Learn how a hands-on approach to sound design and narrative analysis informed Joseph Fraioli's clarity and innovation in creating the sci-fi sounds of the film Kin.
When we last spoke with Joseph Fraioli, a long-time PSE Master Library user and sound designer well-known for his inventive advertising spots, he had just begun working as sound designer and supervising sound editor on the new feature film Kin – from the producers of Arrival and Stranger Things and directed by Jonathan and Josh Baker.
Following the film's release, we had the chance to reconnect with Joseph to discuss his process creating the sounds, collaborating with the directors and sound team, and approaching storytelling with sound design. And children's toys.
Warning: May contain spoilers.
Images from the film courtesy of Lionsgate.
First of all, congratulations on the film! Is this your first time as a supervising sound editor on a feature?
Joseph Fraioli: Of this size, absolutely. I've done a bunch of smaller independent films for New York productions for the most part, a couple of L.A. productions that friends of mine were supervising that I contributed to sound design and sound effects editing. But this is the first one that I really got to dig into.
[Directors] Jon, Josh and I have done about four short films together and this is their first feature, which was sort of based on the short Bag Man. This is something they've been working up to throughout their whole careers.
How did the process start? You clearly have a close relationship with the directors, so I'm assuming they involved you very early on.
Yeah, it was really ideal. I think I was one of the first hires on the movie. And even before that, I read all versions of the script, so I had a really good idea of the world that they were building. I know them so well, and I know what they'd like, and we generally like the same movies so we had a great foundation for things that we wanted to do. I started the second week they were shooting, and I got some footage from editor Mark Day was able to start very early on to design the sounds for the sci-fi elements.
Joseph Fraioli in his studio
So, you went back and forth with them?
Yes, I would get the footage, design sounds and send a sound effects stem to them while they were editing. I believe it was greatly helpful for them to have a more finished understanding of the scenes. It was at the time when we didn't have any visual effects and I was sort of playing around with the sounds and ideas, and that developed as we worked on the film for a good twelve months on and off. You know, you sit with things and you want to tweak them, and then you get new visual effects, and they develop organically. It was a great process.
Did you guys reference the Bag Man short or did you try to start fresh?
They wanted to keep intact some of the stuff that we established in the short film Bag Man, but it was a much different format of storytelling. There were certain sounds that they wanted to keep. They liked certain sounds of the main weapon that Eli has, so we kept that basic idea, but then recreated it for this film because there are scenes that are much more elaborate. We had the opportunity to be more dramatic and showcase different aspects of the technology / weaponry.
"I've always felt like the more realistic you can make the world that you're in, when you introduce these science fiction elements, the more real they'll feel. And if the world around them is more detailed and immersive, the more real they'll sound."
Jimmy (Jack Reynor) and Eli (Myles Truitt) in Kin
Is there an example you can give for moments where sound helped the storytelling in a subtle way that might not be obvious when first watching the movie?
Absolutely. There are many, actually, which just speaks to what great directors and collaborators Jon and Josh are. A few that I’m really proud of are how the the main character Eli’s weapon appears to be connected to him through sound. The original concept I had for this started with the scene of him finding the gun down the shaft in the warehouse. I created a sonic language for the gun that was based off of something the audience was familiar with - Bluetooth pairing and mobile device notifications - but with a futuristic artificial intelligence twist. So depending on who has the technology or weaponry, the sound design is different to reflect the characters intentions and personality.
Another layer of sound are these transitional elements that begin when Eli’s father gets shot. Underneath it I have a long rumbling thunder to help demonstrate the intensity and impact that this will have on Eli’s life. This is the same sound of thunder I use under Eli’s weapon firing that trails off into the distance and there are also variations on the sound for transitional moments when we’re in scenes that involve James Franco’s character Taylor and his crew. So it ties these aggressive and somewhat pivotal story points together through sound.
My absolute favorite sound was a subtle one that comes at the end of the film, but it would be a major spoiler to talk about that... What was your favorite sound?
I think the vocalizations for the cleaners [the alien characters chasing Eli] are my other favorite sound. I’ve always wanted to create a language in my own way and for something of this nature. It was such a fun process to make those sounds. I recorded long passages of dialogue - my wife and I just talking about our cats and random things - and processed them. Then, I came up with these really long, just garbled mess of dialogue with two different formant and pitch personalities, because they’re two different characters. Then I would go and edit together all these individual pieces of phonemes to create this language that almost sounded like it was based on a Latin language. So you get a sense of what they're talking about, but you don't know exactly what they're saying. I just tried to take an actual linguistic approach with it.
'Cleaner' in Kin
Some parts of the movie have a lot of stuff going on sound-wise, but you managed to maintain a lot of clarity - which seems to be a trademark of yours coming all the way from your advertising work. Did you have a specific way of working to achieve that as you were designing sounds, or was it something you worked towards in the mixing stage?
I appreciate that, Andreas, it's fantastic to hear that. I think it's just the way that I work - you know what I mean? It's just the way I hear sound. I want it to be clear and detailed. We all hear sound differently and that's just the way that it comes out. And also, Brad Zoern, the re-recording mixer on this project, is absolutely phenomenal and he really just tightened it up so well in the mixing stage.
Was this your first time working in DTS:X? I heard that you didn't simply upmix, but rather created extra layers of sound that can only be heard in the DTS:X mix.
Yeah, that was the first time. DTS:X is a similar immersive format to Atmos where you have overhead speakers, additional speakers in the rear, and it's scalable. It was really fun because we did our original final mix in 5.1. Then DTS approached us in doing this DTS:X mix only a couple of months ago, which was way after we finished the mix. And that was so generous of them to approach us with this opportunity that I decided, well, why not instead of up mixing our sounds into this format, then, why not create original sounds and make this an exclusive mix?
So I went back to some of the scenes that I thought from the beginning would really benefit from an immersive mix - like the battle in the warehouse, the nightmare and all these different scenes - and created additional material specifically for the extra speakers. Even for some of the backgrounds, you know, planes and trains, and things like that to go overhead, and just have a little bit more of an immersive quality to the natural environments as well. It was really fun.
"I created a sonic language for the gun that was based off of something the audience was familiar with - Bluetooth pairing and mobile device notifications - but with a futuristic artificial intelligence twist. So depending on who has the technology or weaponry, the sound design is different to reflect the characters intentions and personality."
Milly (Zoe Kravitz) and Jimmy (Jack Reynor) in Kin
Did you start editing in 5.1 as well? Because your studio has a stereo setup, if I remember correctly.
Yes, I work in stereo. I prefer all that surround stuff to be done on the stage because when you get to a screen of that scale, and in a room that size, you tend to make a lot of decisions in a smaller room that have to be corrected. My FX Mixer, Brad Zoern, preferred my sounds to be supplied this way as well. I do pan things, but usually no more than 35% left or right because it becomes really wide when you have a big screen. So that was pretty much all the panning I did, and then Brad really moves around the room and that lets his artistry come through and take it to the next level. I appreciate that, and I like that aspect of collaboration.
This is definitely a movie that's better experienced in the cinema. What kind of instrumentation did you use for the most part?
It's a lot, from dollar-store items to my Eurorack modular. The Symbolic Sound Kyma system was a lot of it in terms of the sci-fi electronics stuff, and processing organic sounds and generating electronic sounds and it was a lot of cool stuff that I found, like the Om Wand made by this company called Wind Singer. It's basically this plastic sword with this piece of tape that goes around it, and you swing it around and it makes this really great sound. I think it's originally intended for meditation, like Tibetan singing bowls. It works really cool for when the cleaners throw the spears into the air and they have that stopping-like sound.
To create the sound of the Cleaners breathing through their helmets, I basically twisted up this crinkly tube I found in a dollar store and put a mic in it, and then applied processing to sort of give it the spatialization when you're in the interior of the helmet. So it feels like there's a hard left and right quality to it. You're hearing the breathing within the helmet, which was pretty fun.
Producer Shawn Levy with directors Jonathan Baker & Josh Baker on the set of Kin
There seems to be a lot of raw recordings. Did you use any library material?
All the sound design I do is always original. It's an interesting thing, because nowadays there's so much available. Design elements that you can easily just go to any library and have good material. But I just feel honored to be in the position to be able to create everything from scratch, so I'm like, man, let's go all-out here. That said, for hard effects, backgrounds, some vehicles, and general foley elements, I tend to dig my library before recording since so much great stuff already exists.
You must have felt like being in Disneyland.
Oh yeah, everyday. We would joke around because anything that you could think that someone might complain about, we just couldn’t complain because it was all too awesome. We just felt so lucky to be able to do this. It was phenomenal.
That's amazing, and your Behind the Scenes video (below) made it on CNN.
Yeah, I was blown away. I thought it was a mistake. I couldn't believe it, so it was really, really crazy.
Were you directly involved in recording Foley or were you just supervising it? Is there any particular design philosophy you followed to distinguish the alien moments from the human ones?
I did a little bit it of myself for sure. Anything that the directors wanted me to do, which is typically a lot, I wind up taking on, from the terrestrial weaponry to a lot of Foley. Really anything that was enhancing the drama and the storytelling is the stuff that I handled; but, yeah, philosophically we have this grounded science fiction world where we're in reality, but we have these science fiction elements. I've always felt like the more realistic you can make the world that you're in, when you introduce these science fiction elements, the more real they'll feel. And if the world around them is more detailed and immersive, the more real they'll sound.
Our sound effects David Rose and Paul Germann came on in the last couple of months and really fleshed out the backgrounds, and made them very rich and dense and detailed. So when the gun and other technology is in this environment, it just really has this feeling of believability to it. I think that really helps the viewer get into the movie.
You just moved to L.A., I’m assuming to look for more features work.
Yeah, that’s the idea and I got some cool offers already, so I’m really excited about it.
Are you still going to work as a freelancer or are you joining a studio?
I'm going to stay freelance and through my company Jafbox Sound. I work in a very particular way, with a lot of hardware and just wacky ways that I do my thing. It's best for me to have my own place and do my thing creatively, I think.
What’s next for you? Any projects you can disclose?
Of course with all things post production I can't really say anything. But there's some really exciting stuff I can't wait to tell you about. I'm really excited about some of these opportunities.
Thanks to Andreas Russo for conducting this interview, and to Joseph Fraioli for participating!