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

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Image Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

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“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.”

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Image Credit: 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.

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Image Credit: Jonathan Olley

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

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