Creating the sounds for The Revenant

In “The Revenant”, Oscar winning director Alejandro G. Inarritu tackles the tale of Hugh Glass, a trapper and a guide of the rough American frontier, in the early 1800’s. An epic story of man vs. wild and also man vs. man, a brutal yet majestic tale of survival and revenge. Alejandro is no stranger to difficult and unsettling portraits of the human condition. Past films like “21 Grams”, “Babel” and last year’s stunning “Birdman” show a commitment to a unique storytelling of the vicissitudes of mankind and a consummate artistry in the filmmaking process.

The stories of the shoot are already reaching near legend status, and the performances of all of the cast, notably stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, are as deep and wide as the glorious vistas shot by cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki. A gifted filmmaker, Alejandro embraces not only directing performance and image, but also has a deep understanding and reverence for the sounds of life and of humanity, be it haunting and stark, cacophonous or still, rhythmic or melodic.

A filmmaker as innovative and creative as Alejandro always surrounds himself with other gifted film artists, and the sound team for this film, on set and in post audio, are the best of the best. I had a chance over the holidays to speak with a few of them regarding their work on “The Revenant” and in their collaboration with Alejandro.

**SPOILER ALERT**  As part of the description of some of the scenes in the creation of the soundtrack, there are several plot points discussed that may be considered spoilers.

IMG 1883Jon Taylor, a re-recording mixer with a long and distinguished career, has worked many times with Alejandro and he describes the qualities and attention to detail that permeated the mixing of the film:

“He has a supersensitive ear, it has to be unique, authentic and real, it can be the smallest thing, but we’ll do everything that it takes, he will leave no stone unturned, and it will get even better. Alejandro is so thorough, even when you know it’s perfect, he’ll go – ‘lets go try some other things.’ You end up trying a bunch of things and rarely will you ever go back. You’ll wind up with something just a little bit better. It only ever gets better.”

“He is unbelievably unique, he only works out of emotions, it’s only what moves him that matters. That can be very difficult – but when you move him, then you got it, that’s where its supposed to be. This film has a real elegance, it was about finding that balance between what is elegant and what is haunting.”

Perhaps it’s his deep love of music or his background as a DJ, but Alejandro had not one but three composers create the innovative score for the film. Pioneering composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, with his longtime collaborator Alva Noto, (Carsten Nicolai) as well as The National’s Bryce Dessner all contributed to the soundtrack. The sound design and the music are completely woven together in a beautiful, aural dynamic. Visually, some scenes play almost entirely as a single shot, with the camera moving seamlessly from one moment and one character to the next, and then sweeping wide to reveal the majesty of the vast landscapes. Those soaring visual dynamics are matched by the sound edit and design, the sound mixing, and with the score. There is rarely a moment when the music plays full, nature is a persistent part of the audio landscape. Jon Taylor again:

“With Ryuichi and Carston and Bryce, a lot of the time, their music is playing at the same time. It was stunning…going from the super lush, soaring strings, to these harmonic sounds – like slapping strings – for harmonics and resonances. Martin [Hernandez] did an amazing job, with so many pieces coming together at one time. Just gorgeous.“

“The amount of dynamics is not just sonically – but also spatially. A lot of times the music is just left and right, then sometimes its kind of center heavy, and then other times we use all seven tracks, then sometimes its just in the back. The film is about nature so music never just takes over, it always has spaces so that the nature can come through and co-exist [in the soundtrack].“The Revenant Leo DiCaprio DF 21699R

That’s why the score has so many crescendos and leaves a hole for the ambiance to be natural. One montage before the Indians come to him, he [Hugh Glass] is walking the hillside with his cane. It’s a beautiful montage of strings that come and go and Carsten also has certain distortions that ebb in the scene. It’s just perfect. Nothing ever just sits in the movie, crescendo and long pauses, there is so much beautiful movement in this track.’”

Randy Thom photo 02Randy Thom, the Director of Sound Design at Skywalker Sound, the Holy Grail of film sound, was brought on as a supervising sound designer and re-recording mixer. Randy has worked on some of the finest films created over the last several decades. He further discusses the tight integration of sound design and score and re-recording mixing:

“There are many places in the movie where you are not sure whether it’s music or sound design. I think that is a wonderful thing.”

“The opening battle sequence, I think, is an excellent example of how we tried to achieve a sort of dance between the sound design, the dialog and the score – when Leonardo is running through the forest through the battle. Native Americans and trappers are fighting each other and he is trying to find his son and get to the boat where they think that they can escape the battle.”

“In the beginning of that battle the only score is drums, percussion, and towards the end of the battle you have these beautiful, powerful chords, musical chords that begin to rise and gradually take over from everything else. You see Hugh Glass screaming right on camera, but you don’t hear his voice at all, and you are hearing minimal environmental sounds and other sounds.”

“The main thing that you hear is this driving, grand, operatic set of musical chords that I think performs several great functions. One, I think, is that it prevents the sequence from being a non-stop, cacophonous noise. The danger is that it’s just going to be too many sounds competing for attention all the time. I think that’s another area in which the mixing becomes a part of the sound design, being very selective at what you hear. I think that the place where we arrived there, in that sequence, is a very good one, in terms of the mix of sound effects and the music, and the voice. You feel like you are hearing everything you should be hearing at any given moment, even though you really are not always hearing everything, at all.“

Martin Hernandez, the co-supervising sound editor and sound designer, is a long time friend and collaborator with Alejandro. They were DJs in college together and both share a reverence for music and sound. Martin worked diligently with the sound team to achieve the main sonic goal for Alejandro, to enhance the emotional storytelling by using the sound and music to create subjective feelings in the audience.

“The challenge for Alejandro was that he found that some approaches to sound editing can be very illustrative. Like, you see the tree moving, and you put the tree sound in. He was trying to get away from that. It’s not just including the right sounds that you see, but it’s adding the sounds that you do not see.”

“When the sound belongs to the picture it’s not because it’s illustrating what’s there, it’s because it has the genetics of the image, which is a very different thing. If you want to try to transmit the loneliness and the vast size of nature, those are subjective things. The loneliness and the coldness and, you know, all these things that are happening in our brains when we’re watching a film, they happen because of other very subjective elements. Sound should help tell that, very subjective, part of the story.”

Alejandro’s use of sound for creating emotion was a major task for the audio team. “Cacayanga” was a term that Alejandro coined for expressing this intangible quality that he needed. Randy describes the word:

“He has a wonderful word – cacayanga – a kind of noise or complexity, the source of which is not readily apparent. He would often ask for noise, that isn’t related necessarily with anything that is showing on the screen.”

“The reason that is sometimes a very good idea, to add that kind of noise, is that we in film sound tend to be detail oriented. There is a good side and a bad side to that. We look at the picture, the visual image, and we see various kinds of actions happening in the frame. We find sounds that match those actions and we try to record a sound as well as we can, as perfectly as we can, with as little background noise as we can.”

“I think that when Alejandro calls for a little cacayanga, a little uncorrelated noise, I think that he is trying to make it more like the real world, when unpredictable things happen and it is complex, when everything is not explained or linked to what you see on screen.”

The Revenant Dir BTS copyConveying this to the sound editing team was not always an easy task. As Martin elaborates:

“Something coming from a different source material can tell a stronger story, without having to be the exact sound of what you see, the actual sound. Many [sound] editors forget that; they just cut sounds for a scene. You can not explain to someone something that is subjective. When you are cutting the scene of a film, you don’t look at the scene [by itself], you should understand where this scene is coming from and where is it going.”

“How is the sound interacting with the music? That’s another thing. You know, many sound editors just tend to ignore that there are other elements like dialog or music.  They just put a ton of sounds in but they’re not connecting with the emotion of the film. You are not cutting for the scene. You are cutting for the film. This is a very different thing.”

“Many editors we worked with at the beginning were not really understanding that part until later. I’m so happy that Randy Thom helped with the bear attack scene. Then he started to cut more and more scenes and eventually we shared the weight of the film.”

The bear attack was a difficult scene that required many hours and many various approaches. Randy was tasked with creating the bear vocalizations and he discusses this daunting challenge:

“With a creature sequence like this I often begin with the breathing.  We sound designers, when we’re asked to design a voice for a bear or a dinosaur or a dragon, a monster of some kind, we often tend to think it’s mainly about the voice of this creature, the growls, the roars, etc. But I think that the sound that sells the believability of it more than anything else is the breathing of the character. Its very important to tailor each individual breath and each individual vocalization to what you are seeing on the screen.”

“It was important to convey the series of emotions that the bear goes through. That’s an enormous challenge in terms of trying to find recordings of real world animals that will evoke all of those different kinds of emotions in a believable way.  In the bear sequence I am using real bear recordings, I am using recordings of camels, of elephants, horses, dogs and my own voice also.”

“The task is making it all flow and be believable that it is all one creature, even though It just takes an awful lot of trial and error and a bit of sound manipulation. I try to avoid manipulating sounds as much as I can because I really believe that rather than do a lot of pitch changing and processing of sounds, especially for a film like this, it really has to sound organic and natural and believable. I think it’s a much better approach to find original recordings or make original recordings that have the basic qualities that you need already, so you are not trying to twist those qualities into the sound using technology.”

“In this scene, the bear gets shot, and Leonardo shoots the bear about two-thirds through the fight, but the bear keeps mauling him even though she’s been shot. I needed to make it believable that the bear is basically dying and that the gunshot has done significant damage to her. It occurred to me that the best way to do that was to change the breathing, a different kind of breathing, a breathing that sounded sick, that was laborious, as if she was struggling to breathe. I couldn’t find any recordings of bears that were breathing like that, but I found a recording of a horse that was sick and was breathing in a very labored way. It made you feel very sorry for the horse, under great stress trying to stay alive.”

“The task was to transition from the bear breathing to this horse breathing in a believable way. The way that I did it was to actually start horse breath elements slightly before the bear was shot, but at a very low level compared to the bear breathing sounds that I was using, and I gradually made these louder and louder, as the bear really becomes distressed and is near death, and wanders out of the frame. I transitioned almost completely to using only this labored horse breathing, except that I was a little afraid that it would still sound too different than the bear. So I inserted a bear vocalization or a bear breath in place of the horse breathing every third or fourth or fifth breath, so it would reinforce this idea that it’s the same creature, it’s just a creature that is struggling.”

The Revenant Alejandro Innaritu and Leo DiCaprio DF 03674Much attention will be paid to the inspired direction of Alejandro, and the stunning visuals captured by Chivo, and certainly the outstanding performance of Hugh Glass by Leonardo DiCaprio. However, the final mixed soundtrack is also a masterful work of art in its own right. The legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa once noted – “Cinematic sound is that which does not simply add to, but multiplies two or three times, the effect of the image.” Under the artistic vision of Alejandro, “The Revenant” is a film which will be studied not only for its themes of nature and the will of man, not only for the iconic images and montage, but also for the soaring emotion in the musical score, the “cacayanga” of the detailed sound design, and the dynamics of the immersive sound mixing.

Follow Woody on twitter at @Woody_Woodhall

For those interested in editing, have a look at his new editing competition and film festival – L.A. Post Fest – Create Your Story in Post

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Woody Woodhall

Woody Woodhall

Woody Woodhall, CAS is President of Allied Post Audio in Santa Monica, CA and is an award winning supervising sound editor, sound designer and rerecording mixer. He has sound supervised and mixed feature films, documentaries and for television he’s VO recorded, sound edited and mixed hundreds of episodes of programming for MTV, Comedy Central, Food Network, Nat Geo, History, USA Network and VH-1 to name a few. Current television mixing includes 11 seasons of the series “Mystery Diners” on Food Network, 2 seasons of “Museum Men” for History Channel as well as the first season of the series “A Wicked Offer” for the CW. Woody is author of the college textbook, Audio Production and Post Production, used at universities across the US. Woody also heads the Los Angeles Post Production Group (LAPPG) where he shares his filmmaking expertise alongside other working professionals on a monthly basis for the LA post production community. His latest venture is L.A. Post Fest, a worldwide editing competition – L.A. Post Fest – Create Your Story in Post.