In this Oscar season’s top contenders for sound editing and mixing, craftspeople personalized their authentic sounds by linking them to characters or dramatic events. What we hear in “First Man,” “A Quiet Place,” “Roma,” “A Star Is Born,” and “Mary Poppins Returns” emanates from the outside world, but also turns inward. It’s heightened reality at its most creative, especially when mixed in Dolby Atmos, which adds greater accuracy and detail.
Since “First Man” is told from the point of view of a grieving Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), director Damien Chazelle desired both historical accuracy and subjective intensity in the soundscape overseen by his Oscar-winning “La La Land” team. Fortunately, they got the full cooperation of NASA to depict the Apollo mission to the moon, capturing authentic sounds of spacecraft and Mission Control.
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“We wanted to immerse the audience in the experience of the astronauts in these fragile, metal spacecrafts, and build them up into various stages to increase the intensity,” said sound designer Ai-Ling Lee, who also served as supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer. “With the X-15 opening, we stay with Neil Armstrong and increase the intensity, sometimes morphing into something surreal and surprising.”
For example, during the descent and when Armstrong re-enters the earth’s atmosphere, they added the roar of elephants and lions and stampeding horses along with the shaking and vibrating sounds of the aircraft.
Score and sound design merged seamlessly during the Apollo 11 launch, when the sound department combined its own frequencies with composer Justin Hurwitz’s processed strings and winds for the rocket thrusters.
Like last year’s Oscar-winning “Dunkirk,” actor/director John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” offered a unique soundscape that drives the propulsive narrative. The horror hit was all about sound, but also makes brilliant use of silence as a storytelling device (particularly in Atmos).
Supervising sound editors Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn (“The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”) created sonic points of view — or “envelopes” — for each member of the Abbott family as well as for the creatures. While Evelyn (Emily Blunt), Lee (Krasinski) and son Marcus (Noah Jupe) occupy a normal sonic space, deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) has her own unique situation that she shares with the blind creatures, who communicate through clicking sounds and navigate with bio sonar, similar to the kind used by dolphins and bats.
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“Millie has two sonic envelopes,” said Van der Ryn. “One with her cochlear implant turned on and one when it’s turned off. And the creatures experience an inverse, where the smallest sounds are amped up to the point of immense irritation.” Different and often annoying levels of feedback, therefore, became an important part of the sonic signature.
With “Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white childhood remembrance of things past set in early 1970s Mexico City, the challenge was to recreate every sound in its own geographical environment while, at the same time, removing the city’s modern cacophony.
“Alfonso was adamant on how the sounds inside his house had to be authentic and with a precision inherent to the time and, more importantly, to his own memory. The exploration and recreation process for the interiors and exteriors of his house was huge,” said “Roma” sound editor Sergio Diaz.
The interior sounds included the metallic stairs, the light switches, and the grinding of the wood floors in each room. “For the exteriors, there was the sound of the birds at sunrise, the cars driving by Tepeji street at a moderate speed, the distant cars in the avenues, the sound of the propeller and turbine planes,” he said.
When it came to mixing (again, with the sophistication of Atmos), “Gravity” Oscar winner Skip Lievsay was tasked with making an extremely detailed environment for the actors to inhabit. “This included accurately panning all dialogue and associated foley for all on-screen and off-screen actions,” he said. The idea, he explained, was to encircle the viewers and draw them into the action as if standing beside the actors.
A similar strategy was utilized by actor-turned director Bradley Cooper for “A Star Is Born.” He wanted the audience front and center for his musical performances with Lady Gaga (shot live in various stadiums and concert halls), yet without the usual crowd cutaways that can detract from the intimacy.
“Bradley just wanted everything to sound like you were there on stage with them,” said supervising sound editor Alan Robert Murray (a two-time Oscar winner for Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” and “Letters from Iwo Jima”). “But Atmos accented it better. The added speakers definitely puts more depth into the crowd. We were really careful not to move a lot of stuff around you. We were regulated to what was on screen and the way the camera angles were shot.”
For sound mixer Steven Morrow, Cooper’s choice to go with live vocals for authenticity was a far cry from his Oscar-winning work on “La La Land,” and Atmos was an invaluable tool for dealing with volume changes during Gaga’s “Shallow.” “That was a hard song to mix because she’s quiet and then she belts it out, and you’re right in her face,” he said. “Atmos put you in the center of it. You’re telling the audience that it’s going to overwhelm your senses.”
Similarly, the intimacy and authenticity of musical performances were key for director Rob Marshall’s “Mary Poppins Returns,” only the dancing made it more complicated for the sound team. The biggest challenge was the showstopper, “Trip A Little Light Fantastic.”
“Everything had to be replaced, with the exception of some of the dialogue. The way [Marshall] choreographed it was like an orchestra with five or six rows of dancers, so we created many different surfaces,” said supervising sound editor Renée Tondelli. “There were ladders and lampposts and we used pig iron pipe and each dancer was recorded at a different spot with a different ring off. It was layering and layering and layering until we got the percussive element we were going for.”
Since the sequel takes place in Depression-era London of 1934, the sound team also needed to create authentic street noises, along with an assortment of wind sounds for Mary Poppins’ (Emily Blunt) entrance and exit. “It starts out in a very black-and-white sonic way, and that’s how we approached it,” said Tondelli. “But the soundscape becomes brighter and lighter once Mary arrives. Rob wanted every department to convey a ‘magical realism.'”