Oscar Watch: The Shape (and sound) of Water

Post production sound mixers Christian Cooke and Brad Zoern, who are nominated (with production mixer Glen Gauthier) for their work on Fox’s The Shape of Water, have sat side-by-side at mixing consoles for nearly a decade. The frequent collaborators, who handle mixing duties at Deluxe Toronto, faced an unusual assignment given that the film’s two lead characters never utter a single word of actual dialogue. In The Shape of Water, which has been nominated for 13 Academy Awards, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is mute and the creature she falls in love with makes undefined sounds. This creative choice placed more than the usual amount of importance on the rest of the soundscape to support the story.

L-R: Nathan Robitaille, J. Miles Dale, Brad Zoern, director Guillermo del Toro, Christian Cooke, Nelson Ferreira, Filip Hosek, Cam McLauchlin, video editor Sidney Wolinsky, Rob Hegedus, Doug Wilkinson.

Cooke, who focused on dialogue and music, and Zoern, who worked with effects, backgrounds and Foley, knew from the start that their work would need to fit into the unique and delicate tone that infused the performances and visuals. Their work began, as always, with pre-dubs followed by three temp mixes of five days each, which allowed for discussion and input from director Guillermo del Toro. It was at the premixes that the mixers got a feel for del Toro’s conception for the film’s soundtrack. “We were more literal at first with some of the sounds,” says Zoern. “He had ideas about blending effects and music. By the time we started on the five-week-long mix, we had a very clear idea about what he was looking for.”

The final mix took place in one of Deluxe Toronto’s five stages, which have identical acoustic qualities and the same Avid Pro Tools-based Harrison MP4D/Avid S6 hybrid console, JBL M2 speakers and Crown amps.

The mixers worked to shape sonic moments that do more than represent “reality,” but create mood and tension. This includes key moments such as the sound of a car’s windshield wipers that build in volume until they take over the track in the form of a metronome-like beat underlining the tension of the moment. One pivotal scene finds Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) paying a visit to Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer). As Strickland speaks, Zelda’s husband Brewster (Martin Roach) watches television. “It was an actual mono track from a real show,” Cooke explains. “It starts out sounding roomy and distant as it would really have sounded. As the scene progresses, it expands, getting more prominent and spreading out around the speakers [for the 5.1 version]. By the end of the scene, the audio from the TV has become something totally different from what it started the scene as and then we melded that seamlessly into Alexandre Desplat’s score.”

Beyond the aesthetic work of building a sound mix, particularly one so fluid and expressionistic, post production mixers must also collaborate on a large number of technical decisions during the mix to ensure the elements have the right amount of emotional punch without calling attention to themselves. Individual sounds, even specific frequencies, vie for audience attention and the mixers orchestrate and layer them.

“It’s raining outside when they come into the room,” Zoern notes about the above scene. “We want to initially hear the sound of the rain to have a context for the scene. You never just want dialogue coming out of nowhere; it needs to live in a space. But then we pull that back to focus on the dialogue, and then the [augmented] audio from the TV gains prominence. During the final mix, Chris and I are always working together, side by side, to meld the hundreds of sounds the editors have built in a way that reflects the story and mood of the film.”

“We’re like an old married couple,” Cooke jokes. “We finish each other’s sentences. But it’s very helpful to have that kind of shorthand in this job. We’re blending so many pieces together and if people notice what we’ve done, we haven’t done our jobs.”


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