By Jennifer Walden
Having three job titles on a film may seem like a huge undertaking, but it’s actually quite a natural flow — taking the reins at the starting gate and steering a film’s sound from the pre-production phase through the final mix of the sound effects. That’s just what Paul N.J. Ottosson (sound designer, sound re-recording mixer and sound supervisor) has done for every film he’s worked on since 2008’s The Hurt Locker, for which he won two Oscars (Best Sound Editing, Sound Mixing), including 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, for which he won a Best Sound Editing Oscar.
As the supervising sound editor, sound designer and re-recording mixer for the sound effects on director David Ayer’s Fury, Ottosson was able to take concepts from early conversations with Ayer and maintain those through the final mix. “It’s a good linear process. I feel like it’s all one coherent thought,” he says. “There’s very little conversation at the mixing stage about the direction we discussed early on in the movie.”
The advantage for the director is having a re-recording mixer who is already close to the film, with intimate knowledge of the sound material and the reason why it’s there. Says Ottosson, “We usually end up with a really clean track because we only carry elements to the final mix that are going to be in the movie. That’s a great advantage in the mixing stage with the director. It allows me to focus on being creative with the choices that we’ve already made months ago. We’re dealing with much smaller changes.”
Fury, which was also written by director Ayer, tells the story of a five-man tank crew in WWII. As the war is coming to an end, the crew of American Sherman tank Fury, led by veteran Army sergeant “Wardaddy” (played by Brad Pitt), takes on a new member with no combat experience, let alone tank experience. Facing overwhelming odds, the Fury crew makes a last stand behind enemy lines, sticking to their guns despite their desperate situation.
While Ayer was preparing the shoot in England, he called Ottosson at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, and together they formed a list of sounds they wanted for each tank and vehicle in the film. Since each Sherman tank is unique, and Ayer wanted their individual characteristics to translate in the soundtrack, it was critical to record the actual tanks on-set. Ottosson hired sound effects recordist Eilam Hoffman of Sound 24, based within Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, England, to capture, in fine detail, all the sounds of the vehicles captured for Fury in Oxfordshire and Dorset, England.
“We had this great opportunity to record real Sherman tanks and a Tiger 1 tank, the only existing one on the entire planet that is still in working condition since World War II. The Tiger 1 has a really high-performance engine that almost sounds like a race car compared to the crude, basic engines in the Sherman tanks,” says Ottosson.
(An in-depth look at sound recordist Eilam Hoffman’s experience on Fury is coming shortly.)
Capturing the Sounds of War
While Hoffman captured the tanks and vehicles on set, Ottosson was busy with his own sound team, recording weapons, impacts and explosions at Wes Thompson’s Piru Gun Range in Lake Piru, California. Capturing gunfire isn’t as straightforward as it sounds, according to Ottosson. Due to the high SPL at the muzzle, a gunshot essentially shuts down the close-up mic, so additional mics are placed at varying distances to capture the sound. “The gun sound you hear in a movie might be made from five to 10 different microphones set in different spots, and those recordings are married together to recreate what the gun actually sounds like. In the studio, we spend days or weeks trying to make those guns sound how they really sound. It’s a big process,” points out Ottosson.
The same can be said for bullet impacts. When recorded, they sound like very small “tings,” so Ottosson beefs up the real recorded sound with slower, heavier impacts. During the film, there are shells that pass-by at supersonic speed, and when they hit a Sherman tank it rings like a big church bell. “I had steel plates delivered and we hit them with sledgehammers,” he reports. “We raised the panels up a little bit so they would resonate more. These impacts where also layered with church bells I had recorded.”
In the film, high-velocity shells fly by the Sherman tanks. It’s a frightening event that gets a reaction even from Pitt’s character, tank commander Wardaddy. Ottosson reports the actual recorded shell pass-bys were very short and wouldn’t work for the longer shots. They also needed a sound that felt bigger. The solution? He taped small whistles to a frisbee and as the frisbee spun through the air, it created a high-frequency whistling sound. Ottosson manipulated those frisbee recordings to work in conjunction with the real shell pass-bys. “It’s funny to think that these kids toys became the most fearful sound in the movie. It came out really cool and David [Ayer] was really happy with it.”
Once the raw effects were captured, Ottosson and his team crafted them into sound design that bordered between realistic and exciting. Having read actual soldiers’ accounts of being in a tank bombarded by bullets and shells, he knew the experience sounded close to a hailstorm, but the audience expects a more dramatic sound. “In real life, many sounds aren’t exciting. So, in post we add a bit of hyperreality to the real-world sounds, manipulate and tweak them in a way that more effectively tells the story of the movie. We try to get the sound to a place where people would perceive it to be. It actually takes a lot of work to get the sound there.”
One sound concept for Fury was to have the tank feel like a sort of home. During an early scene in the military camp, the crew of the Sherman tank Fury “welcomes” its newest member, Norman. The camp environment is populated with busy soldiers, planes flying over head, and vehicles driving by. Norman gets into the Fury for the first time and all the noise outside disappears. “Even though it’s not realistic, we pulled out all the other sounds. Norman sees that someone has made a home out of the tank, and I think it’s really important for the audience to have the same feeling that this is their home, this is their tank and this is where they feel safe,” explains Ottosson.
Outside the tank, the soundtrack is dominated by war: turrets and treads, gasoline and diesel engines and mud. There are shells flying by, machine gun belts singing as casings fall into and onto the tanks. Guns fire, bullets hit the hulls. Planes roar overhead. “The small choices we made throughout the movie created this great picture of sound,” he says. “We started taking out sounds you’d expect to hear. For example, there is no real ambient animal life in the movie except for a single bird chirping after they kill the Hitler Jugend (a Panzer Division of “Hitler Youth” soldiers) that fired the Panzersfaust anti-tank weapon — which causes an American tank to catch fire — and later we hear a couple of crows during Norman’s scene when Wardaddy pushes Norman to shoot a German solider. There is no other life than those specific sounds we placed. It’s just the rush of war from beginning to end. We just imagined being in a war like that you don’t take in the beauty of life. Your existence is that of being surrounded by death.”
Thanks to the extensive coverage by sound recordist Hoffman and his team, Ottosson had a large variety of options for the tank sound design, from metal treads on German tanks and hard rubbery Sherman treads to different caliber machine guns, different engine styles and different long-range guns. “We couldn’t be overly big with the gun sounds because we needed the Tiger 1 tank gun to be the biggest thing in the whole movie.”
Ottosson and his sound team edited and pre-mixed the effects in Avid Pro Tools 11 using an Avid ICON console. The effects pre-dubs, complete with processing and automation, were transferred to the Kim Novak Theater at Sony Pictures Post for the final 5.1 mix, with re-recording mixer Marc Fishman handling music on a Harrison MPC4D digital console. “When I mix the temp dubs we just carry all those mixes forward to the final mix,” says Ottoson. “For me there is no other way I can do that except for mixing in Pro Tools. It becomes a constant refining process from day one. I end up running my Pro Tools rig through the Harrison.”
Ottosson may have three job titles on the film, but all that work wouldn’t be possible, he says, without his small army of great sound editors. “It’s a huge movie. They shot an insane amount of footage with different takes and performances on the scenes. They were constantly changing the movie and our crew was making the changes while also trying to move forward and make the sound better and better. It was a really hard movie because there’s so much going on from beginning to end. We don’t just have one battle, we have tons of battles with lots of things happening in between.”
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based writer and audio engineer.