In the year of survival, sound has taken on supreme importance as an authentic, driving, narrative force, and with the advent of Dolby Atmos, the theatrical experience has never been more immersive. “Gravity,” “All Is Lost,” “Captain Phillips,” “Oblivion,” “Rush,” and “12 Years a Slave” are among the standouts in space, at sea, in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, on the dangerous Formula 1 track, and in physical/spiritual imprisonment.
“Gravity,” the obvious frontrunner, contains the most complex spatial direction in recent memory, thanks to the work of supervising sound editor/sound designer Glenn Freemantle and re-recording mixer Skip Lievsay, among others. Like everything else, director Alfonso Cuaron wanted to utilize the science of space; therefore, voices and other sounds constantly change in relation to Sandra Bullock. And the sounds in space are based on vibration, which influenced Steven Price’s eerie score as well. It was tailor-made for Atmos surround.
“Space sound can’t be transmitted through atmosphere but through other elements,” Freemantle explains. “We came up with the idea of vibration through touch and when she’s in contact we hear it through her suit [as a muffled sound].”
Unlike space, the ocean is far from silent. Although J.C. Chandor’s remarkable open-water survival thriller, “All Is Lost” — starring a 77-year-old Robert Redford boldly stepping out of his comfort zone — is virtually dialogue-free, the director was totally on board with stepping up the sound design.
That was up to supervising sound editors Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns of Skywalker Sound. “J.C. said he wanted very little dialogue and almost no music,” recalls Boeddeker, who immediately thought of the Western, with a ship instead of a horse. “He wanted to use them as punctuation marks so that the story was told with acting, sound, and sound effects. And the emotions were cued by the dread he’s feeling, and the music takes it to the next level when he gets introspective.”
“Captain Phillips” is by no means an ordinary thriller at sea either. It was filmed on real ships, out at sea, with first-time Somali actors and real Navy personnel. Director Paul Greengrass wanted to deliver the feeling of a moment captured. “This has many unique implications on how we approached each creative decision,” says supervising sound editor Oliver Tarney. “Our primary challenge was finding the right balance between fundamental authenticity and delivering an incredibly exciting mainstream thriller.
“This is most evident in the scenes where the cumbersome Maersk Alabama is being hotly pursued by the fast and agile pirate skiffs. In actuality, the Alabama maxes out at around 20mph/18 knots, and with an engine that certainly isn’t dynamic sounding, keeping the audience hooked and the tension palpable throughout these sequences is something we succeeded particularly well in achieving. There isn’t the ‘blank canvas’ freedom that you might be given with a different type of film.”
With Joseph Kosinski’s “Oblivion,” there’s a very sparse sound design because of the desolate wasteland, necessitating quiet ambiance with wind and rain until the action kicks in. The two biggest sound ideas were the drones and the Bubbleship. Kosinski told sound designer Ren Klyce that he wanted an evil R2D2. They communicate tonally and electronically with a force and menace, using the science of voice encryption.
With the Bubbleship, they built a full-scale model that was a twin-turbine jet with tech beeps that needed to be created. And, again, Atmos places you in a more immersive environment where objects fly by and you can sense greater resolution.
The visceral Formula 1 experience in Ron Howard’s “Rush” is more than just about the racing rivalry between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) — it’s about making their McLaren and Ferrari secondary characters. They not only captured the sounds of the engines, tires, transmissions, and gearboxes, but the recordist stayed on through post with sound designer Markus Stemler, supervising sound editor Frank Kruse, and sound mixer Danny Hambrook to make sure the final mix was accurate.
Meanwhile, ambient sound is used almost like another character in depicting Solomon Northup’s abject terror and struggle to survive in “12 Years a Slave.” From the cicadas, birds, frogs, and flies, to the spike of the cotton and the sugar cane, to the laceration of the whip, to the ache of loss in the spiritual/field songs, director Steve McQueen and sound designer Leslie Shatz pull us in on a subliminal level.
“It can infect you, seep into you, lull you, or jar you,” Shatz says.
Like all of these movies, the sound design impacts the entire emotional texture.