In a year filled with battle noise (“Master and Commander” and “Cold Mountain”), thundering hoofs and cheering crowds (“Seabiscuit”), crossed swords (“The Last Samurai,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Peter Pan”) and creatures (“Hulk” and “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”), one of the louder buzzes in sound is “Kill Bill Vol. 1.”
” ‘Kill Bill’ was a good track, incredibly detailed, with a lot of effects I hadn’t heard before,” says British-based sound editor Eddy Joseph, who wasn’t involved with director Quentin Tarantino’s homage to vintage chopsocky. “Quentin uses sound as a character,” says Michael Minkler, who, with Myron Nettinga, mixed “Kill Bill.”
“Most directors will create a blueprint for us to work from, but Quentin goes out with a sound editor and collects the material and colors that we use to build his house,” Nettinga says. “There are no inconsequential sounds. Everything has a purpose.”
“Kill Bill’s” supervising sound editor, Wylie Stateman, notes the film’s sonic unpredictability. “I think what makes it special is the integration between music, sound effects and story,” he says. “It makes very good use of extreme quiet and carefully orchestrated volume.”
That swing is the goal for many sound pros. “I think the Academy appreciates when a big film doesn’t hurt,” says Christopher Boyes, lead re-recording mixer on nomination magnet “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” and sound designer for “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
“In ‘Return of the King,’ you will find some of the most subtle moments ever put on screen in terms of sound, moments when you could hear somebody on the other side of the theater moving in their chair,” Boyes adds.
“Cold Mountain,” set during the Civil War, has also garnered attention for its use of Carolina “shape-singing” — rhythmic a cappella spiritual harmonizing — as its sonic base, even under the noise of battle provided by Civil War re-enactors based in England, of all places. But Eddy Joseph, the film’s supervising sound editor, says an equal challenge was re-creating the sound of the now-extinct passenger pigeon, which proliferated in the 1860s.
“I played around with various forms of rock doves, mourning doves, pigeons of all sorts to get something between them,” Joseph explains.
“The Last Samurai’s” supervising sound editor, Mark P. Stoeckinger, used another form of sonic range.
“It has the very simplistic, pastoral samurai village where we hear little bits of nature and animals and chickens and people working at their daily tasks, and the busy, active, at times overwhelming world of the Westernized urban areas of Japan,” he says. “And then of course you’ve got your battles.”
There is growing evidence that subtlety is on the rise in the realm of sound, especially for epics.
“Sound went through this era when we could make full-blown, digital six-track sound jobs and it was like having a new toy, and at first we played with the new toy too much,” says re-recording mixer Gary Rydstrom. “Now, we’re settling back down into a varied way of using the sound track.”
Rydstrom, who was sound designer and mixer for “Hulk,” “Finding Nemo” and “Peter Pan,” perhaps hit the ultimate in subtlety for “Nemo,” for which he used a wide array of what he calls “bubble takes.”
“When a character does a double take, like when Dory’s eyes get wide, I had 17 or 18 varieties of little bubbles that went ‘bloop!’ ” he says. He does admit “many of these sounds go right by when you’re watching the movie for the first time.”
The challenge for Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers, supervising sound editors for “Seabiscuit,” was not just the climactic race itself, but building up the title character’s non-human personality through sound.
“You get the personality of the horse from a lot of small vocalizations, so when it comes down to race time, you have something vested in this character,” says Hallberg.
While Stateman stresses that “in sound there are no solo players, we are an ensemble team,” Oscar invariably splits the team up. Re-recording mixers are covered under the sound mixing category (formerly sound), which mandates no more than three nominees derived through a bake-off, and sound editors are entered in the sound editing category, which can boast a full five-nominee race.