Sound Oscar: How Editors and Mixers Amped Up Drama

Best Song SkyFall Film Still - H 2012

Best Song SkyFall Film Still - H 2012

From "Skyfall's" action-packed opener to "Argo's" suspenseful finale, the magic behind what moviegoers really hear -- and feel.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 10, 2013 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Whether it’s a tiger’s roar or a passport stamp,sound can be critical in establishing emotion, drama or suspense. To accomplish that, sound editors and mixers work hand in hand. Skyfall re-recording mixer Greg P. Russell likens sound editing to the process of gathering the ingredients in a recipe: “The editors record and prepare all of the sounds for the movie,” which are then handed over to the mixers — the chefs, if you will— who use these “ingredients” to create the soundtrack.

One of the tensest moments in the film occurs at the Tehran airport as the American hostages try to escape using fake passports. “We filled that space with a din of the chaos,” supervising sound editor/designer Erik Aadahl says. “Then,as they are waiting in line to get through customs, we stripped away the layers of sound — as the sound starts to disappear, sonically we are holding our breath — and when you hear the stamp come down on the passport, everything pops back to reality, and we are back in the chaos of the terminal.”

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While supervising sound editor/designer Randy Thom ramped up the sonic intensity for Flight’s plane crash, he used sound more subtly when Denzel Washington’s alcoholic pilot is in his hotel room, seduced by a stocked mini bar in an adjoining room. “Bob [Zemeckis, the director] wanted to give the impression that there was almost a mystical call from the other room to tell him there is alcohol nearby. We devised a sound that turned out to be the knocking of the slightly open door. I designed the knocking so that at least part of it was Morse code for the word H-E-R-E.”

Life of Pi
Sometimes you just need a powerful roar to punctuate a moment, such as when Pi’s Bengal tiger first leaps out from under a tarp. “We recorded the tigers on setand built a library of tiger sounds,”says Drew Kunin, production sound mixer. “There was one particular tiger who didn’t like the wind protection cover for my microphone, so I was able to get him to growl a lot— a low growl and a full-on roar.”

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The Avengers 
A defiant roar from the Hulk also begins a climactic battle in The Avengers. Re-recording mixer Chris Boyes says he “recorded several voices. I wanted to makesure Mark Ruffalo [who plays the Hulk] and Lou Ferrigno [who played the Hulk in the classic ’70s TV series] were components. I wanted to honor them.” Animal sounds, from a snow leopard to alligators, were incorporated into the final mix.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
“Sound was used to create drama through the use of focus in the soundtrack,” says sound editor Brent Burge, citing the Lowlands campfire scene, where the dwarf Balin recalls the Battles of Moria. “The sequence moves between the present and battle flashbacks, and although it could have been played purely as action, it was more effective to play the battles as a memory. That was achieved by only using sounds that specifically related to what the voiceover was describing.”

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Rise of the Guardians
For a key scene in which Jack Frost recalls falling through the ice as a boy, supervising sound editor/designer Richard King recorded a wide variety of ice cracking, “but we experimented with how to make it more suspenseful and real. It felt more threatening to hear the cracks every third or fourth step.”

For the 12-minute opening action sequence, Russell, Scott Millan and their team had to find the right balance between dialogue (Judi Dench’s M, monitoring the action from London, issues orders to her agents via their earpieces), Thomas Newman’s propulsive score and sound effects ranging from a motorcycle to a moving train. “Dialogue is king for Sam [Mendes, the film’s director],” Russell says.“ Clarity of narrative was of absolute importance. Nothing could ever obscure the dialogue. Sam didn’t want an overwhelming wall of sound per se; instead, it all had to make a cohesive soundscape.” We hear you.