Oscars 2019: Analyzing sound categories with A Star Is Born, A Quiet Place, and First Man
What’s in a sound? This week on The Awardist, I wanted to break down two categories that are often overlooked at the Academy Awards ceremony, but could just be the key to winning that Oscar ballot.
The Oscar for Best Sound Editing is a category that honors a film’s sound design, looking at individual components such as field recordings, sound effects, music, and all the other sonic elements created for the story. Evolving alongside picture editing, this category was first introduced at the 1964 Oscars.
In contrast, the Oscar for Best Sound Mixing honors the process that takes place after all the sound components are brought together, fusing them into one seamless track for the whole film. This award was one of the early categories at the Oscars, beginning in 1930.
Winning one doesn’t necessarily mean winning the other at the Oscars. 1966’s Grand Prix was the first film to win both categories, and was followed by Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Right Stuff, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, Speed, Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, The Matrix, King Kong, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Hurt Locker, Inception, Hugo, Gravity, Mad Max: Fury Road, and most recently Dunkirk.
The sonic offerings showcased this year span an array of genres and stories, and use sound to guide and immerse audiences. Below, the sound designers behind three awards contenders reveal how sound — and its absence — played a crucial role in the telling of three very different stories.
As Damien Chazelle explored the journey to the 1969 moon landing in the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, he wanted to capture a documentary feel by using as many original and authentic sounds as possible, said Ai-Ling Lee, the sound designer and re-recording mixer on the movie.
“It presented an unique challenge for the whole team as we tried to keep the sound design grounded, gritty, and almost an unpolished feel to the quiet, intimate scenes, like a 16mm home movie, and then contrast that with the immersive and visceral feel of the dangers of going into space,” Lee added.
The result is a quiet, nuanced portrait of a man who shouldered the burden of losing his baby daughter along with the burden of an entire nation in the run-up to the Apollo 11 mission. But before Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) became the first man on the moon, there were several other missions that paved the way, in particular Armstrong and David Scott’s 1966 Gemini VIII mission in orbit. Lee said Frank Hughes, a consultant on the film who used to train astronauts, said that the Titan II missile which launched the Gemini VIII rocket had a very particular “whoop” sound at the very point of ignition. In order to spin a creative re-imagining of the flight, Chazelle places the camera inside the claustrophobic cockpit as the shuttle hurtles into space, catching the rattles of the metal sheets and the roaring of the sheer force of speed. “We wanted to replicate the G-force experience of being strapped to a rocket and being shot into space,” Lee said.
To create those actual sounds, they recorded motion simulator rides and went to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where they blasted the acoustics chamber with nitrogen gas to capture what it might sound like inside the rocket during launch. There’s a roaring crackle they captured from the launchpad of SpaceX rockets, combined with the shaking of metal pieces, nuts, and bolts to convey the high risks of flying in a spacecraft that used to feel so dangerous. These sounds are layered with rhinoceros growls, lion roars, horse whinnies, and animal stampedes to create the rushing, deafening sound of the craft soaring into space. The thruster sounds were captured using real lunar landers from other rocket companies in the Mojave Desert, and the sonic boom was recorded from a SpaceX launch at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
“There’s chaos and claustrophobia in the cockpit, but it builds up into the intense moment when they get into orbit and Neil switches off and drops off into a quiet moment,” Lee said. “For first time, he sees the curvature of Earth, and there’s that haunting music from [composer] Justin Hurwitz, just the clicking in the quiet.”
When the Gemini VIII spaceship suddenly spins out of control, marking the first time a U.S. spacecraft suffered a critical failure in space, Lee said they amped up the danger with discordant sounds and used a deck of cards to create the ticking of the dropping altimeter. “Damien wanted it to play even more surreal, so besides us creating a loop of a low-end spin using sounds of train couplings and sounds created with software synthesizers, we had Justin make loops using flutes, strings, and radio squelches that I processed through a distortion plugin, so they all sound like they are coming from the spacecraft,” Lee said.
And then there are the moments of pure silence, startling at first but powerful, especially in the moon sequence, when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) step onto the stark, desolate lunar landscape. “Damien wanted to surprise the audience and overwhelm them with a sensory overload,” Lee said. “And suddenly we’re on the moon and it’s totally silent, and because we stay in silence for longer than usual, it has a weird effect where it makes it peaceful, calming — but also the silence creates anticipation.” When they layer sound slowly back in, Lee said they wanted to capture what astronauts hear in their spacesuit, so we hear the rising volume of Armstrong’s breathing and the air hiss that was captured using former astronaut John Young’s actual bubble helmet from the Apollo 10 mission.
“The silence feels so much more deafening and lonely because these astronauts, these men, are traveling where humans are not supposed to go,” Lee said. “It has this emotional impact, and the void of [noise] lets you take in the reality that you’re finally on the moon.”
A Star Is Born
The star-crossed tale of a fading musician finding a new lease on life with a talented emerging singer was remade once again this year by Bradley Cooper, featuring himself and Lady Gaga in the lead roles. A Star Is Born opens with Cooper’s Jackson Maine performing at the Stagecoach Festival in Indio, Calif., and the scene was actually filmed on location with thousands in the crowd during the 2017 festival.
“When they shot the concerts, we had the singers singing into the microphones, but that sound was going into the recorder and wasn’t being amplified into the crowd,” sound designer Alan Murray told EW. “So we got really intimate recordings of the performers without the crowd hearing it.”
As the film follows Jackson’s chance encounter with the young, vibrant Ally (Lady Gaga) and their whirlwind romance, Murray said the volume of the sound became an audio cue between the couple’s public life and private life. “It was going from the contrast of the big concert world down to what these people are really going through in life, so we purposely filtered out a lot of background noise so you concentrated more on dialogue and ambience of the scene,” Murray explained.
One scene in particular used audio tricks to channel Jackson’s state of mind: the excruciating Grammy Awards moment when an inebriated Jackson crashes Ally’s win on stage. “There’s this explosion of cheering and applause, and we keep going back and forth between what Jackson’s really experiencing versus what everybody there is hearing,” Murray said. “I thought that was pretty powerful to go from that explosion of audience and then going into his tinnitus and unintelligible voices, just the confusion in his world of what he was going through in that moment.”
Portraying Jackson’s worsening tinnitus, a condition in which one loses their hearing to a ringing in the ears, was a particular challenge for the sound designers, Murray said, and he did research to figure out how to convey it on screen. “Tinnitus is all these nerve endings in your brain that form a loop of this overload, and that’s what kind of causes the ringing,” he said. “We actually took hearing tests, we had the machine they used on Jackson, so we formed a lot of our sound ideas from that.”
A Quiet Place
It’s no surprise that sound is at the center of a movie about a family forced to live in silence in a world populated by alien creatures that hunt by noise. A Quiet Place sound designers Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl told EW they wanted to immerse audiences in the Abbot family’s experience of being forced to live in a vacuum. “Because silence and quiet was so important to their survival, the tiniest details and sounds wound up becoming really big, and in a way, inverting what would be a traditional cinema soundtrack and really exploring all of these shades of quiet,” Aadahl said.
As most of the film takes place in silence, with little dialogue to explain the situation, Aadahl and Van der Ryan said director and star John Krasinski brought the sound designers into the earliest stages of production to gauge what was possible to create. “It’s rare that sound really helps direct the rest of filmmaking,” Aadahl said, “but John gave us the directive to go as far as we can go and not just stick to what’s on screen, but let’s all experiment together.”
They were hugely aided by actress Millicent Simmonds, who plays eldest daughter Regan and is deaf in real life. The sound designers said Simmonds thanked them because she felt that for the first time, “people understood what her experience of the world was like,” putting audiences into her sonic perspective.
One of the most important scenes for Van der Ryan and Aadahl to crack was the tense moment when Regan is standing in cornfield as one of the aliens quietly stalks her. “What we learn through sound in this scene is Millie’s cochlear implant is creating interference with the alien monster’s biology and causing it pain, as well as to Millie,” Van der Ryn said, “so figuring out how to tell that story was a big challenge.”
To create and capture the distorted electrical sound of the aliens, Aadahl and Van der Ryn found an unlikely source: using the zaps from a stun gun shocking grapes, slowing it down in the studio, and turning it into the echolocation clicks the sightless monsters use to navigate.
With a sequel confirmed, Van der Ryn and Aadahl said they’re excited to continue exploring the world set up in A Quiet Place. “The possibilities are wide open, and the concept is so strong,” Aadahl said. “In the meantime, we can continue collecting sounds and recording and getting potential future ingredients.”
For more about the film’s sound design, watch the exclusive video below.