'The Hobbit,' 'Exodus,' 'Unbroken:' Which Epic Sounds Could Grab Oscar's Attention?

Sound pros describe their work on the demise of Smaug, B-24s during WWII and the parting of the Red Sea
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Sound editing and sound mixing are two categories that are closely tied, though the difference isn't always understood. It's the sound editors that effectively create the sounds, and the mixers put the sounds together into the final mix that plays in the theater. Here, The Hollywood Reporter examined the work on some of the contenders that opened in December: Warner and New Line's The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, Fox's Exodus: Gods and Kings and Universal's Unbroken.

For Peter Jackson's final Hobbit installment, supervising sound effects editor Brent Burge reported that apart from the obvious sound work — including the dragon, Smaug, and a cast of Orcs and other creatures — there was a broader challenge in creating the sonic arc of the final battle. "Peter created a fantastic battle … and we had to match that by keeping the audience engaged," he said. "From a sound supervisor's point of view, one of the biggest technical challenges was managing the enormous amount of picture material being generated by the Weta magic machine. A lot of their material was changing from handover to handover, so we were chasing content changes [often subtle], as well as cut changes."

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Sound was also used to punctuate key moments in the story. "The arrows in the Smaug sequence are a good example," noted Burge. "The initial arrows Bard uses [to defend Lake-Town against the dragon] had to be played as small and ineffective, though their sound in isolation is huge without the context of the dragon effects. The Black Arrow was then able to be a contrast to them. … It's in the release that the arrow's significance is realized. We go very quiet, with a singular sound of the huge arrow in flight. Once it hits its target, we resume with the sonic response of a dragon mortally wounded."

The team also took advantage of Dolby's immersive sound format Atmos, which includes placement of speakers on the ceiling of theater auditoriums. "There were plenty of moments where we had the opportunity to do this — from tracking Smaug in the opening sequence of the film to the mass of the armies and offscreen skirmishes playing around us."

For Ridley Scott's biblical film Exodus, the sound team's challenges included a locust swarm. "The locust wrangler from production had prepared hundreds of locusts for us to record. But despite the application of some sweltering heat lamps, these apathetic insects were highly reticent to swarm on cue," said Oliver Tarney, supervising sound editor and designer. "Unfortunately, even if they had been on form, the sound of their wing beats is much more of a 'soft purring' than the threatening buzz we needed to match the ominous spectacle of millions of swarming locusts invading. We turned to other insect recordings we'd made as the foundation of our locust design. Once we had the swarm sounding realistic, we were asked to add a vocal element to heighten the menace. This really helped to sell them as a ferocious threat."

Recording frogs for their big scene was a different story. "In order to make frogs produce the cacophony of croaks we needed, we learned you simply have to 'flirt' with them," Tarney related. "Our frog handler gripped their sides gently and rubbed the back of their necks to make them believe they were being 'courted,' and the frogs became extremely vocal."

Recording sound for the parting of the Red Sea was not without challenges, said sound mixer David Stephenson. "To get to the edge of the sea required a special camera vehicle that would be able to drive in the wet sand. Ridley's monitor village was stationed on firm ground sometimes hundreds of meters from the camera positions. I needed to station myself and my equipment between these two positions," he explained. "I had to be close enough to keep in range of the actors' radio mic transmitters to record their dialog but also close enough to transmit these recordings back to Ridley's monitor village. At times I had to set up a repeater station to cover the air waves. Being so spread apart also meant a lack of communication from time to time, such as the day I heard someone in the distance shout 'We need to get Christian wetter!'

"Before I could stop it, I heard [Bale] running full speed into the sea — bang went a $2,000 radio microphone kit."

In contrast, the work on Unbroken was about engulfing the viewer in WWII hero Louie Zamperini's true story and putting them in the locations of the movie, related rerecording mixer Frank Montano.

For the scene set at the first camp where Zamperini is held captive, the meticulous sound work involved placement of rain splashing on different surfaces, including metal and a fabric tent, and changing the sounds as the viewer moves with Louie. For the scene during which Zamperini is lost at sea on a raft, Montano said director Angelina Jolie "really wanted to keep the first part very quiet, and as the raft sequence progressed, we brought in more atmosphere.

"There was also a lot of trade-off between sound and [Alexandre Desplat's score]," he continued. "We tried to make every scene blend between music and effects."

To get the soundscape as well as the subtleties, the film was made available with both Dolby Atmos and Barco Auro, two immersive sound formats. "The opening sequence really showcases Dolby Atmos [and its overhead speakers]," said Montano. "The score comes in very angelic, and [rerecording mixer] Jon Taylor was able to bring the music into the theater and then strategically place the vocals into the overheads and then hand off to the large squadron that comes rumbling through the theater and over your head."

While one might not think about the sound in the scene during which Zamperini is forced to hoist a heavy beam over his head, sound was key to conveying the weight to the audience. Montano related that this was created with Foley and prerecorded sound FX, which initially sounded heavier than it did in the final mix. The thinking was that it might sound too heavy for "someone in his condition to be able to lift, so we lightened it to keep the realism." He added that the sound editing team also found and recorded B-24s, which was augmented with additional sonic components for the opening scene.

Email: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA

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