A sound policy for 'The Hurt Locker'

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Seeing is believing but hearing also plays a key role in making things real in "The Hurt Locker." Indeed, two of the nine Oscar nominations for Kathryn Bigelow's film are for work by sound designer Paul N.J. Ottosson: one for achievement in sound (with Ray Beckett) and one for achievement in sound editing.

Ottosson, an Oscar and BAFTA nominee in 2005 for "Spider-Man 2," also is BAFTA-nominated for "Locker" with Beckett.

Talking recently with Ottosson, I noted the references to sounds I saw watching "Locker" on DVD with subtitles, including "sirens wailing," "glass cracking," "television playing" and "people shouting in Arabic."

Without subtitles, the background sounds don't stand out, and we don't pay special attention to them. But they're important in driving "Locker's" story.

How important? "More so than in any movies I've worked on before," says Ottosson, whose more than 100 film and TV credits also include "Spider-Man 3," "The Grudge" and "2012."

Sound matters much more in "Locker" than it usually does, he says, because Bigelow opted not to use much music during the movie. "There was a feeling that when we heard music, we knew we were watching a movie," he says. "We really wanted you just to be the fourth guy on the team."

That team is the three-man Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad trying to save lives in Baghdad by disarming roadside bombs.

A measure of just how effective the sparing use of music is in the Summit Entertainment release is that the score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders also is nominated for an Oscar.

"I'm so glad the Academy recognized them because this is a very hard movie to score," Ottosson says. "You had to write music that essentially doesn't sound like music but still has that effect of music."

Citing a sniper scene during which the soldiers bond under fire, he says: "When the music starts up, it is such a relief. It's this beautiful, strong music, just a few lines of very simple instrumentation. But it feels so powerful because we haven't had any music before."

Ottosson defines sound design as the overall concept of how a movie should sound to achieve a director's goals. With "Locker," it involves conveying the grittiness of the visuals, like a slow-motion scene early in the film when a soldier is killed by an exploding bomb.

"It's something you would never see in real life, this extreme slow motion, but it's a very important part of the story for people to understand what happens," he says.

When a bomb explodes and someone is close to it, Ottosson says, they're not killed by flying debris or shrapnel but rather by an expanding wave of air -- the shock wave that precedes everything else. "It enters your body through your mouth and your nose and literally blows up every blood vein in your body, so you die way before you hear it and way before anything hits you," he adds.

What Ottosson sought to do in that scene was tell the viewer through slow motion that the deadly shock wave was under way.

"We get into all these other sounds, like maybe how a shock wave would be, and by the time you hear a real explosion going off, the man is already dead," he says. "So you perceived this whole explosion through him until he died."

Then, by playing more realistic sounds and dropping the slow motion, the moviegoer hears what happened the way the dead man's fellow soldiers heard it from a distance.

"There's a lot of thinking in this movie about how to make the sound correct because we always played it from the perspective of the person we were with," Ottosson says.

Ottosson met with Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal before the script was finished.

"I think I ended up actually being the first person they interviewed and then hired," he says. "We sat and talked about the sound while they were still writing and about how important it was to sound organic and real."

With sci-fi movies, he notes, "you have more liberty to take pretty much anything and make it something very cool. You have a huge palette of sounds to pick from. But when you make something like 'The Hurt Locker,' it's very, very organic."

If he'd created something that sounded unique for "Locker," it wouldn't have worked, he adds, "because you would be aware of that sound. It would make you aware that you were watching a movie, and we could never do that in this movie."
Even incidental background sounds were placed specifically to help with a scene's pacing or to make an actor's reaction work.

"There's pacing and timing that maybe follows the cuts or maybe drives the cuts, and you build this over time to do what music otherwise would have done," Ottosson says. "It was almost orchestrated, like you were writing a piece of music for sound editorial."

In most movies, he says, everyone in a scene perceives things the same way. Not so in "Locker," where three soldiers with different temperaments hear things differently depending on where they are.

"That was the hardest part of the movie: To really think, every time we cut somewhere, where are we right now and how is this person perceiving this situation?" he says.

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