'Us' Scissors: How a Ninja Movie Inspired Their "Metallic" Sound
In Jordan Peele’s newest horror movie Us, murderous doppelgängers make a mundane pair of scissors their preferred weapon of terror. But what do scissors “sound” like in a horror movie? Peele’s sound editor, Trevor Gates, tells Inverse he sought a “menacing” metallic texture, not unlike that of Japanese katana swords, to make audiences “feel uneasy.”
While collaborating with Peele to create the final mixes of all the sound effects of Us, Gates says he experimented with some “heavy utensils” in his kitchen that had a specific resonance. He felt this would perfectly fit the scissors, which are used prominently in Peele’s movie.
“They were heavy, metallic, and when you move them a certain way they would have a real deep metallic sound,” he says. “Kind of like a sword in a Kill Bill movie. We found a little goodie that helped us build that sonic character. I’ve always enjoyed the resonance of a good sword flavor.”
Gates is used to finding weird sounds in everyday objects.
“It’s really funny being a sound person,” he says. “I’ll pick up a water bottle and I’ll be intrigued by the tonal characteristics. Just everyday things we pick up and move around, we feel that in tune.”
In Us, a family vacation becomes a nightmare when their evil twins, called “Tethers,” show up on their driveway in the middle of the night. Emphasizing the film’s themes on duality, the Tethers carry scissors (two blades that work as one), which they use to kill their surface doubles. While less flashy than Freddy’s clawed glove and more common than Leatherface’s chainsaw, the scissors of Us have become an iconic visual in the short time since the film’s release, partially because of the brutal sounds the movie uses to illustrate their potency as a tool for murder.
It was Gates’ idea to evoke the sounds of swords, but it only happened because Peele is a director who trusts his collaborators to explore and contribute to his films in their own ways.
“He’s a believer in the creativity that has exuded from the people he employs,” he says. “We have history. He knows the way my mind works. He won’t say, ‘I want them to sound like a katana,’ but he will say, ‘I want to feel the dread.’ This is how he allows us as a team to develop our creativity through tone and feeling. He wanted us to feel the presence of them.”
“There’s a duality to scissors both literally and figuratively,” Peele said in a video interview. “They lie in this territory of the mundane and the absolutely terrifying.”
While many of the sounds in Us, including the scissors, also came about through contributions from the foley department, Gates has key experience of his own in designing the sound of a samurai weapon. Prior to Us, which was the second time Gates worked with Peele after their collaboration on Peele’s breakout 2017 hit Get Out, he was also the sound designer of the 2013 martial arts B-movie, Ninja: Shadow of a Tear starring Scott Adkins.
“When you create these fight sequences, there is a rhythm, like music, that you have to compose to engage your viewer,” Gates says. “From grabs to punches to kicks to body falls to knives, choosing the sounds wisely and giving them space to breathe in between each incident of the fight, that’s something I got to explore through Ninja: Shadow of a Tear.”
Not only did working on a ninja flick inform Gates on the clinks! and klangs! of a katana, it prepared him to understand rhythm in action. This would be very important on Us, as Gates mixed the sounds for Lupita Nyongo’s “ballet” fight against her evil Tether, Red.
“We created a contrast between their movements,” he says. “We wanted to feel the calculated, articulated steps of what we call ‘Red Lupita,’ and the uneasy footsteps of the other Lupita. When we cut to the flashback dancing, I wanted to use that soft, understated sound to speak loudly through this really violent fight.”
He adds, “I thought the swords were pretty cool, too.”
Us is now playing in theaters.