Thinking out loud

Sound experts find some pretty inventive ways to create a film's rich aural environment.

This year's top awards contenders immerse audiences in a variety of aural environments, from World War II battlefields and bunkers to a Central American jungle and a 1960s soul revue. The one thing these soundscapes have in common is that they all began as thousands of individual raw recordings, each of which took their own path from microphone to final mix. And for the top sound professionals involved, the journey was almost as important as the final destination.

"What stirs my creative process is actually going out and recording random, organic sounds," Christopher Boyes says. "You never know what you're going to get if you start rooting around in a rotten log or pulling apart wooden beams. You start hearing sounds that you would've never thought of, and when you come into the studio, it gives you all sorts of creative ideas (with which) to take the next step."

Boyes took this philosophy to dangerous extremes for Buena Vista's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," on which he served as both supervising sound editor (with George Watters II) and rerecording mixer (with Paul Massey). To create the sound of the Black Pearl being crushed by the Kraken sea monster, as well as the other creaks and groaning wood sounds for the film's ships, Boyes placed beams and branches between a pair of trees on his property in Northern California, attached them to a truck with a chain and recorded them as they were slowly pulled until they snapped.

"I had to hold the wood as the initial pressure was applied, which worked really well, as long as I got myself out of the way quickly enough," Boyes recalls. "But one time, I didn't jump away fast enough. I heard this concussive burst, and I looked down and my pant legs were ripped open, and I was bleeding. But I was lucky.

It was only a flesh wound," he says, laughing.

As supervising sound editors for Paramount/DreamWorks' "Flags of Our Fathers" and Warner Bros. Pictures' "Letters From Iwo Jima," Allan Robert Murray and Bub Asman took their job just as seriously.

"The No. 1 thing with both films was that we go for realism," Murray says. "Since my dad was a soldier on Iwo Jima, that helped enforce it because I wanted to experience what he did."

The sound team traveled to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., to record a wide variety of period-correct live fire. They used multiple microphones for each gun, some placed right on the barrel, others in the distance, giving them a variety of aural perspectives.

"On a single gun, we had up to 12 tracks," Murray says. "We also did gunfire battles. Taking a close-up sound and bringing it down doesn't give you the echo off the hills and all that, (so) we did offstage battles. We got as close as we could to the artillery, sometimes too close for safety, and we also recorded it from a distance, then overlaid it with earthquake tremors so you really felt it."

But even in serious dramas where authenticity is at a premium, sound can be pumped up to heighten the drama, as supervising sound editor Lon Bender did for a chase scene in Warner Bros.' "Blood Diamond."

"At first, all the sounds were very much the same frequency," Bender recalls. "Then I said to Jon Title, the (sound) editor who cut all the weapons in the show, 'Let's make this sound like a pinball game where all the impacts, even the metal impacts, are different frequencies, so it's interesting and terrifying at the same time.' We recorded all different kinds of things, using different surfaces and different devices to make the impact, and I used pitch (shifting) as needed. We went maybe 5%-10% beyond where you might think, 'Ah, that's not going to be believable.' But it really played well with the score that James Newton Howard wrote and with the action and all the other sounds that were happening at the same time."

Making the music play well with the sound effects and dialogue was even more vital in Paramount/DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls," which is jampacked with 32 musical numbers.

"The sound effects can never take you out of the music, and the dialogue and the vocals need to match," sound rerecording mixer Mike Minkler says. "We had dialogue recorded on location alongside vocal tracks that were prerecorded six months earlier and some that were rerecorded three months later, and we had to sew all those pieces together and make one fluid sound."

Minkler tailored the mix to help illustrate the Dreams' journey from rags to riches as the story moves from the 1960s to the '70s.

"The early songs sound a little less produced, a little more ragged, with a little less bottom end, and through time, we get a little fatter and more polished," Minkler says. "Songs bob and weave through the dialogue. One goes on a car radio and then comes back into a big musical sound and then hides back down into something else."

Conversely, Buena Vista's "Apocalypto" had sound rerecording mixers Kevin O'Connell and Greg P. Russell grappling with how to make more out of less.

"The chase scene in the forest is heart-pounding from beginning to end, and there is nothing but twig branches and tree snaps and bows and arrows," O'Connell says. "It was carefully crafted to keep the energy up and the tension high, using only organic elements because we didn't have sirens or guns."

O'Connell says his job is 20% technical and 80% artistic interpretation.

"You can teach anybody to pan a track or raise and lower its volume, but the real challenge is taking thousands of tracks, combining them, creating the voice of the film and serving all the masters involved in that process so everybody comes out shaking hands at the end," O'Connell says. "When that happens, I feel like we've done a good job."

Cinematography: Foreign-born DPs dominate Oscar race
Editing: Knowing when to cut -- and when not to
Sound: Creating rich aural environments

Guild honors:
ASC: Big names turn out
ACE: Spotlight a misunderstood craft

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