1. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”: In keeping with J.J. Abrams’ old-and-new hybrid philosophy, the esteemed team of Gary Rydstrom, Dave Acord, Chris Scarabosio, Will Files, Matt Wood, and Andy Nelson not only made use of Ben Burtt’s iconic sounds from the original trilogy but also new ones that he created. The result once again instilled a sense of the familiar with the uniquely futuristic. Thus, Kylo Ren’s cool-looking lightsaber sounds unstable, just like his volatile temperament, which makes it seem even more dangerous, while BB-8 sounds funnier than R2-D2 (thanks in part to vocal assistance by Bill Hader and Ben Schwartz).
2. “The Revenant”: The team (led by supervising editors Lon Bender, Randy Thom and Martin Hernandez) brilliantly make nature a sonic character and immerse us in Leonardo DiCaprio’s intense journey in the most effective way. They found existing sounds (bear vocalizations, trees creaking in the wind) and recorded them in real, appropriate locations. The opening Native American ambush has a natural ebb and flow and a nice lull between the action, with the sound of footsteps, wind blowing in the trees, and distant dogs barking in between each flurry of arrows. Plus, the incredible bear attack was sonically underplayed for greater realism and getting the breathing right—using sound of a sick horse toward the end when the bear is injured, for example—was just as important as the vocalizations. And what was that weird, mantra-like sound effect? A frog, slowed down.
3. “The Martian”: The team (led by supervising sound editor/designer Oliver Tarney, mixer Mac Ruth, and re-recording mixers Paul Massey and Mark Taylor) first made invaluable use of actual field recordings from NASA and JPL for the sounds of Mars and the Rover. Then, in keeping with the epic and intimate survival story, they intricately balanced dialogue and effects, paying close attention to Matt Damon’s breathing. Isolated and alone, these are very claustrophobic. But since so much of the sound is transmitted back and forth between Damon and NASA, the team did sonic helmet recreations, re-recorded radio transmissions and created special PA treatments for an authentic soundscape.
4. “Mad Max: Fury Road”: This was quite a journey for the team led by sound designer Chuck Michael, supervising sound editor Mark Mangini, and mixer Chris Jenkins. Originally, George Miller wanted no dialogue; then, no music. Eventually, he decided on a sonic vision more akin to an animated movie, with a fully-layered, intrinsic soundscape of dialogue, music (composed by Tom Holkenborg), and background effects. Even the breathing of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa became an integral part of the fabric. And cinematographer John Seale’s framing enabled them to pan the dialogue in all directions.
5. “Love & Mercy”: The making of The Beach Boys’ ground-breaking “Pet Sounds” album necessitated a soul-searching exploration of Brian Wilson’s musical genius. It began with Atticus Ross’ use of score, which aesthetically crossed over into a surreal sound design. Fortunately, Wilson handed over his master tapes, consisting not only of the music but also hours of outtakes and Wilson talking to “The Wrecking Crew” studio musicians. Re-recording mixer Eugene Gearty stripped it down for more emotional intensity, and Nicholas Renbeck (supervising sound editor/music editor) cohesively pulled all of the elements together while matching Paul Dano’s voice closer to Wilson’s.
6. “Straight Outta Compton”: This couldn’t be like a music video or a doc, yet it had to have dramatic weight and visceral impact.The most challenging aspect for the team (sound editors Mark Stoeckinger and Greg Hedgepath, sound mixer Willie Burton, and re-recording sound mixers Jon Taylor and Frank Montano) was recreating N.W.A’s first concert tour, from a skating rink to the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. However, without the masters to the music, they had to record the entire album in pre-production with the actors in only two weeks. In terms of mixing, they did the first four reels and made sure that the build from the PA systems to the crowd to the music all had the correct dynamic range. It became a tricky balancing act between energy and intimacy.