Where are you currently employed?
Soundelux, a division of CSS Studios.
What is your current project?
The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud
Describe Your Job.
I am a sound supervisor and sound designer. My job is to work with the director to help tell a story. I use sound to help enhance the story, whether creating an E-ticket ride for the audience––“rocking the room”––or using silence as negative space to bring subtle discomfort to a scene.
Sometimes it’s fun to create what I call the “giggle factor,” creating sounds that make kids giggle and leave them walking away, imitating those sounds. I feel like I am an audio photographer, capturing the sounds of life, and then reusing and manipulating them to create new and interesting journeys.
How did you become interested in this line of work?
I come from a music background, having attended Berklee College of Music, so everything to me has a rhythm, whether it’s footsteps or having a sound lead a cut in order to give it energy; it all has a tempo. When I was young, I saw two movies that had a lasting impression on me: Star Wars and Apocalypse Now. Both of those showed me what could be accomplished with sound––not just sound effects alone, but the mixture of dialogue, music and effects, and how they could be orchestrated to create an aural experience.
Who gave you your first break?
There are two. Gene Gillette, who became a good friend and second dad, and opened many people’s doors to me. The other was Wylie Stateman, who gave me the ability to spread my wings and see where I could take things. We became creative partners for over a decade, and he has been very influential in my career.
What was your first union job?
TV’s Beauty and the Beast, and then Honey, I Shrunk the Kids shortly after.
Which of your credits or projects have made you the most proud and why?
I am proud of all the projects with which I have been associated, whether they made money at the boxoffice or not. I have learned from so many filmmakers, and feel there is still so much to explore. Having done over a hundred movies, several stand out as career milestones. As a synclavierist at Todd-AO, I gave Beauty and the Beast the show’s signature sounds and brought Vincent to life. In Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, I used an Atari computer and a lot of two-inch tape to show what a world would sound like if you were two inches tall. Later, I worked with Oliver Stone on Born on the Fourth of July, and became the first person in post to use a Wavefame.
Over numerous films, I’ve helped create dragons, superheroes and vampires, stories of war and its tragedies, submarine ghost stories, the worlds of rock legends, political intrigue in the past and present, sounds of heaven and hell, and many of the animated and non-animated worlds of Disney. While many of these films have been filled with creative challenges, it was nice to stretch my creativity using negative space and silence on American Beauty. Recently, I had the opportunity to add my talents to the latest Star Trek movie as a sound designer; which was like being a kid in candy store.
Recently, I worked with Guillermo del Toro on Hellboy 2. He brought me into the project late in the schedule to supervise and add my sound design talents. I had to bring together a creative crew from all over the world, enter into his wild world of fantasy, and quickly climb the mountain he created for us. It took everything we had physically and mentally––a 100-percent total commitment, but when we finished, it was incredibly gratifying. Based on the time we had and many other obstacles, when we made it to the top of our mountain. And the view was worth it.
How do you overcome challenges in your job?
Filmmaking involves so many dynamics of creativity and personality. To focus so many talented minds on a single objective and go down a single path is no easy feat. As a sound supervisor, I have to bring into focus the ideas of the director, the picture editor and the producers. Adding my expertise and taste, I’ll explore––with my crew––what can be done, and present a sonic idea in a way that makes them comfortable and furthers the storytelling. In this regard, I am always a student, I am always learning from everyone with whom I work.
What was the most fun you’ve had at work?
Going out and recording is like “career day,” where you get to enter and capture someone else’s life. Looking into worlds that we normally don’t see: beekeepers, air force pilots, submarine captains, exotic animals in their own habitat, all things combustible, race cars, everything underwater, high rollers in Vegas, or just standing in the middle of Tokyo or London and recording the rhythms of the city.
I’ve had the opportunity to manipulate my voice to bring characters to life, such as giving the gelatinous “gak” a personality in Flubber, vocalizing the reapers in Blade II, manipulating my voice to give a Volkswagen bug a character and emotions in Herbie Fully Loaded, giving the gorillas of Disney’s animated Tarzan human emotions, or creating the voice of the She-Dragon in Shrek––with a little added help from my wife Cindy––that is at one point ferocious, then lovestruck. I’ve used my voice in so many of my movies to add some uniqueness and emotion. It’s my best sound effects tool.
But the most fun I have is playing with the gear. I collect a lot of things that either make sound or manipulate it. I am in my zone late in the day where I am totally focused and exploring the possibilities of what can be done on my project at that time.
Job wise, what do you hope to be doing five years from now?
I hope to continue exploring the realm of sound and storytelling, always raising the bar of creativity.
What are your outside activities, hobbies, passions?
Music, technology and science; you name it, I love to read about it and play with it. Anything involving water––above it or below it––great-tasting food, architecture and history. But most importantly, my young son, whose eyes are seeing things for the first time. I get to relive and see things I haven’t noticed in a very long time.
Favorite movie(s)? Why?
So many stories, so little time! Some standouts are Apocalypse Now, Star Wars, Silence of the Lambs, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Fight Club. Also, anything by the Coen Brothers, and the visual worlds of Tim Burton, Peter Jackson, Pixar, Oliver Stone, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. In short, anyone who can tell a story with complex characters and take me on an emotional journey.
Favorite TV Program(s)? Why?
I love anything with a good story or a good ride—I’m a bit of an HBO and Showtime junkie.
What advice would you offer to someone interested in pursuing your line of work?
Listen and build a sonic vocabulary of everything around you, as well as learning the work of the sonic artists that came before you. The gear is easy to learn but taste is something that is acquired over time. Find something that you are passionate about and live in that playground.
Was there ever a circumstance when you had to rely on the Guild for help or assistance?
I came from the music industry, working in recording studios as a mixer who created records. There weren’t any unions or rules; it was “anything goes.” So it is nice to know that I can practice my art and work in a business that has a set of working conditions that allow me to support my family and give my clients the best that I can bring.
Is there anything you’d like to say to your fellow Guild members?
Even with all the challenges we face today, I am proud to be part of the sound community.
- Michael Kunkes