Alberta artist creates Oscar-nominated sound effects for Blade Runner

Chris Szott smacks a wooden table with stuffed toilet plungers to mimic the thump, thump, thump of galloping horses.

'Honestly, surreal is the best word,' says Chris Szott of Sherwood Park

Chris Szott helped create the sound effects for Blade Runner 2049. (Portia Clark/CBC)

Chris Szott smacks a wooden table with stuffed toilet plungers to mimic the thump, thump, thump of galloping horses.

The Sherwood Park man is a foley artist, reproducing everyday sound effects for film and television.

Three years after discovering the craft, Szott is already part of an Oscar-nominated crew.

He is on a team that helped create sound effects for the 2017 Hollywood blockbuster Blade Runner 2049.

The sci-fi film starring Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford is nominated for five Oscars at this Sunday's awards, including Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing.

Working along some of the best professionals in the industry was a huge boon for the novice foley artist. 

"Honestly, 'surreal' is the best word," Szott said in an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.

"I still really can't believe it."  

Szott, who has also worked on The Handmaid's Tale, Alias Grace, Vikings and Fargo began experimenting with foley work during his studies in London, England where he earned a degree in recording engineering and music production.

After graduation, he completed an internship in an audio post-production studio in Belgium and began experimenting with sound back at home in Alberta.

"I came back to Edmonton and was just obsessed with it and consumed as much information as I could," Szott recalled.

"There's not a lot out there so I just started emailing foley artists whose work I really liked and it just spiralled from there." 

Soon after, Szott reached out to a studio called Footsteps Post-Production Sound in Uxbridge, Ont.

After a series of persistent phone calls, he landed an internship, training under acclaimed foley sound engineers Andy Malcolm and Goro Koyama and their team.

Slamming doors, crunching bones 

Foley artists must chart every sound in the film script, and recreate it using props or the movement of their own bodies.

These ambient sounds can include the swishing of clothes, the shatter of breaking glass or the crunch of breaking bones.

"When they're shooting on set and recording on set they're only trying to get the dialogue so everything else has to be reproduced," Szott said.

"So a foley artist is going to watch a character and re-perform all the footsteps ... slamming doors, picking up cups,  bone breaks, you name it."

For Szott, there is something special about the work. It's physical, and creative like nothing else in the industry, he said.

"It's different from any other facet of the post-production process because you're actually physically interacting with objects, and on the stage moving around, instead sitting at a computer and cutting in sound effects from the library."

Sounds created by foley artists are usually recorded on a controlled sound stage, where the resulting audio tracks can be layered seamlessly in editing and added to the film's backing track.

'It's just layers upon layers'

Working on Blade Runner was different, he said. Instead of recording on a sound stage, the crew opted for a more raw sound to match the film's gritty futurism.

"Mark Mangini, the supervising sound editor, came back to us with notes that he wanted what we were doing to sound like it existed in the world of Blade Runner, so we did a lot of field recording," said Szott, who continues to work with Edmonton-based Blerot Sound.

"We went to a junkyard and smashed up some cars for the big crash scene in the film. I spent an afternoon in an old church getting some creaky wooden floor sounds.

"It's just layers upon layers."

Szott can't wait to get started on his next project. He hopes the success of Blade Runner helps him make a name for himself in the Edmonton market.  

"I had this running joke for years that I had two films on my bucket list — Star Wars and Blade Runner — and can say that I've crossed one of those off.

"I hope this isn't where I've peaked," Szott said with a chuckle.