro with its annual Filmmaker Award at the 64th Annual Golden Reel Awards ceremony. The Mexican-born filmmaker is being recognized for his “outstanding contributions to the art of cinema,” and joins such distinguished past honorees as Sam Raimi, Darren Aronofsky, George Lucas, Ang Lee, Michael Bay, Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Brian Grazer and Gale Anne Hurd.
Del Toro is an apt choice for the MPSE’s highest award. A master of horror, fantasy and science fiction, the director has produced an exceptional body of work, noteworthy not only for its captivating visuals, but also for its imaginative use of sound, whether in the form of the thundering robots of Pacific Rim, the creepy predator insects of Mimic or the fantastic creatures of his masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth.
“Texturally and narratively, sound and image fuse in the cinematic experience,” said del Toro. “I have spent as much time on the mixing board as I have on a stage shooting or in a color correction suite grading the final film. To paraphrase Mark Twain: ‘The difference between the almost right sound and the right sound ‘tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.’”
One person intimately familiar with del Toro’s predilections for cinematic sound is supervising sound editor Scott Gershin, who will present del Toro with his award at the MPSE Golden Reel ceremony. A seven-time Golden Reel Award winner (with 21 nominations), Gershin has collaborated with del Toro on Pacific Rim, Hellboy II and Blade II. He has also remastered several of the director’s earlier films for home entertainment release. “I’ve worked with Guillermo for a long time and developed a good sense for what he likes,” Gershin said. “It also happens to be what I like. We’re kindred spirits when it comes to sound.”
Gershin describes del Toro as a hands-on director who takes an interest in every detail of his films. At the same time, he allows his creative partners room to do what they do best, giving them freedom to experiment and add their personal creative touch. “He likes to do cool things and wants to get the utmost out of the music, dialogue and sound design, and he’s totally open to input from his collaborators,” Gershin said. “He’s a great partner. He gives you a huge canvas to paint on.”
As an example, Gershin points to the towering monsters and robots of Pacific Rim. “Guillermo didn’t want the Jaegers and Kaijus to sound electronic or sci-fi; the technology isn’t that far in the future,” he recalled. “He said, ‘Imagine Jaegers as a kind of warship, a destroyer, with heavy, steel plating. They’re like walking battleships.’ It was great to have that frame of reference.”
Inspired by del Toro’s enthusiasm, Gershin went to great lengths to create the sounds of those walking battleships. “In order to get the right metal sounds, we went to the Port of Long Beach and spent a day recording cargo containers, dropping them on top of each other,” he said. “They were very big. They made a sound like cannons.”
Del Toro is never short on ideas for sound or hesitant to share them. On Blade II, the director was obsessed with the beastly utterances of the film’s super vampires. “He would call me up and say, ‘I have this great idea for a vocal, can I come over and do it for you?” Gershin recalled. “I’d say ‘Sure,’ and two seconds later, there’d be a knock on my door.”
Gershin notes that working with a director with such a consuming interest in the nuances of sound can be daunting. “Guillermo can be tough and demanding,” he said. “He’s challenging, but in a good way. He makes me work hard.” The hard work continues through the final mix. “He uses all the tools in the sound chain. If there are surrounds, he wants to hear them. If there’s a sub, he wants to hear that. If it’s a 7.1 Atmos mix, he wants to have fun with it and he’ll take advantage of it on a scene, by scene basis.”
It’s exactly that passion and high expectations that makes working with del Toro rewarding, said Gershin. “He makes me stretch muscles and experiment,” he notes. “He’s also very appreciative when good sound happens. It’s all about creativity and the work. I find that very gratifying.”