How 'Mad Max' Sound Editors Made Engine Noises Out of Whale Wails

'Mad Max' Sound Editors - H 2015
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Listen again to those high-speed vehicles racing across the desert landscape in George Miller's postapocalyptic Mad Max: Fury Road, which was nominated Dec. 10 for a Golden Globe as one of the year's best dramas. For as supervising sound editors Scott Hecker and Mark Mangini — Oscar-nominated sound veterans from L.A.-based audio post facility Formosa Group — explain, each of those monster rigs has a distinct, and distinctly animalistic, personality.

The sound for the chase in which cult leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) goes after Charlize Theron's Furiosa — who's behind the wheel of the war rig, the largest vehicle in the movie — was inspired by Captain Ahab's pursuit of Moby Dick, says Mangini: "We wanted to give the sense that the war rig was living. We used whale vocalizations as part of the kit of sound. When a harpoon hits the rig, you hear whale groans. For the death of the war rig, we used sounds of dying animals, including bears and whales, slowed down to have a real-world emotional response."

Hecker adds that in the end, the rig's sonic personality predominantly was based on bears: "We embellished the engine sound with aggressive bear sounds, and for quieter moments, we had a gentle bear growl that was defused." That imaginative approach extended to the other vehicles, like the so-called "buzzards," the spiked pursuit vehicles that try to intimidate the rig. "We infused these sounds with swarms of bees," notes Hecker.

In quieter scenes, Hecker says Miller told his sound crew, which included the sound mixing team led by rerecording mixers Chris Jenkins and Gregg Rudloff, he "wanted a sound of emptiness but still have a tone to it. That was synthetically produced with software and synthesizers … a static hollow wind to create the sense of emptiness and isolation."

The results were rewarded at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards, held Dec. 9 in Sydney, where Fury Road took home eight awards, including best film and best sound — in the pro­cess giving audible new meaning to the phrase "beasts of the road."