How many times have you heard someone say, “I was on the edge of my seat, and I knew what was going to happen” after seeing Argo. When something works that well, it starts with great writing, continues with great acting, directing, and picture editing, and ends with great sound. The Oscar-nominated sound editors took us through key scenes here. Now re-recording mixer Rudloff, who shares his nomination with production sound mixer Garcia and fellow re-recording mixer John Reitz, a five-time Oscar nominee with a win for The Matrix, tells us how they created that tension.
First, the scene after the prologue:
Rudloff: You’re instantly immersed in the demonstrations outside the Embassy, and then you’re taken through the takeover of the Embassy where the hostages are taken. Ben, as the director, wanted the audience to be just dropped into the middle of this utter chaos. You’ve got the screaming demonstrators, the anger, the hatred that they have both for America and the Shah. Then you cut inside the Embassy. When we first cut inside the Embassy, everything is kind of calm because this isn’t an unusual event for them — they’ve been experiencing these demonstrations — but as the scenes progress, they start to realize, wow, this is going beyond what we’ve been seen before, and eventually it becomes extremely chaotic for them. Now you’ve got their fear and their anxiety. So there’s all these raw emotions happening either outside with the demonstrations, and eventually inside with both the Embassy people and the Iranians who are inside the Embassy. So as the tension is starting to ratchet up, we started to mirror that with the mix. So early on in the scene, we’re more laid back. Once we’re inside, you still hear the offstage crowd, but it’s subdued to an extent. But as things start to progress and become more tense, we start increasing the rawness and edginess of the tracks that we’re playing. We start making abrupt cuts location to location. We start having sounds that jump out at you. It’s not smooth transitions from one camera angle to the other, or one location to another. So our mixing style actually starts to mirror what’s happening in the story. This is one of the things that we don’t necessarily want the audience to recognize that we’re doing, but what we’re doing with the sound is actually affecting the way that they’re perceiving the story. Ben wanted them to be on edge. He wanted them not to just be sitting back comfortably in their seats and watching this transpire. He wanted them to be intimately involved in this experience, so we used a style that was much more aggressive than in other areas of the film or that we may use in other films.
In that particular scene, in order to add to the realness, Ben chose not to use the score. Score is a wonderful vehicle for carrying the emotion of a scene, but audiences do kind of expect it at times. So the fact that Ben chose not to use it in that circumstance added to that rawness and realness that he was looking for. So again, we used the sound to help set the tone and emotional arc of the scene and we ratcheted it up just as the visuals did in the editing of the film. Billy Goldenberg did a wonderful job with that scene, because he would ramp the tension up in a location, and then he would break away. And then on the next location, he would start it and ramp it up again.
Throughout the film, Affleck had been trying to reinforce that the American houseguests were surrounded in a foreign land. It crescendos with the climactic airport finale.
Rudloff: When they first get inside the airport, there’s that parrot, and a real loud squawk of a parrot. It’s a story point that doesn’t really have anything to do with the story of these houseguests trying to get out, but it added another jarring moment for the audience. So we had all this hustle and bustle that had been going on throughout the film to keep not only the characters but the audience a little on edge, a little uncomfortable. Once they got in the airport, they had these checkpoints that they had to get past, each one was like its own hurdle. So we kind of ramp up to the first hurdle, and then they would get past that. And then they would ramp up to the next one. And here, again, it’s the choice of using sound or not using sound. When it got down to the stamp, the whole focus was that stamp of approval. They weren’t gonna get past that hurdle if they didn’t get that stamp of approval. We’d created all this hustle and bustle for the build-up to this, and then we started pulling back in and shedding some of those layers of sound. Slowly everything started to drift away, and everybody — the characters in the film, the audience — is just sitting there waiting to see if they’re gonna get that stamp. Ben is choosing to use the lack of sound in this case to focus the audience on what was important, and that happened to be that stamp. And when the stamp of approval is finally given, all the background sounds pop back in, and we’re back in reality.
How do sound re-recording mixers know when they’re ready to sign off on a scene like that? “When Ben says it’s done,” Reitz says. “When he’s happy with a scene, then we concentrate on the next one. That’s just the way it is.” Says Rudloff: “I asked the same question when I first started mixing. I used to say, ‘How do you know when it’s right?’ Over time, you learn you just have a feeling when it’s working. Unfortunately, there’s not a list of criteria you can point to and say, ‘Well, as long as I’ve done A, B, and C, we’re done.’ There’s always something else you can do. It’s subjective. It’s creative. You can always try something else. Like John says, ‘When the director says we’re done, we’re done.’”
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