Lion roars and a busted grape
How editors and mixers built the sounds of this year's Oscar movies
Some questions are doomed to arise time and time again: Why is the sky blue? Is a hot dog a sandwich? What's the difference between sound editing and sound mixing?
If the last one doesn't cross your mind nearly as often as the others, congratulations on being normal! But if it does, you're not alone. The question never fails to pop up in the weeks before the Oscars, perhaps the most high-profile event at which the craftspeople are honored. So to put the matter to rest, we chatted earlier this month with the teams behind a few films that on Tuesday received nominations in the sound categories: "A Quiet Place," recognized for editing; "A Star Is Born," recognized for mixing; and "First Man," recognized for both.
Everyone answered with an analogy: If sound editing is like composing music, designing a set or collecting materials for a house, they said, then sound mixing would be like conducting that music, filming on that set or actually building the house. Editing involves creating and gathering individual sounds; mixing is what happens to them afterward.
And by "individual sounds," we mean almost all of them. Dialogue is frequently the only sound captured on set, so everything else, such as footsteps or blowing wind, is recorded separately and layered in postproduction. Here's a closer look at that creative process.
'A Quiet Place'
Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn, the Oscar-nominated supervising sound editors for "A Quiet Place," needed to figure out what sort of noise the blind monsters in John Krasinski's post-apocalyptic horror flick would make. They knew from the script that the creatures hunt by sound and therefore decided to mimic echolocation clicks. But something about dolphin and beluga whale recordings didn't feel quite right.
Because the monsters also emit some sort of electrical frequency disturbed by cochlear implants that the on-screen family's deaf daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), wears, Aadahl and Van der Ryn realized the noise needed a little zing! After some "play time and experimentation," as Van der Ryn put it, they landed on a stun gun. Then they shot a grape.
"A grape has a fleshy wet interior with a skin around it," Aadahl said. "It's much more practical to use a grape than a human. We recorded that and slowed it down 80 percent."
The editors had five months to work full time on creating the sounds for "A Quiet Place." They were especially excited by the opportunity to work on a project in which sound "could function as this narrative driver," Van der Ryn said. Krasinski helped them tell the story from the characters' auditory points of view, which he referred to as "sonic envelopes."
"In our first meeting with John, before we could say anything, he was like, 'This is a sound editor's dream!'" Aadahl said. "When you're working with a filmmaker who really appreciates the power of sound, it just gave us the license to take things as far as we could."
"A Quiet Place" was quite a departure for Aadahl and Van der Ryn, whose 13-year partnership includes exceptionally loud projects such as the Transformers franchise. Krasinski's was the first movie that allowed the duo to incorporate complete digital silence, which they did at three moments in which Regan turns off her cochlear implants. It was during these moments especially that audiences became aware of certain real-life sounds that they might normally ignore — Aadahl and Van der Ryn were pleased by how many publications commented on the phenomenon.
"It's kind of inverting the common conventional paradigm in cinema: How big can you get? How loud can you get?" Aadahl said. "This film was a wonderful gift because we could flip that on its head and find out: How low can we get? That was pretty cool."
'A Star Is Born'
Alan Robert Murray, supervising sound editor on Bradley Cooper's "A Star Is Born," used near silence to depict the feelings of isolation country rocker Jackson Maine (Cooper) experiences as a result of his struggles with addiction and tinnitus, a symptom of hearing loss. But a healthy portion of the film immerses audiences in loud concert settings, such as when Jackson and Ally (Lady Gaga), the singer-songwriter he discovers and quickly falls in love with, sing "Shallow" together for the first time on an outdoor stage.
Murray, who has frequently collaborated with Cooper's mentor Clint Eastwood and won Oscars for "Letters From Iwo Jima" and "American Sniper," wanted audiences to feel as though they were right there with Jackson and Ally in that moment. But because there were only a couple hundred people in the crowd at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, where Cooper and Gaga's vocals were recorded live, Murray had to also work with a sound library to capture the fictional crowd's excitement. He collaborated with the Oscar-nominated mixing team — Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder and Steve Morrow — on "getting the right blend between the singing and the instrumentals and the crowd, making it all blend as one."
"I think it's our favorite scene in the whole movie amongst all of us," Murray said. "The way the film was cut at that point and the direction and the way it was mixed just took it to the max. Everybody could feel like they were there with Ally when she started singing 'Shallow.' That was one of our best accomplishments on the movie."
Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan, supervising sound editors nominated Tuesday for Damien Chazelle's Neil Armstrong biopic "First Man," had the astronaut's legacy to consider. Morgan, who mainly focused on dialogue, knew they had to nail the famous words Armstrong uttered as he walked on the moon: "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." She wound up tweaking Ryan Gosling's performance to get his pacing and cadence as close as she could to Armstrong's.
"A couple of people have said to me that they thought it was the original," Morgan said.
Lee and Morgan also sought to represent the challenges the astronauts faced as accurately as possible, Lee added, and the editing process involved "researching, collecting and creating sounds that could convey the speed and danger of these missions."
Because Chazelle wanted audiences to experience this danger viscerally, especially during scenes set in the cockpit, the team explored intense sounds to add to a mix of SpaceX and rocket-launching recordings. It turned out that elephant roars and lion growls, when distorted properly, could heighten tension and draw out emotion in such scenes. The end results were "angry and dangerous and big," said Lee, who also served as a sound designer and rerecording mixer on the film. Armstrong's X-15 flight, featured at the start of the movie, incorporates the sound of an animal stampede.
"I think most people, including people who work in film, have no idea how much work goes into sound mixing and editing," Morgan said. That she shares the editing nomination with Lee is significant — two years ago, after working together on Chazelle's "La La Land," they became the first female team to be recognized in a sound category. This year, Lee was also nominated in the mixing category alongside the rest of her team: Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and Mary H. Ellis.
"The younger generation, they're much more aware of what sound design is — you have video games and so many different avenues that create interest in this," Lee said of her field's gender imbalance. "There are a lot more young women who have expressed interest in sound. It's definitely changing."