Peter Berg's underrated "Lone Survivor" received its lone Oscar nominations in the sound editing and mixing categories, but it's well-deserved. The fact-based adventure about a failed Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan grabs us by the throat and never lets up. And the sound is among the most intense and immersive experiences for a modern war film.
The sound design has an emotional arc all its own: At the beginning, the sound is real smooth, almost romantic, as we're getting to know the four SEALS (Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster). Sounds bleed over the cut as they're talking; the sound of the helicopters is nice and round. There's nothing abrasive about it. Then, when the mission begins, the sounds of the helicopters are larger than life, almost triumphant. However, the initial gun battle is very aggressive and location specific and they tried to be accurate. What would the Navy SEALS say?
But then the sound team (led by editor Wylie Stateman and mixers Andy Koyama, Beau Borders, and David Brownlow) create a sense of confusion. We don't know how many combatants there are. The SEALS are surrounded. And after the first cliff fall, which is a case study in sound editing and mixing, the soundscape becomes confusing and frenetic, full of distortion and desolation.
"A production track was put together from sound effects material and field records facilitating the edit of the two major falls," recalls seven-time Oscar nominee Stateman ("Django Unchained"). "One firing position after another was all MOS because of how difficult it is to get in there and the mechanical nature of how they wanted to shoot the movie, giving freedom to the actors. And so we created the falling scenes and the run-and-gun scenes very early in the process, working very closely with editor Colby Parker while Peter continued to shoot the film.
"We stumbled on interesting ways of solving audio problems. The very first gunsot in the movie is made up of three gunshots: smack, echo, smack. And when you play those in fast succession it's a triple beat made from three very distinct elements. As we discovered how well that worked, we worked our way through gun battles trying to create unique moments everywhere. So there's no library of gunshots and very little repetition. In order to keep people from getting ahead of it or comfortable with it, every gunshot, every rock impact is a unique element and a unique sonic solution to that acoustical space."
The concept was to abandon the idea of a character with a gun or each weapon having a sound and imagining the scene from an acoustical standpoint. When one of the SEALS drops into the shot, he bumps right up to us, the viewer. "And we developed a dialogue for how to handle these sound challenges by inserting the audience into the action and making sure the design was sonically relevant to the audience's participation," Stateman says.
The first pass on the jump was literal. But then they learned how to use rough edges and "random" sounds that authentically made sense. "There are holes carved within it; there are sounds coming out of the wrong speaker, there are sounds that are distorted, and rather than just make it loud, we wanted it to sound chaotic," adds Borders. "And that was one of the early instances of sound design worked on from the very beginning and we have music leading right up to the jump. What would it sound like if you got hit in the head with a rock? For the next five seconds you don't even know what planet you're on. And some of the very frenetic sounds we came up with, we wanted it to go in and out of their heads. It took weeks of ratifying and was one of the things we couldn't stop tweaking."
The sounds of radio communication were also creatively handled. "There are strange repeats and stutters and deterioration of the audio with the satellite communication," says Koyama. "We also used the speaker phone, the sound of which also degraded as they got farther away."
To become more immersed in the experience of the SEALS, they added mic bumps and cloth rustles. Whenever someone blows into the mic, you hear a very distinct distortion. It approximates the effect of having ear buds along with the SEALS. "We downloaded and acquired a lot of actual radio communication from military sources so we could emulate the sound of communications between helicopters and planes and the crew on the ground," Koyama recalls.
Which adds to the total sense of confusion and chaos of "Lone Survivor."