This is the cherry on top to the entire Inside Psycho series – a finale of sorts and a whole lot of fun for me as the Audio Designer.
Most of the sound effects for the Inside Psycho series stay somewhat true to the time of the actual movie (late 1950’s to early 1960’s) This scene happens in 1980 yet still needed to feel connected to the series in that way. Due to it being outright fiction I was able to lean slightly more modern in my overall approach. Much like my approach to the dream sequences in Episodes 4 and 5.
This sequence is a fun bit of fiction about a Universal pictures security guard who sets out on her night shift on April 30, 1980. The day of Hitchcock’s passing. It’s also Walpurgisnacht – Witches Night in German folklore. Mark Ramsey narrates this story in the same tone as all the truthful material in the series.
We always viewed Inside Psycho as a docudrama – not a straight documentary. So I interpreted this scene as a modern take on a classic ghost story. And that is how I set out to design the audio.
So slap on some headphones and give it a listen.
The early sonics on this sequence are pensive and a tad mysterious – especially as the bustling daytime Universal lot is reduced to desolate vacant lot in mere seconds. It would have been easy to key off the word “morgue” in Mark’s narration and do something really creepy here – but we’re not quite ready to tip listeners off to that yet.
WHAT’S IN A WHISPER?
At about :55 seconds in we drive by the Phantom of the Opera set – and we learn it’s believed to be haunted. This is accompanied by a spooky whispery sound that dies out as soon as we’re informed those were “just rumors”. As creators we know it’s a ghost story. The listener doesn’t yet know this. This is the first tip off that all might not be as it seems. Or is it?
WHO GOES FIRST – NARRATION OR SOUND?
In an audio only medium like this there’s a case to be made for both approaches depending on the material and how it’s written and designed
Typically, I prefer to have the sound communicate the action – and then have the narration expand on or further illustrate the mental images the sound creates. There were some spots in this sequence where it was unavoidable that the narration leads and the sounds followed. As a designer it’s difficult to keep the sound from feeling reactive in these cases. The easiest kind of sound to question if it was really needed at all is reactive sound – since the narrator just said what was happening.
Since this sequence was cut and sent to me as a finalized narration I had to roll with having the narration lead and the sound follow in spots. Overall it’s a minor issue and I don’t think it breaks immersion in this scene. But it’s worth mentioned since this article is written for fellow sound geeks and producers thinking about using audio in their media.
WHAT DOES CLAUSTROPHOBIC SOUND LIKE?
When we close the door to the house behind us – the outside world vanishes. I love scene changes in audio only media. They are tricky and can be confusing – but also offer a lot of creative avenues to explore. This one is pretty simple. We leave “outside” and go “inside”.
There was an audio note in the script that inside should feel claustrophobic. I created a resonate room tone. I pushed that sound and the narrative ‘It’s pitch black in here” through a very small closet sized convolution reverb. No music or other pad effects here. The light switch flicks are brought in a little closer to us.
I always loved the flashlights in the X-Files. The way they would cut through creepy foggy environments, both indoors and out! They were great visuals. So I have a guard wielding a flashlight in this sequence. How do I create X-Files style flashlight for audio only?
I created the practical sounds of the flashlight being pulled out and tossed confidently into one hand and switched on via my own recordings. Then – “whooom” – the beam being waved around. Obviously it can’t sound like a space-age light-saber – but I pulled inspiration from that and created a electro-acoustic buzzy whooshing sound. It has a bit of doppler to further sell the idea of motion. It cuts through the dark room and sends the rats scurrying back into the dark! It’s one of my favorite sounds to hear in context in the entire series.
WHAT WAS THAT?
People who have heard the entire series up to this point know what that sound is. They’re pig squeals. It’s what childhood Ed Gein heard from his parents backyard butcher shack as they slaughtered pigs and heifers. In modern sound design we often use pig squeals and slaughterhouse recordings to create monster and creature vocals – but here it’s literally supposed to be pigs. The pigs slaughtered by the Geins. They are designed, pitch shifted, layered and sent through a few different kinds of delays and “in another room behind closed door” setting in a convolution reverb.
WHAT WAS THAT 2?
The rumbling, the spooky creaking and bending of . . . . things! What sound designer doesn’t love that. The environment here is full on creep. The slow creaking rocking chair – oh my! At this point we want it to become more obvious that we’re telling a ghost story but avoid coming off as cartoonish.
Mark’s description of “The Figure” facing the wall in the corner is pretty complete – you can’t help but see “Mother” from Psycho. In this instance – The Figure’s rotting corpse is not confined to the chair – she can move! And move she does. Creating those sounds is a mix of organic brush, leather, and some food stuff handling layered and edited together. It’s all there to sell the idea of rotten flesh – moving.
I also layered in a swarm of buzzing flies as The Figure rises. This is a call back to the Gein slaughterhouse scene in Episode 1. The guard gasps – the flashlight hits the floor to the right as Mark describes the Figure’s “mask” which we know from the Ed Gein story in Episode 1 must be made from human flesh.
Another spooky whispery sound! More creaking corpse flesh made from recording leather jacket, branches and leaves. The old woman laugh is another one of my favorite sounds – pitched and filtered echoes designed to complete the surrealist nature of this scene. There’s a bit of a space here – with ambience and the building Heartbeat. There’s just enough space to make the impact of the stab surprising.
My aim here was to surprise with it’s suddenness. I wanted to use as much musical instrument based sound as possible to accentuate the stabbing and slicing of the guard – while avoiding obvious “jump scare” orchestral sounds.
The ripping flesh is made more visceral and stylized by the bow slowly being dragged and creaked across the detuned bass strings. Add in some piano string scrapes for good measure. This is my favorite kind of design work – where music and practical sound effects work together – blending and blurring into each others respective “roles”.
This is again used for the guts slipping into a tub – it’s a mixture of practical food stuff sound effects delivering the slippery gooey gut sounds and then tuned percussion pitched to create the guts hitting the tub.
This entire sequence is scored and sound designed holistically. That is – the typical negotiation between sound designer and composer in a scene like this happened second by second with myself. I opted to lean on using the musical elements as sound design elements rather than “score” with melody, harmony and rhythm. The entire scene is composed – but plays better without having an obviously musical score.
As the Figure bends down to look into the guard eyes we have the rotten flesh creaking, dripping blood and flies spinning around. Word for word we recreate Norman Bates’ final words from the movie in the voice of Mother. While 99% of the voice in Inside Psycho is Mark – he wanted a female voice for this part. He sent me a voice but the inflections weren’t working for the effect I was going for. This part was the finale and needed to be more dramatic. I wanted the other voice to more directly call back to the movie – so I voiced it myself to get the inflections I wanted. Then I used several layers of my voice with heavy pitch and formant processing to give it a old woman’s tone. It’s far creepier than even I thought it would be. That is layered with Mark’s voice using reverse reverb effects and panning to complete the surrealist vibe.
NEXT STOP – CANNES LIONS!
This sequence was stemmed out* for surround sound to become part of a Cannes Lions presentation by Wondery CEO Hernan Lopez titled “Storytelling In The Dark”.
Participants will wear eye masks and be instructed to simply listen to this scene with narration only – and then again with full sound design to experience the difference. It’s probably something every audio person I know wishes they could do to sell the power of audio. I’m extremely flattered and wish I could be there!
I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of these posts. If there’s something you want more info about just let me know.
More behind the sound of Inside Psycho on the way – stay tuned!
*stemmed out for non-audio people simple means all the layers of the total design separated and delivered discretely so they can be placed intentionally in a quasi-three dimensional sound space of “surround sound”. Just like a film in a movie theater.