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Comic Book Noir

Through the years there have many films based on popular comic book characters — some good, many terrible. It’s safe to say, however, that there has never been anything quite like Sin City, Robert Rodriguez’s and Frank Miller’s striking cinematic comic book adaptation. The dark, violent comic was originally released in the early ’90s, and it took a sort of film noir approach (literally drawn in black and white) somewhere between hard-boiled detective fiction and gruesome EC Comics nightmares. The directors remained faithful to Miller’s original material, cribbing dialogue verbatim from the stories and copying the look and feel of the different scenes. Shot in crisp black and white, Sin City still has occasional color touches that can be quite startling — the bright red of a heart-shaped bed where a hooker is slain, blood spurting from open wounds in ghostly white profusion, the sickening yellow skin of a mutant murderer. It’s cartoonish and hyper-real, graphic in the extreme. All in all it’s an evocative and spellbinding film quite different from anything else you’ll find at the local multiplex this spring and summer.

Tim Rakoczy (inset above), supervising sound editor, found his knowledge of Sin City creator Frank Miller”s work essential to maintaining the graphic novels” audio nuance onscreen.

Sin City is probably not a film a lot of people would expect from the maker of three lightweight Spy Kids films, but then Robert Rodriguez also directed From Dusk Til Dawn, The Faculty, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. He works outside the Hollywood mainstream, toiling on his films in Austin, Texas, and auteur that he is, Rodriguez is always deeply involved in nearly every aspect of his movies. Screenplay, cinematography, production design, re-recording mixing, music scoring — he has assumed all those roles and more on different productions.

Rodriguez has also developed a family of craftspeople who help him realize his vision. Although few work for him exclusively, many are loyal to him and juggle their schedules to be part of his films. In the case of Sin City supervising sound editor Tim Rakoczy, he started out as an assistant effects editor working in L.A., but followed Rodriguez to Austin while working on Spy Kids 2 with supervisor Dean Beville.

“Within three months of being here, I was in love with it,” Rakoczy says by phone during a break from the mixing of Rodriguez’s next film, The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D, another kids’ movie. “Austin is a great town. There’s something in the air here. Everyone’s in a band or doing painting or writing; everyone has some creative outlet.”

Rakoczy notes that Rodriguez encourages the people who work on his films to investigate tasks that interest them. That’s how Rakoczy became the music editor on Sin City as well as working as a visual effects assistant during production. “I liked having an excuse to be around during production,” he says, “especially on a film like this that was all effects. It also gave me the opportunity to talk to the production mixer [John Pritchett] about sound ideas, so from start to finish Robert lets you be involved as much as you want to be involved.

Director Robert Rodriguez (above) also wrote part of the music score, which Rakoczy finds helpful. Being privy to the rough temps of tracks allows Rakoczy to avoid potential conflicts between the effects and score.

“Robert shoots all his movies greenscreen,” he continues, “so we have all the animatics in a Final Cut Pro session, and what we usually do is we bring those up so Robert can look at them on the set — we can overlay them over the camera so they can line up shots. In the case of Sin City, it was a situation where we were trying to recreate the panels of a comic book, so it was very important that everything look right and be faithful to the comic.”

As it happens, Rakoczy is a huge fan of comics and has been a devotee of Miller’s work for many years, so getting to supervise the sound on Sin City was both a dream come true and a job he took very seriously. “I know these stories like the back of my hand,” he says, “and I realized there were a lot of ideas for sound I’d developed over the years without really thinking about it. ‘I know exactly what that sounds like.’ It’s a credit to Frank because he uses such different onomatopoeias in his panels, so it’s not just ‘thud’ and ‘blam’; it’s ‘kerrannng’ or ‘thukkkkk,’ and as a sound person, that and his visuals lead you in certain directions. Like there’s a scene in the ‘head room’ in Marv’s story when Lucille and Marv are down in the basement. If you look in the comic, there’s a part where Lucille is talking about her arm being gone, and she screams, ‘He made me watch!’ and when she screams it, on the page it goes over the edge of the panel block and over three or four panel blocks. So we knew exactly what to do with the sound on that: We carried the word watch over a few cuts, so you can almost see it.” Exaggerated effects throughout the film heighten the drama — every punch seems more visceral, every tire screech more perilous.

As the film is episodic in nature, with three distinct stories (but some overlapping characters), it was determined that a different effects editor would cut all the effects for a given segment, rather than each one specializing in, say, car sounds or weaponry. Paula Fairfield, Carla Murray, and Bill Jacobs are all respected veterans. “All of them have worked as supervisors,” Rakoczy says, “which helped me out, since I was green around the ears. [This was Rakoczy’s first job as supervisor.] They helped. Then we had Craig Henighan come in, and he did some design work that carried throughout the movie to tie everything together.”

Sergio Reyes has mixed all but two of Rodriguez’s films, and he too, has an impressive track record that goes back to the ’70s. He’s strictly up to date now; he mixes completely in the Pro Tools environment (Pro Control) on the mix stage that was constructed in the garage of Rodriguez’s Austin home. “He’s like our Sound Yoda,” Rakoczy says, joking. “We go to him if we have questions: How should we lay this out for the stage?” Effects and other elements are all delivered to the stage as Pro Tools files at this point, and Brad Engleking is the resident tech guru who keeps mix stage operating smoothly and efficiently.

“[The sound editors and I] bring the ingredients to the table. Sergio and Brad cook the meal, and then Robert comes in and fixes it all. He’s one of those rare people that not only does he shoot well, write well, and direct well, but he’s got a great ear. He can be very specific. He was the one who came in and said, ‘Let’s add a little extra jowel-y blood to that part when Hartigan is getting his face punched around.’ We’ll get things to the point where we think it’s good enough to play for him, and then he comes in and drives it home. He’ll put it in his Avid and listen to it. And he’s also a good editor himself, so if he’s not able to get across how he wants something to sound, he’s able to sit down and cut the sound himself.”

It also helps that Rodriguez usually writes some (or all) of the music score: “We’re privy to his rough temps of tracks, which is so beneficial to effects editors because then we have an idea of what register [the music is] going to be in so we’re not fighting with the same midrange or low levels when you arrive at the stage later. Usually it’s like, ‘Surprise! Here’s the music!’” Rakoczy says, laughing. “Robert also knows how to use music as a sound design tool — there are parts in Sin City where it’s hard to tell what’s music and what’s effects. He’s just very creative all the way around.”