Oscars: Sound Editing 101
Leading up to Sunday’s Oscars, EW.com will take a closer look at four categories that moviegoers may mistakenly think of as “technical.” After tackling Film Editing, we turn to Sound Editing, with insights from the nominated supervising sound editors of Argo (Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn), Life of Pi (Eugene Gearty, who shares his nod with Philip Stockton), Django Unchained (Wylie Stateman), and Zero Dark Thirty (Paul N.J. Ottosson). Skyfall‘s Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers complete the category. (Update: Read our Sound Mixing and Cinematography pieces.)
Early in his career, Zero Dark Thirty‘s supervising sound editor Paul N.J. Ottosson, who won both the sound editing and sound mixing Oscars for The Hurt Locker, his first collaboration with Kathryn Bigelow, would create a sound for everything he saw on the screen. “I would make them as big and cool as you possibly could,” he says, laughing. “They’d bring me to the stage, and sometimes the director would take out things: “We don’t need this. You don’t need this.’ And you’re just thinking Why, I see that thing on the screen? But at some point, you become more of a storyteller and start to focus on the story itself, and it’s a revelation. You understand how much better your work becomes and how much more important it becomes to the movie itself.”
For Argo‘s Ethan Van der Ryn, a two-time Oscar winner for King Kong and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, working on Saving Private Ryan was a turning point: “Steven Spielberg knew that he wanted to play the invasion of the Normandy beach with sound only, no music. So it was really an open slate to make it work with sound — to get to use the right, authentic sounds so you really feel like this experience is recreated for the viewer in an immersive way and you’re there, but also be able to do it in a way that becomes very emotional, that’s not just about getting all the details right. You have to have the right ingredients, but you need to weave them together in a way that works on an emotional, powerful sonic level.”
To understand the art of sound editing, we asked the nominees to talk us through some of their key challenges and scenes. But first, let’s start with the difference between sound editing and sound mixing, a separate Oscar category.
Essentially, the sound editorial team is responsible for assembling every sound you hear in the movie except the score and the dialogue that was recorded on set. This includes atmospheric sounds like the wind and ocean; hard effects, which are sounds synched for things like cars, gunshots, and explosions; and nuance sounds such as footsteps and people touching things with their hands. Though it’s more fun to talk about those sounds they gather and create (which we’ll do), they also edit and clean up the production dialogue delivered to them for clarity — syllable by syllable if necessary for directors like Quentin Tarantino who want to use as little ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) as possible, notes Django Unchained’s Wylie Stateman, a six-time Oscar nominee who’s done all of Tarantino’s films since Kill Bill: Vol. 1.
It’s the production sound mixer’s job to capture that dialogue on set as cleanly as possible to preserve the actor’s original performance. Post-production, the sound mixing team takes all the prepared sound elements mentioned above (there could be tens of thousands), plus the score (there were roughly 96 music tracks in Skyfall, for example), and affixes them to the screen and positions them in the theater while also setting their volume levels relative to each other. So they, too, create that immersive, emotional experience.
NEXT: The art of building tension without music
There are films with sonic palettes that lend themselves to a lot of music, but Bigelow’s realistic Zero Dark Thirty isn’t one of them. “Kathryn’s just trying to unfold this unbelievably interesting behind-the-scenes story of how the greatest manhunt came about. It wasn’t because there was a big 100-piece orchestra behind it,” Ottosson says.
But to play stark is not what she or Ottosson wants either. “You want to have some kind of life to get some peaks and valleys in the sonic space as well,” Ottosson says. “Your ears are supersensitive. You hear things that you might not even think you’re hearing. If I were to pour water into a cup, your ear can actually hear whether it’s cold or hot water. But you don’t think about it in regular life.” Translate that to Zero Dark Thirty: “What’s behind that wall? And the next block down? What do we hear in every direction? By building up these things really dense, you can add things or you can detract things to maybe make a scene more tense or maybe not so tense so you have someplace to go to,” he says. “So when we wanted a lot of chaos all around us, I would push all those things up. Then when we wanted more tense and internal, I would pull all those things down. And then when we cut from being outside a building to inside a building, it would be the difference of hearing these things really, really wide around you, and going into a really claustrophobic space and pulling everything in to the center. As a moviegoer, I don’t think you hear all of that, but it has an effect over time.”
He points to a scene in which Osama bin Laden’s courier is being tracked through the market:
Argo‘s Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl (previously nominated for Transformers: Dark of the Moon) had a similar experience with their opening sequence of the protests outside the U.S. Embassy.
NEXT: The art of authenticity
“I’m always amazed when producers show up and say, ‘Yeah, we’ve got this 1934 Packard,’ and I say, ‘Well, do you have the sound for that?'” says Life of Pi‘s Eugene Gearty, who won last year’s Sound Editing Oscar for Hugo and was previously nominated for Gangs of New York. “There’s a misconception that all these things hang from trees, when in fact, on movies that have a higher production value, everything has to be recorded and then created. The other misconception is that you can go and record something and put it in and that’s it. It’s rarely that. That’s the starting ground. The actual real sound doesn’t always sound as good as something else.”
Though his assistant had to track down a professor in England who’d recorded meerkats as the starting point for Pi‘s cacophonous Meerkat Island (“Ang Lee wanted it to sound as if there were 10 million of them,” Gearty says, so he definitely got creative), making Richard Parker — a CGI tiger — a real, breathing costar was the biggest challenge for Gearty, who’s done seven films with the director. He’d spend two or three hours in the evening with Lee and film editor Tim Squyres going over each syllable that came out of Richard Parker’s mouth — sounds for which Gearty’s team spent hours recording live Bengal tigers. “You need the exact real sound of a real tiger breathing or snarling or roaring, but it’s not just A roar, it’s THE perfect roar,” Gearty says. “You have to listen to all 100 takes, and think about it for two days while you pick Take 49. I wish you could’ve seen it: At one point, Ang said to me, ‘No Eugene, I don’t want it to be that, I want it to be this’ and flung his fingers underneath his chin, like an Italian from Brooklyn saying, ‘Go f— yourself.’ He didn’t want just a grrr, he wanted a grrr with an attitude from Brooklyn.”
Lee’s discerning ear extended beyond Richard Parker’s performance and to the water, which was abundant in Life of Pi. “If Pi’s closer to the water while he’s treading water, that should have a different sound than if he’s in the life boat, and that should have a different sound than if he’s on the raft, and that should have a different sound if we cut to a high angle,” Gearty says. “When Pi is treading water right before he goes underneath in that big scene of the shipwreck, there’s a close-up of him and the rain is beating down on the surface of the water. Ang and I worked very hard on getting water on water sounds. It’s a totally different sound when rain falls on water.”
With Argo set in 1979, Van der Ryn and Aadahl, definitely had some leg work to do. “The whole end sequence of the film features a Swiss Air DC-10, and McDonnell Douglas stopped making those in 1989,” Aadahl says. “It was quite a feat for us to track down where we could actually find those real jets and record them. We wound up discovering that FedEx still uses DC-10s in their fleet, so that became a good resource for us.” Also tough was creating the sounds for the unfamiliar sirens they heard while listening to original documentary material. “We were actually able to order original parts off the Internet and reconstruct two different sizes of sirens for ambulance and police horns. And then we mounted those on to a car and drove them all around the backlot and used those as one of those sounds that automatically triggers a sense of foreignness subconsciously,” Aadahl says. Adds Van der Ryn, “We did the same thing with all the traffic backgrounds. We went out and recorded all the period cars that were in Tehran at that time and recorded them all separately, and then with their horns, and all these different ways.”
For Stateman, Django Unchained required many a weekend scouring swap meets looking for hand-forged chain and shackles, and old saddles and leather. “Old hand-forged chain sounds different than modern machine-made chain. And old leather is different than modern leather,” he says. He and his recordist also took trips to Death Valley and Monument Valley: “We recorded gunshots and echoes and all kinds of samples for design elements that had the acoustical fingerprint of those classic Western places, because that’s where that particular sound only lives, 100 miles off-road in these deep canyons on tribal land.”
To match Tarantino’s lyrical violence, Statesman’s sound design is, of course, more abstract to express “just the sheer over-the-top unrealistic elements of it,” he says. “The picture is attached to the screen in the front of the room, but the sound just lives in what I would say is theater of the mind. We can carry off the continuity of this horrendous dog attack sonically, even if the picture that you’re looking at is one of our wonderful actors’ faces and their reaction to this horrific act. The sound provides the link and the continuity that holds your brain in terror mode.”
With Bigelow, Ottosson’s time as an officer in the Swedish military was essential for Zero Dark Thirty. He points to the Marriott hotel bombing scene.
His experience also informed the raid scene:
NEXT: The true art of sound design
Even for realistic films like Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, there are moments when they do non-literal things with sound to express the emotion of the story. Aadahl points to the climactic airport scene.
For Zero Dark Thirty‘s Ottoson, an example is when Jennifer Ehle’s character, Jessica, is waiting for the doctor she doesn’t know is a suicide bomber to show up at Camp Chapman.
Bonus: The art of patience
We’ll leave you with these final thoughts:
Life of Pi‘s Gearty: When I was working on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee said to me a month into the project, “So Eugene, have you come up with the sound of the Green Destiny?” I was sort of put on the spot, so your inclination is to fib or dodge it. I looked at him, and I said, “Ang, I haven’t a clue.” And he looked at me and says, “I like that. I like that.” In other words, don’t rush into it. Don’t think so hard. Just let it happen. It’s exactly that, you enable yourself to find it by getting out of the way.
Argo‘s Aadahl: There’s this one little moment, it’s where the six houseguests are arriving at the airport and they’re about to go through the whole series of security checkpoints. When we first cut into the airport, there’s a parrot that does this loud squawk. Picture editor Billy Goldenberg was telling us that Ben shot just reams of footage of this parrot waiting for him to do just one good squawk for camera. Just rolls and rolls of film trying to get him to do it. He finally got one squawk on camera, and even then, the sound wasn’t usable. When we were recording that type of parrot to get the sound, we did the exact same thing: We did about two hours of recording, and 1 hour, 59 minutes of it is this parrot singing the Pirates of the Caribbean theme, and the last minute we got some really good squawks. So sometimes our shooting ratios are pretty big in sound, but that’s the whole process. It’s kind of a serendipitous thing: The magic will eventually present itself; we just have to have our ears open and listen for it.