Interview: Frank Serafine

A legend in sound design whose work has shaped hundreds of movies, adverts and video games, Frank Serafine has decided to share his wisdom via a 33-date Sound Advice Tour of the US and Canada. Matt Fellows chatted with him about the past, the advance of technology and the importance of education…

So tell us a bit about the Sound Advice Tour. How did you get involved?

I worked with Zoom on their tours; they just called me up, and I was very interested because I’d been teaching at UCLA Extension for 13 years and the LA Film School for a year and a half. I love educating, and the opportunity just came along and I took it. 

Do you think it’s now more important than ever for professionals in your position to pass on knowledge?

Of course, because there’s not a lot of people from the whole Hollywood system who have learned the new techniques. A lot of the greatest people who’ve done well in the industry in Hollywood end up teaching at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] or USC [University of Southern California].

I’ve worked in the industry for close to 40 years now and I learned from all those guys from Disney, so I’m passing on what I’ve learned from my mentors over the years. Now things are getting very complex, like with 3D audio, which never existed back then. People have tried to convince me of 3D audio over the years, but it never clicked until now.

What’s your opinion on 3D audio then? Where do you see it going?

What’s so great about it is that those 48 speakers in a Dolby theatre translate down to your headphones, so what I predict is that people are going to start watching 3D audio films on their iPhones and iPads. 

And what about the home cinema market? Do you see it taking off there?

That’s where it’s going. You don’t need 48 speakers – for home theatres it’s 11. The home theatre market is going in that direction and I’m sure in the next five years it will be a very big part of home cinema. 

You’re an accomplished composer and musician. How does that relate to your sound design project?

All the greatest sound designers in the film industry that I’ve loved over the years, like Timmy McDonald from Disney who did all the original cartoons, Ben Burtt who did all the Star Wars films – these are all musicians who made their way into sound design. Some of the greatest sound designers I know have come from being musicians because they understand not only the creative process that goes into doing sound design but also the experimental techniques that it takes. Sound design is very much like orchestrating a big orchestra; there’s a lot of layers, a lot of emotion involved – it’s composing with sound instead of musical instruments. 

We understand that you’re often cited as a driving force behind several software and hardware innovations?

My first movie was Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I was a young kid in my early 20s and I was able to make sounds on a synthesizer that people who had been in the industry for many years didn’t know anything about, because they were all cutting on 35mm. So I started out as a special sound designer/effects creator, and as time went on I didn’t want to cut on traditional 35mm magnetic film because it was like trying to make a major motion picture soundtrack on a sewing machine. So I kind of brought in a lot of this technology. I was the first to lock in a videotape recorder with a multi-track machine on Tron, and we used Pro Tools on Hunt for Red October, which won the Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing. Lawnmower Man was the first film that was cut 100% digitally. We were still using analogue tape recorders but we were way beyond anybody. We kind of revolutionised the way sound editing was done in the film industry.

What are your thoughts on the evolution of professional audio technology? How has it changed the way you work?

What it did was it allowed me to become more of a supervisor because I didn’t have to spend the time; I had more control over it because I could actually cut the dialogue myself, I could do a lot of the editing on my own – it’s allowed me to do a ton more work for the same amount of money. The profit margins have also gone down because there’s a lot less labour, less lab room expense, machine room, transferring – you don’t even need the real estate rooms anymore, you can cut out of your bedroom. The industry has changed a lot as well as the technology, and the way things are going I think someday we’re going to be cutting on our iWatches. 

How has the role of the sound designer changed over the years?

I’m finding that you can’t just be a sound designer anymore – you’ve got to be a sound designer, a cinematographer, a Foley walker. It used to be very compartmentalised back in the day. Now I can run a camera, I can edit – who would have ever thought I would be an editor? That’s what’s happening.

Of the hundreds of projects that you’ve worked on, do you have any favourites? 

How could I not? I was a sound virgin in films, and Star Trek was my first romance. I loved Tron, and the experimental work that went into Hunt for Red October, and it won an Oscar. And then I’ve done other beautiful musical projects, like I produced Ravi Shankar’s fifth album Tana Mana and I got to work with George Harrison. And then I worked with Peter Gabriel on his Kiss That Frog project and went on the road and toured with him live. Another fun one is that I got to work with Matt and Trey from South Park on Orgazmo. I had so much fun working on that. They’re all different, it’s like saying ‘Who’s your favourite child?’ You love them all.

Have you got any projects lined up in the near future?

There’s quite a few things that are in the pipeline, but one of the biggest things is that I’m building my ultimate studio – a little Skywalker ranch up in the hills above Los Angeles. It’s going to be a self-contained environment where you can just get out of LA, come to this little capsule, work on your stuff and not be distracted by the city.