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


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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


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