The director and audio team share their process.
By Jennifer Walden
To achieve the machine-like precision of assassin John Wick for director Chad Stahelski’s signature gun-fu-style action films, Keanu Reeves (Wick) goes through months of extensive martial arts and weapons training. The result is worth the effort. Wick is fast, efficient and thorough. You cannot fake his moves.
In John Wick: Chapter 2, Wick is still trying to retire from his career as a hitman, but he’s asked for one last kill. Bound by a blood oath, it’s a job Wick can’t refuse. Reluctantly, he goes to work, but by doing so, he’s dragged further into the assassin lifestyle he’s desperate to leave behind.
Stahelski builds a visually and sonically engaging world on-screen, and then fills it full of meticulously placed bullet holes. His inspiration for John Wick comes from his experience as a stunt man and martial arts stunt coordinator for Lily and Lana Wachowski on The Matrix films. “The Wachowskis are some of the best world creators in the film industry. Much of what I know about sound and lighting has to do with their perspective that every little bit helps define the world. You just can’t do it visually. It’s the sound and the look and the vibe — the combination is what grabs people.”
Before the script on John Wick: Chapter 2 was even locked, Stahelski brainstormed with supervising sound editor Mark Stoeckinger and composer Tyler Bates — alumni of the first Wick film — and cinematographer Dan Laustsen on how they could go deeper into Wick’s world this time around. “It was so collaborative and inspirational. Mark and his team talked about how to make it sound bigger and more unique; how to make this movie sound as big as we wanted it to look. This sound team was one of my favorite departments to work with. I’ve learned more from those guys about sound in these last two films then I thought I had learned in the last 15 years,” says Stahelski.
Supervising sound editor Stoeckinger, at the Formosa Group in West Hollywood, knows action films. Mission Impossible II and III, both Jack Reacher films, Iron Man 3, and the upcoming (April) The Fate of the Furious, are just a part of his film sound experience. Gun fights, car chases, punches and impacts — Stoeckinger knows that all those big sound effects in an action film can compete with the music and dialogue for space in a scene. “The more sound elements you have, the more delicate the balancing act is,” he explains. “The director wants his sounds to be big and bold. To achieve that, you want to have a low-frequency punch to the effects. Sometimes, the frequencies in the music can steal all that space.”
The Sound of Music
Composer Bates’s score was big and bold, with lots of percussion, bass and strong guitar chords that existed in the same frequency range as the gunshots, car engines and explosions. “Our composer is very good at creating a score that is individual to John Wick,” says Stahelski. “I listened to just the music, and it was great. I listened to just the sound design, and that was great. When we put them together we couldn’t understand what was going on. They overlapped that much.”
During the final mix at Formosa’s Stage B on The Lot, re-recording mixers Andy Koyama and Martyn Zub — who both mixed the first John Wick — along with Gabe Serrano, approached the fight sequences with effects leading the mix, since those needed to match the visuals. Then Koyama made adjustments to the music stems to give the sound effects more room.
“Andy made some great suggestions, like if we lowered the bass here then we can hear the effects punch more,” says Stahelski. “That gave us the idea to go back to our composers, to the music department and the music editor. We took it to the next level conceptually. We had Tyler [Bates] strip out a lot of the percussion and bass sounds. Mark realized we have so many gunshots, so why not use those as the percussion? The music was influenced by the amount of gunfire, sound design and the reverb that we put into the gunshots.”
The music and sound departments collaborated through the last few weeks of the final mix. “It was a really neat, synergistic effect of the sound and music complementing each other. I was super happy with the final product,” says Stahelski.
Putting the Gun in Gun-Fu
As its name suggests, gun-fu involves a range of guns —handguns, shotguns and assault rifles. It was up to sound designer Alan Rankin to create a variety of distinct gun effects that not only sounded different from weapon to weapon but also differentiated between John Wick’s guns and the bad guys’ guns. To help Wick’s guns sound more powerful and complex than his foes, Rankin added different layers of air, boom and mechanical effects. To distinguish one weapon from another, Rankin layered the sounds of several different guns together to make a unique sound.
The result is the type of gun sound that Stoeckinger likes to use on the John Wick films. “Even before this film officially started, Alan would present gun ideas. He’d say, ‘What do you think about this sound for the shotgun? Or, ‘How about this gun sound?’ We went back and forth many times, and once we started the film, he took it well beyond that.”
Rankin developed the sounds further by processing his effects with EQ and limiting to help the gunshots punch through the mix. “We knew we would inevitably have to turn the gunshots down in the mix due to conflicts with music or dialogue, or just because of the sheer quantity of shots needed for some of the scenes,” Rankin says.
Each gun battle was designed entirely in post, since the guns on-screen weren’t shooting live rounds. Rankin spent months designing and evolving the weapons and bullet effects in the fight sequences. He says, “Occasionally there would be a production sound we could use to help sell the space, but for the most part it’s all a construct.”
There were unique hurdles for each fight scene, but Rankin feels the catacombs were the most challenging from a design standpoint, and Zub agrees in terms of mix. “In the catacombs there’s a rapid-fire sequence with lots of shots and ricochets, with body hits and head explosions. It’s all going on at the same time. You have to be delicate with each gunshot so that they don’t all sound the same. It can’t sound repetitive and boring. So that was pretty tricky.”
To keep the gunfire exciting, Zub played with the perspective, the dynamics and the sound layers to make each shot unique. “For example, a shotgun sound might be made up of eight different elements. So in any given 40-second sequence, you might have 40 gunshots. To keep them all from sounding the same, you go through each element of the shotgun sound and either turn some layers off, tune some of them differently or put different reverb on them. This gives each gunshot its own unique character. Doing that keeps the soundtrack more interesting and that helps to tell the story better,” says Zub. For reverb, he used the PhoenixVerb Surround Reverb plug-in to create reverbs in 7.1.
Another challenge was the fight sequence at the museum. To score the first part of Wick’s fight, director Stahelski chose a classical selection from Vivaldi… but with a twist. Instead of relying solely on traditional percussion, “Mark’s team intermixed gunshots with the music,” notes Stahelski. “That is one of my favorite overall sound sequences.”
At the museum, there’s a multi-level mirrored room exhibit with moving walls. In there, Wick faces several opponents. “The mirror room battle was challenging because we had to represent the highly reflective space in which the gunshots were occurring,” explains Rankin. “Martyn [Zub] was really diligent about keeping the sounds tight and contained so the audience doesn’t get worn out from the massive volume of gunshots involved.”
Their goal was to make as much distinction as possible between the gunshot and the bullet impact sounds since visually there were only a few frames between the two. “There was lots of tweaking the sync of those sounds in order to make sure we got the necessary visceral result that the director was looking for,” says Rankin.
Stahelski adds, “The mirror room has great design work. The moment a gun fires, it just echoes through the whole space. As you change the guns, you change the reverb and change the echo in there. I really dug that.”
On the dialogue side, the mirror room offered Koyama an opportunity to play with the placement of the voices. “You might be looking at somebody, but because it’s just a reflection, Andy has their voice coming from a different place in the theater,” Stoeckinger explains. “It’s disorienting, which is what it is supposed to be. The visuals inspired what the sound does. The location design — how they shot it and cut it — that let us play with sound.”
The Manhattan Bridge
Koyama’s biggest challenge on dialogue was during a scene where Laurence Fishburne’s character The Bowery King is talking to Wick while they’re standing on a rooftop near the busy Manhattan Bridge. Koyama used iZotope RX 5 to help clean up the traffic noise. “The dialogue was very difficult to understand and Laurence was not available for ADR, so we had to save it. With some magic we managed to save it, and it actually sounds really great in the film.”
Once Koyama cleaned the production dialogue, Stoeckinger was able to create an unsettling atmosphere there by weaving tonal sound elements with a “traffic on a bridge” roar. “For me personally, building weird spaces is fun because it’s less literal,” says Stoeckinger.
Stahelski strives for a detailed and deep world in his John Wick films. He chooses Stoeckinger to lead his sound team because Stoeckinger’s “work is incredibly immersive, incredibly detailed,” says the director. “The depths that he goes, even if it is just a single sound or tone or atmosphere, Mark has a way to penetrate the visuals. I think his work stands out so far above most other sound design teams. I love my sound department and I couldn’t be happier with them.”
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based writer and audio engineer.