Immersed in Movies: Assessing the Sound Oscar Races

Features
by Bill Desowitz
February 13, 2013 3:47 PM
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'Les Miserables'
While "Argo" might be the Oscar frontrunner for sound editing and mixing, jarring and humoring us with a bizarre Iranian hostage rescue mission, all of this year's nominees create fascinating soundscapes: "Django Unchained" offers a spirited yet analogue-like experience associated with the spaghetti western; "Les Misérables" boldly dispenses with a pre-recorded track for the singing; "Life of Pi" creates a plethora of ocean sounds; "Lincoln" effectively alternates authentic period sounds with diverse crowd noises; "Skyfall" blends the old and new in constructing a brave new world for James Bond; and "Zero Dark Thirty" combines naturalism and the ethereal for an unnerving sonic experience.

In fact, sound is now so sophisticated that it's become a holistic experience."Music and sound design, the visual patterns of the cut, are all great influencers for not only the design but the placement within the space in the theater," explains "Django Unchained's" sound designer/editor Wylie Stateman.

For Stateman, "Django" is a movie about courageous heroism and commitment to love, and is both a personal and communal experience working with Quentin Tarantino. And for such hyper-real sounds, the trick was to use the correct sounds of the period while flatter it with emotional peaks. The sounds go from wagon wheels to explosive gunfire to Mandingo fighting with chains.

However, Stateman also enjoyed the quieter sounds such as the pouring of a glass of wine. "This might be made up of a half a dozen sounds," he suggests. "The glugging of the liquid coming out of the decanter; the clinging of the glass as it strikes the crystal; the liquid itself being something special, something worthy of hyper detail. And what that does is focuses the audience's attention and helps them really attach their mental concentration right to the visual frame."

Not surprisingly, "Argo's" opening sequence provided the greatest challenge and opportunity, demanding a raw, gritty design and mix to accompany the visuals. Ben Affleck wanted dialogue and sound effects to set the tone and carry the emotion. Therefore, he dispensed almost entirely with Alexandre Desplat's score so it wouldn't detract from the realism.

"Ben wanted to mirror what was happening to the characters with jarring cuts and harsh sounds; no smooth transitions," offers sound mixer John Reitz, who's nominated along with Gregg Rudloff and Jose Antonio Garcia. They collaborated with Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn, who are nominated for sound editing.

"Ben wanted things to poke out here and there and not necessarily in normal places," Reitz continues. "We could be in the middle of a cut and jump out at you. He wanted the audience to be immersed in the same chaos and uncertainty that the characters were experiencing."

Similarly, the "Les Mis" team wanted us to be immersed in the characters' same painful ordeal. The fact that they recorded the actors singing live on set wasn't the breakthrough; it was the fact that they achieved more of a visceral impact in their performances, according to sound supervisor Simon Hayes, who worked with fellow nominees Andy Nelson (also nominated for "Lincoln"), and Mark Paterson.

The live vocal recording (performed by a pianist in a sound proof room while the actors performed as they listened to the music with tiny earplugs) allowed the actors to control the timing of the passage. The technique also made it possible for really tight close-ups because the sync was real.

For "Life of Pi," even though sound designer Eugene Gearty has been capturing waves and thunder for years off the coast of his home in South Carolina, the soundscape for the second-half of the movie had to be created in post because it was shot in a special wave tank built at an abandoned airport in Taiwan. (Gearty worked with Philip Stockton on the sound editing and the mixing was done by Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill, and Drew Kunin.)
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