Issue 11.11 | November 2003
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Matrix Revelations (continued)

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Addicted To Noise
Forget computer-generated bings, bangs, and booms. Dane Davis has become the king of sound f/x - from The Matrix to the Xbox - by keeping it real.
by Jon M. Gibson

The script called for mind-blowing martial arts. Every kick, punch, and chop in The Matrix Reloaded had to look incredible - and sound cool, too. Audio effects guru Dane A. Davis knew he'd never get it right by twiddling knobs on a synthesizer or holding a boom mike over someone pummeling a slab of frozen meat. "What I wanted to hear was something more organic, more believable," Davis says. So he put two jujitsu artists from a local dojo inside a 6- by 8-foot recording booth and told them to beat the crap out of each other. For four days, the two fighters went at it, slamming into cement, steel, and wood.

"It's all about telling a story with noise," says Davis, who has become Hollywood's leading soundman thanks to a relentless focus on detail and authenticity. He earned a 1999 Academy Award in sound effects editing for The Matrix and composed the audio for last spring's Reloaded and this month's Revolutions, either of which could win him another Oscar. But movies aren't his only forte. Davis is also the man behind the roar on two new videogames - Need for Speed: Underground and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

Davis' signature is to act out in real life the scenarios depicted onscreen. To imitate the blast of an engine in EA Sports' nitrous-dosed street-racing romp Need for Speed, he attached microphones to the engine and tailpipe of 15 cars, then for days burned rubber up and down a Los Angeles runway. To create vocals for the imagined beasts in Ubi Soft's sequel to Prince of Persia, he combined the grunts from trained animals with the huffs and puffs of human actors. When the footage showed townsfolk walking away from their homes in the indie flick Northfork, he sent his crew to record dusty footsteps on the quiet plain of Bodie, a ghost town in Northern California. For Reloaded's infamous freeway chase, Davis dropped cars from cranes, rammed them into each other, and bashed them with 3,500-pound wrecking balls to capture the essence of grinding metal. "It's like sound design boot camp," laughs Bryan Watkins, the game audio director at Danetracks, Davis' LA company.

The Matrix trilogy offered artistic freedom - and the budget to bring it alive. For the final episode, Davis simulated the death of a mass of sentinels by firing 2-inch lead cannonballs through a line of washing machines and trash bins filled with metal junk. "That was fun - expensive, but fun," he says.

Even as he pushes the limits, Davis knows that sound design has a long way to go. "If you compare it to the visual world, we're still 20 years behind. CG imaging is just at the point where it's starting to look real." Computer-generated audio, however, continues to sound really fake. The solution, he says, is sophisticated audio software that, alas, remains a generation away. "Let's say we have a metal gun turret that is 20 feet tall, and it's falling over and landing on a giant metal scaffold," he explains. "I should be able to approach it just the way a visual effects designer does and draw in the weight, dimensions, mass, and how far it's going to fall. What we do now is go out and record a 10-pound metal object hitting another 10-pound metal object. Then we bring it into my studio, and I try to make that 10-pound object sound like 10 tons. Now, I'm really good at it, but it's a primitive approach."

Though not as primitive as the audio tracks on videogames, Davis says. "It's the same gag over and over again," he complains. "Games are functioning now more like toys than entertainment with a capital E. The game business is just starting to wake up to their responsibilities, and what they need happens to be what I'm most interested in and have a reputation of achievement in."

Success is making Davis the ears of two industries. "Dane can bring a sound to life," says Simon Pressey, technical and artistic director of audio for Ubi Soft Montreal. "He gets to the heart of the how and why of the sound, and the result that hearing it should create."

It's a lot simper than that, as Davis sees it: The fantasy worlds in films and games should sound real.

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