Post: 'The King's Speech' and '127 Hours''SMALL' BRITISH-MADE FILMS PROVE SOUND SAVVY 1/01/2011 4:00 AM Eastern
The King’s Speech is one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2010, and seems all but assured of landing acting nominations for its leads—Colin Firth as the stuttering, ascendant King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as the brash speech therapist who takes on this most difficult patient—and it is certainly worthy to be lauded in other categories. This being essentially a talky palace drama, it is unlikely to be honored for the excellent sound job supervised by Lee Walpole, who is best known for his work on British television; that is also the world where director Tom Hooper comes from—he has helmed such historical dramas for television as Elizabeth I, Longford and the acclaimed John Adams series.
Walpole and the King’s Speech sound crew—including production mixer John Midgley and re-recording mixers Paul Hamblin and Martin Jensen—were tasked with sonically re-creating the world of both royals and “commoners” in 1930s England, and with putting across an intimate, deeply personal story. “Authenticity was the name of the game,” Walpole says from the London post house he co-owns, Boom Sound Studios. “Tom is a very sound-focused director and he wanted everything to sound as realistic as possible to really take you back to that time and to those places.”
One ultra-realistic touch was corralling the actual microphones that had been specially built for King George V and King George VI; the mics had been locked in storage at EMI for the past 70 years or so. “Alexandre Desplat, the composer, used them in recording some of his score and also for the inversions of Beethoven music re-recorded for the film,” Walpole says. “We also took all the dialog that was put through radios in the film and re-recorded it through those microphones—it gives an authentic sound you simply can’t achieve with a digital plug-in or speaker phone, or whatever people choose to use nowadays to simulate that old radio sound.”
Director Hooper, Walpole adds, “mainly used sync [production] sound on the film; he shuns ADR if at all possible. He was very keen to preserve the actors’ performances he got from the day. A lot of it was shot in these enormous rooms, but because he wanted to maintain clarity of speech, the sync sound was fairly tight. One of our briefs at the start of the film was to create a macro soundscape that would complement the tight close shots that Tom frequently uses in the film. So even though they were often in large spaces, we actually added more space in the form of reverb while keeping the dialog prominent.” The film was mixed on a Neve DFC at Boom.
“Foley played a huge role in the film,” Wal- pole adds. “So much of it takes place in these huge old rooms with wooden floors. It can feel quite artificial and effect-y when you match that on the Foley stage, so we shot our Foley live on location on Pro Tools. It gave the Foley real depth and also gave each room its own personality.”
Another challenge that required extremely subtle sound design was dealing with the Colin Firth character’s paralyzing speech difficulties. The very first scene of the film finds the then-prince struggling through an amplified speech at Empire Stadium, and throughout we see him in large and small settings grappling with his impediment.
“The film is about a man’s inability to speak,” Walpole offers, “so we focused on the noises Colin makes, his words catching in the back of his throat. We pushed them to a hyper level in the mix and then we upped the atmosphere or added noises, often preceding those moments to emphasize the awkwardness of the silence that would follow when he could not speak.
“In the Empire Stadium scene,” he continues, “we used the extreme echo to emphasize his awkwardness. We spent a fair bit of time layering up the voice with different delays and treating each stem differently so it’s surrounding you and coming from all directions. Some of them are straight feeds from the Tannoys [in the studio], some of them are reverb returns bouncing off the wall, which is what’s disorientating him and feeding all around the room. Hopefully, it does the same thing for you as a viewer as what Bertie [the prince] is feeling as the sound is washing back at him. We want you to feel uncomfortable, too.”
Speaking of making audiences uncomfortable, there has been much chatter about the lengthy arm amputation scene at the heart of director Danny Boyle’s much-acclaimed 127 Hours, the filmmaker’s first effort since he won Oscar gold for Slumdog Millionaire two years ago. That film—which was honored in a slew of different categories including Best Sound (it was also nominated in the Sound Editing category)—couldn’t be more different from 127 Hours. Slumdog was teeming with the buzz and cacophony of overcrowded cities while 127 Hours focuses on the real-life ordeal of a hiker named Aron Ralston (played by James Franco) in Utah’s beautiful but desolate Canyonlands National Park. When a falling rock in a crevice traps his arm, Ralston eventually decides the only way out is to cut off much of his arm with a pocket knife. More than one critic has commented that it isn’t the visual of an arm being cut off that is most disturbing; it’s the sound, which seems to accentuate every tendon severing, every stream of blood, every cry in a nearly unbearable symphony of pain.
“That was by design, certainly,” comments sound designer and supervising sound editor Glenn Freemantle, who assembled much of the post team that worked on Slumdog, including Oscar-winning re-recording mixers Ian Tapp and Richard Pryke, and FX designer/editor Niv Adiri. Post was at Pinewood Studios in England. “It was the most pain he’s ever had amplified a hundred times. The concept was to always be with Aron sound-wise. It’s all from his perspective. We did a lot of research on how he felt and how he heard things, how he heard the bone break and all. He stabs himself and you hear the heartbeat, the rushing of blood and the release of gases. It was all how he perceived things. The strings of his nerves were like electric strings that he had to pull that sent this shocking pain that was like electrical pulses.” For that, Freemantle’s team used a combination of distorted, plucked electric guitar strings and sustained electronic noises to communicate some of the searing pain.
There’s more to the film than just the amputation, of course, “From the point where Aron gets trapped,” Freemantle says, “the sound becomes a character within the film, as do all the things Aron has with him. Sounds that would normally be tiny become amplified because they’re all part of him. Everything around him that is for survival has a sonic character—his knife, his water, the ropes, his backpack. This is his world now, and every moment of it was us trying to keep him in this place with the sound—keep the tension and gradually changing in perspective as the film goes on.”
For location accuracy, “We went to Utah, set up mics all over the actual canyon where it took place and then shot [sound] 24 hours a day [using a pair Sound Devices recorders] for two days—changing batteries in the middle of the night, dealing with weather, et cetera—so we’d really have a sense of this place.”
Back at Pinewood, Freemantle and his mates “built a version of the canyon on a stage. We had a frame made about six feet high, eight or 10 feet long, clad it all in sandstone and limestone, and made it the width it was in the actual canyon so every sound effect we shot, we shot within that so the response time was like it would be in there.”
There was extensive FX and Foley recording using the previously mentioned knife and water bottle and such. “Every move had to mean something because we wanted to be in Aron’s head. Even a little crawling ant was tiny layers of sound. Dust blowing across the rocks. The knife sound changing a bit as it’s getting duller. Everything was amplified to a degree, but not loud because the space around it was brought down with it. It’s very subtle, but hopefully effective.”
And how’s this for going the extra mile: “We wanted to get the sound of his lips getting drier and more chapped, and to get the sound of water in his mouth. For every line of his dialog, we’d cut a dry lip in and out, the sounds of lips parting. It was all about the detail.”