Brits build sound reputation

Mixing, editing contenders showcase Blighty's pros

If the 2008 best picture Oscar nod to “Slumdog Millionaire” was not exactly shocking, that film’s victory in the sound mixing category (and nomination for sound editing) was stunning to industry professionals. Oscar noms for British sound pros are extremely rare — those categories have been thoroughly dominated by Hollywood mixers and sound editors for decades.

“Slumdog” might have been a unique juggernaut, but it also opened a few minds to the high quality sound work that is regularly coming out of British mix stages these days. This fall alone, several noteworthy sound jobs for high profile films have come out of U.K. studios.

Much of the sound team that brought director Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog” to life was reunited on Boyle’s intense and claustrophobic “127 Hours.” Supervising sound editor Glenn Freemantle explains that his crew put in two solid days and nights of recording in the Utah locales where the film takes place and then, at Pinewood Studios in London, constructed a scaled-down version of the sandstone and limestone canyon in which the film’s main character is trapped, to make the Foley as realistic as possible.

“The sound is extremely important in the film,” Freemantle says, “Sounds that are normally tiny become amplified because they’re all a part of him. Everything around him for survival has a sonic character — his knife, his water, his ropes, the backpack.” Every swallow and smacking of chapped lips was cut in during post, as well.

Sound is also a critical in the film’s notorious arm self-amputation scene. Freemantle’s team layered heavily distorted plucked guitar strings, electrical pulses and various other natural elements to communicate the searing pain of tendons and bone being cut and blood spurting from the gaping wound.

“It was the most pain he’d ever experienced, amplified a hundred times,” he notes. “Our job with the sound was always to give you his perspective.”

“The King’s Speech” might primarily be an actor’s showcase, but for the sound crew headed by supervisor Lee Walpole at London’s Boom Sound Studios, the task was to capture both the feeling of royal life in late-’30s England — its immense and imposing palace rooms — and to heighten the drama of the rising monarch’s debilitating speech impediment.

“Authenticity was the name of the game,” Walpole notes. Besides recording both production sound and Foley in many of the actual locales where the story takes place, “we got hold of the original King George V and King George VI microphones that had been in storage at EMI for 70 years, and we took the dialogue that was put through the radio in the film and re-recorded it through the microphones (so) it gives an authentic sound.

“The film is about a man’s inability to speak, so we also focused on the noises Colin (Firth) makes, his words catching in the back of his throat. We pushed them to a hyper level in the mix, and then we upped the atmosphere or added noises-off preceding those moments to emphasize the awkwardness of the silence that would follow when he could not speak.”

James Mather, the sound supervisor who helmed “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” says that film, mixed at Pinewood Studios, has fewer whiz-bang sound moments than its predecessors, “because (director) David Yates wanted to treat this as the last calm before the storm. Part Two is going to be massive, more akin to something like ‘Lord of the Rings.’ In (Part 1), we still have big set pieces like the sky chase and the snake attack, but in general it’s more austere. The action is focused around Harry, Hermione and Ron, so the approach to the sound is more intimate.”

In one key scene, a frantic chase through the woods, Yates chose to drop the music out completely and just let the production sound, Foley and slightly exaggerated effects carry the action.

“David wanted the scene to be as disjointed and uncomfortable as possible,” Mather says, “so we went for this down-and-dirty sound that’s a nice contrast to the usual shiny and new things you often hear in these sort of films. That scene has more the feeling of one of the ‘Bourne’ films — very gritty and dramatic. It was a nice change.”

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