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

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010; E01

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

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."

As an example, Thom points to the 2000 movie "Cast Away," starring Tom Hanks as a FedEx executive stranded on an uninhabited island. When director Robert Zemeckis told him there would be a 45-minute stretch with no music or dialogue, Thom recalls, "at first I was completely thrilled. . . . Then in the next minute I was terrified."

Zemeckis's instructions to Thom were to mirror in the sound design the isolation Hanks's character was experiencing in that scene. Thus no sounds of birds, insects, frogs -- the filmmaker even digitally removed the flies that occasionally flew in front of the camera. "That removed a huge swash of what I'd normally use as the sound design palette for that place. All I was left with was wind and surf and sounds of him walking in the sand," Thom says. And simply to go to an island and turn on a tape recorder, he adds, wouldn't have worked. "What you want to do is record only those elements that are going to be emotionally the most appropriate at any given moment. You have to compose it element by element."

So Thom and his crew traveled West Coast beaches to record all-new sounds of wind and waves, and went into the desert to capture palm trees swaying. They also created some effects, such as putting stress on various wicker objects -- a chair, a basket, a cat carrier -- to simulate the creaking of the trees.

"Each had its own set of sonic characteristics," Thom recalls, "so we were able to create a wider variety of sounds, to suggest to the audience subliminally that different parts of the palm tree creaked in distinct ways."

The key in the sound design of "Cast Away," as in all movies, was finding specificity within the greater wash of sonic information. Just recording waves crashing onto a shore would have resulted in an undifferentiated muddle for the viewer; taping the sounds of a battle or of a crowd at a horse race would produce a loud, meaningless blur of unintelligible noises.

Even the busiest sequences are composed of individual sonic strands that add up to a densely layered, precise whole. For example, the attack scene in "Pearl Harbor" contains a lone bomb whistle amid the mayhem; in "Secretariat" you hear the sound of a child excitedly saying, "I saw Big Red!" within the chaos of a crowded horse track.

What the best soundtracks have in common, whether they're designed for movies about a Triple Crown winner or multi-tasking millennials, is that they capture or convey one character's experience. Just as important as showing the audience what protagonists are doing is allowing us to hear what they hear.

The best sound, in other words, has a point of view.

Tricks of the trade

Ann Kroeber has supplied sounds for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" and other Oscar-winning films and has worked with directors Carroll Ballard ("The Black Stallion"), Peter Weir ("Dead Poets Society") and David Lynch ("Blue Velvet"). All three filmmakers, she says, explored how sound can change the entire tone of a movie.

Consider the simple shot of a couple standing under a streetlight at night: "You could make the scene romantic by having sweet little insects [in the background], the lovely summer chirp," she says. "You'd hear the very soft sound of traffic, or a car softly goes by. Or it could be Lynchian. You'd have a low rumble, and the traffic and sounds of the city would have a low sound. The street lamp would have a kind of buzzing sound, like a fluorescent light. . . . You could give it a completely different feeling just with the sound effects."

Most movies use sound that was originally recorded during filming, but many -- especially action pictures with lots of special effects -- also use sound recorded after the fact, including additional dialogue. Once a film has been shot, sound effects are either recorded, obtained from an effects library or provided by foley artists (named after sound-effects pioneer Jack Foley), who meticulously create sounds while watching the film to coordinate with what's happening on screen.

Thus, when two characters walk down a street, two foley artists on a soundstage are creating the click of their heels on the concrete; later, if they have a cup of tea, foley artists perform the "cup downs."

Then there are the beloved tricks of the foley trade: Celery stalks are often broken to re-create the sound of breaking bones, or a watermelon covered in crackers is whacked with a stick to simulate the sound of someone's brains being bashed in.

And there are editing cheats: Bird aficionados wince every time they hear the red-tailed hawk's screech used when a bald eagle takes flight, just as entomologists groan when crickets can be heard outside a window at night -- regardless of the location or season.

"No matter how far away a lightning strike is on the horizon, you hear thunder at the same time," Thom says about another familiar convention. But over time those anomalies have taken on meaning to viewers, so he's chary of jettisoning them in the name of authenticity. "Lots of us agonize over that -- how to have impact without being cliche."

Perhaps more than any other part of filmmaking, the sound should disappear, becoming such a subtle part of the overall texture of the movie that the audience doesn't notice it.

It's only later, perhaps in the parking lot with its passing traffic and buzzing streetlights, that you realize: The movie you just watched, you also heard.

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