Oscar Sound 2013: SKYFALL

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On getting started on a complex film

Baker Landers: When Per and I get the film we’ll sit down and watch it through, trying to get a feel for how we want to approach the sound design. Of course, there are your nuts-and-bolts things you have to do. We may watch a film two or three times, just to see as a whole where we’re going. Usually, after we’ve watched something a few times and taken our notes, we’ll bring the crew in—all these smart and talented people we’ve worked with for many years—and certain crew members have their specialties. We’ll all talk as a group in a big think tank, take and compare notes and go over the concepts of the film. So in a way we’ll look at a film globally at first and then break it down into specifics.

Hallberg: In this case we also flew over to London and had a meeting early on with Sam [Mendes, director] and Stuart Baird [picture editor] looking at the footage they’d shot at that time and put together—to get a feel for what things looked like and be able to have an overall discussion with Sam and Stuart about what they were looking for. But it wasn’t very specific. It’s almost more like getting to know them and the material to try to understand their sensitivities.

Then we had one of our guys, Peter Staubli, set up in London—because the picture department was in London all the way through the process—for quite a while before the first temp dub so we could cut material here in L.A., send it to him, so he could present it to Stuart and Sam and they had a sense of what we were doing, to make sure we weren’t going down the wrong path. That’s how we worked up until the first temp dub, which we did over there.

On the climactic final act of the film, which moves from the haunting desolation of the rural Scottish countryside to a major assault/battle at the Skyfall estate.

Baker Landers: There’s a lot of subtle detail in the beginning of that scene [when Bond and M arrive at the seemingly deserted Skyfall mansion]. Peter Staubli worked very hard on that and then Per and I sat and spotted each bird you hear, all the way from when they pull up and Bond and M get out of the car and are looking out at the countryside. From that point on, we cleaned a lot of birds out of the production [track] and went through and spotted each individual bird, up to the attack on Skyfall.

We had to play that scene through several times, sitting back and watching it as a movie and as a scene, to make sure we were hitting the moments emotionally with the right birds. We also had some active birds that go from one cut to another, so that it still seemed desolate, but didn’t feel contrived or obvious. We took a loon that we had on one of the establishing shots of Skyfall and we pull it from the exterior into the interior where M is looking out the window it’s kind of a mournful sound design.

Hallberg: The way Sam looks at it—the way he needs to work and the way we work—you could see that whole sequence as one chapter: from the time [Bond and M] leave London behind, to the first shots of Scotland, until M’s death, is one very specific arc. It’s starts with this lonely depressing feeling [the arrival at Skyfall] and you need to translate that and then do this slow build-up of the preparation into the massive onslaught, go all the way though that, and then change the mood again when it goes over to the church and all that. You can’t treat those as separate pieces. If they don’t flow and work together in that arc, you’re out. That’s the beauty of the film and what made it interesting for all of us. Every piece has its own arc and different ways the intensity steps up and then maybe drops down before you get another climax.

On the film’s temp mix

Russell: We were fortunate enough to go over to London to do the temp mix. It’s such a crucial part of the process because the structure that we will end up going back to—things that will come up in the temp mix in terms of balances and relationships—we’re going to be striving for and then trying to improve on them. But the basic context of the mix is put together in that temp, so it was very important for us to get on the same page as Sam [Mendes, director] to find out what he’s really looking for.

We then came back to the States to begin pre-dubbing and the editors addressed the content notes from Sam and prepared all the material for the final mix. Scott and I had ample time to predub the movie in our own environment—which was a real key to us, because going into a strange room, you don’t know what you’re hearing. It was a huge advantage to predub here at Technicolor on the Paramount lot in our facility and then go to London for the final mix with all the predubs done and ready to go.

On applying sound effects:

Russell: Sound effects are there to kind of ground you in reality and make the sequences believable, but from an artistic standpoint. In the skyscraper sequence in Shanghai, which is one of my favorites, we’re stalking this guy, following him from the airport, and we’re playing all the effects sort of subliminal and stylized because the music is driving it. Once they up the elevator and there’s that shootout where they go hand-to-hand after the first shot, it’s stylized but you feel those impacts, but from the perspective of the camera. I remember Sam saying, “I want to hear it from where the camera would be. I don’t want it to be how an action movie would play it. Give me perspective, but then, when we cut close-in I want to feel those impacts and create those beats and have that be something special.” It took some time, but eventually we got what Sam wanted. The wind is also a big player in that scene, because we’re at the top of this building and there’s all of this sound swirling. But it’s poetic. That’s an example of where we really groomed and sculpted particular sequence for Sam’s taste.

On Sam Mendes’ approach to sound:

Millan: Because of my background working with him, I have good idea about his sensibility. At the core of everything Sam does, it’s supporting the storytelling, and whether something is used or not used sonically in the film or a scene is quite deliberate. He’s always thinking about the subtext of telling the story and he uses sound to convey that to the audience. And often it’s not literal; it’s not what’s in the frame necessarily. He’s already chosen the performance he likes the best and the picture that conveys what he wants to visually. Then we [on the sound side] sometimes get to play the subtext of that, and it’s one of those things that manipulates the audience that is unlike what is literal.

I know I’m better at what I do because of him. He has forced me to look at film differently, and when I look at scene now, I start looking three or four layers down. I’m not necessarily thinking about what I see. I’m thinking about the things that got us to that scene and where we’re going to go next.

There are things that are very important to him and other things that are not as important to him in terms of what gets on the track. In his comfort level, the last thing we want to do is come in with a lot of material that will overwhelm him and distract him. So we have to know how to moderate, how we integrate, all this material. We start off with all the things he knows and is comfortable with—dialog and music—and then bring in other things slowly. There’s a pendulum effect. The first time he reacts to a film, he might skew the soundtrack in one direction, because he wants to push and pull on it a certain way and usually the first approach is a minimalist approach. Then we end up swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction. Ultimately we get a chance to get it in the right pocket. It’s constantly an experiment with him.

This could have been a much more dense soundtrack, but I didn’t want to overwhelm him and have him be frustrated. So my conversations with Per and Karen and Greg in the months leading up this were very valuable.

Did having worked on Bourne films help you with this?

Millan: The Bournes films are entirely different from what Sam did, pacing-wise. In the Bourne films, sound supports the story differently because how rapidly the film is cut and how rapidly the camera moves. In those, the sound almost grounds the movie; it has to anchor it more, because visually things are happening so fast you almost can’t keep up with it, whereas the pace of this movie is much different. This has a Sam Mendes thumbprint all over it. He is about setting tone and mood for longer periods of time, though obviously when you get into heavy action, that’s a whole different deal.

On the positive worldwide reception to Skyfall:

Russell: It couldn’t be more thrilling for me, from “Boy, we got to be on a Bond movie!” to “Hey, it’s the 50th anniversary and I get to work with Sam Mendes for the first time, and that’s a thrill.” For it to come out and for us to feel as good as we did about it, and then for it to have it be received both critically and from audiences worldwide, and be the first billion-dollar movie for Sony, is unbelievable! That’s already fantastic. And now for both Karen [Baker Landers] and Per [Hallberg]; Scott, Stuart and myself; and Thomas [Newman] and Roger [Deakins, cinematographer] to get these nominations—as well as Adele and Paul Epworth [for writing the film’s theme song]—we couldn’t be happier. It’s frosting what was already an amazing cake.

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