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Artisans Balance Sound Effects, Dialogue & Score to Create Engrossing Tracks

This year’s early contenders in the sound categories have found new ways to entertain eardrums.

Randy Thom, supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer on “The Revenant,” discovered that adding environmental sounds to the bear mauling scene upped the dramatic impact.

“(Director) Alejandro (Inarritu) wanted to demonstrate that nature goes on despite what we humans do in it,” he says. “So during that scene, we hear birds up in the trees, chirping and singing. You might think that would fly in the face of the violence, but in a way it makes more horrific. Even as this violence is happening, the forest is ignoring it.”

On “Sicario,” sound designer and effects re-recording mixer Tom Ozanich played up the sounds from off-screen action to heighten the tension when Kate (Emily Blunt) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) enter the tunnel underneath the U.S.-Mexico border.

The audience is cued into the characters’ experience visually through night-vision goggles. Ozanich furthered that experience sonically by playing limited sound effects. “It’s like you’re one of the characters — you have the goggles on, you don’t have good peripheral vision, and you’re only getting pieces of what’s going on around you,” he explains. “The sounds (of unseen action) keep you in a state of tension and unrest.”

What makes scenes like that work, say sound designers and re-recording mixers, is an authentic sonic palette. That’s especially true for films that take place in environments that most humans will never experience — like the surface of Mars.

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Paul Massey, dialogue and music re-recording mixer on “The Martian,” says that every line of dialogue spoken or heard in a space suit was re-recorded in a number of settings to make it believable. “(The audience) needs to believe what they’re hearing and seeing,” he says. “If they’re not thinking about the sound, that’s a sign of a success.”

To that end, Massey and his team recorded dialogue through a speaker in the astronaut’s helmets and over shortwave radio, used speakerphone plug-ins to manipulate the sound, and sent supervising sound editor Oliver Tarney to NASA to record through the console speakers at Mission Control.

Glenn Freemantle, sound designer and supervising sound editor on “Everest,” followed a similar path. “We wanted audiences to hear it and feel it,” he says, “so that they would feel the intensity.” The “Everest” sound team accomplished that with multiple tracks of Foley and recordings of wind.

On “Mad Max: Fury Road,” supervising sound editor Mark Mangini was inspired by the novel “Moby Dick” while working out the film’s final 13-minute scene: “I saw the War Rig as the great white whale and Immortan Joe as Ahab.”

To hammer the point home, the crew added whale sounds to the sound design. “We used humpback groans and growls (for the War Rig). We used lows when it was harpooned and when the milk burst out, we used the sound of whale blow holes to give it more resonance.”

A film’s delicate aural ecosystem is balanced in equal parts sound effects, dialogue and score. On “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” supervising sound editor and dialogue re-recording mixer Matthew Wood and sound effects and Foley re-recording mixer Christopher Scarabosio found that balance by paring back.

“One of the things we’ve been dealing with is too much sound,” says Scarabosio. “We don’t have a lack of content between John Williams’ score, all the ‘Star Wars’ sound effects, and voices. Our challenge is picking and choosing between all the pieces to find harmony.”

The team does have a leg up en route to building a connection, thanks to sound designer Ben Burtt’s legendary work. “If we play sounds that have the same patina from the original work of Ben Burtt, we can bring viewers back to feel what they felt when they watched the original films,” says Wood.

At the same time, the team had to figure out what best told the story in each scene. “Sometimes it was music, sometimes it was sound effects, and sometimes it was a combination of both,” Scarabosio adds. “Really, it’s whatever we can do to help tell the story and help with the emotion”

“Bridge of Spies” sound designer and effects re-recording mixer Gary Rydstrom had a different experience. “When I first talked to Steven Spielberg, he told me a scary thing for a sound editor to hear, but also an exciting thing. He said, ‘There’s not going to be much music in this movie.’”

That meant it was up to the sound team to create descriptive and evocative effects.

“Any sound has an emotional component,” he says. Rydstrom points to the apartment in Berlin where the American spies meet. “There are cracks in the windows, wind is whistling through those windows and they’re rattling. Those sounds are moody and give he right feeling for that part of the movie.”

“Inside Out” sound designer Ren Klyce echoes the sentiment, pointing to the scene where Riley returns home after realizing she shouldn’t have run away. “After she says she misses her home, it’s silence; all you hear is her breath. That’s all you need. Sometimes just having nothing but one human noise in the track can make you feel connected to the characters.”

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