'Men in Black: International's Sound Pros Create Alien Voices, High-Tech Weapons

Three-time Oscar winner Paul Ottosson and the Sony Pictures sound team took a "fun and quirky" approach to the reboot.
Giles Keyte/Sony Pictures
'Men in Black: International'

After a seven-year absence, Columbia Pictures' Men in Black: International reintroduces the franchise's secret organization that protects Earth from alien threats — requiring "fun and quirky" characters and sound design led by Paul N.J. Ottosson, the film's three-time Oscar-winning sound designer, supervising sound editor and rerecording mixer.

"The challenge was to stay true to the tone of what was established in the prior movies while moving forward with new and exciting sounds. At its heart, our work was to support and respect the story," says Ottosson (The Hurt Locker, Skyfall), who developed the pic's aural experience with the team at Sony Pictures Post Production Services.

In the film, MIB agents H and M, played by Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, respectively, get a tiny alien sidekick named Pawny (with the recognizable voice of Kumail Nanjiani). "[Pawny] has an endless amount of gear, weapons, lasers, zip lines, grappling hooks and a jet pack hidden within his armor that all needed a specific miniature sound design," Ottosson explains.

Overall, the film’s weapons are created from a combination of sounds including "real guns and synth sounds, all processed and layered to create a new never-heard weapon," says Ottosson. "Perhaps the most interesting sound design is in one of the sounds in the hover bike that H races around on. It's based around an induction motor. A frequency dependent motor that spun at around 100,000 rpm — yes (one hundred thousand revolutions per minute)!"

On the creature side, Kayvan Novak played three characters in the movie: Vungus, Bassam and Nasr. "He did a great job varying his own voice to differentiate the voices but we took it a bit further," says Ottosson. "Vungus being this huge rotund alien, we worked with different formants as well as sneaking in some exotic animals as exclamation marks. For the geeks, formant are the harmonics from the original voice — to emphasize the actor’s natural lower harmonic pitches without changing his pitch."

Working at Sony Pictures’ Kim Novak Theater, Ottosson shared rerecording mixer duties with Julian Slater, a double Oscar nominee in 2018 for Baby Driver. "The movie for me was about how fantastical places are here on Earth. Hiding in plain sight on the streets of Morocco, you can find aliens living with humans," Slater says of the native Dolby Atmos mix. "Paul did such a good job with designing cool alien sounds, and it was fun hiding them in the human world so that they were not necessarily obvious. In the same way that the aliens are hiding, we were pretty discreet when we had to be with the more fantastical sound design elements."

He adds, "That’s not to say that we didn’t go big and extrovert when it was warranted. We certainly did! I think that was the fun for me, switching it up with the subtle sounds in the human world, and then playing it big with the action sequences."

Additional members of the sound team included sound designer Hamilton Sterling; sound designer/sound effects editor Greg ten Bosch; supervising ADR editor Bobbi Banks; ADR editors Daniel Saxlid and Ryan Juggler; dialogue editor Robert Troy; Foley supervisor mark Pappas; and Foley artist Gary Hecker.