‘Hurt Locker:’ Capturing the sound of war

Recording on set was key to realism in Summit pic

What does war sound like? Since the advent of talkies, hundreds of movies — “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “To Hell and Back,” “Saving Private Ryan” — have tried to answer that question through recorded sound, Foley work, audio effects and the arts of sound mixing and editing.

Most recently, “The Hurt Locker” has riveted audiences with evocative sounds of the Iraq war that advance a tense, gritty storyline. Its realism is based on capturing as much of the audio as possible on location in Jordan, near the Iraq border, rather than in the studio.

“We recorded almost everything on the set, including the dialogue,” said Paul Ottosson, who has a triple credit as re-recording mixer, sound designer and supervising sound editor. “On the entire movie we have maybe less than 10 principal ADR (automated dialogue recording, or in-studio looping) lines. “That’s very uncommon. Most movies I’ve worked have around 1,000 principal replaced lines.”

Ottosson and helmer Kathryn Bigelow decided early on they would take the more authentic — and difficult — path of production recording because it’s impossible to re-create in a studio the intensity of the warlike conditions in which the film was shot.

“When we did the first recording with an actor it was clear right away this was never going to work,” Ottosson says. “During the filming they were under pressure. It was hot, they were carrying all this gear. They may have been acting but they were living under circumstances that made their performances coherent, like they were really in the war zone.

“If instead they rolled into an air-conditioned ADR stage at 10 a.m., had a donut and a latte, it was really hard to match those performances,” he says. “Kathryn said, ‘We have to try to make the recorded dialogue work, because the ADR just won’t.’ So every single person on the set was miked, we had two boom mics for every shot, and mics further back to capture the texture of everything.”

Ottosson treated the film’s explosions as visceral experiences, capturing the shock wave that hits the body before the sound reaches the ears. “You die not from shrapnel but the expanding air that blows up your lungs,” he says.

Back in Los Angeles, “an immense amount of Foley work” was added. Ottosson also used local sounds like “goats, city noises, whatever (sound mixer) Ray Beckett could get his hands on” in Jordan. With only about 45 minutes of music, “much of the movie had to be orchestrated with sounds.”

“Kathryn made it clear how important sound was for this movie,” Ottosson adds, “just like it’s important in the military. If the enemy is nearby, you need to determine what a sound is, where it’s coming from and make a decision in a split second. We wanted the movie to keep you on edge and to make you feel like you are in it instead of just watching it.”

Paradigm signings: d.p.’s Alan Caso (“Big Love”) and Ron Garcia (“Gilmore Girls”). Bookings: editor Joe Hobeck on TNT’s “Delta Blues”; stunt coordinator Andy Cheng on Roger Donaldson’s “Hungry Rabbit Jumps”; and costume designer Wendy Chuck on Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants.” In commercials Paradigm booked production designer Ricardo Jattan for Dannon Yogurt, Cablevision and Eclipse; and d.p. Michael Pescasio on an ESPN bowl game promo.

Montana bookings: producer Tony Winley on Gary McKendry’s “The Killer Elite”; d.p.’s Stephen Kazmierski on Nick Stagliano’s “Good Day for It” and David Rudd on the Nick Swardson sketch show for Comedy Central; production designers Mark Hofeling on Disney Channel’s “Den Brothers,” Robb Wilson King on Lifetime’s “Something in the Dark” and Ricardo Spinace on USA’s pilot “Facing Kate”; costume designers Karyn Wagner on TNT’s “Hawthorne” and Alexandra Welker on Epix’s “Tough Trade”; and editor Todd Ramsay on Giorgio Serafini’s “Game of Death.”

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