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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Sound Career
By Beth Accomando, Warren '82

Martin Lopez, Muir '84, has designed sound for such blockbuster movies as Spider-man, Priest and Godzilla. Hear his latest work in The Amazing Spider-Man due out in July.

“Whenever you have a creature with a vocal it’s very subjective and it’s very hard to create something that sounds like a living creature but doesn’t sound like anything else,” Lopez explains. “On the Hive Guardian, which had a bigger mass than the vampires, I even used some of my old recordings on the artificial lung that I had built way back for Godzilla. Those provided the really low-end growly elements.”

How do you create the sound of a mutant dinosaur breathing? Nothing at UC San Diego could have prepared Martin Lopez, Muir ’84, for such a challenge. Hired as one of the sound designers for the 1998 American remake of Godzilla, Lopez’s particular task was to give voice to the massive monster, inadvertently created by nuclear testing. This new Godzilla had to pay homage to the original Japanese creature but also bring something new to the mix. So Lopez built a giant lung to literally breathe life into the giant lizard.

After some Internet research he decided to use 3-D images of a parrot’s larynx as the basis for construction. Then—after multiple trips to Home Depot for plywood, canvas and PVC plumbing pipe—Lopez built a 6-foot-long lung and larynx. A 6 by 4-foot bellows was added to push air through the lung and create breathing sounds for a creature the size of a building.

“The goal was to create a breathing component that was very natural,” says Lopez, “Very biological, not processed sounding, but that could generate a lot of sound.”

It also had to be easy and efficient. Lopez and his colleague Karen Baker had to create a variety of breathing, roaring and other vocalizations for the two-hour movie. Each had to reflect the exertions of the Big G as he ran, climbed buildings, and huffed ‘n’ puffed his way through a swathe of urban destruction.

“We would just operate the pumping of the bellows more slowly, or more gently, depending on how much air you wanted forced through the different throat sizes to create different vibrations, moans or breaths,” Baker explained in an NPR interview.

OK, maybe UCSD did in fact provide Lopez with a little preparation for all this, since he entered Revelle in 1979 fully intending to be a doctor. But four-and-a-half years later, he left with a degree in Communication/Visual Arts and the intention of becoming a cinematographer. And even though that too would change, Lopez is still grateful for what the University provided.

“UCSD is a place to cultivate the individual voice,” Lopez says, “The creative core. The experience at UCSD was amazing for me. I still miss it. To spend those years in a place created purely for the extension of knowledge. It was a gift.”

Lopez’s first credited work as a sound designer was for the 1988 San Diego production of The Return of the Killer Tomatoes, a sequel to the cult classic Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, which was voted the Worst Vegetable Movie of All Time. The following year he tried his hand at writing the sci-fi comedy Mutant on the Bounty. That film got a lot more press than Lopez expected when MGM/Turner protested the title, saying, according to Lopez, “it infringed on the reputation of the classic film.” Lopez still wonders how his B-horror space comedy featuring a saxophonist, who gets mutated during teleportation could possibly be confused with the drama about the celebrated mutiny against Captain Bligh. Fortunately, the Motion Picture Association of America arbitrators agreed and cleared the title for use. After his run-in with Turner, Lopez abandoned screenwriting and decided to focus exclusively on sound work.

“I think what drew me to it is that it’s sometimes unappreciated and, like music, it works on a subconscious level,” Lopez explains. Every audience member has experienced the tension you feel when the sound designer makes the stairs in an old house creak; or the tension that builds in an action scene when a sound designer accentuates a fist smacking flesh, a bullet zinging or bones cracking.

In just over two decades, Lopez has amassed some four dozen diverse credits as a sound designer and a sound effects editor. He went from the behemoth Godzilla to providing the voice for the tiny animated cricket in Mulan. He worked with lethal vegetables on a rampage in two Killer Tomato sequels, dealt with extreme weather lifting a cow off the ground in Twister, and helped a superhero develop his spider skills in two Spider-Man movies. He’s designed sound for comedies (Idiocracy, The Pink Panther 2), action films (Priest, The Karate Kid), documentaries (Michael Jackson This is It), animation (Open Season 2, Surf’s Up), and even for video games (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and X-Men: Mutant Academy).

As a sound designer and sound effects editor, he’s responsible for creating all of the non-dialogue and non-music sound elements for use in a film. This includes things as mundane as background ambience, room tone, doors closing, cars driving by and Foley work. (Foley is a technical process by which sounds—like footsteps or ice clinking in a glass—are created, usually in a studio, to be used to enrich or enhance a film’s audio.)

“For me it’s a supporting role,” Lopez says, “It’s a craft role. At your best it might bump up against art but mostly it’s craft. And I think we’re best when we’re just helping the story, holding it from below and pushing the emotions one way or the other.”

If there’s one thing he’s relied on for all these films, it’s ingenuity. He quickly learned that you have to be innovative and resourceful when coming up with ways to create sound effects. Take the problem of creating a specific sound for Sam Raimi’s 2002 comics-inspired film Spider-Man: The moment when Tobey Maguire discovers that he can shoot webbing from his wrists.

Spider-Man was my favorite sound effect,” Lopez states. “I had to create the web-launch sounds, and I experimented with everything—seltzer bottles, water balloons. I was even whipping a chamois cloth around. But my favorite one was stomping on a little catsup dispenser and that was the perfect thing to get that sound.”

On Spider-Man 2 (2004), Spidey’s web provided yet another challenge—how would it sound when the web stretches to the max in order to stop an elevated train from careening out of control with a load of innocent passengers?

“That was one that took a little while to figure out,” Lopez recalls. In the end, he wound fishing wire back and forth across a cello body, pulling tighter and tighter until it snapped. That allowed him some pitch variation in the sound and conveyed the sense of the web itself being pulled to its breaking point. The sound of the wire on the cello created tension in the scene as audiences perched on the edge of their seats to see if their hero could save the day.

FROM TOMATOES TO PRIESTS: Lopez has just completed work on his third Spirder-Man movie. He created the cool sounds of the motorcycles in last year's summer release, Priest. Lopez's first credited work as a sound designer was for the 1988 San Diego production of The Return of the Killer Tomatoes.

For the most part, Lopez says his job is to be invisible. He believes that if he is doing his job right then no one should notice him. But there are times when sound editors and designers get to take center stage. This occurs when they must invent sounds for things that do not exist. It’s those tasks that prove the most rewarding and they tend to come around once a year.

“In the summer venue we have a little more say,” states Lopez, “because it’s in the sci-fi and fantasy worlds. In some ways we’re king. There’s a lot more sound design and it makes the illusion complete.”

That creativity was evident in last summer’s film Priest, a 3-D adaptation of a Korean comic book about a priest who hunts vampires in a kind of retro futuristic Old West. Because of the futuristic setting, one of the challenges was to create sound for a high-tech motorcycle. It had to be familiar on a certain level but also fueled by unknown technology. So Lopez melded elements he had created with existing sounds to represent the cool cycles that the priests ride: the result is impressively sleek and fast. He also created sounds for various weapons and hand-to-hand combat action scenes. And even though Variety’s film critic blasted the film on its artistic merit, he took time to praise the film’s tech credits: “Sound design, credited to Martin Jacob Lopez and Jussi Tegelman, is aces.”

It’s nice to get positive reviews especially when the work is as challenging as it was on Priest. Lopez says the biggest challenge was creating the vocal elements for a creature known as the Hive Guardian.

“Whenever you have a creature with a vocal it’s very subjective and it’s very hard to create something that sounds like a living creature but doesn’t sound like anything else,” Lopez explains. “On the Hive Guardian, which had a bigger mass than the vampires, I even used some of my old recordings on the artificial lung that I had built way back for Godzilla. Those provided the really low-end growly elements.”

Since Priest, Lopez has been working on the Spider-Man sequel for Sony, due for release July 3, 2012. The Amazing Spider-Man is directed by Marc Webb, with Andrew Garfield in the starring role. Lopez notes that the sequel is a complete reboot, and that the director, Marc Webb, is making it his own. Consequently none of the sound design of the previous films is being re-used. “The web sounds are new and unique,” Lopez says. “Keen observers of the trailers have noted that Spider-Man now has mechanical webshooters, more faithful to the original comics. So they would necessarily be different from the bio-mechanical webshooters of the Raimi films.”

At the end of April, Lopez is scheduled to start on a thriller called Broken City, starring Russell Crowe, and he is looking forward to the challenge of a new genre.

“I love thrillers and film noir and this story has both elements from the classics of the genre, and shades of the political shenanigans of our time,” says Lopez. “It’s just great when the story really hits your buttons.”

Beth Accomando, Warren 82, is the KPBS film critic and author of the blog Cinema Junkie (kpbs.org/cinemajunkie). She also freelances for NPR.