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Movies: Ann Hornaday on use of sound effects in 'Secretariat' and other films

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Sound designers can immerse the audience in the action through the skilled use of music, dialogue and sound effects. The Post's Ann Hornaday talks about the sound design of "Secretariat", "The American" and "Inception."

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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010

Here's a moviemaking challenge: How do you inject suspense into a story millions of people already know?

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In his film about Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown champion and one of the most famous horses in history, director Randall Wallace rose to that challenge in an unconventional way -- he appealed to filmgoers' ears, rather than their eyes. Even as the images in "Secretariat" would depict well-known events, Wallace decided, he would infuse the movie's soundtrack with an almost subliminal tension. So as the chestnut colt -- called Big Red through most of the movie -- makes his way from the Kentucky Derby to the Preakness to the Belmont Stakes, discerning audiences can make out something beyond the roar of the crowd and thundering hooves: the sound of Secretariat's heart beating.

Wallace hit on the idea of making the heartbeat part of the sound design of "Secretariat" when he discovered that the horse's real-life jockey, Ron Turcotte, had ridden a horse whose heart had burst during a race, killing the animal and seriously injuring Turcotte. "It occurred to me that we could hear that reality in a subtle way," Wallace says. "That horses' hearts do burst and that Secretariat was going so hard, so fast, that there was a real concern."

The sound team recorded actual horses' hearts and also put microphones under their noses to pick up the sound of their breathing. Some of the hoof- and heartbeats were augmented with the sound of a Japanese taiko drum, which meshed with Nick Glennie-Smith's musical score to create a seamless, stirring whole.

In another recent movie, "Buried," Ryan Reynolds plays a truck driver in Iraq whose kidnappers bury him in a coffin-size box with only 90 minutes' worth of oxygen. When "Buried" opens, the screen is pitch dark, with Reynolds's grunts, kicks and panting the only sensory input the audience has for several moments until he ignites a Zippo lighter to illuminate his cramped surroundings. For the next hour and a half, the screen goes in and out of darkness, with only sounds -- the lighter, a vibrating cellphone, sifting sand and Reynolds's own anguished vocalizations -- imparting as much or even more narrative information as the visual image itself.

In very different ways, "Secretariat" and "Buried" exemplify the importance of sound in cinema, which despite being described as a visual medium is just as much an aural one. "What you hear conditions what you see," says sound designer Walter Murch, whose work on "The Conversation," "Apocalypse Now" and "The Godfather" revolutionized the medium. And at their best, movies are a well-balanced blend of visual images, sound effects, dialogue and music that create a world as believable as the streets outside the theater, or as bizarre as the most vivid dream.

The latter was precisely the goal of Richard King, who designed the sound effects and supervised the sound editing for "Inception." That film features a musical score by Hans Zimmer that uses the leitmotif of Edith Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien," slowing the melody down and synthesizing it into an abstract but organic sonic backdrop.

Zimmer used computer software to separate the song into discrete instrumental and vocal parts and manipulate their pitch. Then King and his team re-recorded those elements on an outdoor set on a Warner Bros. back lot and in nearby canyons "to get this natural decay and echoes," King says. "It sounded very eerie, those big horns played back on super-loud volume."

He used the same process, this time with an oscillator, to achieve what he describes as his "Holy Grail" of the film, the "low-end boom" that sounds whenever a character drops into a dream. "It's much more difficult to find one sound that really works than to put in 10 sounds that kind of work," King says.

Sometimes the most radical sound designs can be the most subtle. Murch didn't work on "The Social Network," about the start-up of Facebook, but he uses director David Fincher's approach to the sound as an example of when to break the rules. Murch points to one of the film's pivotal scenes, set in a San Francisco disco with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Napster's Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who yell at each other throughout the encounter, trying to be heard above the club's throbbing techno music. Normally, Murch says, a sound designer would "play the music really loud, then tuck the music under the dialogue," the better to hear screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's revealing, rapid-fire exchanges.

Instead, Fincher and his sound team committed what is usually a no-no: They "pushed the music back up," Murch says, to the point where the disco's blaring tunes and the actors' words must compete for the audience's attention. Rather than alienating the viewer, the resulting strain -- along with the acting and camerawork -- helped to create a visceral sense of the hyper, multitasking world Zuckerberg lived in and helped create.

The sound of silence

Oscars for sound design tend to go to action movies, which often boast soundtracks bursting with deafening bombs, shattering glass, gunshots and attendant heavy-metal cacophony. But even in those films, says Randy Thom, director of sound design at Skywalker Sound, "it's not simply about making everything loud. You have to figure out how to change the sonic focus from moment to moment."


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