Much of my summer of 2017 was spent working on sound editing and musical composition for the indie horror movie, The Nursery. In this article, I will go over some of the inspiration for sound effects, the score, and how to give the audience goosebumps.
When a damaged college sophomore babysits for a family with a tragic past, she finds herself stalked by a sinister presence and haunted by ghosts from her own past. Soon, she and her friends must confront the angry spirit hunting them down one-by-one on a deliberate march toward its ultimate prey.
The Audio Cues
The directors, Jay Sapiro and Chris Micklos, are big fans of the 1978 movie Halloween and wanted to pay homage to it within the audio for The Nursery. William Stevenson, the supervising sound editor of Halloween, used sound effects to hint that something was about to happen or to trick the audience into thinking something was about to happen even when it wasn’t and I wanted to echo that in The Nursery.
I knew I wanted the villain in The Nursery to have an audio cue to clue audience members into her presence. I wanted it to have some musicality to it while at the same time make a tingle run up the listener’s spine so we used a bowed cymbal. You can hear this sound through the entire film; from characters turning sharply to glance behind them to a slow smile creeping onto the face of someone who isn’t as they appear to be.
Sound Of The Villain
The villain is a very animalistic spirit so I used a lot of animal sounds such as wolves, pigs, and monkeys to start. At the same time, she is or was at one point, a person so it felt right to incorporate some human sounds as well. The character and I are both women and are close in age so I recorded some of my own vocalizations: disrupted breathing, screeching, and screaming.
The character perished by hanging so I wanted that to be reflected in the raspiness of her voice and in her movements with sounds of bones cracking and breaking.
Some of her other movements have an electronic “glitch” sound to them which was inspired by her attacks through the protagonists’ phones and other devices. Her quick movements often incorporate static or electric jolts to drive this point home. To hear a little bit of these effects, check out the trailer.
The music is almost exclusively all MIDI and features a lot of piano, strings, and synth patches reminiscent of the 1980’s as another nod to Halloween. Some scenes are edited with a lot of jump cuts to build suspense and those cuts are often accented with a punchy note or musical shift. Footsteps and other on-screen movement are often accented with something in the score as well.
As an inside joke, the score is centered around Db, Eb, Ab, and Bb, usually in this order: D-E-A-D, and ending on Bb because at the end of the movie, most of the characters will “B flat.”
I crack myself up.
Fight Or Flight Frequencies
To punctuate the creepiness even more, there are several scenes where I’ve amplified certain frequencies to illicit a sympathetic nervous system response. Basically, when I want the audience to have goosebumps, I’ve boosted certain frequencies in the 7 kHz to 16 kHz range, and when I want the audience to experience a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomachs, 60 Hz tones are used. A lot of the villain's shrieks have a bump in the 2 kHz to 7 kHz range to make them extra grating.
Shopping For Foley
I’ll try to avoid too many spoilers in case you check the movie out in the future, but this film definitely has some gory parts. We wanted it to sound absolutely disgusting and juicy so I hit the grocery store for some cantaloupe. After laying a tarp down, we got to work recording foley of the cantaloupe being destroyed. We stabbed it with various items after a regular knife punctured the cantaloupe too cleanly, squished the fruit in our hands, and threw it onto a towel on the ground for a nice, sloppy, thump. Biting into an apple works well for a juicy bone break sound effect as well.
As with most movies, we had to do a bit of ADR or Automated Dialog Replacement. Some of the screaming captured on set distorted and needed to be recorded in the studio then synced with picture. On-set, the actors’ dialog was captured with lav or shotgun mics, and during the more action-packed scenes the sound of running or struggling overpowered the dialog. We re-recorded those bits as well as various types of breathing, from slow and deliberate to hyperventilating.