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Sound Mixers and Editors Create Realism in Their Oscar-Contending Films

Getting the audio right is key to getting audiences to believe in what they're seeing on the screen

The sound contenders in this year’s Oscar race echo a vast auditory range, from the subtle complexities of a poet’s inner monologue to the whimsical songs of a couple falling in love, and even an explosive true-to-life battlefield. Each soundtrack harmoniously conveys a unique emotional tone, making it difficult to pick a clear standout in a crop of diverse films.

The Damien Chazelle-directed “La La Land” tested production sound mixer Steven Morrow and crew to provide the energy on set. “One thing Damien laid down was the challenge to make the music loud enough so the actors could feel it, not just hear it,” says Morrow.

The mixer used up to 32 different audio tracks to record live instruments and songs from Justin Hurwitz’s original score. “It was important to create a soundscape that was pretty but also one based in reality,” notes sound designer and sound supervising editor Ai-Ling Lee, who along with re-recording mixer Andy Nelson finely tuned moments leading into song so they didn’t feel as if they came from a vocal booth. “It was about balancing the correct blend of live and recorded elements into each song,” says Lee.

Robert Hein, the sound designer, sound editor, and re-recording mixer on “Paterson,” manipulated repetition to tell the story of a bus driver with a secret love of poetry. “Paterson wakes up every day and every day is a little different. The issue with sound when the film is repetitive is not to make the sound repetitive, but reflect on that,” says Hein. “The intention of the film was to feel that quality of every day being somewhat similar but not. We did a lot of delicate maneuvering with sounds and tried to make it evolve as the film went along. It was important to have every day feel like it was the same but in reality every day was different and special.”

The sound team behind Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge,” which is based on a true story, created intense combat sequences to place the audience directly into the experience. “Everything was high-impact and very visceral, very engaging,” says sound designer and re-recording mixer Robert Mackenzie. “It was about creating a real intimate and personal portrayal of what it is like to be in the thick of the battle.”

In building the intensity, sound supervisor and re-recording mixer Andy Wright played guns to a realistic level, with explosions overpowering the audience to keep them on edge.

Randy Thom, supervising sound designer, sound editor, and re-recording mixer, was tasked with finding authentic sounds for the period film “Allied,” starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. “We not only had to find cars from the 1940s but cars you would most likely hear in North Africa and England,” says Thom. For its re-creation of the London Blitz, the sound team went to England’s Imperial War Museum to retrieve original sounds. “We used a variety of recordings from other places as well and pieced them all together to make it as believable and authentic and powerful of a montage as we could.”

For “Manchester by the Sea,” supervising sound editor, sound designer, and re-recording mixer Jacob Ribicoff traveled to Massachusetts to record environments for all the locations, making stops in Beverly and Gloucester before heading to the practical sets that included a high school, hockey rink, fisherman’s bar, hospital and beaches.

In building environments around Casey Affleck’s character Lee Chandler, simplicity was key.
“Sound extends the landscape so that it can wrap itself around the viewer,” Ribicoff explains. “All it took was one proper wind or bird or boat engine to connect the viewer and characters to their landscape. We also made a choice to feel wind from inside the rooms in the house; feel it, not hear it.”

While Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” may seem like a visual spectacle, a layered aural story had to be shaped by supervising sound editor Shannon Mills and the sound team.

“Magic is always hard because it’s so subjective,” says Mills. “It can sound like a lot of things, so trying to find the tone that tells the story or what’s in the director’s mind is a hard thing to figure out.”

To provide sound to the M.C. Escher-esque visuals, where buildings begin to distort, the team needed to find the right balance of real and magical sounds so it felt fantastical but in realistic way.

Even the cape Doctor Strange wears needed a touch of magic.

“We knew early on we had to walk a line of believability and flair and comedy for his cape,” says Mills. “We created voices with cloth as a palette and tried to give him a little bit of character or speech so it wasn’t cartoonish.”

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