Ear for the truth

Period-pic sound means research, clever tricks and even danger

Authenticity is one of the most crucial elements of conveying a story. It’s also one of the most elusive.

Actors can perform it, cinematographers can capture it, set designers can create it but those working in the audio field have a much harder time transmitting it to viewers with a believable level of accuracy. That’s especially true when a film’s story carries an audience back in time.

Consider the work that supervising sound editor Glenn T. Morgan performed on “Bobby,” the film written and directed by Emilio Estevez.

“To have a true sonic palette of what ’68 sounded like is a little impossible,” Morgan admits. “I found myself asking people who said they remembered that time well. I found consistently that almost everyone would confuses the ’70s with the ’60s.”

To solve the problem Morgan rented the films “The Graduate” and “Bullitt.”

“I found that period to be very simple,” he says. “We are so used to watching films with so much density built into the tracks. In ’68 they relied a lot on the work track, so a lot of what they were capturing was actually what was happening on the street.”

Morgan took that knowledge and applied it to the ambient tracks in “Bobby.” “We keep getting trained to sprinkle the screen with so much where in this case it was specific sounds at specific moments.”

In addition to the background audio tracks, Morgan pushed toward authenticity while working with the actors who performed group ADR, making sure that their dialogue and dialect remained true to the time.

Careful consideration was also paid to such sound layers as TV commercials that played in the background, car drive-bys and noises from telephones, air conditioning units and fans.

“Emilio’s direction was that we wanted this to be almost documentarylike.”

That approach starts on the set, where production sound mixers are charged with recording dialogue with as much natural ambiance as possible.

Meeting that responsibility while working on a period piece is often a challenge, especially when the actors are wearing specific costumes, says Richard Lightstone, a production sound mixer and president of the Cinema Audio Society.

“We have to be very imaginative in how that microphone is concealed so that it sounds right, you don’t have clothing noise and it is not seen by camera,” he says.

That said, Lightstone reports that any sonic manipulation of the track happens in post-production.

“Much like the cinematographer would try to capture the image with the most clarity, and then the manipulation takes place in a film lab,” says Lightstone, “we are trying to capture a performance as perfectly as we can and the post sound people are adding all of the background elements.”

Nailing down those background elements is often a daunting task. Indeed, to get just the right weapons sounds for “Flags of Our Fathers,” supervising sound editor Alan Murray and sound effects recordists Charles Maynes and John Fasal put themselves in harm’s way.

“We went to the Marine base in Twentynine Palms (Calif.) and put microphones in the impact area to get the sound of the artillery fire,” he says. “We are about as authentic as you can be.”

The crew also recorded guns of many shapes and sizes. “We even had to use World War II ammo, because a lot of the Japanese weapons wouldn’t fire the modern ammo,” Murray says.

Getting the sound just right for Murray was more than a job. “My dad was a survivor of Iwo Jima, so I did this as a tribute to him. I wanted to experience the sounds and everything that he heard on the island.

“After being around the weapons, hearing their impact and power, it was scary,” he adds. “I don’t know how these guys kept their nerves.”

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