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Behind The Sound Of “Death Note”: A Conversation With Andrew Hay And Jeffrey Pitts

Old mustangs supplied the sounds for a Ferris Wheel mishap in “Death Wish.” Photo courtesy Netflix.

Japanese pop culture has experienced a nearly two-decade love affair with “Death Note,” consuming iterations of the supernatural revenge story in every form of content from manga magazines to miniseries, video games to feature films.   Supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Andrew Hay had just begun watching the most recent “Death Note” Japanese miniseries when he received a call from supervising sound editor/designer Jeffrey Pitts.  Pitts, a long-time lover of all Japanese horror and thrillers including animated and live action versions of “Death Note” was contacted by director Adam Wingard who was ecstatic about a feature adaptation of “Death Note.”  Having collaborated with the director on thrillers including “You’re Next” and “The Guest,” both Hay and Pitts knew “Death Note” perfectly matched Wingard’s style.

Finding a home at Netflix, the sound team had freedom and time – 36 weeks – to experiment and shape the sound for the Seattle- set story.  Pitts began his design process by flying to Japan to capture ambient sounds of Tokyo he could fuse with Seattle-based background noises.

“I had this cacophony of sounds,” said Pitts.  “Every city sounds different, they all have their own flavor.  It’s fun to mix those sounds together and make them clash.”

Filmed primarily on stages, every sound in the film had to be created.  In addition to cues provided by Happy Feat Foley Productions, Hay and Pitts recorded wildly diverse objects to create an original sound scape.  For an accident scene involving metal crushed at numerous heights, Hay and Pitts gathered a variety of mikes and visited a desert junkyard.  Finding a graveyard of old, decaying Mustangs, they spent the day manipulating the dilapidated vehicles, recording the tension of hinges straining and hoods creaking as they were jumped and pounded on.  They also captured more intimate sounds such as those made by running their fingers over assorted textures.    For more atmospheric sounds, such as those heard in the film’s opening montage, Pitts recorded the sound of Japanese paper as he tore it, waved it in the air, or scraped a cello bow along its edges.

“The scenes reveal themselves to you in terms of what they want and need, and then it is just painting, really,” said Hay.

As mystical character Ryuk, actor Willem Dafoe recorded his lines on an ADR stage.  Hay found the perfect mike to capture his vocals, and left the rest of the character’s sound development to Dafoe and Wingard.   Outside of some minor mixing to get the sound to sit and play correctly, there was no processing required to alter Dafoe’s creation.  Additionally, Pitts stripped away elements of Dafoe’s voice and used the alterations for subliminal effect in the sound design.

Wingard, a composer with a vast audio knowledge, was present throughout every step of the sound design and mixing process. Having established a strong level of trust over past collaborations, he remained in the background, giving Hay and Pitts full creative range.  Joining Hay on the re-recording mix was three-time Oscar winner Gregg Rudloff.   Hay handled dialogue and music, while Rudloff mixed effects, folly and background.

“Greg has great taste; he knows what to play when, where and how.  That is instinctual, you can’t learn that,” said Hay.