By William Harwood
A lone German officer rides a horse through the smoldering aftermath of battle in 1945. The outlines of destroyed American tanks, illuminated by fires still burning from their twisted hulks, stand out against the dark sky and dreary fog. Other than horse and rider, nothing seems left alive.
As the officer proceeds, we hear over the rising strings of dramatic music the hiss of the flames and the muddy clomp of the horse’s hooves upon the blood-drenched field. Then, in the blink of an eye, Brad Pitt leaps in ambush from the top of a Sherman tank and dispatches the officer with the business end of a hunting knife. The sound of the blade penetrating the man’s skull is gruesomely realistic, as though acquired illegally on the Dark Web from some nefarious source. But, in truth, the sound that makes audiences squirm—many reflexively placing their hands over their ears until the deed is done—derives from Lee Gilmore’s daughter Molly, now age 11, ripping apart her Halloween pumpkin. Such is the artistry of one of Hollywood’s most preeminent sound effects editors.
“If you cut things how they sound in real life,” Gilmore shares about his aural art form, “it would be really boring. Real life does sound boring.”
The essence of brilliant sound effects editing, Gilmore maintains, is to use the power of the ear to make things sound hyperreal.
“Sound is a massive player when it comes to telling the story,” he elaborates. “Pictures tell you the story, but sounds make you believe the story. A T-Rex chasing you in Jurassic Park is an amazing visual, but it’s that roar that scares you to death. As a sound effects editor, it’s my job to trick your brain into thinking this make-believe thing you’re seeing on screen is really happening.”
To listen to Lee’s body of work—currently more than 50 major projects to his credit, including Zero Dark Thirty, Blade Runner 2049, First Man, Moana, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, La La Land, the forthcoming Terminator, and the list goes on—it sounds as if he were a born sound effects editor. But this isn’t the case. The origins of Gilmore’s successful Hollywood career go back to his undergraduate days at Watkins.
“I spent a couple of years bouncing around colleges not knowing what I really wanted,” he recalls. “But Watkins felt right immediately. It was the first time I really started taking school seriously because I had found something I was passionate about, a creative outlet that I didn’t even know I needed so badly.”
That outlet first took the form of film editing, Gilmore’s major, graduating in 2001 with his BFA in the discipline. “I didn’t give sound a second thought,” he admits with a grin.
But that was before his professor arranged for him to work with a pair of professional music editors during a senior class trip to New York.
“The moment I walked into their editing suite was a real ‘whoa’ moment,” Lee shares. “A lot of things converged at once: first time in NYC, first time in a legit skyscraper, first time in a room with people actually working in the business. When they told me they were soon traveling to New Zealand ‘to work on some movie about hobbits,’ I just about died. I had no concept of the different disciplines of sound. I just knew that this was rad and I needed to know more.”
So learn more he did. And, as fortune favors the prepared mind, serendipity sprang upon the neophyte sound effects editor.
“My dad randomly met this guy whose best friend happened to be the head sound engineer at Universal,” Gilmore remembers. “We got in touch, and I flew out to have lunch with him, showing up in a suit and tie which is beyond embarrassing to think about now. He introduced me to supervising sound editor, Richard LeGrand. Richard gave me his card and said if I ever wanted to shadow him for a week to give him a call. I called Richard every few days for about three months until he told me to come on out. I had one internship credit left to do at Watkins, and earned it at Universal working with Richard on American Pie 2.”
It turned out to be a momentous gig. Some 18 years later and Gilmore is still at it, working for multiple studios where he paints with palettes of sounds like artists paint with brushes dripping with colors. Like a canvas-based artist, the work isn’t easy. And it’s not always steady. It takes talent, discipline, and community.
“The sound community is a pretty small family, and we all try to have each other’s back,” Gilmore says. “If you’re already booked and get an offer, then you pass it to a friend and vice versa. The hustle can be a real grind, so you need all the help you can get.”
The work itself can be a grind as well, particularly when production deadlines loom.
“I think most sound effects editors are walking corpses about to fall apart,” Gilmore half jokes. “We can put in an obscene amount of hours. I think I’ve had the same headache now for about eight years. You have to really be on top of getting good sleep and watching what you eat, especially when a mix starts and meals get catered. This job doesn’t do your body any favors.”
Gilmore’s work may not do his body any favors, but it sure does enhance his sense of hearing and how the world sounds to him.
“Your ears start to listen to things differently,” he observes. “And cool sounds start to poke out.”
Sometimes those unexpectedly cool sounds are close to home. Rachelle, Gilmore’s beloved wife of 15 years, was recently in the backyard, breaking branches from a dead and fallen tree for the compost bin when Gilmore rushed outside, imploring her to stop. He didn’t hear the sounds of rotten wood being torn from the trunk. He heard instead the low vocals of monsters growling and old pirate ships creaking. He scurried off to rustle up his recorder so that both he and Rachelle could continue their work.
“Ehm… Does that sound okay to you, dear?” he asked.
Such is the artistry of one of Hollywood’s most preeminent sound editors.