Angelo Palazzo is an LA-based, Emmy-nominated sound designer, best known for his work on Star Trek, Sleepy Hollow, From Dusk Til Dawn, Sex And The City 2, Jeepers Creepers and many more well-known films and TV shows.
Tell us about your upbringing. Are your family musical or creative and would you consider yourself Italian, Canadian, American or a proud mix?
That’s an interesting question for me to answer because, although my background involves all three nationalities, I don’t feel I completely fit any of them. My Italian friends say I’m American, my American friends see me as Italian, and my Canadian friends are too polite to tell me what they really think. Haha.
But I’d say I consider myself first and foremost Italian. My parents immigrated to Canada and I was born in Hamilton, Ontario. I am first generation and grew up very traditional Italian. We were always speaking a mix of Italian and English, and also maintained many Italian conventions. My upbringing was what you might expect when thinking of a big Italian immigrant family: lots of family members coming and going, kids, loud conversations that sound like arguments, music, laughter, lots of food, and storytelling. I am the youngest of four and so when my parents decided to move the family to California, I was quite young. Los Angeles became the closest thing to home for me.
Yes, I’d say my family was definitely both musical and creative. Everyone was very expressive in their own way and loved to tell stories. My father was the central storyteller, whether we liked it or not. He had a way of almost mythologizing his life, sort of like the dad character in the movie Big Fish.
He was a master carpenter and his creativity came out through his woodwork and furniture designs which were stunning, elaborate, hand-carved pieces. Musically, he played the harmonica and would often play old Italian folk songs at the dinner table. When I was a few years into my sound design career and had some recording gear, I sat him down one night and asked him to play as many songs as he could remember so I could record him. What began as something fun to do with my dad ended up being a beautiful reminder of him once he passed away.
My mom is an amazing cook, a kind soul and also a great storyteller with a talent for imitating people, which I found hilarious growing up. It’s one of my joys still to listen to her launch into a story. I think she could have been an actress in another life. Haha.
My brother Roberto and I were the ones who really took to music though. I play bass and he plays guitar and from a young age we both immersed ourselves in everything art and music-related, influencing each other along the way as brothers often do. I also studied piano and jazz saxophone.
My approach to music and sound design took shape in those early years as I always had an interest in figuring out how a piece of music was put together, in understanding how it was played and what the “rules” were so I could later dismantle them and find my own vibe. I still do that today with sound design. I watch a lot of movies, listen for the sound design and try to figure out how things were done. In the process of doing that, I usually end up going on many tangents that lead me to some new discoveries.
Why did you choose to pursue a career in music then sound over athletics or anthropology?
Athletics was something that seemed to find me rather than me seeking it out as a career. I always figured I would do something with music but my focus changed a bit in high school when my coaches noticed that I was a fast sprinter and encouraged me to join the track team. I ended up doing well, beating out the top guys in my school which is how it got started. Looking back, I think one of the reasons I did well was that I didn’t consider it as my path in life necessarily and so when I raced, I went full out and left everything on the track. I had nothing to lose so I gave it everything. My mind-set was “Well, if I’m coming out here to race, I’m winning.”
My track “career” really took off when I competed and won in a track meet against our league’s top, undefeated sprinter. Winning that race really put me on everyone’s radar. After that, I regularly ran in city and state-wide races which was when the top runners in each league were invited to compete.
I remember one city-wide invitational back in high school that sort of characterizes how I do pretty much everything. I was invited to a track meet that was mostly inner-city schools from Compton, Crenshaw, Inglewood, Gardena and Long Beach. It was probably around ’87 and it was the first time I competed against these schools. During warm-up before the 100-meter dash, I remember hearing NWA for the first time. Songs like “Dopeman” and “F*ck da Police” blaring out of boom boxes. As a quiet white boy from the valley, you might say I was a bit out of place but I loved the music and the energy of the whole event. Warming up, I mostly kept to myself. When we were all called to the starting line, I was assigned the middle lane which is reserved for the sprinter with the fastest time so it was hard not to notice me at that point. I’ll never forget the looks I got from those guys. They looked confused like maybe I was lost or that someone had made a mistake putting me in that lane. When the gun fired, we all blasted out of the blocks sprinting full-on and mid-way, I pulled away from the pack and won to a cheering and surprised crowd. I made some new friends that day so it was great. That’s sort of how I do almost everything. I just read the situation and play to my strengths to get the job done.
College scouts usually attend these events which I wasn’t aware of until I got close to graduating and suddenly began getting offers to join track teams at schools like Yale, Stanford, and Brown. When I received an offer from U.C.L.A, I decided to go there since I figured this way I could still pursue music here in L.A.
At UCLA, I earned a B.A in Anthropology but never really intended to pursue it as a career. I was always just very interested in world art and cultures, archaeology, esoteric religions, rituals and history. In some ways, my interest in Anthropology resurfaced many years later when I immersed myself in photography and started traveling the world and photographing people, fashion events and various locations. Photography really opened me up again to exploring cultures and storytelling through images.
Top three albums of all time?
Oh man that’s a tough one. How about I just say that I’ve been influenced from everything to Rush, Coltrane, Echo and the Bunnymen, Bauhaus, Janes Addiction, Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin, Scott Joplin and Chopin.
Those are some very interesting and varied influences. How did you cross-over from being a musician to getting into film sound design?
It was really a quite natural move for me. I find sound design and music composition to be similar in many ways. The process and production of sound designinvolves many of the same concepts and tools that I might use to make a piece of music. Most of my favorite sound designers are also musicians. Having a musical background seems to lend itself well to sound design. They both allow you to play with the audience’s emotions and perceptions as well as influence the drama overtly or by creating subtleties in the soundtrack using motifs and themes, most of which you may not pick up on directly.
I initially became aware of sound design as a thing in college. When I was at UCLA, I worked on campus as a live sound mixer for the various concerts they held throughout the year. The first time I heard the term “sound design” was from an engineer I worked with. He talked a lot about the sound design for Terminator 2. I guess it stuck with me. After college, I worked as a live sound engineer for some clubs around LA, but quickly tired of it so when an opportunity came up for an assistant/runner position at a post studio in Hollywood, I jumped at it. That’s where I got my first exposure to post sound for film and tv.
When I started in the mid-90’s, I learned to cut effects on a Synclavier. That may have had something to do with me getting into it initially because the Synclavier was basically an instrument. It was a musical approach to creating sounds. It was also a behemoth of a machine that could manipulate and sequence sounds as well as synthesize and layer. I took to it right away. Also, the cost of a Synclavier was about as much as a down-payment for a home so there weren’t too many of them out there. This worked to my advantage in the early days as I landed my first couple of jobs because I knew how to use this machine.
What’s your favorite sound and piece of sound design?
My favorite sounds are those that are familiar and yet foreign at the same time. Sounds that are organic and rooted in reality but also have a unique element that you can’t quite place, yet hit you emotionally and forward’s the drama. You hear this approach a lot in the Star Wars movies which I love. Also, I recently heard Erik Aadahl talk about how he used a Taser/Stun gun for the clicking element of the creature voice in A Quiet Place. I like that sort of out-of-the-box thinking.
I usually approach a scene by rooting all the sounds in reality, of course. Then I look for opportunities to get more eclectic, and bring in more organic or unconventional sounds to compliment the reality layer. Anything goes for me at that point. Like for creature vocals, I’ll have animal sounds of course but may also add in, for example, cardboard scrapes for a more viscous attack. It’s not something you’d be able to identify but you would feel the grit and aggression of the vocal.
I don’t know that I have a favorite sound but I do love the use of dynamics. Understanding how to build drama and tension and even drop out the sound completely if it calls for it is a good skill to have. I’m a fan of minimalism too and am always looking for ways to remove sounds from my tracks to keep things punchy. I always try to accomplish what I want with as few tracks as possible. It’s actually turned into something of a game for me now at this point.
I like the sound of things breaking down or malfunctioning. I’ve always enjoyed the character and even humour of machines or vehicles malfunctioning. Wall-E has always been a favorite of mine. Ben Burtt’s ability to bring so much character and personality to this little machine is such a testament to his talent and the importance of sound in storytelling.
How did you get to work for Warner Brothers?
I worked at Warner Brothers on and off over the years and around 2012, I was asked to come on-board to cut and design sound for a new TV show for ABC called 666 Park Ave. It was a spooky and trippy show in the vein of The Twilight Zone, which I’m a huge fan of. It only lasted one season however, which wasn’t surprising considering the subject matter and that title. After that, I was offered an opportunity to co-supervise the sound for the new FOX show Sleepy Hollow. That show ended up being a hit for FOX and lasted four seasons so it really gave me a chance to dive into some cool sound and creature design as well as work with some great talents like Len Wiseman, Alex Kurtzman, Todd Grace and Ed Carr our mixers, plus Jon Mete who I co-supervised with.
Throughout your career so far, what has been your favourite project to design or supervise sound for and why?
I’d have to say working on my latest film Alita: Battle Angel may be favorite. I’ve worked on a lot of movies and this one had a unique style and scale to it that made it exciting. I’ve worked with Robert Rodriquez now for about 12 years so I have a pretty good handle on what he likes. I had some notion of the size and scope of what was involved but with James Cameron producing, I also figured it would all be taken to another level. And it was. Haha. Much of the same technology that was used to create the look of Avatar was also used in Alita so it looks amazing.
I was tasked with some complicated scenes and really dug in early and was very happy with how it all turned out. It was a great opportunity to push boundaries and really see how far I could go with my ideas. There were plenty of moments in this movie to create some unique sounds from the different cyborgs, to weapons, broken robotics, vehicles and the Motorball skates.
We had an awesome team led by Craig Henighan and Tim Rakoczy who I’ve worked with for many years now. Paula Fairfield (Game of Thrones) was also on board with sound design as well as Clark Crawford cutting hard fx and David Butler supervising dialogue.
The story of Alita is based on an early ’90’s manga film called Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro. The world is set a few hundred years into the future after a catastrophic war known as The Fall which left society in a collapsed, dystopian mess. They live in a city called The Scrapyard which is a patchwork of broken technology, rogue cyborgs and hunter warriors committing crime and murder. The sound of this world isn’t the usual clean, crisp sounds you typically hear in sci-fi movies but are instead gritty, aggressive, heavy, metallic, and things often malfunction, grind or break.
One of the first scenes I designed was in the underground when Alita faces her nemesis Grewishka, who is a massive and ruthless cyborg with these projectile claw weapons for hands. You can see some of it in the trailers so I won’t get into it too much. The release date is Feb 14, 2019 so you all should definitely go check it out.
You were recently nominated for an Emmy award for your work on Star Trek? What was it like working on that series?
That was a really fun and challenging show to work on. Every episode was loaded with everything from space battles, warp speed, creatures, weapons, and exotic technologies, you name it. Everyone involved did such impressive sound work. I was honoured to be a part of it, to be nominated alongside a great team and also to be part of such an iconic show.
Tim Farrell was the Lead Sound Designer and Co Supervisor with Jon Mete and they brought me on initially to create the creature design for the Tardigrade in one of the earlier episodes. The Tardigrade is this enormous, indestructible space creature with massive claws and a nasty disposition.
Tim established the signature sounds early on and I was brought on-board to tackle some new design and fx along with Peter Lago, who is a solid designer and an excellent editor. We all definitely brought our A-game to that first season so it was nice just to get nominated and acknowledged for that.
Which Krotos plugins or libraries do you use and how have you been using them?
I have mostly been using Dehumaniser 2 and Reformer Pro. I’m looking forward to exploring Weaponiser a bit more too.
I use Dehumaniser 2 as part of my workflow now when I do my first layer of creature design. In the past, I would often build a rough guide track using my own voice to map out how I want the creature sound and perform. I would usually end up replacing much of my initial voice recordings but with Dehumaniser 2 I can now make some usable and realistic layers that get me in the ballpark. I can dial in a vocal to taste using the eq and different processors and quickly start performing it, which kind of brings me back to the Synclavier days.
I used it quite a bit during Sleepy Hollow to perform some elements for creature vocals and one thing it is absolutely great for is breaths. I don’t think there’s enough said about the importance of creature breaths when designing vocals but to me it’s really what brings it to life. You can do all sorts of stuff during the body of a creature scream or roar but its the breathing and inhales that gives it a disturbing and creepy quality, in my opinion. Anytime you’re close enough to a creature where you can hear it breathing, it’s scary. Like in that first Jurassic Park T-Rex scene. The roar is awesome of course but what I really liked was the breathing and how it sets up the roar.
Dehumaniser 2 also came in handy in this regard when I was building the Tartigrade for Star Trek because the first time we see it, its goes on this maniacal attack on the crew, chasing them down corridors at full speed and I needed to perform the aggressive grunts and breaths during the chase. Something like that could take a long time to cut in piece-by-piece but with Dehumaniser 2 I could perform it and pick out the good stuff. Later I went back and punched it up with other various elements if I needed it.
Reformer Pro is great when I need to add a unique color or new layer to a sound. For example, in Alita there is this street scene where some local kids are playing Motorball. Their skates sort of look like high tech futuristic rollerblades. The note was that the skates should have a sort of gritty remote-controlled car sound to them rather than super high-tech. I started by cutting a detailed and realistic rollerblade layer as my foundation. Then I went out and recorded a bunch of remote controlled cars and toys, and also pulled as much as I could from my library. I used these to build a few Reformer libraries and routed my rollerblade tracks into an Aux track with Reformer. Then I’d run the cut scene through Reformer to get loads of variations of remote controlled car elements all in sync with the original rollerblades. Then I’d go back and pick and choose the good stuff. It was really great to be able to do it this way.
How do you think audio technology will develop in the future to help sound designers produce better work?
I think any technology that allows you to quickly execute an idea and perform sounds that result in lots of variation is going to be crucial. I’m definitely seeing more plugins coming out that allow this sort of thing. Anything that gets you away from the mouse click, drag, click, click, drag routine is great in my opinion. I want to get to the point where I’m moving sounds around a screen with one of those hand-devices Tom Cruise uses in Minority Report.