A spoon hypnotically circling a saucer. A snap(shot) back to reality. The atmospheric, crushing silence of the sunken place.
If you’re hearing those sounds in your head, that’s for good reason: the aural motifs in Jordan Peele’s instantly iconic horror movie, Get Out, seem, upon retrospect, manufactured with posterity in mind.
In large part responsible for such indelible moments is the film’s sound editor, Trevor Gates—who just so happened to design the sound for another work of horror taking place in a country estate starring Lakeith Stanfield: “Teddy Perkins,” the strangest, most ambitious episode on an already-strange, highly ambitious season of Atlanta.
During the episode, directed by Hiro Murai, Darius (Stanfield) goes to the gothic mansion of Teddy Perkins (the show’s creator/star Donald Glover, in whiteface) to pick up a used piano. With his high-pitched voice, old-school smoking jacket and stilted mannerisms, Perkins is evasive, haunted and clearly hiding something—quite literally, his musically gifted and ailing brother, Benny, as well as their troubled childhood, reminiscent of the relationship between Joe and Michael Jackson. The episode climaxes in a crash of fraternal violence, resounding with powerful suddenness in the eerie quietude of the house.
“Teddy Perkins” received several well-deserved Emmy nominations, for directing, single-camera picture editing, production design, cinematography and sound editing. So ahead of the Emmy Awards next month, we caught up with Gates to talk about working on Atlanta, how he created the fragile stillness in “Teddy Perkins,” the sunken place and the scariest scene he’s seen this year.
First thing’s first: can you explain what exactly you do as a sound editor (versus a sound mixer)?
It’s my job to prepare all the sound we hear in film and TV—everything you’re hearing that’s not music, all the dialogue, all the sound that was recorded on the day of filming (production sound), all the ambiences that you hear in any given scene, sound effects like car engines and gun shots, doors opening and closing, phones ringing, and then sound that we call foley, which is a sound effect that is performed in real-time, like footsteps. Once all the sound is built and assembled, we go into a room with a rerecording mixer who takes all the sound that I prepared, blends them together and turns it into a final product.
When you get an episode like ‘Teddy Perkins,’ what sort of sounds are you looking to enhance or elucidate?
I’m not really in the business of throwing anything way then I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s my job to make everything homogenous and fix the things that aren’t working. There are some things that come from my colleagues from the picture department, which I only have to finesse. And there were a couple of other instances where they really didn’t have the capability to make the scene play the way [the director] envisioned it playing.
‘Teddy Perkins’ was one of those episodes where, conceptually, there wasn’t a ton that the picture department couldn’t do to paint the picture for us other than just tell us what the feeling was. Really, in the end, what made ‘Teddy Perkins’ great and what we really spent most of our time on was making it quiet.
How do you go about creating that silence?
The perceived quietness of film and TV is not an absence of sound, it’s an isolation of sound. You pick a sound or two to really focus on, and it’s quite subliminal to the audience, but it’s imperative for them to be involved. They need to suspend their disbelief, they need to feel like they’re in the space. The tone and the coldness of the room, the air that helps space the dialogue in ‘Teddy Perkins,’ was something we had to craft. It seems like it could be a pretty simple thing, but it requires some crafting as well as a really articulate sound mix to be able to balance the dialogue with the coldness of the house and use artificial reverbs in the room to make people feel like they’re in that cold house with Teddy and Darius.