Echoes of the Old West

Precise, minimalist soundscape for 'True Grit'

Long-time Coen brothers’ supervising sound editor Skip Lievsay showed he could convey both the expanse and desolation of the American West in his Oscar-nominated work on “No Country for Old Men.”

If anything, the Old West period piece “True Grit” is even more stark and, yes, gritty, so Lievsay and fellow sound designer and re-recording mixer Craig Berkey went to great pains to create an effectively minimalist soundscape by emphasizing evocative winds and making sure that every horse breath and gallop, every gunshot echoing through mountain valleys, was clear and present.

“Joel and Ethan (Coen) love a full ambient track, which is nice,” Berkey says. “They want you to be immersed in the atmosphere of wherever you are. I spent a lot of time going through and making sure that they’re all interesting winds that we put in there,” tailoring multiple recordings to make them fit the mood. “In some cases, you want to have a progression of different types of winds that go from a warm, blustery thing (in the town) to a very different kind of environment — in this case, (the main characters) are heading up into the mountains and it becomes colder and colder, so you want to be able to communicate that somewhat through the winds.”

Great attention was also paid to the horses in the film — Livesay and Berkey’s team spent many hours recording equine sounds and movements at a Southern California movie horse ranch and at a horse hydrotherapy pool. “Joel in particular is keen on the horses being as real as possible and having a real presence in the movie,” Lievsay says.

For the past few Coen films, Lievsay and Berkey have mixed the soundtrack elements as they’ve gone along (this time starting at Digital Cinema in N.Y. and doing the final, with Greg Orloff, at Sony Pictures in Culver City), and as a result there is rarely a frantic rush at the end. The Coens are involved and giving notes every step of the way and as Lievsay notes, “nothing escapes their attention, and that’s one of the very rewarding things about working with them.”

More from Eye on the Oscars: VFX, Sounds & Editing:
How to spot the vfx pro’s signature | Editors say the eyes have it | ‘Unstoppable’s’ track trek | Music shapes sound effects | Echoes of the Old West | Silent takes speak volumes