By Jennifer Walden
Warsaw, Poland, 1939. The end of summer brings the beginning of war as 140 German planes, Junkers Ju-87 Stukas, dive-bomb the city. At the Warsaw Zoo, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina Żabiński (Jessica Chastain) watch as their peaceful sanctuary crumbles: their zoo, their home and their lives are invaded by the Nazis. Powerless to fight back openly, the zookeeper and his wife join the Polish resistance. They transform the zoo from an animal sanctuary into a place of sanctuary for the people they rescue from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Director Niki Caro’s film The Zookeeper’s Wife — based on Antonina Żabińska’s true account written by Diane Ackerman — presents a tale of horror and humanity. It’s a study of contrasts, and the soundtrack matches that, never losing the thread of emotion among the jarring sounds of bombs and planes.
Supervising sound editor Becky Sullivan, at the Technicolor at Paramount sound facility in Los Angeles, worked closely with re-recording mixers Anna Behlmer and Terry Porter to create immersive soundscapes of war and love. “You have this contrast between a love story of the zookeeper and his wife and their love for their own people and this horrific war that is happening outside,” explains Porter. “It was a real challenge in the mix to keep the war alive and frightening and then settle down into this love story of a couple who want to save the people in the ghettos. You have to play the contrast between the fear of war and the love of the people.”
According to Behlmer, the film’s aerial assault on Warsaw was entirely fabricated in post sound. “We never see those planes, but we hear those planes. We created the environment of this war sonically. There are no battle sequence visual effects in the movie.”
“You are listening to the German army overtake the city even though you don’t really see it happening,” adds Sullivan. “The feeling of fear for the zookeeper and his wife, and those they’re trying to protect, is heightened just by the sound that we are adding.”
Sullivan, who earned an Oscar nom for sound editing director Angelina Jolie’s WWII film Unbroken, had captured recordings of actual German Stukas and B24 bomber planes, as well as 70mm and 50mm guns. She found library recordings of the Stuka’s signature Jericho siren. “It’s a siren that Germans put on these planes so that when they dive-bombed, the siren would go off and add to the terror of those below,” explains Sullivan. Pulling from her own collection of WWII plane recordings, and using library effects, she was able to design a convincing off-screen war.
One example of how Caro used sound and clever camera work to effectively create an unseen war was during the bombing of the train station. Behlmer explains that the train station is packed with people crying and sobbing. There’s an abundance of activity as they hustle to get on the arriving trains. The silhouette of a plane darkens the station. Everyone there is looking up. Then there’s a massive explosion. “These actors are amazing because there is fear on their faces and they lurch or fall over as if some huge concussive bomb has gone off just outside the building. The people’s reactions are how we spotted explosions and how we knew where the sound should be coming from because this is all happening offstage. Those were our cues, what we were mixing to.”
“Kudos to Niki for the way she shot it, and the way she coordinated these crowd reactions,” adds Porter. “Once we got the soundscape in there, you really believe what is happening on-screen.”
The film was mixed in 5.1 surround on Stage 2 at Technicolor Paramount lot. Behlmer (who mixed effects/Foley/backgrounds) used the Lexicon 960 reverb during the train station scene to put the plane sounds into that space. Using the LFE channel, she gave the explosions an appropriate impact — punchy, but not overly rumbly. “We have a lot of music as well, so I tried really hard to keep the sound tight, to be as accurate as possible with that,” she says.
Another feature of the train station’s soundscape is the amassed crowd. Since the scene wasn’t filmed in Poland, the crowd’s verbalizations weren’t in Polish. Caro wanted the sound to feel authentic to the time and place, so Sullivan recorded group ADR in both Polish and German to use throughout the film. For the train station scene, Sullivan built a base of ambient crowd sounds and layered in the Polish loop group recordings for specificity. She was also able to use non-verbal elements from the production tracks, such as gasps and groans.
Additionally, the group ADR played a big part in the scenes at the zookeeper’s house. The Nazis have taken over the zoo and are using it for their own purposes. Each day their trucks arrive early in the morning. German soldiers shout to one another. Sullivan had the German ADR group perform with a lot of authority in their voices, to add to the feeling of fear. During the mix, Porter (who handled the dialogue and music) fit the clean ADR into the scenes. “When we’re outside, the German group ADR plays upfront, as though it’s really their recorded voices,” he explains. “Then it cuts to the house, and there is a secondary perspective where we use a bit of processing to create a sense of distance and delay. Then when it cuts to downstairs in the basement, it’s a totally different perspective on the voices, which sounds more muffled and delayed and slightly reverberant.”
One challenge of the mix and design was to make sure the audience knew the location of a sound by the texture of it. For example, the off-stage German group ADR used to create a commotion outside each morning had a distinct sonic treatment. Porter used EQ on the Euphonix System 5 console, and reverb and delay processing via Avid’s ReVibe and Digidesign’s TL Space plug-ins to give the sounds an appropriate quality. He used panning to articulate a sound’s position off-screen. “If we are in the basement, and the music and dialogue is happening above, I gave the sounds a certain texture. I could sweep sounds around in the theater so that the audience was positive of the sound’s location. They knew where the sound is coming from. Everything we did helped the picture show location.”
Porter’s treatment also applied to diegetic music. In the film, the zookeeper’s wife Antonina would play the piano as a cue to those below that it was safe to come upstairs, or as a warning to make no sound at all. “When we’re below, the piano sounds like it’s coming through the floor, but when we cut to the piano it had to be live.”
On the design side, Sullivan helped to establish the basement location by adding specific floor creaks, footsteps on woods, door slams and other sounds to tell the story of what’s happening overhead. She layered her effects with Foley provided by artist Geordy Sincavage at Sinc Productions in Los Angeles. “We gave the lead German commander Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) a specific heavy boot on wood floor sound. His authority is present in his heavy footsteps. During one scene he bursts in, and he’s angry. You can feel it in every footstep he takes. He’s throwing doors open and we have a little sound of a glass falling off of the shelf. These little tiny touches put you in the scene,” says Sullivan.
While the film often feels realistic, there were stylized, emotional moments. Picture editor David Coulson and director Caro juxtapose images of horror and humanity in a sequence that shows the Warsaw Ghetto burning while those lodged at the zookeeper’s house hold a Seder. Edits between the two locations are laced together with sounds of the Seder chanting and singing. “The editing sounds silky smooth. When we transition out of the chanting on-camera, then that goes across the cut with reverb and dissolves into the effects of the ghetto burning. It sounds continuous and flowing,” says Porter. The result is hypnotic, agrees Behlmer and Sullivan.
The film isn’t always full of tension and destruction. There is beauty too. In the film’s opening, the audience meets the animals in the Warsaw Zoo, and has time to form an attachment. Caro filmed real animals, and there’s a bond between them and actress Chastain. Sullivan reveals that while they did capture a few animal sounds in production, she pulled many of the animal sounds from her own vast collection of recordings. She chose sounds that had personality, but weren’t cartoony. She also recorded a baby camel, sea lions and several elephants at an elephant sanctuary in northern California.
In the film, a female elephant is having trouble giving birth. The male elephant is close by, trumpeting with emotion. Sullivan says, “The birth of the baby elephant was very tricky to get correct sonically. It was challenging for sound effects. I recorded a baby sea lion in San Francisco that had a cough and it wasn’t feeling well the day we recorded. That sick sea lion sound worked out well for the baby elephant, who is struggling to breathe after it’s born.”
From the effects and Foley to the music and dialogue, Porter feels that nothing in the film sounds heavy-handed. The sounds aren’t competing for space. There are moments of near silence. “You don’t feel the hand of the filmmaker. Everything is extremely specific. Anna and I worked very closely together to define a scene as a music moment — featuring the beautiful storytelling of Harry Gregson-Williams’ score, or a sound effects moment, or a blend between the two. There is no clutter in the soundtrack and I’m very proud of that.”
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.