Frank Serafine is an award-winning sound designer, sound supervisor and sound editor, who created nearly all of the sound effects for Tron. In this exclusive interview, Tron Wiki founder Max Petrosky discussed with Mr. Serafine about how some of the movie's most memorable sounds were created and how they were put together using technology no one have ever used before for sound editing.
How did you get the job for Tron?
Well, my first film in Hollywood was Star Trek: The Motion Picture. And I had just done that the year before. I had worked for Disney before, I had worked at Disneyland for the grand opening of Space Mountain out here in Anaheim. That's kinda what got me into the Disney organization and then I was submitting sound effects for The Black Hole, which was, you know, a sci-fi film that Disney was working on at the same time they were doing Star Trek 1. The footage on The Black Hole wasn't very impressive to me; it was kind of a "rinky-dink" film. And so, the Star Trek people kind of stole me away. And I went over there and did Star Trek 1. Then when Star Trek 1 was, you know, a huge success, I contacted Harrison Ellenshaw, who was one of the visual effects producers on Tron at Disney through it's very early stages of production. He ended up contacting me back and I ended up coming in and meeting with the director and they had hired a music and sound supervisor by the name of Michael Fremer. Michael came over to my place, I was really just kind of a struggling musician at that point, even still I've done Star Trek, but you know, that was my first film, which was crazy and I was still just kinda getting into the business at that point.
I had done a sequence in Star Trek, I'm not sure if you're familiar with the scene. They call it the "Spock Spacewalk" and he goes outside the ship and he's looking for things through this, like, astro landscape. And it was an $8 million visual effect done by visual creator of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Doug Trumbull. It was just unbelievable and I did all of the sound effects for that scene, which was an $8 million visual effect scene. You know, there were looking for somebody who really create incredible sounds for all these vehicles that they were going to have in Tron. All the lightcycles and the recognizers and Sark's aircraft carrier, all these different vehicles so that scene really blew them away, and they hired me to do Tron. That's how I got the job.
That's awesome. That scene kinda like "sold them", right?
Yeah, that "Spock Spacewalk" where I showed that to the producers and stuff, they were like "Wow!". And that was almost exclusively all my sound effects.
Wow, that's neat.
Yeah, and it was a huge scene. You know, it's funny, because back then, it cost $8 million to create that scene and I'm not even going to tell you what I made to do the sound effects.
I was a kid at that point and it was a fraction, let me tell you, a fraction of $8 million. Sound has always been on the back burner, not really getting as much recognition as it should because it makes a huge difference with a success of a movie, because we're so transparent and the better the job you do, it pulls you into the reality of the story, then you kinda forget about the sound. You just think the movie's incredible just because that's how they shot it, you know?
That's not the case, every little nitpicking part of a film is recreated.
It's seems like now-a-days , with Ben Burtt and WALL-E and stuff, it seems like sound design and sound editing in general is finally getting its recognition.
Ben...he's the Man, you know. He started the revolution, he got the recognition and really coined the name "sound design". Before Star Wars came along, there wasn't really sound design, it was all sound editing. And that was big thing for us because there were many films because I was the sound designer, when it came to the Academy Awards, like when I did The Day After which an Emmy Award winning sound job for the sound editors. I got the biggest credit, I got a upfront screen credit and everything as a sound designer and then when it won the award, they didn't even know what I did. They never heard of sound design before, so the sound editors all got up to grab the award. They thanks me, of course.
Yeah. The sound designer still is just making his way in, because if you think about it, since films were introduced to the Academy they created the category for Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Sound. The mixers got Best Sound along with the production guys that are on the set, so if you went for Best Sound your mixers and your production mixers go up to get the Oscar. And then on Sound Editing, there were two people that would go up and get it, but it was always the sound editor crew that got the award. So even when I did The Hunt for Red October and it won the Oscar for Best Sound Editing, but I was a sound designer not the editor, but I created all the sounds that the editor cut in, so it's like kinda our award.
Was that the same case with Tron when it was nominated? Because I noticed when I was on Internet Movie Database, your name didn't show up along with Michael Fremer.
Right, it was Mike Minkler, the mixer was nominated for Best Sound which he mixed all of my sound effects. I mean, everything that was in that film was created by me. Then he mixed it and then he put reverb on it; he did a good job mixing my stuff, the guy's an amazing mixer.
Yeah, I really do like the reverb in it. One of my favorite parts in the movie, when Clu flies against the wall where he gets tortured.
The reverb and stuff is just amazing. I mean, it really fits really well.
That's all of Mike Minkler's. He's an amazing mixer and that's why we brought it to him, because when I originally got the job, it was just me. I mean, we didn't have a mixing facility and I got to choose all these people to be my team to mix Tron. We went to this place called, Lions Gate Studios which was on the west side of town where the director lived and I lived and Mike Fremer lived in Venice; we all lived on the west side, everybody. So, we wanted to be on the west side instead of driving into Disney, you know, through traffic everyday. We save ourselves two to three hours just doing it where everybody lived. It was the hip new studio and we got to hire all these new hot shot editors to work with me and then mixers to do the film. I was on Tron for a year. From the time I started to the point we were done.
Wow, that's a lot of work.
Yeah, it was a long job, it was great.
Tron was the film to be mixed off of the Disney lot, right?
Yeah, it was. It was the first film.
Besides the fact that Lions Gate Studios were a lot closer to your home, was the Disney equipment not up to date?
Yeah, they could never get that studio to work by the time we had to get this film done. The people that had owned Lions Gate came from the recording industry. It was like, they were originally managed by those people and all of the technical people there had been working with the new technology and they knew how to synchronize analog tape machines with video and that was back in the day when like, no one could do that. It was time code synchronizers and video interlock and it was pretty hairy stuff, because we were coming out of like the industrial age of moviolas and editing with mag and 16mm and stuff. We were transitioning and Tron was the movie that was doing that because it was all about technology and breaking ground, not only for the visual effects but definitely the way the sound production was done as well.
Right, it was like a predecessor of things to come.
Yes, exactly. Now, you have Toy Story and WALL-E and all these movies because Tron paved the way, for a lot of these animated movies to come through and be successful.
When you were working with Michael Fremer, when you got most of the footage, it wasn't even done yet. There wasn't even background animation and most of the CGI wasn't even completed yet. How did you get around that problem?
Because I was so familiar with the show and that I've been on it for a year, that all of the visual effects people on that show were my friends. I was there so long, I go to their studio and check out what they're doing and I saw the storyboards and I knew the director and I would ask him what's going on. It was very close-knit group of people that have been together for a long time and working hard at it. I was able to have the materials ready so that the last few days when those visual effects came through, I was working about 20 hours a day and I had a team of like, 25 sound effects editors on the hour, almost like a doctor's office where you look at the patient...I was almost doing surgery on the hour. Each guy would come in with a different reel and they'll go, "Here's your stuff!", and then the next guy would come in, "Here's your stuff!" and I just loaded them all up and they just would cut all this stuff meticulously in. That was the last month on production, that's how that was done.
At one point, I was doing everything and I did all the sound effects to multitrack, I had a 24-track locked into my video machine, which was totally a dinosaur back then.
A 3/4" U-matic video machine that had a special head connected to it for the time code so it would read the time code and slave the synchronizer to the 24-track analog machine. And then what I did was I had a Fairlight synthesizer and I performed the sound effects to the picture as I was watching it like a musician would be playing music. So I orchestrated the sounds right to picture and then I multilayered them down and then what we did was we transferred all of that to mag and then the editors would go through it and tweak it a little bit here and there, bring in real tight editing. So that was kinda how it was done.
Cool. I want to discuss about how you created some of the sound effects. I remember you were telling me earlier that the lightcycle was created by using a Prophet-5 synthesizer. What it just a Prophet-5 or was it motorcycle sounds mixed in with the Prophet-5?
Yeah, it was a combination of Prophet-5, Minimoog, and then motorcycles that I recorded out in the field with Mike Fremer. We went out to this place called, "The Rock Store", it's like the only place in Southern California where you can come and race in motorcycle racing, because it's so far out there in the middle of nowhere, and hard to get to that the only way they can catch people is by helicopter. So, they leave everybody alone out there and these guys go out there by the hundreds and race. We got these guys to come and do some incredible stuff for us. You know, all of their "crotch rockets" and racing through the hills and then we were able to mount the microphones onto the motorcycles and have them drive around and Michael Fremer had this interesting Saab Sonnet 4-cylinder sports car and we put microphones inside the engine and went, you know, that same day, went riding around with his car and we ended up using a lot of that as well.
Oh, okay. So, it's a whole combination of stuff.
Oh yeah, and every time they turned corners, we took a skill saw, you know, when you're cutting through a 2 x 4 and then you stop it and it goes, "Ka-whinggggg!". If you ever doing any sawing, you'll get like a "wooo-kingggg" and it leaves like a little ring.
I remember listening to the 5.1 surround sound and I heard saws in the interiors shots, when they're showing Jeff Bridges or Bruce Boxleitner in the lightcycle, I can heard sawblades running in the left and right channels.
Yeah, and then when they go into the maze, there's all kinds of backwards cymbals that I recorded because the hit gives you like a suction, so when you turn things backwards it creates this whole kind of feel. So I used backwards cymbal hits for all those different corner turns through the maze.
How did you make the sound of the recognizers?
That was a program I created on the Prophet-5. It was kinda derived from a helicopter preset that was one of the original presets in the Prophet-5 and then I modified it and came up with the recognizer sound.
I performed it by pitch wheel and modulation wheel right down to 24-track, so all of the Doppler effects and everything I did electronically.
Wow, that must have been really hard.
Yeah, back then it was very, very hard because it was me, I was the only guy in the studio most of the time. So, I was the engineer and I was the creator. It was kinda intimate and cool because there wasn't anybody around, so if I made a mistake it was like, "Oh, I'll just do that again." I did the lightcycle sequence like 3 demos before we finally finished it. I knew it so well that I could just sit there, I knew every turn and every corner and I just perform it on the Prophet, just like I was really in the race. Yeah, it was a lot of fun.
If I had to pick two of my favorite sounds from Tron, it would have to be the recognizer and the lightcycle because they're so memorable, in my opinion. I always wondered if the recognizer was a synthesizer or just a processed sound. I remember reading that you recorded the Goodyear Blimp and I thought that blimp was the genesis for the recognizer sound.
That was for Sark's Carrier.
That was all done with the Goodyear Blimp over Long Beach.
Was the Bit's voice created by using a vocoder?
Yes, it was a vocoder and...I think the voice was me. I think that was me, because they didn't have anybody to do it and all it was was "Yes", "No, no, no, no, no", so I said it into the mic and that's what we ended up using.
Was the vocoder like part of a synthesizer or was it just a dedicated vocoder?
It was a Roland vocoder back then.
How did you create the derezz sound?
That was created by running a microphone through a pitch to voltage converter which triggered all of my Minimoog sounds and I set it back kinda like how Jimi Hendrix would feedback a guitar through the speakers and what it did was created feedback through the microphone and then triggered the synthesizer with the feedback and I sat there and I watched the picture and I would manipulate the microphone, shake it around and stuff in my hand and everything, right next to the speaker and that's how I created the derezz effects.
Wow, that's awesome!
Yeah, that was a pretty complicated setup and no one will ever do it like that again, probably. That what was so cool, because I would watch it and go "Da-da-da-da-da" by stuttering the mic between my fingers, I was able that little "shimmering" effect.
Is it true that almost all of the dialogue in the computer world was recorded in ADR?
Yes it was. We had all the actors come back for what's called a "loop group" session. And we had the loop group wrote lines that corresponded with all the different sort of backgrounds, like when they were in the holding pins and it sounded like a prison, that's where we did that. There's was games going off in the distance, so we wanted to create another world of things going on...games being played in different sectors of the computer.
Right. I like listening to Tron in surround sound because you can really hear the background voices. One of my favorite lines that can be heard in the background is, "I pleaded temporary short circuitry". (laughs) It's kinda nerdy stuff but it's still pretty amusing.
Fantastic line. Yeah, it's real nerdy stuff, and that movie sounded incredible in surround. To this day, it holds up.
It really does sound fantastic. Tron is the movie that got me interested in sound effects and made me want to pursue a career in sound.
You know, that's interesting that you say that. The director that I'm working with right now, Brett Leonard, he did Lawnmower Man which I kinda feel is the Tron of the 90's. And then he did Virtuosity with Denzel Washington and we're doing work right now. Back when I did Tron, he was like 17 years old and he was an usher at the Mann Theater in Westwood and one of the movies that he loved, probably because it saw it a million times was Tron. He said, "God, when I do my first movie, I'm going to get the guy who did the sounds for Tron and then when he did his first movie, he called me up and I did the sound for Lawnmower Man.
How did you make the sound effects for the disk flying through the air?
That was a combination of a monkey scream backwards processed through a flanger and it was also another one of those weird synthesizer effects that I was able to create through the modulator and also I took a big wire cable spin and that was the whooshing element. The monkey was kinda like the element that was suppose to come around your head because we were doing a lot of surround effects with that disk throw stuff and we wanted it to be kinda like something that flew around your head and really scare you, you know, monkeys are kinda freaky sounding. So, I turned it backwards and you couldn't recognize that it was a monkey scream really. I affect the pitch the little bit, you know, what I like to do was back then I was using 1/4" tape recorders so I able to create really interesting elements by just turning the speed up and down on the tape recorder. That's the thing, a lot of the new digital work stations don't get you the sort of controllers and things we had back then to create special sound effects. They don't exist in the digital world right now. I'm creating a plug-in called the "Serafine FX Tron" from Sonic Reality and it's going to be a plug-in that you can play either through Pro Tools, Logic or Soundtrack Pro and you'll have all the fun stuff that we had back then: turning the sound backwards, affecting the pitch, manipulating all the elements and having a really strong search database engine to find all the effects in the library quickly and then you'll be able to perform on a keyboard, the same way I did it in Tron. We're developing that right now because it doesn't exist and it's very hard for people, they just basically take sounds out of a library and stick it into Pro Tools and that's it.
How was the voice of the MCP created?
It was processed through an Eventide Harmonizer and I able to lower his voice down like almost an octave, to make him sound like God, you know? And then, we had the Lexicon 224 Reverbs and that's how we created the massive "canyon-effect" that he was in. It was real heavy processing on the stage and they had him going through all 6 channels and it was a custom patch that I did, in order to get that big deep sound. And I was the one that had the Harmonizer. Now, every body's got one, but back then they were so expensive that the mixing stage didn't have one, so anytime they wanted to do special effects on the dub stage they called me in and I did all the processing on the stage. Like for instance, all the footsteps, you know like how it sounded when they walked, like a flanging kinda delay. It was a sneaker on cement with processing and that's what we basically came up with and that was used on the dub stage when we did our pre-dubs. We went and we processed all of the footsteps in a way that we all decided that was the best sound for the world and then I did all that processing on those foley effects.
How was the sound for the tank was created?
The tank, again, was my Prophet-5 and I just basically performed them like I did the lightcycles. I came up with a really cool, buzzy electronicy, "tanky" effect and then I created a bunch of them because every tank had to have a different sound. I had to go through and create different sounding tanks every time they started up so it didn't sound like a clone. It was a lot of design work on a lot of those tanks. As they lit up and everything, that was a special effect that I created using Minimoog stuff, you know, like a flash element like a pink noise flash through a flanger.
I noticed that in Tron, like on the aircraft carrier bridge and when Clu is being tortured you can heard Pac-Man in the background. What that sound added deliberately as an Easter Egg?
I did that because that was the period. Pac-Man was like the #1 game when that came out. Apple came down and Atari came down and they brought their computers and we sat in my studio for days just creating video game sounds off of the chips that were on the computers, with their top engineers helping us out. We were using the Apple IIe and creating sound effects on the Atari POKEY chip and we had two of their top engineers come down and just help me work with creating vidoe game sounds from these chips. Apple weren't as big in games, they were going to become a business computer, but there were somethings that they had a sound card and they were making wild-sounding video game effects and we did a lot of them with the Apple guys.
Do you have a favorite sound effect from Tron?
Well, um, yeah, I do and I kinda use it as a little trademark and when people hear it, they know exactly what it is. It's the gridbug.
That was actually the POKEY chip. You know, it's that little "blip-blip". It's such a little comedy effect and it's so effective.
Did you use the gridbug effect in any other projects?
I'm just using it right now. I've seen it, because it's in my library, I've seen it all over the place. I'm using it in this thing I'm working on right now which is called, Alex Truth, it's 30 webisodes for this new rock artist. EMI is the label and there's this Tron-kinda opening that they did. Brett Leonard is directing it, so it's the guy that I did Lawnmower Man with. It's like a minute opening of just like crazy, wild technology stuff so I went nuts with the sound effects editing. There's a little effect, kind of a signature right as they're coming through this tunnel, that I used the gridbug effect there and a friend of mine said, "Oh, it's a Tron sound!" He knew it right away, so kinda like one of the most identifiable sound, I think.
It's almost like your Wilhelm Scream.
Exactly, you hear that sound and it's like "whoa" or you hear your ringtone, you know you can hear it out of a crowd of people.
My last question is, do you know if you'll be working on the sequel to Tron?
I've seen some cuts that they've done. Somebody sent me something online and I'm hearing all of my sound effects in the cuts that they've done, so I know they're using my sound effects. They're doing it up at Skywalker Sound and they haven't asked me, I think Skywalker will probably take a lot of my original elements and incorporate them into the new film and probably do the film up there at Skywalker. I think that's what's going on.
Well, that about does it. Thank very, very much. This was a really awesome opportunity. I had a great time.
Great, Max. Nice talking with you, man.