Studio City, California – On February 18th, the Motion Picture Sound Editors will present John Paul Fasal with its annual Career Achievement award at the 65th MPSE Golden Reel Awards. Fasal has worked in sound for more than 30 years as a sound designer and field recordist. His many credits span features, television and games, including such titles as Top Gun, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Interstellar, The Dark Knight, American Sniper and this year’s box office hits Dunkirk and Coco.
Fasal recently spoke with the MPSE about his career and the art of sound.
MPSE: What got you interested in field recording?
John Fasal: When I started doing sound, the position of field recordist didn’t really exist. What got me into recording sound in general was my interest in music and the fact that my father bought me a Sony sound-on-sound tape recorder. I started using that to record myself playing guitar. That got me going.
My first job in post production was doing sound transfers. During that time I had a music studio with synthesizers and outboard gear and people started asking me to make sounds for space ships, creatures and a variety of other things. They’d also bring in sounds to process electronically, but sometimes the quality was poor so I started recording new clean versions for them. I was familiar with a lot of microphones and recording techniques from music studios and that contributed to how I approached sound design. I brought in the idea of using many different types of microphones, just as you would if you were recording a band. Today, that’s commonplace.
John Fasal: For the most part, it’s the supervising sound editor or the lead sound designer. Video games have an audio director and audio leads. It can be a combination of one or both. Every now and then, I work directly with a producer or a director.
MPSE: How closely do you work with the sound supervisor?
John Fasal: I try to get as much information as possible from the supervisor or whoever is going to use the sound. Sometimes it’s self-explanatory. You are recording race cars, and they give you an outline of what performances they want. It’s a little more subjective when you’re recording ambience to match scenes that may or may not have already been shot. If it’s animation, there may not be much that they can give you.
MPSE: Who did you work with on Coco?
John Fasal: Chris Boyes. He was the sound supervisor, sound designer and re-recording mixer. He’s with Skywalker Sound.
MPSE: What were some of the highlights of that project?
John Fasal: I went to Oaxaca, Mexico to record during Day of the Dead with Daniel Boyes and Scott Guitteau. It was an amazing trip. It’s such a colorful celebration and there’s so much going on. We visited a lot of cemeteries. Families go there to decorate grave sites and leave gifts for relatives. We also shot in lots of villages and churches. We tried to get as much local flavor as possible. We had a guide who helped in setting up some of the situations, like shoemaking. That was great because it’s very mechanical. It’s ageless, a good sound signature.
MPSE: Were there sounds you could get in Oaxaca that you couldn’t get anywhere else?
John Fasal: Yes. Number one there’s language. We shot a lot of marketplaces. That’s something you’d never be able to recreate in L.A. It’s important to get the right dialect. It’s a mood and a feel. There’s more in terms of little motorcycles and overly loud cars. There is a character to the sound that you can’t get here.
MPSE: What about Dunkirk? Did Supervising Sound Editor Richard King provide a list of effects?
John Fasal: Yes. That generally happens early in the project. I’ll meet Richard in his cutting room and go over things he wants recorded. We’ll brainstorm about how best to do it. On Dunkirk, Richard had done the preliminary research. He’s a sailor and he knows boats. So, he had clear ideas for the hero boat, the one the father uses to rescue the soldiers. Richard found a vintage boat in Marina del Rey and had a list of the maneuvers he wanted. We discussed where to put microphones and how many to use. He scripted what he wanted the boat to do. He knew exactly what he needed to cover those sequences.
MPSE: Coco and Dunkirk are very different movies.
John Fasal: That’s true, but there’s not really a difference in how we approach recording. The difference is in the material. There’s something very creative about recording ambiences that capture a feeling, a mood or a locale. It can be hard because you are often trying to capture something from a different period in time. Today, there are helicopters, jets and Harley Davidsons…sounds that didn’t exist in earlier periods, so you need to get to a quiet place. On Coco, we went way out in the country, outside the city of Oaxaca. Even then, we often had to wait and wait for a quiet moment. You set it up and try it out but if it’s no good, you move. It can be a needle in a haystack situation, but when you get something really good, it’s satisfying.
MPSE: Are the challenges in games different from those in film?
John Fasal: Games are more specific in how they implement sound. The randomness of how sound plays in a game dictates that. In a film, we can usually view a video file of the necessary scenes. We’ll go through them, outline everything that happens and record each sound separately. For a car chase, you might have someone in a car pulling out of a driveway, turning right, jamming on the brakes, and then re-accelerating. Those things can be hard to cut from existing library sounds, so we will record the driver performing several variations of the sequence or maneuver. In a game, there is no script; everything happens in real time. The sound designers require source that is either loop-able, or something that can be sampled by software that extracts the character of the sound and allows it to be triggered to match what the player does. So we record specific “steadies” along with acceleration and deceleration ramps tailored to their requirements. It’s a different process, but the recording techniques are the same for both.
MPSE: What are some of the toughest challenges you face in recording sound in the field?
John Fasal: The hardest thing to deal with are the elements. I’ve faced a lot of weather challenges. One that sticks with me was recording in New York for War of the Worlds. We were recording the scene where the ferry gets attacked and sinks. They shot that on the Hudson River on a dock built for the film. They had the ferry and the extras, and they had taken over the little town of Athens, New York. There’s a street that goes straight down to the river and that became the exodus for people lining up to board the ferry. I was there with recordist Eric Potter. The first night it snowed. The second night it was freezing snow and rain. The third night it was just freezing rain. It was miserable. No matter where we go we often have to deal with airplanes, helicopters, motorcycles, air conditioners, wind, birds, dogs – you name it!
MPSE: Do you prefer field recording over sound design?
John Fasal: It’s followed in a natural arc. I have always loved doing sound design, but at a certain point I wanted to get out of the dark room and do something with a little more immediate gratification. I enjoy the people I meet. I record a lot of interesting things and the people are correspondingly interesting. People tell me, “Hey, you’ve got a great job,” and I say, “So do you!” I record people who fly jets and drive race cars. It’s fun to step into their world and share it with them.
MPSE: Do you have a favorite recording?
John Fasal: That’s a tough one. There are so many! The jets for Top Gun were a lot of fun. Anytime I’ve worked with the military, it’s been outstanding. On War of the Worlds, we were with the military a lot. I’ve been on aircraft carriers, submarines, jets, helicopters and tanks, and ridden shotgun in a NASCAR race car blasting around Darlington Motor Speedway. I’ve recorded Russian military vehicles in Budapest and the changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Oh…and recording the Mardi Gras in New Orleans – those flying beads from the floats can be dangerous!
MPSE: Any other favorite memories?
John Fasal: I recorded one of Jay Leno’s Duesenbergs for The Great Gatsby. And he drove it! We drove through Burbank with mics attached all over the car. I’m sitting next to Jay and he’s driving this huge Duesenberg. People on the streets are shouting, “Hey, Jay!” and he’s smiling and waving back – classic!
Founded in 1953, the Motion Picture Sound Editors is a non-profit organization of professional sound and music editors who work in the motion picture television and gaming industries. The organization’s mission is to provide a wealth of knowledge from award-winning professionals to a diverse group of individuals, youth and career professionals alike; mentoring and educating the community about the artistic merit and technical advancements in sound and music editing; providing scholarships for the continuing advancement of motion picture sound in education; and helping to enhance the personal and professional lives of the men and women who practice this unique craft.