‘Unbroken’: real sound for a real story

Director Angelina Jolie tasked her audio post crew with keeping it as authentic as possible.

By Jennifer Walden

Unbroken is about the human spirit and just how hard it is to break. The film is based on the life of Louis Zamperini, which was chronicled by Laura Hillenbrand in her non-fiction novel Unbroken. Zamperini, a delinquent youth transformed by his athletic prowess on the high school track team, went on to compete in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. But that was just the beginning of an amazing life.

As a second lieutenant in the US Air Force during WWII, he was deployed in the Pacific, first as a bombardier on the B-24 Liberator “Super Man,” and then again on a search-and-rescue mission aboard the engine-troubled B-24, “The Green Hornet.” After being lost at sea for 47 days, Zamperini was picked up by the Japanese Navy, where he survived hellish brutality as a POW, spending time in three different prison camps before finding his way home.

Director Angelina Jolie’s vision for the film Unbroken was to tell Zamperini’s real story with incredibly real sound. To accomplish this she turned to supervising sound editor Becky Sullivan from NBCUniversal StudioPost, located on the Universal Studios lot. Jolie and Sullivan previously worked together on Jolie’s directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey, which was nominated for a 2012 MPSE Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing.

Sullivan brought fellow NBCUniversal StudioPost supervising sound editor Andrew DeCristofaro on to work on Unbroken. Together, under the guidance of director Jolie, Sullivan and DeCristofaro tackled the film in sections. “What was really unique about this film was we that got to do many different movies within one,” explains DeCristofaro. “Usually, you have an overall tone for a film, like you’re in the Old West or in space, but in this film you have a variety of moments.”

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There is a certain sound for when Louis is in high school; the sounds of war and, specifically, the B-24s; the sound of complete isolation when he’s on a raft in the middle of the ocean; the jungle sounds for the Japanese POW camp Kwajalein; sounds of the Ofuna Camp; and, finally, the sounds of the cold, desolate Omori POW camp in northern Japan. “We got to do several different movies sonically, and Angie [Jolie] was very specific about being realistic,” he says.

After being contacted by Jolie over a year ago, Sullivan set out to find an actual, unmodified B-24 so she could capture the real sounds of the plane — from the toggle switches to the engines. Through the Collings Foundation, a non-profit educational foundation dedicated to the preservation and public display of transportation-related history, Sullivan found exactly what she was looking for. She and DeCristofaro worked with a small team of recordists to capture as many sounds of the B-24 as possible. “The Collings Foundation allowed us to open every door and compartment. We opened the bomb bay doors. We pushed every button. We pushed every toggle,” reports Sullivan. “We captured everything on it we could because Angie was very specific about wanting her film to be authentic.”

The team captured on-board POV locations for the waist gunner, radio room, bombardier, cockpit, nose gunner, tail gunner, bomb bay area and engine exhaust port. Particular attention was paid to the cockpit and bombardier location switches and the Norden bombsight device. Exterior sounds included close overhead fly-bys, engines revving and stalling out, feathering of the props, bomb bay doors opening and closing, servos, turrets and more. According to DeCristofaro, “We were basically in a flying museum, and the pilots and engineers were extremely accommodating. They let us get into the nooks and crannies of the plane that most people weren’t allowed into.”

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Since The Green Hornet B-24 experiences engine trouble in the film, the sound team asked to have the engines backfire and stall out. “They messed around with the air/fuel mixture combination on the engine and did some different things you probably wouldn’t want to do to a piece of history like this. The pilot was having fun and trying different things, but the plane’s engineer was cringing,” says DeCristofaro.

Capturing Real Sounds
In contrast to the big sounds of war, Zamperini’s experience of being lost at sea is told through the quiet, subtle use of sound. Adrift on a life raft, the actors’ dialogue performances become increasingly dry, weak and thready. Recapturing that sound in ADR was an important and challenging task. “Becky [Sullivan], Angie and the actors worked really hard on that section. They had to do a lot of work to get a really clean recording that still conveyed the emotion and sincerity of the scene,” explains DeCristofaro. “It’s a hot rubber raft, and by the end it’s worn and deflated. There are sonic subtleties that you’ll never notice, except emotionally; they’ll just read true to you. Angie was in tune with all of that.”

NBCUniversal StudioPost (standing-Jon Taylor, Andrew DeCristofaro (sitting) Frank Montano, Becky Sullivan

NBCUniversal StudioPost: (standing) Jon Taylor and Andrew DeCristofaro. Frank Montano and Becky Sullivan are seated.

The film’s Foley, performed by Dan O’Connell and his Foley team at One Step Up, also played a key role, particularly in the raft sequence. According to DeCristofaro, in the raft scene when a plane flies by overhead, missing the crew who are trying to flag it down, O’Connell wasn’t happy with his initial Foley performance of Louis’ hand coming down and touching the raft.

He wanted to do another take. Initially DeCristofaro didn’t understand what was wrong with the first take. After seeing it done again he realized while this one felt dejected the original one did not. “It’s just a hand on a raft but he really told the story with sound, and that is exactly what we were doing here. That is why they are Foley artists. Dan was really performing that moment. You have one lousy hand on the raft, and it wasn’t right, and he knew it. That’s how much care goes into the sound. It was awesome. That little hand pat said dejection, and that is what Louis was feeling at that moment.”

The Camps
Zamperini was held at three different POW camps, and each had its own sonic identity. The jungles of Kwajalein, alive with crickets, birds and monkeys — all chosen to be authentic to that area at that time — exist in stark contrast to the cold northern camp, where a prison guard dubbed “The Bird” rains down brutal punishment on the prisoners using a shinai, a sword-like bamboo stick. “There is a brutality in this film that Angie wanted,” explains Sullivan. “She didn’t want us to make a Hollywood film. She wanted an authentic, organic sound for the shinai hits.” Jolie gave Sullivan the shinai, and in Foley they experimented with hitting different objects to achieve different sounds that would represent being hit on different parts of the body. “Angie wanted to make sure we heard when the bamboo stick hit the bone and when it hit the flesh. She wanted to make it real and express the emotions that Louis was experiencing at the time.”

After recording numerous options on the Foley stage, they cut the hits to picture and then worked with Jolie to find the right balance of sound for each hit. “We did that for all the hits in the movie — for the shinai stick, for the wood clubs they’re beaten with, and also for the sequence where Louis is punched in the face over 200 times by 200 different guys. It’s shortened in the film,” says Sullivan.

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The POWs in the camp with Louis had to hit him in the face, and each one of those face punches had to be different and realistic, not a typical Hollywood-action-film face punch. Jolie would punch her own fist and say, “I need it to sound like that. I need to feel that.” The director listened to every single one of the face punches, according to Sullivan, “and would tweak them with us, adding and changing the different layers of sound effects that make up each punch to the face.”

The Mix
Unbroken was mixed in the Hitchcock Theater at Universal by re-recording mixers Jon Taylor and Frank Montano on a Harrison MPC4-D fully automated digital console. The film was built in 7.1 while the Hitchcock Theater was being outfitted with a new Dolby Atmos system. Once the install was complete, the 7.1 mix was expanded into the Atmos set-up. “We used the Atmos to open it up for the audience and make it real,” notes Sullivan, who reports they used a very small crew on Unbroken. “Laura Harris Atkinson cut the dialogue and we had Jay Wilkinson and Eric A. Norris designing the plane effects and creating the backgrounds. It was a very small crew that also had an emotional center for this film.”

As the post sound team was working on Unbroken with Jolie, the real-life Louis Zamperini passed away. It was hard day for everyone involved with the film,” reports Sullivan. “Here we are looking at Louis portrayed on screen, and yet we know that our Louis is gone. It was an emotional day for Angie as well as the rest of us because we were so deeply involved in his story.”

Fortunately, Zamperini did get to see a preview copy of Unbroken before he died, with many of the sound effects in place. Zamperini was very pleased with the film, and the director shared that with her audio post crew.

“We felt this obligation to do right by this man and so it raised the bar even further. That feeling of getting it right just rang true some how,” says DeCristofaro.

Sullivan concludes, “We were all so honored to be on Unbroken because we were telling Louis’ story. Louis was a real man and this is his real story. We took a certain responsibility to tell it correctly.”

Jennifer Walden is an audio engineer and writer living in New Jersey. 


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