Nailing the Illusion

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Stephen Dewey doesn't like to play it safe. The founder of the Venice, Calif.-based sound design/music house Machine Head got his start in commercials background noise when he did the vroomy backdrop for Ridley Scott's notorious 1990 Super Bowl Nissan Turbo Z spot. The :60 featured a futuristic chase scene in which the vehicle dusts a motorcycle, a race car and even a fighter jet. It triggered an uproar among public-safety critics, who complained it glorified excessive speeding.

By no means does Dewey advocate reckless driving, but when it comes to creating the sonic backdrops for clients like Coca-Cola, Cadillac, Chrysler and Intel, Dewey's policy has always been to go over the edge. " `Wouldn't have thought of' is a big part of my recipe," Dewey says. "I love trying to create situations where things occur and then become found objects that you can use, which looks like you did it on purpose, making you seem brilliant. But actually, the brilliant part was having the balls to go out on a limb."

The dazzling sound effects of the Turbo Z launched Dewey into the commercials realm, and in 1991 he opened his own studio. The Machine Head name is taken from a myth created by Dewey himself, he says. It describes the endless trip undergone by a group of soldiers in Vietnam who were given hallucinogens as part of a secret U.S. government mission. Sort of the ultimate found object, one could say.

Besides Nissan, Dewey's studio has kept other well-known vehicles revving. In the effects-laden "Golden Gate" spot for Chrysler, via FCB/Detroit, a trio of Chrysler Sebrings maneuvers its way along the famous San Francisco bridge as it gradually morphs into a serpentine form. A fleet of heavy-duty boats, tethered to the landmark with thick cables, is responsible for the CGI contortion. As the massive form takes on a new shape, it emits booming, sonorous metallic squawks and screeches. "Generally, there's sort of an expectation that the bridge would make large, metal, groaning and crunching sounds," explains Dewey, who sent one of his designers to a train salvage lot to gather the noises of rail cars getting demolished. But the real-life sounds themselves weren't enough and had to be distorted with a guitar in order to produce the hauntingly heavy resonance that the visuals demanded.

"A lot of times, for whatever reason, nature's sound isn't really what you'd expect it to be, and surprisingly so when you put it under the microscope of a commercials soundtrack," Dewey points out. "So you have to substitute. It may be what you actually use is the sound of a cheese grater or something, but toned up, with a couple of sounds chopped off the beginning, and suddenly it's very convincing. And it's not abstract. It's just a matter of choice, an editorial decision. That can be very satisfying when you nail the illusion."

Dewey also paints crisp sonics portraits in a pair of "Got Milk?" spots that feature squeaking ants and screaming chips, as well as the "Tank" spot for 7Up, which follows an army tank gunning its way through a city street, crashing through walls and setting off explosions. The 1997 "Swimmer," for Coke, is one of Dewey's favorites. It deftly illustrates the aural experience of an Olympic butterfly swimmer as cheers of an excited audience alternate abruptly with cloudy burbles and splashes while the swimmer hoists her body in and out of the pool. Dewey says capturing that reality required a lot of "high jinks," in which he scrubbed a track that blended real water sounds with crushing newspapers, whistling winds and earthquake rumblings.

Besides creating a perfect reality-based execution, another thing Dewey loves is "sound design where you make absolutely, crazy, interpretive abstractions of noises, creating the soundtrack of the emotion of the event rather than the sound of the physical event." For example, Dewey's sounds are elegantly paired with the oddball acrobatics of the Blue Man Group in recent spots for Intel and Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG. "We set about trying to make the sound funny without being goofy, without being Hanna-Barbera-ish," Dewey explains. "The Blue Man Group has a certain integrity to their sounds; a particular pitch of humor. They wanted to make sure we understood that and that we would execute the project like that." In one spot, "Keys," all hell breaks loose when one of the Blue Men leaps off a platform and lands on a giant green piano key, spinning it 180 degrees. "In Hanna-Barbera land, you'd hear `sssssssbbbboinnnnngg!,"' mimics Dewey. "We didn't do it that way. We made a big racket, but it wasn't as simplistic as a cartoon. The humor came from the absurdity, from the quiet with the loud, rather than the quiet to the bang. It was more a matter of dynamics."

As a complement to Dewey's soundwork, Machine Head also has two in-house composers, Chris Neilman and Mark Kilian, both graduates of USC's film/TV scoring program. Their work shows how Machine Head's sound design history seeps even into its musical projects. "We're not just composers, but decomposers," explains Neilman. In a Toyota RAV4 spot called "White Cyc," Neilman created a hard-driving drum and bass track that incorporates some high speed swishing and the crunchy snow-slipping sounds of a cross-country skier.

In a pair of spots for Listen.com, Kilian had to convert a collection of everyday noises into real music for FCB/San Francisco. In one of these, "Diner," quotidian scenes from an eatery come together to make music. Kilian took everyday sounds - phones ringing, knives scraping against toast, eggs cracking, coffee pouring and blenders whirring - altered their pitches and looped them together rhythmically. In the final cut, each element gradually finds its place as part of a song that segues nicely into the tagline, "There's music everywhere if you know where to look." The project seemed right up Kilian's alley (his graduate thesis was titled "The Relationship Between Sound Effects and Music in Contemporary Hollywood Film"), but the task was still a bit intimidating. "All those kinds of things are not inherently musical, so it was daunting to put it in a musical framework," he says.

Dewey has also released his own album, Overheard, which gathers collages of "cool noises" overlaid with spoken commentary. But regardless of the gig, "We're in the business of finishing the illusion," emphasizes Dewey, which is a very level-headed contradiction in terms. "It's really hard to be successful and to be able to deliver if you're not focused."

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