“Cruella” Sound Editor Mark Stoeckinger on Getting 1970s England Right
Whether it’s her bohemian attic lair, Liberty’s department store, or her job at an insufferable couture designer’s immaculate atelier, young Cruella, née Estella (Emma Stone) divides her time between very particular environments in 1970s England. She and her pals, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), are roommates, professional delinquents, and dog-lovers. A terrier and a chihuahua assist them in their lives of petty crime and everyone seems to get along in the free spirit of communal living funded by pickpocketing, but Estella, whose orphaning at a young age we witness early on in Cruella, longs for more.
In director Craig Gillespie’s Disney origin story of how 101 Dalmatians’ unrepentant villain came to be so mightily attached to wearing dalmatians in the form of a coat, little Estella didn’t mean to be bad any more than she intended to be born with a head of black and white hair, precisely split down the middle. But as she gets more deeply involved with her hellacious boss, the Baroness (Emma Thompson), she snaps. Growing increasingly distant from social norms in her efforts to take down the evil designer, Estella, along with Horace and Jasper, gets up to hijinks across London which the movie gleefully sets to everyone’s favorite hits from the 1970s. As such, Cruella’s musical soundtrack, which includes tracks from Queen, the Clash, The Doors, and Nina Simone, has been getting rave reviews. But it takes more than just a tear-down musical memory lane to recreate 1970s England.
Supervising sound editor Mark Stoeckinger (John Wick, Atomic Blonde) had planned to record in the UK to get the sounds he needed to fully recreate the era, but Covid-19 necessitated a change in plans. Researching in sound libraries and working remotely with automated dialogue replacement actors instead, Stoeckinger and his team were able to place Estella, the Baroness, and their partners in numerous crimes into a vintage version of England half a century ago, punctuated by the barks, growls, and footsteps of a cast of believably realistic CGI canines. We sat down with the sound editor to talk about turning dogs into characters, recreating Cruella’s Coupe Deville, and getting particularly English details right.
Cruella’s musical soundtrack is full of beloved hits. Did that impact your process at all?
All the needle drops and all of the score, that is not my purview, but I kind of wish it was on a film like this. But all the other aspects of the soundtrack that bring it to life — making the ballrooms feel like you’re in a ballroom, making London feel like London in the 70s, those were the intricacies under my area of influence. We do know what’s happening with the music, because as I’m doing what I’m doing sound-wise, there’s also those that are doing the same with music. It’s all coalescing through Tatiana [Riegel, the editor], into the picture. It really all starts with the picture editor and the director.
The film has distinct sets — the lair, the atelier, the Baroness’s two mansions. How do you use sound to create a sense of place in each of these locations?
I can tell you what we wanted to do and what we ended up doing, which tended to be two different things. In a situation like this, I was all set to go to England and recreate that environment. I’ve done that on a couple of films before to various degrees. On this one we ended up recording a group of ADR actors — you might get groups of eight to 20 people and you’ll go into a studio, which is a controlled, seemingly dry space, and you recreate a bunch of conversations. You layer it and layer it and I or somebody I’m working with will take it, add the room space to it, and try to craft it around the dialogue and action, and you sew all this together to make it as natural as possible. It works very well and most films happen that way. In the time of distancing with Covid, we did our first session with actors in England, while we were here, and everybody was separate. There were probably over ten people. Everyone was in their closet at home, or wherever they could go to get a quiet space. And the mixer in England had all these different feeds — it had to be crazy. The actors could see scenes on their laptops and we’d say okay, can you play the red-haired guy in the back or the lady with the funny hat. It’s amazing what that level of acting brings to the movie because they’re ad-libbing. They’re supposed to be native British English speakers and depending on where you are, they need to do something posh for the parties or not quite so posh for the streets. That was one aspect of the sound for Cruella which was important, to give it life and a sense of immediacy.
The film is also a period piece. Did you have to do much in the way of research?
It was a fair amount of research. Thank God for Youtube, that’s all I have to say. If I’d had that as a kid, I’d probably know more. Because if you want to explore something cultural or in a particular time period, it’s there. You have many variations, and then you can draw your own conclusions about how you want things to sound.
What was something you searched for there that applied to this movie?
Dumb as it might sound: the double-decker bus. It’s not a big player in the movie, but you need the sound of it. They don’t sound like an American bus. They sound sort of simple and a little bit old-fashioned, because of the engines they used. So we need to find or make something that does that, so it feels right in the film in the mid-70s. It’s maybe weird to pay attention to those details, but others did for the look of the film, so why not do that for the sound of the film? So the idea was to record all that in England, but with the pandemic, of course, that didn’t happen. But we were able to recreate things that sounded solid and substantial. Some of the props in the film sounded that way, so the rest of the sound had to live up to that.
What’s a solid example?
This sounds so boring, I know, but doors. There’s something about big, heavy, intricate locks and handles. Particularly in the Baroness’s places, it’s important to make that sound right. I didn’t record any specific doors for this, but sometimes you reach old sounds and try to make them sound a little bit modern. There’s a little bit of archaeology in that. Cruella’s car she escapes in, that needed to sound kind of mean and dramatic — that’s when she’s really taking a turn as a character. It was fun to use a car that I used to own a long time ago, a Cobra Mustang. It had a supercharger whine to it and was a hot rod muscle car. It worked for Cruella’s Coupe Deville. It meant something to me because it meant intense and powerful and it had a little character because it had some other sounds in the engine. It worked perfectly for her car. There are also some aspects that matched the production car — there are bits and pieces of that in there too, fortuitously.
Was it tricky to get the CGI dogs right?
Well, yes and no. You just find sounds that seem to fit what you see visually. There were some real dogs that eventually got replaced by CGI dogs, believe it or not. And since the dogs are such characters, you try to think about what will make those characters. There are some wolf sounds for the dalmatians — they don’t sound like wolves, they just sound like vicious dogs when they need to. Wink and Buddy needed to sound like a bunch of personalities. You tend to put more sounds for the dogs than a real dog would actually make. They need to have character. They need to react to things. Their reaction shot can be a look, but more often, it’s a sound. Watching the film with that in mind, you’re going to hear the dogs a lot, more than a real dog. But it’s more fun. They look fabulous and flawless as far as I’m concerned. There’s something about visual effects and sound that complement each other very effectively, with one justifying the other, sometimes. There was a lot of intricacy and detail, the dogs probably being the highlight of that. Nobody complained about how we made the dogs sound, which is great, because there are a lot of them and they’re very active throughout. And you can’t step on your characters, either. Even the footsteps of the dogs become a big deal because you want to hear them, as well as all the growls that will make it feel right, but a little over the top.
Cruella is playing in theaters now and on Disney + Premiere Access
For more on Cruella, check out these interviews:
Featured image: Emma Stone as Cruella in Disney’s live-action “Cruella.” Photo by Laurie Sparham. Courtesy Walt Disney Studios.