Sound editor Trevor Gates talks about Mike Flanagan's voice cameo and the difficult "moonflower monologue" scene in the Netflix horror.
A reef of ghosts and shadows looms over Netflix's The Haunting of Bly Manor. Its handsome English setting a maze of corridors, crackling with the sound of dripping taps. Whispers and footsteps echo with the melancholic twinkle of a music box ballerina.
This gripping soundscape is the work of Trevor Gates, a supervising sound editor and frequent collaborator of showrunner Mike Flanagan. Gates worked on The Haunting of Hill House, the first in Flanagan's horror anthology, as well as 2019 Stephen King adaptation Doctor Sleep.
Known for his meticulous attention to detail, Flanagan dots The Haunting of Bly Manor with ghosts you can spot peering from the wells of darkness or haunting the surrounding forest. Thanks to Gates and the sound editorial team, even more Easter eggs can be found in Bly Manor's sound design.
"We put Mike Flanagan's voice in for one of the characters," Gates tells CNET. "I'll leave a little mystery here on which character that actually is."
He wanted to add even more sound secrets. "I wanted to put an ambient tone from [The Haunting of Hill House's] Red Room, into the chest where Viola was trapped. But it didn't work with the music, so it didn't make the cut."
Gates worked on The Haunting of Bly Manor from February to July during the coronavirus pandemic. Under lockdown, he and the sound editorial team found creative ways to keep working.
"Our Re-Recording Mixer, Jonathan Wales, has a Dolby Home Atmos mixing stage in his basement," Gates says. "I have a 5.1 editing room in my house. We connected every day through a service called Evercast, which allowed us to see each other and listen to the mix that Jonathan was doing."
In the end, the most difficult part of the job was composing unique sounds for each of the many rooms in Bly Manor, from the basement, the chapel, to the room next the parapet.
"What do each of those spaces sound like when we are in present time or in a dream?" he said. "These are the questions we had to ask ourselves as we developed the sound design for the series."
In keeping the sound of Bly Manor consistent, Gates echoed the cavernous atmosphere of Hill House. "Hill House was cold and empty. And Bly Manor was cold and empty as well. We wanted to keep the same DNA of sound design within the anthology of the series, but with some subtle differences."
These differences went into the chilling atmosphere, an intricate embroidery of background noises you might not immediately notice.
"In Hill House, we modulated sounds in the background as any given scene progressed," Gates explains. "For example, a cricket would fall in pitch and time as the scene moved through quietness or potentially a monologue. As a listener, you weren't quite sure why you felt like something was different as the scene progressed, and by the time you realized that the sound was changing -- BOOM a ghost."
But Gates had to alter this idea for Bly Manor's tone and setting. "We experimented with the same sort of thing in Bly Manor, but we quickly realized that doing this actually gave away too much, too soon for this particular series."
Instead, the sound editorial team, including dialogue supervisors and sound effect editors, focused on the acting performances. "Making sure we had razor sharp dialogue, lush (and sometimes stark) background ambiences, and creating juxtaposing sonic textures as the perspective of the reality of the characters shifted," Gates says.
A standout Bly Manor scene known as the "moonflower monologue" saw Jamie, a gardener and au pair Dani Clayton's love interest, give us a glimpse of her childhood trauma. What you don't see is a tarp protecting the actors from rain. To keep viewers engrossed in the scene, Gates' team had to minimize the sound of the drops hitting the tarp.
"Some advanced de-noising tools were used to minimize the presence of the sound, but this technology is capable of only so much magic."
The team decided to carefully place "pleasant" sounds of water drops on leaves, to help distract the focus from the tarp sound but not distract from the monologue.
"Because the monologue is the most important thing. I like to say that we used a little subtractive synthesis and a little additive synthesis. Both taking away sounds, and carefully adding sounds on top are two tools we use to tell stories from a sound perspective."
Gates' next project is Midnight Mass, another Netflix horror series created by Flanagan, centered around an isolated island community. While fans eager for the next installment in the Haunting anthology will have to wait patiently, they can at least tune into Midnight Mass for more Flanagan Easter egg fun.
"I am very excited about it," Gates says. "This one is important to Mike. He has been writing and preparing for this for a very long time. You can find a book on the shelf in a few of his movie scenes called Midnight Mass (Hush, Gerald's Game, Hill House), an Easter Egg he has left for his fans along the way. It will be great."