Interview: Sound Designer Scott Gershin on Crafting the Soundscapes of ‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’

I was lucky to have been able to see Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio on the big screen since few Netflix films get released in theatres where I live. And to have been able to experience the film the way Guillermo del Toro and co-director Mark Gustafson have likely envisioned it was an exceptional experience, especially with how the sound plays an integral part in Pinocchio’s (Gregory Mann) adventures in the movie. And, if you’ve seen the film in theatres, you will not be surprised to learn that the sound design was one of the ten films to be shortlisted for the 95th Academy Awards.

For sound designer Scott Gershin, who recently won a Children’s & Family Emmy Award for Outstanding Sound Mixing and Sound Editing for an Animated Program with Maya and the Three, one of the main topics he discussed with Guillermo del Toro was how the approach in designing the sound was to be drastically different from his previous works, most notably Pacific Rim:

“The approach needed to be much more subtle. We had to find the right sound for the world Pinocchio inhabits rather than hitting it with a wave of sound. The film has many sound arcs to it. It starts out in a rather minimalist way because we wanted the audience to have a more intimate experience, a bit like a traditional puppet show. And as the character of Pinocchio evolves, we get to the later part of the movie, to which we take advantage of all the tools that are available to us spatially. We’re making them much bigger. What’s neat about the film is that not only are each of the sounds designed to support the different characters and give them a signature sound but the actual arc of the movie was also designed to evolve in the same way that Pinocchio was as it progresses to the end.”

To craft the sound for the film’s titular character, one of the first things Scott wanted to figure out was what Pinocchio’s size was going to be:

“I needed to figure out what would be Pinocchio’s size. I knew he was made of wood, but I wasn’t sure what type of wood and size he would be. But when I saw images of the character, it started to give me some ideas for how I wanted him to sound. Once that started evolving more, and I started seeing his movements, instead of going with pure puppets, which I’ve looked at early on, I realized that that might not be the best approach. Pinocchio needs to have a jiggling looseness. When he was walking for the first time, moving and stretching his limbs, it needed to feel like he was barely put together. Interestingly, when you start seeing Pinocchio and his nails protruding from his shoulders, there is a metallic side to the puppet. So not only was wood available to me, but also squeaks, metal squeaks, creeks, all these different styles that I can use to better help and enhance the personality of Pinocchio throughout the film.”

According to Gershin, one of the film’s most significant challenges in crafting the sound was how simple the film was:

“I’ve done a lot of big films and shows with extensive music, giant creatures, and lots going on. Not every sound has to be perfect for these productions because when you think of big action films or shows, it’s easy to prioritize what sounds need to be heard and what sounds will be significantly less heard. In this film, there’s nowhere to hide every sound. Every sound has to be scrutinized. Because it’s so simple, every sound needs to be heard. Because of that, it was all about trying to find the right talent. And I couldn’t design it synthetically because the movie’s whole point is to have a certain amount of organic feel to how the sound envelops you in the environment.

At that point, the biggest challenge is finding the right kind of wood, the right kind of metal, and that involves tons and tons of experimentation. I ended up working with Dan O’Connell, who is a foley artist. He created lots of stuff by grace, and I took what he made and heavily manipulated it in a way that gave the characters more personality and supported what Pinocchio was doing. I wanted to make sure that you need to believe the character lives in the world. The audience needs to connect to the character and not just listen to them.

That approach was done for all of the characters, whether Sebastian J. Cricket [Ewan McGregor] used a bit of crab and lobster shells to saturate his feet, so it didn’t sound like everybody else. For Volpe [Christoph Waltz], we had coins in his pocket as he moved around, and also, when he got very dramatic, we introduced touches to accentuate his personality. All these different characters had something unique. Even Podestà’s [Ron Perlman] footsteps were much thicker, heavier, and darker to go with the dominant personality. All of these things were thought of.

For Death [Tilda Swinton], I did a lot of work manipulating her voice to give it a more godly feel. I had this kind of highbrow concept, where, as far as the wood sprite [also voiced by Tilda Swinton] symbolizes life, I wanted the audience to hear more and give her this feeling that when you hear it in the theater, it just swims around everywhere. For death, I did the opposite. Many of her voice treatments happened after multiple echoes. It wasn’t just a standard plugin. It was a technique built using many plugins, pitch controller voice, and bringing out specific words that I thought would help enhance the story of that moment.”

In designing the scene in which Pinocchio dies (multiple times) and meets Death in a sort of limbo-like world, Gershin explained how much tension he wanted to create for the sequence:

“I wanted to create something that had a certain amount of tension. Not necessarily outright scary, but something maybe discomforting, at least as a demo. If you look at Death, she has snake heads and a tail chasing her away. She had razor-sharp claws, also. Occasionally, you could hear her claws like a clock when she walked or moved. So I felt like blades onto the treatment of her voice plays well in a theater. In multichannel, we have a 5.1 mix that will give the audience a feeling that they’re watching something special. I tried to go for lots of different sounds. Pinocchio sounds a lot smaller in comparison. So we had to create differences in sizes by choosing what size of sound we wanted to grasp in the sequence. I didn’t want Death to be big and heavy, per se. When she walked in on different steps, it was meant for her to be elegant rather than simply big thunder. And I think the voice ultimately sells the character, and the treatment I gave her really works.”

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is now available to stream on Netflix.

[Some quotes were edited for length and clarity]


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Written by Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is currently finishing a specialization in Video Game Studies, focusing on the psychological effects regarding the critical discourse on violent video games.

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