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Crafts Roundup: The Year of Immersive Sound in Survival Films

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood December 5, 2013 at 2:16PM

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.
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Ron Howard Rush
Ron Howard's "Rush" screened at the first annual Jalopnik Film Festival last year.

With Joseph Kosinski's "Oblivion," there's a very sparse sound design because of the desolate wasteland, necessitating quiet ambiance with wind and rain until the action kicks in. The two biggest sound ideas were the drones and the Bubbleship. Kosinski told sound designer Ren Klyce that he wanted an evil R2D2. They communicate tonally and electronically with a force and menace, using the science of voice encryption.

With the Bubbleship, they built a full-scale model that was a twin-turbine jet with tech beeps that needed to be created. And, again, Atmos places you in a more immersive environment where objects fly by and you can sense greater resolution.

The visceral Formula 1 experience in Ron Howard's "Rush" is more than just about the racing rivalry between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) -- it's about making their McLaren and Ferrari secondary characters. They not only captured the sounds of the engines, tires, transmissions, and gearboxes, but the recordist stayed on through post with sound designer Markus Stemler, supervising sound editor Frank Kruse, and sound mixer Danny Hambrook to make sure the final mix was accurate.

Meanwhile, ambient sound is used almost like another character in depicting Solomon Northup's abject terror and struggle to survive in "12 Years a Slave." From the cicadas, birds, frogs, and flies, to the spike of the cotton and the sugar cane, to the laceration of the whip, to the ache of loss in the spiritual/field songs, director Steve McQueen and sound designer Leslie Shatz pull us in on a subliminal level.

"It can infect you, seep into you, lull you, or jar you," Shatz says.

Like all of these movies, the sound design impacts the entire emotional texture.


This article is related to: Crafts Round-up, Thompson on Hollywood, Awards Season Roundup, Gravity, All Is Lost, Captain Phillips, Oblivion, Rush, 12 Years a Slave


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.