Oscar-nominated sound editors explain their key challenges (and the sounds you may not know they create)

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Image Credit: Jonathan Olley

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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

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