By Mandi Bierly
February 23, 2013 at 07:23 AM EST
Twentieth Century Fox

Leading up to Sunday’s Oscars, 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

Jonathan Olley

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:

Ottosson: I think in most movies where you had a car chase sequence or a stressful sequence like that, you would have a drum daka, daka, daka, daka playing as the car drives through corners. But Kathryn says, “Well, there wasn’t a whole lot of drums playing when these guys are driving around looking for him, so we’re not gonna do that.” With the picture editing, they do a lot of fast cutting trying to find all those angles, exciting things to look at, and then sonically, I would build so every cut is something different, things whizzing by us, and it’s really, really deep with stuff. You kinda need to cut it and build it like you would do with music, to maintain the same excitement that music would have given you. But then you limit it to what lives in that space. I couldn’t really go to Pakistan. But I found some sound effects guy who would go and record for me in this place where the movie takes place. And then I recorded people who were born in Pakistan but are here in the United States. The goal was to make it very, very authentic to this place.

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.

Aadahl: Billy Goldenberg, the picture editor, described the sound of these protests and the sound of the chants as the music of the scene. People might not realize that we’re the ones actually constructing that.

Van der Ryn: What they were actually shooting with on the set was Turkish people in Turkey. So it all had to be recreated after the fact.

Aadahl: Our philosophy is to do everything from scratch, to use fresh ingredients. Kind of like cooking, you can use canned food, or you can grow all of your vegetables from seed, and certainly for Argo, we had to do that, because there is no place to go to get those kinds of sounds and chants. So consulting our Farsi language experts, we reconstructed the text of a lot of the original chants that were used at those protests. Then we recruited a very large native Farsi-speaking group of about 100 extras and took them out to the Warner Bros. backlot and recorded them chanting from the middle of them, and from behind windows, and from the rooftops, and from inside cars to get all of those different angles that really would make it feel real. So when we’re in the middle of the crowd, we feel like we’re right there. When we’re in the U.S. Embassy behind bullet-proof windows, we feel like we’re actually behind those windows. Los Angeles actually has the largest Persian population outside of Iran. So we had this incredible talent pool, and many of our voice talent had actually lived through and experienced the revolution, so it turned out to be a really emotional, cathartic experience. People were hugging and crying afterwards. I’ve never experienced anything like that on any film I’ve worked on.

Van der Ryn: There was just so much emotional, intense energy coming out of these people, and I think you really feel it in the recreation of that scene.

NEXT: The art of authenticity

Twentieth Century Fox

“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.”

Andrew Cooper

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.

Ottoson: I didn’t go to real war, but in the military, they kind of push you and push you so you forget that this is an exercise. I just know how a lot of these things sound in reality, but also how you perceive the sound. When I was close to an explosion the first time, I never remember that is was loud. I’m sure it was tremendously loud, but ahead of the sound is this shockwave of just moving air. And that hits you like a wall of something, and it’s tremendously scary — far more scary than something being loud, I think, because at some point, you just kind of compress the sound in your ears and it doesn’t get any louder. But when a shockwave hits, it’s just internal and there’s nothing you can do. If something’s loud, you can cover your ears. You can’t do that with shockwaves. In that scene, I wanted to convey the same thing for Maya [Jessica Chastain]. She works behind desks, she’s not used to any of this. So I placed these low-end sounds before the high-end sounds, so if you’re in a good movie theater, you would kind of experience what it is when the shockwave hits you — the low-end hitting you — and then secondary are these loud things. When I watch the movie with an audience, everybody’s just jumping out of their seats terrified.

His experience also informed the raid scene:

Ottosson: I try to place you in the position of how weapons sound in that environment. Like the weapons the SEAL team has in the end with the silencers on them. I know most movies, they would sound very Hollywood-like. You add a lot of oomph and make them really cool. In this movie, it wasn’t about being cool. It was about these guys going on a mission and executing this mission. And when you put those silencers on, that gun gets really, really quiet, and it doesn’t sound like it would hurt you. You can stand next to it shooting, and you don’t need  protection for your ears. When you see it in the movie, and they take out those people, I think it becomes even more horrifying because the gun doesn’t sound that lethal, but obviously there’s people dropping.

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.

Aadahl: When we’re going through the checkpoints in the airport, and the six houseguests are waiting to get their passports stamped so they can proceed to the gate, they get hitched up by not having their entry Visa documents, so the guards are going through their paperwork. There’s this very tense moment where they’re just holding their breath, and to get the audience to hold their breaths as well, what we started doing was taking the din of the masses in the airport — all of the Farsi and the security announcements over the PA — and slowly peeling those away as if we’re getting into the head space of the characters until there’s a point where you don’t even notice it, but we’ve gone from full volume of the airport into, like, nothing. We’re just inside the characters’ heads. The effect for me, as an audience member, is like I’m holding my breath, and we don’t release that tension until the passport gets stamped and then pop, we pop back into reality and all those sounds are around us again. That’s part of the magic of sound, you can really direct the audience emotionally through the story.

Van der Ryn: So much of what we’re doing sonically is about creating rhythms that sort of help drive the tension and the pacing. Part of that was really made easy by the job that Billy Goldenberg did with the editing. That sort of structure and pacing was already there, and then it was up to us to basically take off from there and use the rhythms within the sound to reinforce that and help drive that forward.

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.

Ottoson: It starts really confident. There’s a lot of stuff going on at the camp. And then as they’re waiting, we transition to taking out the sounds, because it becomes more internal about her. So she’s waiting, and we start off the music as soon as we see this car coming in the distant desert. There’s a little bit of hope for her. This is the guy now. As the car drives in, the music’s pretty powerful, but it comes from a small place and grows bigger and bigger. And then the car pulls in, and we end the music, and it’s just her now with this guy. At that point, I start building up the sound effects again, because it’s a little bit out of control. If you looked at that scene without any picture, you just listened to it, you would see how much sound work goes in to being a lot of sound, to almost nothing, to transforming to music, to transforming to a lot of sound effects again. And then, of course, this guy comes with bombs and blows himself up as well as everyone else there. The scene is strong by itself, but the work we did made it even stronger. That’s the goal for most scenes, and the movie itself: Find these peaks and valleys to give the story the room it needs to breathe or enhance the story that you have there.

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.

Read more:

Oscar-nominated sound mixers explain what you should (or shouldn’t) notice if it’s done well

Oscar-nominated editors clear up the biggest misconception about their category (and explain the decisions you may not know they’re making)

Oscar-nominated cinematographers explain how they envelop you in the story