How to Create the Sounds of Silence, of Space and of Wakanda: Pros on 'Quiet Place,' 'First Man,' 'Black Panther' and More Tell All

10:00 AM 2/9/2019

by Carolyn Giardina

Creating rock concerts, a world where blind monsters hunt by sound and a futuristic African society required the sound editing and sound mixing nominees to think of creative ways to paint these universes with sound.

'A Quiet Place,' 'First Man,' 'Black Panther'
'A Quiet Place,' 'First Man,' 'Black Panther'

  • 'Black Panther'

    Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

    SOUND EDITING Benjamin A. Burtt and Steve Boeddeker

    SOUND MIXING Steve Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor and Peter Devlin

    Ryan Coogler's Marvel hit has "an important message to kids and fans around the world of inclusion and acceptance and a sense of 'what if?' We all took this very seriously and tried to reflect that feeling with our work in sound," says Steve Boeddeker, supervising sound editor and rerecording mixer, who is nominated for both sound editing and mixing. To immerse audiences in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, he says the team wanted to have sound that was "both modern/high tech and organic/natural." Technology sounds were simultaneously based in African instruments and birds but also synthetic and futuristic sounds.

    "We wanted Wakanda to be high-tech beyond high-tech — my version of that is something that is designed to make no sound unless it has some kind of cultural significance," he says. "If you imagine Wakanda being this place in Africa that had never been touched or influenced by the outside world, but had developed this advanced technology, that tech would be culturally rooted in West African tradition. So the sounds were based in, as much as possible, African instruments — percussion, flutes."

    Various types of African birdcalls were another element that the team leaned on in creating the sounds of Wakanda. "We would pitch them and slow them down, and those became the tonal signatures to the spaceships," he says of the RTF (Royal Talon Flyer).

    "The mix had to have a range between soft and beautiful — Ancestral Plane — and loud and exciting: car chase, end battle," he adds. "In other words, we were making an important message movie wrapped in a fun Marvel wrapper."

  • 'Roma'

    Carlos Somonte/Netflix

    SOUND EDITING Sergio Diaz and Skip Lievsay

    SOUND MIXING Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan and Jose Antonio Garcia

    "The main goal was to make a track that was very accurate and highly detailed that could have the possibility of the audience being sucked more deeply into the drama and to the kind of reality that we were creating visually," says Skip Lievsay, who is nominated in both sound categories. "It was in that we wanted to have as many of Alfonso [Cuaron]'s actual memories ­— audio memories, detailed and presented. This was quite difficult because memories are not always literal, sometimes they're more sophisticated, almost like smells."

    For example, one of the street vendors has a small wood-fire grill where he cooks sweet potatoes, which are known as camote. "That has a sound of a high-pitched steam whistle, which is in the movie several times," says Lievsay. "It's almost like you hear a lawn mower and smell the grass."

    Cuaron often uses long takes with camera movement, and the sound moves as well, getting louder as the camera gets closer to the sound's source. "So there's a person running across the street then all the sounds move across with it," Lievsay says, adding that Sergio Diaz, also nominated for sound editing, did "tremendous legwork" finding and recording sounds such as period vehicles for the environments.

    Even the background actors and extras, Lievsay continues, had scripted lines that helped to bring Cuaron's childhood memories to life. "In hospital scenes we have doctors and nurses and patients, and they all have accurate dialogue that pertains to what is happening in the movie and on the day," he says. "And those were recorded separately so we could have control over them during the mix. At one point, I think altogether over 300 hundred actors were involved in recording the lines for the background actors."

  • 'First Man'

    Courtesy of Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

    SOUND EDITING Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan

    SOUND MIXING Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montano, Ai-Ling Lee and Mary H. Ellis

    Director Damien Chazelle wanted a verite, documentary style for his Neil Armstrong biopic, so the sound was given an "unpolished" feel for the Earth-set scenes, and when the astronauts enter the cockpit and go to space, the mix "opens up to immerse the audience — to feel like you are in the cockpit," explains supervising sound editor, designer and rerecording mixer Ai-Ling Lee, a double nominee. She adds that in these cockpit scenes, sound also had to carry the story, "to indicate what is going on beyond these enclosed spaces and evoke a sense of danger."

    The team worked closely with NASA and other space agencies to ensure authenticity, even treating archival footage and recording SpaceX launches.

    Louder moments were contrasted with silence, especially when the astronauts arrive on the moon. "When they open the hatch of the lunar landing module, it's pure silence," Lee says. "Through our research we learned there was a pressure difference, so we used that idea and created an air suction sound. It builds up to an air rush and then it immediately cuts off to pure silence."

    She adds that from that point, they re-created the perspective of Armstrong, and to do that, they talked with astronaut Jim Lovell (Apollo 13), who shared that "after you are suited up, all you could hear is your own breath and the hiss in the helmet created by the space suit's life-support system [recorded using an actual helmet worn by astronaut John Young on Apollo 10]."

    The famous "one small step" quote was re-performed by Ryan Gosling, who played Armstrong, and "meticulously matched with the pitch and timing and also the static, to match as close as possible with the original recording," says supervising sound editor Mildred Iatrou Morgan.

    "It's part of history," she adds. "We didn't want it to be jarring by sounding different."

  • 'A Quiet Place'

    Jonny Cournoyer/Paramount Pictures

    SOUND EDITING Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl

    Sound is a "central character" in John Krasinski's horror thriller about creatures that track human targets through sound, says Erik Aadahl, who served as supervising sound editor with Ethan Van der Ryn. "It's necessary for survival. It's deadly and also becomes a weapon. We had to start with the logic of the whole thing."

    Other challenges included the creatures' vocals and the characters' points of view. Says Van der Ryn of the creatures: "Since they are blind, it made sense that they would use some sort of echolocation to navigate through the world, so we started experimenting with sounds from real-world animals that use echolocation, like dolphins, bats and beluga whales. These sounds felt too recognizable, and we wanted to come up with sounds that felt like some sort of echolocation but not be anything they have heard before."

    In the end, they recorded a stun gun zapping against a grape. "We took those into the studio and slowed them down, and that became the basis of the echolocation," he says.

  • 'Bohemian Rhapsody'

    Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

    SOUND EDITING John Warhurst and Nina Hartstone

    SOUND MIXING Paul Massey, Tim Cavagin and John Casali

    Some of the most intricate work throughout the film was to give the appearance that Rami Malek, who plays Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, was singing. "We said to Rami, when he filmed he had to really go for it and perform the songs. And Rami was so invested in his character — he was very happy for us to record his vocals on set," says supervising sound editor John Warhurst.

    Supervising dialogue/ADR editor Nina Hartstone adds that they used actual recordings of Mercury wherever they could, "but to make it seem like Freddie's voice was actually coming out of Rami, it was quite tricky. To make that believable, we used as much of Rami as we could in terms of his lip smacks that were coming out of his mouth."

    And the sound team had the ambitious goal of creating, in the cinema, a "hyperreal sense of being at Live Aid" for the film's finale, a re-creation of Queen's iconic 1985 performance at London's Wembley Stadium.

    They used the original 24-track recordings from the Queen archives as the jumping-off point. "Any time that we needed a sweetener of an original cymbal hit or something — because perspective in the film was requiring us to get close up to the drum kits — we could go back into the archives," says rerecording mixer and music mixer Paul Massey.

    They went to the O2 Stadium last summer when Queen performed and got "two hours of time with no audience and [had] all the songs played through the Queen PA [public address system] at full level, and we mic'd all around the stadium. So I had an acoustic re-creation of what the PA would sound like in a very, very large environment."

  • 'A Star Is Born'

    Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

    SOUND MIXING Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic,

    Jason Ruder and Steve Morrow

    Director and actor Bradley Cooper wanted the musical romance's performances to sound as if they happened at live concerts, and since he shot from the point of view of the performers, the sound similarly had to match. "In more traditional music movies, there's a sense that when the music starts, you're in a different world, audibly," production sound mixer Steve Morrow explains, saying that they worked hard to avoid that effect. "Bradley didn't want audiences standing outside of this world, watching it take place. He wanted them to be fully on the inside."

    The plan was to capture everything live — "all of their performances, all of their singing," Morrow says. That was easier said than done, since it involved recording at live concert venues such as the Stagecoach and Glastonbury festivals, where they didn't have control of the environment and there wasn't room for error. "In Glastonbury, we went in there thinking we had eight minutes to film, but the festival was running late so they only gave us three," he says. "We wanted to shoot three songs. We decided to play 30 seconds of each song."

    This story first appeared in a February stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.