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Crafts Roundup: The Year of Immersive Sound in Survival Films

by Bill Desowitz
December 5, 2013 2:16 PM
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In the year of survival, sound has taken on supreme importance as an authentic, driving, narrative force, and with the advent of Dolby Atmos, the theatrical experience has never been more immersive. "Gravity," "All Is Lost," "Captain Phillips," "Oblivion," "Rush," and "12 Years a Slave" are among the standouts in space, at sea, in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, on the dangerous Formula 1 track, and in physical/spiritual imprisonment.

"Gravity," the obvious frontrunner, contains the most complex spatial direction in recent memory, thanks to the work of supervising sound editor/sound designer Glenn Freemantle and re-recording mixer Skip Lievsay, among others. Like everything else, director Alfonso Cuaron wanted to utilize the science of space; therefore, voices and other sounds constantly change in relation to Sandra Bullock. And the sounds in space are based on vibration, which influenced Steven Price's eerie score as well. It was tailor-made for Atmos surround.

"Space sound can't be transmitted through atmosphere but through other elements," Freemantle explains. "We came up with the idea of vibration through touch and when she's in contact we hear it through her suit [as a muffled sound]."

Robert Redford in "All Is Lost"
Robert Redford in "All Is Lost"

Unlike space, the ocean is far from silent. Although J.C. Chandor's remarkable open-water survival thriller, "All Is Lost" -- starring a 77-year-old Robert Redford boldly stepping out of his comfort zone -- is virtually dialogue-free, the director was totally on board with stepping up the sound design.

That was up to supervising sound editors Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns of Skywalker Sound. "J.C. said he wanted very little dialogue and almost no music," recalls Boeddeker, who immediately thought of the Western, with a ship instead of a horse. "He wanted to use them as punctuation marks so that the story was told with acting, sound, and sound effects. And the emotions were cued by the dread he's feeling, and the music takes it to the next level when he gets introspective."

"Captain Phillips" is by no means an ordinary thriller at sea either. It was filmed on real ships, out at sea, with first-time Somali actors and real Navy personnel. Director Paul Greengrass wanted to deliver the feeling of a moment captured. "This has many unique implications on how we approached each creative decision," says supervising sound editor Oliver Tarney. "Our primary challenge was finding the right balance between fundamental authenticity and delivering an incredibly exciting mainstream thriller. 

"This is most evident in the scenes where the cumbersome Maersk Alabama is being hotly pursued by the fast and agile pirate skiffs. In actuality, the Alabama maxes out at around 20mph/18 knots, and with an engine that certainly isn't dynamic sounding, keeping the audience hooked and the tension palpable throughout these sequences is something we succeeded particularly well in achieving. There isn’t the 'blank canvas' freedom that you might be given with a different type of film."


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