The Sound Behind “Injustice for All” – a Joker film

Injustice for All [unauthorized Joker film] — (for mature audiences)

WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW!

In early August, a project, on which I was pleased to contribute sound design, Foley, mixing and additional voices, hit the internet by storm.  Injustice for all is a “fan film”, which tells a new and original Joker origin story.  The story is an amazing mixture of drama, horror, dark comedy, and somehow… just somehow, a wretched, yet beautiful love story between Harley Quinn and “Mr. J”, the Joker.  It also features the characters Lex Luthor, Catwoman, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen.  See the film’s credits here.

Pre-post production

When I was approached by the director, and my longtime buddy, Danny Mooney (director of Love and Honor), I was skeptical.  I’ve been approached by several people to do “fan films”.  These are usually “passion projects”, which essentially means “no budget”.  Ugh, I thought… Well, let me see a rough cut.

Blown. Away.

As soon as I watched it I told Danny we would work something out.  In giving my quote I broke down the post production timeline (dialogue edit, Foley, sound design, mixing, remixing, etc) into a number of days each would take – not something I usually do for a 20 minute short.  Then I slapped a pretty low dollar amount to each day to make sure it would fit their budget.  I knew this one would take some time to really craft the design, and nuance the mix.  Breaking the budget up into days and applying a day rate showed the producers, whom I had not worked with, that I knew what I was doing, and I knew what it took to get this project from raw production audio through a final mix.

One major bonus to this project was that my good friend, Steve Sholtes, was handling the score.  And he absolutely killed it.  I’ve heard a lot of music from him – and its always really good – but this was his Opus.  Steve and I have worked on several feature films together, and we know each other’s workflow and expectations.

After some of the usual delays from the editing post house (post houses in general, unforeseeable things happen) the dialogue was going to be ready to edit while I was away on a European vacation.  Luckily, my good friend, Robert Langley, was available to take over the dialogue edit, and have it ready for me when I returned.  Bob and I have worked together on 5 feature films including award winning Cash Only, The Cabining, and Saugatuck Cures.  Again, we know what to expect from each other’s work, and we have assimilated our workflows as a mix of each others’.

As for the non-music sound track, Danny and I talked at length about the style he was going for (in a 3-hour Skype call about a 20 minute short).  It was a mixture of realism and over-the-top design, but we had to pick our spots .  We had to be careful not to ruin one moment because we just “blew our load” on the previous moment.  There were times when I over-designed, and we had to bring the moment down by simplify the sound effects.  There were other times where I kept it subtle, but we decided to really gore-out the soundtrack.

The cat, that poor cat.

The “cat killing” moment was one that I’ll never forget.  I used a bunch of sounds from my “Gore Toolkit HD” library, which I sell on Soundopolis.net.  In this sequence there is a mixture of bone cracking sounds, squishing, knuckle cracking, etc.  But the cat meow.  That’s what made us cringe in the studio – even after having watched that scene 100 times…

Domestic cat meowing sounds, good ones at least, are hard to come by.  If you’ve ever tried to record cat sounds you know what I’m talking about.  Every time I pick up my microphones my cats get silent… Danny and I dug endlessly through all of the SFX libraries I own (mine and others’ libraries), trying out the few that were there.  Most sounds didn’t work, or just weren’t giving us the moment we were wanting.  We were trying all sorts of “cat screams” – those ones you might find in a Halloween SFX library.  But they were too typical, almost too big.  I snagged a different type of sound, and said, “let’s just see what this does”.

We almost vomited.

That low, depressing, slightly whiney, cat sound… A cat almost gasping for breath.

Maybe it was the 12 hours we had already spent in the studio that day mixing.  Maybe it was some bad Coney Island food (a staple for Michiganders).  Maybe it was the Red Bull we were definitely over-consuming… But that cat sound was gnarly.  The cat screams were just too much.  Too “terrifying”.  This cat wasn’t angry.  He wasn’t protesting. He was scared.  He didn’t know what was going on.  It had to be more like a frog slowly dying in slowly-heating water rather than a gut-punch, but somehow fit into that 1-second window.  That cat sound made the moment, and made our day/night/morning (whenever the heck we did that bit).  Needless to say we took a break after that discovery.

Arkham Asylum – the opening of the flick

The opening of the flick, as with all works, was really important to nail.  Mooney and I discussed how we needed to set the stage, and introduce people to the interior of Arkham Asylum, despite the fact that the camera stays in one room, and you never see what’s outside the door.  Literally, nothing.  This is what a good director does (my favorite type of director) – they think about the world OUTSIDE of the camera’s view.  Really, its sound design 101, or 102.

Michel Chion, French composer and sound design theorist, in his book, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, discusses one of the biggest differences between the sound and the vision of a film.  Simply put, the picture is contained within a frame, while the sound, whether in mono, stereo, or surround, really has no boundaries.  The picture can have depth, but within a very constrictive frame.  However, the sound can, and sometimes should, have depth beyond the edges of the frame, and even beyond the constriction of any physical walls or barriers shown within the picture’s frame.

I highly recommend this book to ANYONE whether they are a sound designer, director, writer, producer - pretty much anyone in the film industry.  It will really open your mind to film in general. *Neither David Fienup, nor Soundopolis benefit from the sale of this book... I just love this book.  The forward is by Walter Murch - give it a read.

To “describe” Arkham Asylum sonically, we would need what Chion calls acousmatic sounds.  Acousmatic sounds are sounds that are not seen on screen, aka offscreen sounds.  They can describe the environment beyond the visual plane.  During my first sound design pass on this scene I used some distant screams, insinuating that people throughout Arkham were being tortured or beaten.  I wanted the listener to know that there was a whole world of pain happening outside this one room.  I was envisioning people being subjected to electro-shock therapy!

After sending Danny a “demo” video of the opening scene, we talked a bit about his expectations for Arkham – his opinion, after all, as director, is the most important.  I knew getting this opening scene just right was important since we continue to return to this world time and time again throughout the 20 minute journey.  We clicked immediately when he said something along the lines of, “you ever seen Pink Floyd’s The Wall?“.  Ah, yes.  Many, many times.  He was referring to the kind of garbled, seemingly random dialogue lines that smatter throughout the album and the movie.  He wanted the sound of individual prisoners yelling random phrases in the background, but we didn’t necessarily need to understand what they were saying, or who they were talking too.

Being on a tight budget I couldn’t bring in any VO artists so I decided to provide the voices myself – something I do on many projects.  If you listen closely the lines really are things that prisoners might be yelling, whether its someone screaming, “You gotta get me outta here, I don’t want to die in here”, or its someone heckling the pretty doctor in her pretty white lab coat – “awwww, yeah”.  Those lines, intermingled with the screams, really brought the world of Arkham Asylum to life.

Throughout this sequence I wanted to toe-the-line between what Chion calls active and passive offscreen sounds.  On the one hand I want the audience to wonder what the voices in the background are saying and if they’re trying to interact with the characters we’re meeting, but on the other hand I don’t want the voices to be distracting from the story.  You will have to judge whether or not it worked.

A big decision we made early on in the mix was to get rid of the voices after the doctor and assistant leave.  Once the door closes, we’re in an intimate space where Lex Luthor and Harley Quinn can get acquainted, and get down to the business of telling the story – the real reason we’re in this world.  We faded out the voices and screams to achieve this effect.  There is an “undulating” ambience track throughout this location that stays the same even after the door closes, suggesting that the sound is within the room, or is part of the building itself.  I love this particular ambience track because it undulates in both pitch and volume, and therefore weaves its way in and out of the music.  Sometimes you can’t hear it, and sometimes that’s all you hear.  It acts as the scene’s primary roomtone even though it isn’t a traditional “room tone.”  It’s sole purpose is to create an uncomfortable tension, but it is not intended to be a distracting attention grabber.  My favorite sounds sometimes play a more passive role.

Flashbacks, oh my!

This whole film is based on Harley Quinn telling stories through the use of flashbacks.  These are quite common in all genres of film – as common as the gratuitous montage.  Injustice for All, however, displays two different types of flashback.  I am not aware of any terminology, though there may be some, so I will introduce the terminology I used when communicating with Robert, the dialogue editor, and Danny, the director.  These terms may be useful when communicating to your fellow filmmakers – although please email me links if there are indeed terms for this already!!!

Committed Flashback – The central flashback, starting around 5:36, leaves Harley and Luthor behind in Arkham Asylum.  While Harley starts off acting as a narrator, we soon move completely into the backstory world, and work directly with Joker and younger Harley in a new time and space.  This move commits to their world.  We are no longer living in the “present-day Arkham Asylum”.  Sonically, we completely move away from any ambience of Arkham, and move into the ambience of Mr. J’s world.

I treated this flashback as a simple scene change, with transitional sounds to bridge the gap in time and space.  But once we’ve made the leap, I stuck to natural sounds with the only effects being conditional to the surroundings – if they’re in an alley, it sounds like they’re in an alley – if they’re in a basement, it sounds like they’re in a basement.  Basically, I didn’t use any dramatic reverbs to make anything sound more dreamy than the natural setting would imply.

At the end of the sequence we do briefly revisit Arkham and then bounce back to the grotesque love-making scene before fully returning to Arkham.   The time and space lines are pretty blurred at the end of the flashback sequence, so I used the sound of Joker taking off his jacket, which I ran through a long reverb, to bridge the gap in time and space.  Other than that, it is mostly music during that brief back and forth between worlds, until we finally commit back to the “present day Arkham Asylum.”

Uncommitted Flashback – The first and third flashbacks are quite different.  The very first, and very short flashback, presents an image of the Joker sitting in his abode looking into a mirror.  But the film doesn’t really go deep into his world.  Harley narrates the story from Arkham Asylum.  We never get into the ambience of the “past world”, and we never hear Joker speak.  This short flashback is more like looking through a window in time and space, and seeing a moving portrait of the Joker.  The window, though, is firmly rooted in Arkham Asylum.  So, I referred to this as an “uncommitted flashback” because we never fully commit to a different world, space, or time.

The more complex uncommitted flashback occurs when Harley tells the story about Young Joker.  Harley continues to narrate throughout this flashback, and we never really commit fully to Young Joker’s time and place.  Sonically I treated this more like a memory or dream sequence than a scene change.  While we do hear Young Joker whimpering and slathering cooking grease on his face, we are still somewhat planted at Arkham Asylum, where Harley is telling a story to Lex Luthor.  On top of that, we bounce back to Arkham – twice – before leaving that story world behind.

For this section, I bussed the “Young Joker’s World” sounds through a couple of effects: the same delay effect I put Harley’s voice through while Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth was taking effect, and a long reverb that I used on the prisoner’s voices and screams in the Asylum ambience.  The combined effect is a much dreamier soundscape to make this sequence feel more like a very distant memory.  We also decided not to put any kind of ambience or acousmatic sounds in this world.  The goal was to make Young Joker seem all alone in his world.

Please feel free to use these terms.  I think they are pretty straight forward, and really helped to bridge any communication gaps we ran into.

 

Working on this project with Robert Langley, Steve Sholtes, and Danny Mooney was a whole mess of fun.  I was really excited about the work I was doing.  I was able to utilize many techniques I’ve learned from reading works like Chion’s.  There were many challenges, including bouncing back and forth between realism and hyper-realism, and wading through the multi-genre nature of this piece – horror, super heroes, action, suspense, and a demented love story all in one.  I truly hope I did justice to this short film.

Thank you for reading my thoughts.  Please email me any questions or concerns about this article – “dpfienup AT Hotmail dot com” .  I would be happy to expand on any of these subjects, and would love to hear your take on what I’ve written.