Sound mixers sell the realism of unreal worlds

Eye on the Oscars: Vfx, Sound & Editing

When their characters travel to distant planets, possess super powers or fight through a series of murderous contests, sound mixers often turn to unusual sounds to help audience accept the reality of unreal worlds.

It can be something as simple as a sound taken directly from a location or a purpose-made recording of breathing inside a space helmet, but either way the sound mixers shoot for reality even when the movie tells an fantastical story.

“We needed to tell an epic and horrifying story without ever glorifying it,” says sound mixer Mike Prestwood Smith of “The Hunger Games.” “It was a place that only exists in this story but we used sound samples from the location to capture the forest, which is something real for the audience.”

The sounds of the forest and of Jennifer Lawrence running through it became crucial to Prestwood’s mix, as did the industrial sounds he brought into the mix when flashbacks were shown on screen.

“Sometimes when you’re looking at a fictional place, familiar sounds can help you believe it’s real,” says Smith.

When superheroes duel the forces of evil, the task is just as challenging.

“(Helmer) Joss Whedon wanted detail, power and honesty in the sound mix for ‘The Avengers,’ ” says sound mixer Christopher Boyes. “So when the Hulk has to step up and do battle, I had to create a roar that you would believe could come from this made-up being.”

The roar that won was an amalgamation of animals, screams and rumbling that was tweaked until Boyes believed it himself.

For “Prometheus,” sound mixers D.M. Hemphill and Ron Bartlett also had to create rumblings, but these were for spaceships and battles between alien creatures.

“Ridley (Scott) likes to work very fast and decides quickly if he likes something,” Bartlett says. “He wanted organic things, but wanted us to mess with them.”

That meant using breathing and dialogue that sounded like it came from inside a helmet to convey paranoia and mixing in sonorous church bells as the ship is collapsing at the end of the film.

“You wouldn’t think of church bells working in outer space,” says Bartlett. “But somehow they made sense.”

Eye on the Oscars: VFX, Sound & Editing
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