Over the last few years, the Oscar sound category has recognized war movies like “All Quiet on the Western Front,” science fiction movies like “Dune” and musicals like “West Side Story,” among others. There’s no formula for how to use sound effectively, but three of this year’s gems do share a sense that their sonic palette puts us in dangerous places: On the racetracks of 1950s Italy, in the frigid expanses of the Andes and inside the unsettling cranium of Michael Fassbender.
To come up with the rev and roar of engines in Michael Mann’s “Ferrari,” the film’s sound team had to start with a couple of formidable tasks. First, they had to find a number of rare sports cars that could give them the sound of the vintage Ferraris and Maseratis in a film set in the 1950s. And then they had to convince the owners of those vehicles to let them crank up the engines full bore for a film that showcased the cars driving at high speeds and occasionally getting in horrific crashes.
“We had to do car recording sessions because the replicas that Michael had built for the rigors of shooting were modern engines so they could run them all day long and not have issues,” re-recording mixer and supervising sound editor Tony Lamberti said. “The older cars make a beautiful mechanical music that we’re just not used to hearing out of today’s cars, but you try to tell collectors and museums who have cars that are worth millions, sometimes tens of millions of dollars, that you want to go out and run them hard and record them.” He laughed. “That’s a very challenging task.”
It was helped, though, by geography. “American (car) collectors buy them to put them in the garage and look at them,” Lamberti said. “The Europeans like to bring them out and put them on track and drive them around and have a good time.” Working from a detailed “racecraft” plan that spelled out all the sounds they’d need in the film — acceleration, deceleration, upshifts, downshifts, cornering — they did two or three days of recording at a private track in Europe, using multiple microphones under the hood, in the cockpit and all around the cars.
But the sound team’s job also extended to much quieter scenes. “We needed to make sure that the dialogue was clean enough that it could be mixed in post with the proper engine sounds,” said supervising sound mixer Lee Orloff. And with that dialogue mostly spoken in English with Italian accents, intelligibility could be a problem unless the sound team got into the minutiae of working with each line and sometimes each word.
“You had Italian actors speaking English with very heavy accents, which were hard to understand,” supervising sound editor Bernard Weiser said. “And then you had American actors trying to do Italian accents, which had its own challenges. I found that the pacing of the sentence was very important and also the pacing of the words themselves. Oftentimes, it was just a matter of moving syllables around—maybe just taking one syllable, dropping it or pacing it, and all of a sudden you understand.”
“SOCIETY OF THE SNOW”
The setting for J.A. Bayona’s harrowing story of a real-life plane crash in 1972 is 12,000 feet high in a remote valley in the Andes, where the main thing you hear is the sound of silence. “The challenge was to make a film with very few elements,” said sound designer Oriol Tarragó. “When you’re in the Andes, it’s the sound of snow, the sound of the wind and silence. The silence is so deep that when the wind stops, you’re so far away from civilization that you start hearing yourself — your breathing, your heart.”
Tarragó and the sound team experimented with using heartbeat sounds but found they were distracting, so they stuck to using sound editing for every breath in the movie and every footstep through the snow. For the sequences that took place inside the fuselage of the shattered airplane, which the survivors used as a shelter, they added the squeaks and thumps of the makeshift home.
“The fuselage is a new element that has never been in the mountains before,” he said. “The snow, the wind, the silence and the breathing are elements, but the fuselage has to be another character.”
The most harrowing sequence, though, was the plane crash. “Bayona told me, ‘I’m not going to use music,’” Tarragó said. “‘We have to make it work through the sound.’” For the initial part of the crash, they used the sound of the engine to give the audience false hope, raising the pitch in a way that suggested the plane might clear the mountains; after impact, when the aircraft comes apart and slides down the slope in pieces, they brought in countless different metal sounds.
“We also built a small fuselage, filled it with microphones and pulled it through the snow using a pulley system, so we could record tons of sliding sounds,” he said. “There were so many different sounds we put together to make it work.”
Many of the real survivors of the crash were around the production, and Tarragó flew to Uruguay to meet with them as he was working on the film. “I had dinner with all of them, and then separate meetings with the ones who were open to talk privately,” he said. “One of them was an engineer, and he gave me more detailed information about the sound inside the fuselage. But the more important thing was understanding how they felt. On a deeper level, that changed the whole process.”
David Fincher’s methodical examination of an assassin for hire (Michael Fassbender) takes place in a number of locations around the world, from Paris to the Dominican Republic to New Orleans. But the main location might be inside the title character’s head, which meant that longtime Fincher sound designer Ren Klyce couldn’t rely on recordings he’d made on vacation in Paris or location recordings in the Caribbean.
“The voiceover was the starting point,” said Klyce of the interior monologue that runs throughout the film. “There’s so much voiceover and so little actual dialogue spoken on camera by the killer himself that it inadvertently created a rhythm, which is the rhythm inside his head.”
Fincher had Fassbender do multiple takes of the voiceover (and the director even recorded a version himself), and Klyce enhanced them to make the voice feel loud but intimate. He and his team also used sound to call attention to shifts in perspective. When we’re looking through the killer’s eyes, we hear what he hears, which is often one of the many songs by the Smiths he incessantly listens to on earbuds; when the camera is on the character, the sound shifts accordingly.
“Typically with sound, you don’t want to draw attention to picture cuts,” Klyce said. “But in this case, David wanted to make a point of shaping the soundtrack to draw attention to the cuts.”
One of the showcase sequences in the film is a brutal fight in a darkened house. “They had very little lighting, and (cinematographer) Erik Messerschmidt was very nervous about that,” Klyce said. “But David told Erik, ‘Don’t worry — the things we cannot see, we’ll hear.’”
Of course, that put the onus on the sound team to make the chaos decipherable. “It was all-hands-on-deck with the sound team. There was a point where I thought, I don’t know if we’re ever going to finish this scene and move on to the rest of the mix.”
In the middle of the thuds, grunts and crashing furniture, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score offers its own perspective on the action in a way that scarcely seems like music. “It had a strange, rhythmic, hypnotic, pulsing and clicking sound to it,” Klyce said. “And these dissonant synthetic sounds would waft in and out of this distorted rhythmic sound that I just mimicked. That music was composed on a rhythmic grid, and it would inevitably align somehow with a punch or a fall or a smashing glass or an explosion of some sort.”
This story first appeared in the Below-the-Line issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.