Oscar nominees explain their approach to the sound of 'Gravity'
Like a number of films from 2013, many of them nominated in one or both of the Academy's sound categories — "All is Lost," "Inside Llewyn Davis," "Lone Survivor" — what the audience hears is crucial to the overall experience of the film. And that was never more the case this year than with Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity." But when your goal is authenticity in orbit, how do you come at the problem laid out by the tagline for Ridley Scott's 1979 horror film "Alien": "In space, no one can hear you scream," or do anything, really.
The film is conceptually unique in that it is a ride, meant to put the viewer in the first-person perspective of its embattled protagonist, astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). That extended to the use of sound and stacked the challenges up immediately.
"We had a level of realism we tried to convey to the audience," Oscar-nominated sound mixer Skip Lievsay says. He was also recognized for his work on "Inside Llewyn Davis" this year. "It is 99 percent CG – nearly entirely made-up image-wise. We tried to bridge that gap a bit to come up with a possible sound that you might hear in that situation. It was carefully designed in the same way that the picture was."
From the beginning, Cuarón was concerned with how they were going to manage the aural complexity of such a thing, and Oscar-nominated sound mixer Glenn Freemantle was one of those who proposed working from a place of tactile effect. There is no sound in space, no, but sound waves can travel through the various structural components — space suits, tech in orbit, etc. — that litter the frame, further putting the viewer in Stone's shoes.
"I said, 'Let's do it by touch, through vibration,'" Freemantle recalls. "It creates a great dynamic because it gives you a contact with her and there's an energy with it, all the drilling and everything. We recorded thousands of things through vibrations with contact mics and we did all sorts of stuff to try and create that reality, that you really believe what you're hearing right from the beginning."
Amassing all of these elements for the film's post-production sound mixing team was a unique experience for Freemantle. He had connections to someone who worked at NASA, which was an invaluable starting point for understanding what the various materials being used by the astronauts in these scenes would be made of. He also knew someone who worked for General Motors in Luton, England. "They let us record all these cool things and robots and stuff for 12 hours with contact mics," Freemantle says. "What we were really trying to do is record on multiple mics with tons of different layers. The idea was lots and lots and lots of levels, and we would layer them in different frequencies."
Eventually all that material made its way to the mixing stage, where Lievsay (who handled dialogue) and his fellow mixers sculpted it into what it is now.
"We really tried to stay away from objective sound and only hear subjective sound," Lievsay says. "That's very demanding and very restrictive and that's what gives the movie its character and makes it what it is: strict adherence to what it would be like if you were there."
And there are a couple of different ways to hear Lievsay and Freemantle's work. The ideal way to see "Gravity," however, might not be the ideal way to hear "Gravity," as IMAX theaters come with proprietary sound systems that frankly aren't as crisp and detailed as the other options. Elsewhere there is a typical Dolby set-up, but then there is the Dolby Atmos system, which supports up to 128 discrete audio tracks and up to 64 unique speaker feeds. You can spot Atmos systems at your local cineplex by noting an array of speakers on the ceiling, and what that does is provide a huge jump in the potential for separation with all of these various tracks — dialogue, score, beeps, drills, breathing, etc. The audience is fully immersed in the aural experience, and you can tell with that particular presentation that this sound team were like kids in a candy store.
"The ideal scenario would be to see it in IMAX and Atmos, but they won't do it," Freemantle says. "That's their system and you can't do much about it, but it would be phenomenal, wouldn't it, to have the best sound system and the best picture for a film like that?"
Meanwhile, composer Steven Price (a friend of Freemantle's) first came on board the project as a music editor. Before long he transitioned over to composer for the film as Cuarón liked what he was coming up with. He, too, delighted in working with the Atmos system for directing his work all over the theater.
"You can really hear everything move and then get a sense of it really shifting," Price, also nominated for an Oscar, told HitFix in October of last year. "Like when you have POV shots where you're within the helmet and that sort of stuff. A lot of the things that you kind of get nearly there in 7.1, you can get exactly as you intended in Atmos. And I think wherever you sit in the theater, you'll get a slightly different experience, as well, which is an interesting development. You're actually embracing the fact that it's an experience again."
Working with Price was crucial to Freemantle's work given that the score isn't traditional by any means throughout much of the film and almost registers as sound effects-as-melody.
"It was a real fusion of the two areas, right from the word go," Freemantle says. "What you want to do is work completely together in an army and make it seamless. You're in and out of these events. I described it at one point that it's like creating a ballet with the movement. But even under the music we had sub sweeps and bass sweeps. You don't hear it but it gave the action some weight behind the music as well; there's another design level that's moving everything behind you, that you're not hearing. You know when you're in the theater and you get that phantom bass in your stomach and it moves you around? We were doing that with it. You want people to feel it but not necessarily hear it."
And the end result is just another level of sterling technical achievement for one of the biggest, most daring films to find itself in the thick of the Oscar hunt. But no matter what the scale of a project, no matter how massive the canvas, philosophies tend to boil down to a certain reduction and essence. Look no further than Lievsay, who had two completely different tasks in "Gravity" and "Inside Llewyn Davis" but approached each with similar intent.
"All movies have the same basic core," he says. "They're all about an idea and a story and conveying that idea to the audience."
Gerard Kennedy also contributed to this report.