Modern technologies are giving filmmakers the opportunity to tell more realistic, engaging and powerful stories than ever before. In addition to 4K, High Dynamic Range (HDR), and even virtual reality, there are new tools and processes in sound, mixing, and editing that can elevate the film experience, giving audiences immersive entertainment that puts them right in the center of the action.
We got a chance to talk about sound and editing with leading sound artists Dror Mohar, a sound editor and designer and re-recording mixer, and Mike Prestwood Smith, a re-recording mixer. Both worked on Deepwater Horizon, the hit movie receiving a tremendous amount of positive attention, and they are also working with the same director, Peter Berg, on his film Patriots Day, due out in early 2017.
Mike Smith: They call it the doc-buster – I heard someone calling it that the other day - which I thought was an interesting one. And it’s in the Paul Greengrass-school of grabbing events and dramatizing them. They are compelling stories that everyone knows about, but this is just a different way of presenting them – an exciting, more dramatic way of presenting them.
Dror Mohar: Pete is someone who often gravitates to the real-life stories of exceptional things, events that people go through. And it’s a real pleasure to work on those projects because you do get a lot of emotion and real-life story that you can pass on to the audience.
Dror Mohar: I think that the Deepwater Horizon story – the disaster itself and the experience of the people on board – is a very important story. It raises questions about our energy needs, about big corporations, and about the personal stories of the people on that day. Pete is a guy that’s very much into what creative work and technology can do in terms of bringing the story to the forefront for the audience. So in terms of our creative work, there was a lot of very close back-and-forth with Pete and his editors that we were able to do very early on in the process.
Mike Smith: These are complex films and I think having a workflow where sound is constantly evolving as they cut means that the sound is constantly informing how they edit and vice versa, and it’s a constant hand-off. It has really only become viable to do that in very recent times.
Mike Smith: It’s technology, and it’s the workflow between virtuals and the edits, and it’s about being able to position someone like Dror in a room next to the edit room with a mixing console where sound can be evolved to a very high level – concurrently.
Traditionally the edit got made, then some sound effects got put in, and then you started deconstructing it and finding the story that way. Going with this new workflow, the story evolves organically as they’re cutting, and sound really serves the story to the highest level from a very early stage.
You might decide you can cut a whole scene with one sound, and that one sound might just inform the directors to completely re-edit the film and effectively deliver the story more succinctly. Right there and then as they’re putting the thing together – rather than going through this laborious process of temps and working it out logistically over a long period of time – you can do it concurrently now.
Dror Mohar: I think that the balance between immersing the story and exhausting the audience with very dense sound is something that’s always at the forefront of how sound contributes to the impression of the story.
It’s always about determining the story we want to tell, both in the immediate arc and then the long arc. And then it becomes very simple. You just start with the most important one sound that makes a moment effective and brings to life the intention of the filmmakers.
You can then expand beyond that to the kind of experience you want to wrap the sound in, whether it is about destruction or highlighting the tension...what we know or don’t know...or where we want to place the audience in the story. Do they know something that the characters don’t? Do they not?
Coming back to what that Mike said – which is very much a part of this – because we’re always able to work with the filmmakers to not only identify the singular sound signature, but also give it a shape that can stand the test of time – we’re able to distill this all into sound “sessions” that are very easily transferrable between the design and the mix process.
Mike Smith: Yes. And it’s only really recently become viable. You know, this is the sort of film that demands this capability because the sound is doing a lot of complex storytelling, especially early on in this movie.
You’ve got complex things like negative pressure tests, and you’ve got sound doing a lot of story work referring to pressure and gas that the audience doesn’t really know about.
But a simple sound can tell you “oh, the rocks are getting caught in this pipe here,” and yes you’ve got a visual...but there’s obviously so much going on that the sound is doing a lot of the heavy lifting early on. And so to have sound highly evolved as they edit at this point is a great way of distilling the story to its purest form, which I think this movie really does very clearly.
Mike Smith: We’ve been talking about how the sound is really involved with the story early on, and the audience doesn’t really see the mechanics of the sound creation process...nor should they.
But I think they get a much more clear, concise story. And also the sound is highly evolved. It’s fine-tuned as the film is being cut and put together, so I think from a story perspective, the audience is getting a clearer story. I know that sounds simplistic, but the sound is doing an immense amount of storytelling throughout the whole film. It’s a kind of experience.
Dror Mohar: Another side is that whenever we talk about evolving technologies in projection or playback systems, the underlying element is the resolution. I think the synergy between sound and picture means that it’s really important to consider what that resolution is. I don’t mean use more of the space in terms of the way the sound is used, that is not necessarily the first thing that we should reach for. It actually allows us to be more focused, not just expanded.
Mike Smith: Yes, I think so. You talked about resolution, and one of the things about that is the dynamic. Deepwater Horizon is a very dynamic sounding movie. It goes from super quiet, singular choices to mayhem. And I think the formats that we have available to us now allow us to manage that on a greater resolution than ever before. And it’s using that dynamic in a creative and constructive, storytelling way. That’s what we aim to do.
Mike Smith: I guess the fundamental difference is it becomes a first-person experience in a way. There are no storytellers. You are telling your own story effectively once you go in, which is a fundamental shift in creative filmmaking. And I guess the jury’s out. Sound will obviously be a huge component, and the mind boggles with the associated variables and how we accommodate that. I think the aim of the format is to give the choices to the person having the experience. How that works, and how we create and curate it, is going to be fascinating. I can’t wait to do it, as long as I don’t spend all day with a VR set on my eyes.
Dror Mohar: I think that’s a great point. It is a very first-person experience, and I think immersive formats create a new vocabulary...but it has to be transparent to the audience...they should not be aware that they are being handed things or directed by sound.
That’s what is great about sound, it is an engagement or a collaboration with audiences. The sound gives you some information and it triggers other impressions from your references.
In the world of VR or immersive, it’s exciting in that it really gives the audience the opportunity to take that reference and so that they – the audience -- can then make choices.
Dror Mohar: I think the subject matter of Patriots Day – which is about the Boston Marathon bombing -- has become something that is universal, or internationally relevant. It is about terrorism and how it seeping into every part of our society.
It’s not confined to the battlefield. It’s not confined to government locations. The story’s the individuals who carry out terrorism and the people who are affected.
It is really interesting, because the weapons themselves are hand-built weapons. Pressure cooker bombs are what I’m referring to. You put in nails and razors and all sorts of stuff, and you understand what you’re going to do to another human being.
So there’s something strong and very terrifying about it. In terms of creating sound for that, it was about trying to define a singular signature for how it felt for the people in Boston, how it felt for the victims, how it felt for the first responder forces that had to deal with it.
It’s really an emotional story. In terms of the design, one of the leading things that I’ve been telling myself is to hold off as much as possible and let the humanity play out. Let the faces, let the dialog, let the story kind of hold itself until sound becomes a helper. What is the one singular sound that we can put in a scene or sequence that really makes it all “blow up” so to speak, or really just lifts it up with one singular moment, without too much pizazz.
Mike Smith: Wow, that’s a big question. You know, these are all stories. Lone Survivor, Deepwater, and Patriots Day --what we’re working on now.
I think the public has an understanding about what happened, but I think what Peter does, and does it incredibly effectively, is give us a behind-the-scenes look at what really happened. There’s an immense amount of research going on, and so the audiences will get this sort of heightened-reality version of events.
From an audience’s point of view, it’s having them really engaged with what happened and get a deeper understanding of events, but kind of get a ride with it as well. It’s really about getting that story, getting that feeling of what really happened when they’re watching the movie.
Dror Mohar: I think one of the great things Mike has been able to work out in DeepWater Horizon -- and then do really well on Patriots Day -- is that stories like this really benefit from very strategic sound storytelling and placing and shaping sounds.
Being able to share our treatment back-and-forth, and for them to inform each other, really works in terms of sound basically being able to be very compelling but in a pretty simple and transparent way where it’s really distilled to the most important stuff.
Smith: It’s quite a tightrope act, especially something like this where real people got hurt and killed, and it’s a tightrope act between reality and a heightened dramatization. These are difficult movies to get right, and having this workflow between us allows you to balance that tightrope more succinctly.