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‘Ford v Ferrari’: Redefining the Racing Genre with the Powerful Sound of the ‘Perfect Lap’

The soundscape for James Mangold's spectacular Le Mans recreation was not only thrilling, but also personalized with the Zen-like quiet of "The Perfect Lap."

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James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” is not only the most realistic racing movie ever made, but also a compelling bromance between innovative car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and extraordinary British racer Ken Miles (Christian Bale). And the 24 Hours of Le Mans circa 1966 offered a 40-minute tour de force that served as a mini-movie, with underdog, eccentric Miles pushing Ford’s GT40 to the limit with a meditative grace. Naturally, the sound was imperative in capturing the powerful, immersive experience (custom-made for Dolby Atmos).

During the third-act Le Mans race itself, the narrative strategy was to primarily focus on Miles unleashing the beast inside the gorgeous blue and white GT40 in the head to head competition with the sporty red champion Ferrari. The sound, meanwhile, worked in parallel, sometimes loud, sometimes calmer, but always layered in a way that surrounded the viewer throughout the theater.

“We threw out the production sound,” said Dave Giammarco, the re-recording mixer/sound designer. “But when we got the real GT40, it helped inform the cut because it has its own signature [sound], and you want to wind it out and feel the whole length of it. Sometimes they would cut the shot to match the engine whine. And sometimes you hear the engine and score [from Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders] playing together almost at the same chord.”

Christian Bale in "Ford v Ferrari"

Christian Bale in “Ford v Ferrari”

Twentieth Century Fox

But first they had to find a vintage Ford GT and Ferrari for sound recording. Don Sylvester, the supervising sound editor, scoured the globe for the GT40. He found several but the owners wouldn’t let him touch them. “But then we lucked out with this collector in Ohio who built a GT 40 out of genuine Ford parts and actually had Ford come out and certify it as legitimate and gave it a serial number,” Sylvester said. “So that Ford was our hero car. We recorded on a track in Ohio.”

Although Sylvester couldn’t secure the precise Ferrari, he got a vintage Testarossa in Georgia with similar engine block and exhaust, only they had to shoot on a Florida track because of noise restrictions in Georgia. But in describing the sonic differences between the two race cars (with the GT40 being faster and lighter), Sylvester said, “The Ford GT40 has got a monster sound to it, a growl that’s pretty much unique to itself. When it takes off, the torque is just mind-boggling. We wanted to make it sound that as you went through the gears, you heard it kick in at the various stages of the power train.”

By contrast, the Ferrari was a different racing beast: “When it’s revved up, it has a higher pitched whine, like a scream, and low end as well,” said Paul Massey, the other re-recording mixer. “But a balls to the wall sound would be boring so we were constantly weaving in and out of each other’s material: car engine, the suspension, the wind gusts, the rattling inside the car, and the percussion and melody line within the music.”

Matt Damon, James Mangold and Christian Bale on the set of Twentieth Century Fox’s FORD V FERRARI.

Matt Damon, James Mangold, and Christian Bale on the set of “Ford v. Ferrari

Merrick Morton

But, with Miles taking command in the GT40, Giammarco wanted “the heft and the growl of an engine that’s dominating anybody within 10 feet. At the same time, we didn’t want to make it a really loud, bombastic movie. But you don’t have to go [200 mph] to get 5,000 to 7,000 rpms. You can do that at a lower gear, but not for very long, so we had to do some trickery to make it appear that it was going for a three-mile stretch at a high rpm.”

However, since it’s the story about two men and their friendship, the sound team needed to have places to pull back. “That’s why it was so important in Le Mans to have breaks in the action. the device of going in and out of the driver’s focus is one way that we could lessen the bombast of the movie and get into their personal space,” Sylvester said.

“Ford v Ferrari”

It was also important to convey “The Perfect Lap,” a Zen-like experience of being one with the car in space and time. Although the concept was scripted, it grew in prominence and was created in post. “We made that as a theme throughout the movie,” said Giammarco. “There are moments when we used it to show that it’s not just loud all the time…it’s transformative. It’s an internal sound that takes away all the engines and goes inside the driver’s head. It set the thrilling tone for a personalized view of what’s going on in the cockpit of the car.”

When they gave Miles “The Perfect Lap” at Daytona, it clicked and set the stage for a greater one at Les Mans. There are no engine sounds for the longest time — just Miles hurtling through space. “Conceptually, we thought it was going to work, and we nuanced it, and fine-tuned it, and Jim liked it so we knew we were going the right way,” added Giammarco.

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