Sound Effects
Mutsuhiro Nishimura

In live action and anime, the function of sound effects is to add more realism to everything from characters' movements to the environments they move in, and even fictional hardware and vehicles that appear in the story. Sound effects are essential to making the footage complete, though in a different form than dialogue and music. We spoke to Mr. Mutsuhiro Nishimura, who has handled sound effects for many anime works, about the process of creating sound effects and what the work is like, and what he particularly focused on for "MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM THE ORIGIN" (hereafter referred to as "THE ORIGIN").
- Could you please tell us first of all what the job of sound effects entails?
Nishimura: Put simply, it's the job of adding sound effects to video footage. Every sound other than dialogue or music, from environmental sounds to the sounds created by people moving.
- What's the process for doing that work?
Nishimura: Sometimes when you first come on board a project, they let you see a rough-cut version of the footage in which rushes are being simply connected. But basically, in most cases, you start work after the editing is done and a video with voices has been completed for the purposes of audio mixing.
When it comes to sound effects, if the lengths of each shot and the overall film aren't settled then you can't put them in, so it's almost impossible to work ahead. Once the video for mixing is ready, we have meetings to discuss the sound effects, and I watch the footage and talk about it along with the general director Mr. (Yoshikazu) Yasuhiko, the episode director, the sound director Mr. (Sadayoshi) Fujino, and Mr. (Osamu) Taniguchi, the producer. And that's how the work starts. Then it takes about three weeks to put all the sound effects in, although I'm involved with work on other projects at the same time as that.
- I imagine sound effects must include many dramatic elements, and you discuss those aspects too, right?
Nishimura: In the sound effects meetings, they tell me their vision of the direction for each scene, then I gather and create sound effects for the mixing work, and that's the process. After that, during mixing, I make corrections if I'm given specific instructions in response to the sound effects I've put in, such as the amount or the atmosphere they create. At the meetings, they might say, "The visuals are expressed in this way, so for that to make a strong impression, we'll have no sound effects," or, "The directorial intention is to put in different sounds than what's depicted visually." We work out things like the way the sounds are accented, and other things that you can't get from looking at just the visuals alone.
- Did anything strike you in your discussions with the episode directors?
Nishimura: Mr. (Kiyoshi) Egami, who directed Episodes 1, 3, and 5, is someone who really focuses on the sound effects. He has firm directorial intentions, and he gave us detailed instructions even during mixing, so I worked on those sound effects to make them align to his intentions as much as I was able. I'm the one who decides on the timing of the sound effects, but with such things as the tempo of the sounds we attach to characters, some of the individuality of the directors may come out. My impression was that "THE ORIGIN" directors Mr. Egami and Ms. (Nana) Harada were skilled at adding accents for drama and creating contrast between exciting moments and quieter ones.
- Do you get instructions from the sound director when you do sound effects work?
Nishimura: When I was a novice and lacked experience, I got lots of instructions from the sound director, but basically he leaves it up to me. However, it's up to the sound director to make final decisions about sound matters.
- Do you make decisions about the types of sound effects used and where they will be placed?
Nishimura: That's right. Basically, it's left up to me, and during mixing, I might hear instructions like "I want a bit more sound here," or, "I'd like to focus on the image here, so let's have less noise." With the stereo sound, it's also basically left to me to work out the balance of which side you can hear sounds from. In terms of our positions, I concentrate on sound effects work, our mixer Mr. Norio Nishizawa adjusts the dialogue and music balance, and the sound director Mr. Fujino oversees both of us. I have worked together with Mr. Fujino and Mr. Nishizawa on many projects, so even when we don't speak in too much detail, we often work with a relationship of trust and can just be like, "You can do it like this, right?"
- When you think about sound effects, the old impression is of someone working hard to create various sounds, but how are they actually made these days?
Nishimura: Basically I search through my own library for things we can use, and if, for example, there's a beam sound, I create it from scratch with a synthesizer. We sometimes create new sound effects by combining sounds or changing their speed. Also, if necessary, we sometimes go out to record actual sounds. For instance, on "THE ORIGIN," for the noise of the caterpillar treads on the Guntank, we used the sound of an actual tank. With sound effects, when you hear sounds prepared that way during mixing, if it doesn't match the original vision, then you layer on more sound and fine-tune things.
- Now that everything has gone completely digital, I suppose the work is done on computers, but how was the work done in the past?
Nishimura: In the old days we would head out with a bag full of tapes. Even with sound, you could only layer four tracks of sound on a tape, so it was very restricted. But now, thanks to the blessing of digital, we can layer on as many sounds as we want. The physical work has become easier because of digitization, but the flip side is that you can refine the sound endlessly, and that is its own headache.
- How did you develop the sound effects so that they would feel more unique to "THE ORIGIN"?
Nishimura: As for the fundamental elements, we had been developing them through conversations with Mr. (Takashi) Imanishi, who was the director through Episode 3. Mr. Imanishi has a strong focus on military aspects, so he was very specific about the use of sound effects for firearms and so forth. Also, the Zeon side's mobile suit technology is advanced, for example, but there's the sense that their other machinery still has an analog feel. So he said he wanted the sounds of the cockpit instruments and buzzers to have an old-fashioned feel. I thought that was quite interesting. For the sounds of the mobile suits, of course, we couldn't stray from what you're used to hearing in other Gundam works, so we processed the sounds used in the past and used those. My mentor is Akihiko Matsuda, who has been handling sound effects since the "MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM" TV series, so I've been using more and more sounds from that era that seem to be usable. For example, I used the sound of the mono-eye's lighting-up from that era as is, and layered sound on top of it. Also, for the sound of the Zaku walking, my approach was to increase the feel of massiveness with the old sounds. That said, since they're from older series, sometimes you can't use them as is because the sound would make things seem hollow. In those cases we use a new sound instead. As for the sounds of such things as beams firing or projectile weapons, these have become more and more realistic in newer series, so they asked us to change things a little. The sound of the Zaku's machine gun was lacking the feel of heaviness a little, so we changed that a bit. When it comes to the sounds, there are lots of people who have nostalgic feelings for them. Even I feel a bit strange about changing them, and I don't think the fans would go along with it either. I do think they've got to be "Gundam sounds."
- "THE ORIGIN" also depicts the development of the mobile suit. Was there any expression of progress in the sound effects as well?
Nishimura: That was a somewhat difficult area. Mr. Imanishi focused on such things, so he wanted to have the sound of the older models with lots of machine noise, and then have it get closer to the Zaku operating sounds that we've gotten used to. It was hard to make it sound like it was both evolving and regressing. It's a matter of how widely we could express the acoustic range of our sound. As for the motor sounds, for instance, we recorded realistic up-to-date technological sounds digitally, deliberately put that back onto analog tape and lowered the pitch, then tried adding the original Zaku footstep sounds. It was a process of trial and error. I hope the sounds we ended up with still retain that nostalgia, and that people will feel the sound of the Zaku goes naturally along with video footage of modern-day quality.
- Something impressive this time was the metallic clinking of the decorations on Dozle's and Gihren's military uniforms when they move. Was that another point you concentrated on?
Nishimura: The characters in "THE ORIGIN" move gracefully, so I thought we should add those sounds. Actually, we didn't need to have sound effects for the decorations, but I thought it might easily come through as an impression. You don't always hear that metallic sound, and we only added it in scenes where they are saying something significant. If you put in too many tiny sounds, it actually feels like something's off.
- I get the impression that there are lots of sounds effects in "THE ORIGIN" to match the detailed movements in the animation. Did you feel that way?
Nishimura: I did. It's because the animation is so detailed that I felt as if we would have to add sound to each of those things, but if we layer on too many then your ears won't differentiate them anymore. So there's the problem that if it's not simple enough, then you won't hear them. It's difficult to balance out how we leave out sound effects.
- Were there any other things you focused on specifically because this was "THE ORIGIN"?
Nishimura: In the world of Gundam, I expect neither bulldozers nor mobile suits are operating on diesel engines. But without that you don't get a feel for them, so we add engine sounds to cars. That was Mr. Yasuhiko's intention as well. So the sound of heavy machinery in this series has engine sounds too. After all, our sounds must not feel distant from the world view of the Gundam universe.
- Were there any difficult aspects about actually applying the sound effects?
Nishimura: There were many issues in the details. In the battle scene on the lunar surface in Episode 4, they depicted the weaker gravity by making things momentarily float, creating breaks in their movements, and it was hard to put sound effects in there. For that scene, Mr. Fujino put in stronger music to make it more exciting, so that helped me a bit. In places where we want to add sound effects but there's nothing to justify them, we sometimes use music to fill in the gaps. That's something Mr. Fujino is good at. In Episode 5, there's a scene in which mobile workers apply heat-resistant coating to a space colony, and that sound was hard. The director's vision was that it would be like airbrushing work, but what kind of sound could we use to represent that? The environment is outside the colony, so it was even harder.
- A large-scale fleet battle at Loum is depicted in Episode 5. A scene with a jumble of multiple ships like that seems to cause lots of challenges. How was it?
Nishimura: Figuring out what sounds to leave out was indeed difficult. The warships are firing beams, but if we assigned sound effects to every one that's shown on screen, it would have been a real mess. So the way we did it was to give beam sounds only to the ships closest to the foreground. For the balance of sounds that express the distance between ships, we made various adjustments during mixing. In fleet battle scenes, you might feel there are so many sounds, but when you get a louder sound at the front, the other sounds are drowned out, so there's no point in having tiny sounds ringing out in the background. For example, a triple-barreled main cannon doesn't fire all its beams at once, but one at a time. Sometimes there's only a space of two frames (1/12 of a second) between them, but if you put in a sound effect for every one of them, you can't hear that at all. So we skip the sound for the first, add it for the second, and skip it for the third. If you don't have a single sound, then the human ear can't really recognize it, and that's a difficult thing.
- Do you have any impressions of your discussions with Mr. Yasuhiko about the sound effects?
Nishimura: He rarely says anything specific, but my feeling from what he's said is that maybe he has a preference for classical sound effects. In episode 5, there's a scene with the lovers Yuki and Fang Li talking inside the Side 2 colony. Mr. Yasuhiko wanted no music and only background noise for that scene, and depicting things without putting in sound effects even though the characters were moving was hard too.
- From talking to you, it seems that sound effects work is something of an artisanal process, but do you have any thoughts about putting your own individuality into the sound effects?
Nishimura: It's not about trying to forcibly exhibit my individuality, but I think it's nice if it happens to come out. The sounds my mentor Matsuda created certainly had his individuality about them. Of course, once you get used to them, when you hear a sound effect, you can figure out who made it. That was true of Matsuda, and Mr. (Mitsuru) Kashiwabara who did the sound effects for "SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO" was amazing too. They made sound effects that you hear and immediately recognize what show they're from. But lately, the situation is that there's not much demand for sound effects of that type. I think that if you've done the work and something like that turns up in it, that's nice. In that sense, I think it would be great if I created even one sound effect that make people think, "That's 'THE ORIGIN'!"
- Finally, what should fans look out for in terms of sound in Episode 5?
Nishimura: The fleet battle was something that was hard to do, but the work was fun. I hope people will be sure to catch it on the big screen and feel the power of that fleet battle through its visuals and sounds. Thank you for your support.

Next time in our Relay Interview series, we talk to Stephanie Sheh, voice director for English audio, about working on the English version of "THE ORIGIN."