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THE OSCARS

Think Their Job Sounds Easy?

You don't just set up a mike and start recording. These pros had to find a way around big obstacles.

March 25, 2001|MICHAEL MALLORY | Michael Mallory is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Imagine yourself sitting on a sound stage at Rome's Cinecitta Studios, staring at a full-sized mock-up of an American World War II submarine created for the film "U-571," a startlingly realistic creation that is crammed with actors and a film crew, with barely enough room to move around, let alone dodge the seawater that seeps, and sometimes pours, through the joints. The set is an art director's dream, one that fully conveys the sheer claustrophobic nature of living and working on a submarine.

There is just one problem: There is no place to put a microphone and boom operator where they won't be seen by the camera as they record the tense, hushed dialogue of the actors.

This is the kind of challenge sound technicians face every day. In the case of "U-571," production sound mixer Ivan Sharrock came up with a deceptively simple solution. "We ended up using a large amount of tiny, fixed microphones all over the areas in which we were working," says Sharrock, an Oscar winner for 1987's "The Last Emperor." "They happened to match the color of the submarine, a dark, dull gray, so a lot of times they are in the shot, but you would never know it."

For work on "U-571," a film in which sound played a vital role both on- and off-camera (sounds of depth charges were boomed on the set to give the actors something to react to), Sharrock is nominated for an Oscar along with sound team Steve Maslow, Gregg Landaker and Rick Kline. Jon Johnson is nominated for sound editing.

The breakdown of the sound categories--who does what and when--can be confusing. The category called simply "sound" covers production sound mixers, like Sharrock, who record the on-set tracks (even if dialogue is extensively rerecorded, or looped, a clear production track from the set is needed as a guide), and rerecording mixers such as Maslow, Landaker and Kline, who balance and blend dialogue, sound effects and music. "Sound editing" covers what "U-571's" Johnson describes as "wrangling up all the dialogue, the ADR [automatic dialogue replacement], the backgrounds, the specific Foley [live dubbed sound] requests, the special interest sound and putting it all together to provide a sonic buffet."

For first-time nominee Johnson, knowing there were still war veterans who remembered exactly what it sounded like to be inside a sub heightened the desire for accuracy. The sound team recorded materials directly from World War II-era submarines and even a U-boat. "We got down to what the hatch sounds like and what the actual periscope sounds like, and all those authentic details."

Water is a constant in this year's sound nominations, nowhere more so than in "The Perfect Storm." Production sound mixer Keith A. Wester (whose billing carries the title CAS for Cinema Audio Society) not only had to contend with such on-set aural disturbances as 100 mph fans and wave machines, he had to find a way to record a dialogue scene between George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg that ended with the set being submerged. "It required that the microphone be able to record decent dialogue, first of all, and second, not be hurt when it was submerged, and third, pressed into use again for the next take," says the six-time nominee. Such a rig did not exist, so Wester went to his lab and whipped one up using a small microphone, electrical PVC, foam, hot glue and a condom. "I mounted it on the ceiling of the wheelhouse and it worked like a charm," he says. "I think I'm going to send that one to the Smithsonian."

The challenge for rerecording mixers John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and David Campbell was to orchestrate the 40-minute cacophony of the storm. "We tried to vary what [sounds] we presented to the audience so they would not become totally swamped by it," Rudloff says. "But it took time, because you work on small sections of a scene at a time, and you can get that scene sounding really good, and the next scene sounding really good, but when you string them together you would realize that you got too big over a long period of time."

Reitz, Rudloff and Campbell exemplify the kind of sound-mixing team that stays together from project to project, often for years. Last year, the three won the triple crown of film awards for sound--the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award, CAS Award and Oscar for "The Matrix." But Reitz points out there are many others on the overall team who never get nominated. "[Supervising sound editor] Wylie Stateman should have been in there with us," he says. "We can't win these awards without those other people like Wylie and [ADR editor] Hugh Waddell, who actually build the effects for us to use. The British academy keeps it as a group, but the motion picture academy does it differently."

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