Double-dipper sound mixing Oscar nominees talk 'Birdman' and 'Unbroken'
A handful of people ended up with multiple Oscar nominations this year, and a number of them are names you've heard. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, for instance, was nominated for producing, directing and writing "Birdman." Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater picked up the same trio for "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "Boyhood" respectively, while Anthony McCarten double dipped for producing and writing "The Theory of Everything." And of course the prolific composer Alexandre Desplat was nominated for his work on both "Grand Budapest" and "The Imitation Game." Set decorator Anna Pinnock also picked up two for her work on "Grand Budapest" and "Into the Woods," but a pair of sound mixers made the cut for two entirely different projects and stood out as a particularly interesting trivia nugget this year: Jon Taylor and Frank A. Montaño.
Industry mixers are typically set up at one studio or another, and in Taylor and Montaño's case, Universal is home. So they were tasked with bringing the sonic environment of Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken" to life. With its multiple environments, it's really a bunch of movies in one: a war movie, a lost-at-sea movie, a prison movie, etc. Meanwhile, Taylor's relationship with Iñárritu meant he got the call for "Birdman," and he brought his Universal partner along for the ride in what was, ultimately, a complete about face from "Unbroken." At the end of the day, Taylor picked up his first two Oscar nominations to date for the projects, while Montaño — last recognized with a "surprise" nod for 2008's "Wanted" — landed numbers six and seven.
I spoke to both recently about their work on the two films and the drastic differences in their separate worlds. You can read through the back and forth below. (It's a long one, but super informative.)
"Birdman" hits DVD/Blu-ray Feb. 17. "Unbroken" is now playing in theaters.
HitFix: First off, congratulations to both of you. Two nominations for two very different films.
Jon Taylor: We fooled 'em twice!
[Laughs.] Well with Unbroken, it's an interesting project because it's kind of multiple films. It's a war movie, it's a water movie, which is obviously mana for sound guys, and you get the prison movie aspect. So when you saw that this was what you were going to do, is that what came to your mind, that this was going to be a heavily involved, multi-tiered thing?
Jon Taylor: Seeing the film for the first time as a first cut, definitely, I was thinking about it being three different movies as you said. Which is exciting for sound people. I mean your canvas is changing so therefore your color palette changes.
And before really diving in here, Jon, you are dialogue and Frank is effects, correct?
Jon Taylor: You are correct.
So, with the war movie aspect of it, how did you get into truthfully depicting this kind of sonic environment, looking at like what the sounds of these missile bursts and stuff would have been like on the plane and things like that? How did you go about researching it?
Frank A. Montaño: I guess I will speak on that. None of us have actually been in that environment so obviously everything's replicated and sweetened and manipulated to fit picture. But through that sequence, which was interesting after watching it several times through, you have this onslaught of Japanese Zeros attacking Louis' and crews' E-24 Liberator and all this mayhem ensues during this bombing raid. What we'd come to find, working through it time and time again, is that Louis himself was actually the caretaker of the crew. He never fired a weapon; he was moving throughout the plane, going into the underbelly, trying to close the cargo doors, being exposed to the elements and to the enemy, and then coming back helping fellow crew members that needed his aid throughout that whole sequence. You look at it as a war sequence, but the root of it is Louis' spirit through the film.
Sonically we want to make it as immersive as possible, to put the audience in harm's way as Louis truly was and the crew was. So just being able to open up the spaces and pan and move things around [to hear what] you didn't see was quite effective. And then obviously the low frequency information. So we tried really not to hurt anybody, keep the sound pressure up but manage the frequencies to not turn anybody off or make it too loud or uncomfortable. But we wanted to make it threatening and just on the edge of being unbearable. So that was the goal, and obviously clearing dialogue lines. And there was no music in the sequence, Kris, as you probably noticed. So it really allowed us to take liberties in a lot of the movement, interior-to-exterior overheads, etc.
Jon Taylor: And at the same time as Frankie said, also it's just keeping Louis — keeping it pointed toward Louie. So his dialogue — I mean it was all clear, just subtly, just so we could stay with him. And that was something that we sort of recognized a little bit into the film, was how important it was to actually stay with Louis through that scene so to hear his dialogue clear.
How did things change for you when it got to the stranded-in-the-ocean portion of the movie, which is a long stretch actually? Things like that really depend as much on what you hear as what you see, I think, as an audience member. So how did you approach that?
Jon Taylor: It's a really good question. I'll speak first, even though it really was all up to Frankie to keep it going. But the production in that scene was unfortunately in four little dialogue pieces that we were able to salvage. Other than that it was all ADR [automated dialogue replacement] that Becky Sullivan had to go shoot around the world in all these different places. We got — I don't want to say lucky, but we were so blessed to have great actors. These guys pulled off incredible performances in these booths re-creating themselves being stranded in the ocean. So that's where it started. I mean the whole thing, keeping it interesting with nice clear dialogue that wasn't cluttered by extraneous ambient noises that were there in production. That really made a difference. So the dynamics were there sonically and frequency-wise. we pretty much had that going for us and then Frankie took over.
Frank A. Montaño: Which is always bad news for the audience!
Jon Taylor: [Laughs.]