From the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns on Iwo Jima to the schings and swooshes of swords on Cannibal Island, the sound editors who worked on this year’s Oscar-nominated films balance the authentic and the fantastic to create soundtracks for combat scenes that put you in the middle of the action.
When it comes to sound editing, the Academy seems to love films that feature combat, dating back to the 1989 award winner “Glory” through to 1998’s winner “Saving Private Ryan.”
This year is no different, with “Blood Diamond,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters From Iwo Jima,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “Apocalypto” nominated.
Each of these films features high-octane battle scenes, from the low-tech of “Apocalypto” to the comical “Pirates” to the realism of “Flags” and “Letters.”
No matter the storyline, sound editors agree the first key to successful sound is a solid grounding in reality.
Consider the work supervising sound editor Alan Murray and sound effects recordists Charles Maynes and John Fasal did on “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.” The team recorded authentic World War II weapons with WWII ammunition, planes, mortars and tanks.
“I could have done this movie using a library (of sound effects), but my fear was that some of these guns wouldn’t sound as explosive,” says Murray. “We recorded eight to 12 channels of audio on each shot and by combining it all I was able to get the shock value.”
Where Murray’s team could rely on known sounds, supervising sound editors Sean McCormack and Kami Asgar from 424 Post were out on a limb while working on “Apocalypto.”
“There are no modern-day sounds in this movie,” McCormack says. “No cars, no gunshots, no explosions. So we didn’t have those elements to drive a feeling.
“This movie, from top to bottom, was Foley,” he adds, “because there weren’t any library sounds that could be used. There just aren’t that many libraries that deal with something from 500 years ago.”
Christopher Boyes, supervising sound editor, sound designer and sound re-recording mixer on “Pirates,” points out that even with the comical nature of the film, there had to be honesty.
“The swords needed to sound fun, but also needed to sound like if they hit you they would take your head off,” Boyes says. “You need to feel the power, and the only way to do that is to be honest with the sounds. I do that on my films by recording thousands of hours of raw material.”
That’s not to say that all that material is used. “To create power and to engage an audience, you have to create clarity,” Boyes adds. “I have to find a way to support all the visual elements in a way that keeps them clear so the audience keeps their ears and eyes open.”
Beyond big booms, say the sound pros, another ingredient in a successful combat scene is a touch of humanity.
“The people that are caught in the crossfire, as it were, are the ones through which people relate to the scene,” says “Blood Diamond” supervising sound editor Lon Bender.
“We’ve all felt the terror of a scream, so if you can get a great performance from the people who are experiencing the scene, and make it visceral for the audience, they are going to respond to it and be horrified.
“That’s one of the things that made (the combat scenes in “Blood Diamond”) successful,” Bender adds, “because short of that you’ve got another scene with just gunshots and impacts.”