SFP: 'Tree of Life'SOUND DESIGN FOR TERRENCE MALICK'S COSMIC FAMILY DRAMA 6/01/2011 5:00 AM Eastern
Pity the poor journalist who has to write an article about a Terrence Malick film before it’s released. The notoriously publicity-shy director isn’t talking, the official synopsis is tantalizing but sketchy, the actors are purposefully vague in interviews and the one authorized trailer is frustratingly enigmatic. When we reach supervising sound editor/sound designer/mixer Craig Berkey and co-supervising sound editor/sound designer Erik Aadahl in late April to talk about The Tree of Life, they’re both extremely careful not to reveal any plot points. So we sort of talk around the story and instead get into some of the particulars of how the film’s soundtrack was put together and Malick’s always intriguing work methods.
Generally speaking, the film is about 11-year-old Jack O’Brien, eldest of three boys in a family in the Midwest in the 1950s. O’Brien’s father, played by Brad Pitt, is domineering and “oppressive” (in Pitt’s words); the mother (Jessica Chastain) is kind, “grace incarnate,” Pitt says. The push-and-pull of those two opposite parental personalities, along with certain events, shape young O’Brien’s psyche in profound ways, and the film also depicts the child as an emotionally scarred adult (Sean Penn). But, as is typical with Malick’s films, there is much more going on here than meets the eye. Indeed, as Pitt mentions, the film also contains a “micro-story of the cosmos, from the beginning of the cosmos to the death of the cosmos.” There is a long passage near the beginning that—through stunning images, music and some FX—presents a history of the universe, from the Big Bang through the development of life on Earth. All of Malick’s previous films are filled with radiant and sometimes ominous images of nature and outdoor expanses, which he lingers upon like a plein air painter at an easel. This one takes it further, to the edges of the galaxy, (perhaps) to show the mystical interconnectedness of all things great and small in the universe, and our place within that infinitely complex web. As Aadahl notes, “Everyone who sees this film is going to have a different interpretation.”
The cosmic evolution sequence was one of the most challenging in the film for Berkey and Aadahl, and also among the first they worked on three years ago. (Malick is famous for working at his own unhurried pace.) “There are a lot of images there that were shot without sound, so it was a big challenge to do that creatively,” Berkey says during a break from working on X-Men: First Class. “It’s not ‘you see a waterfall, you hear a waterfall.’ Things wash from one image to the other. There are underwater shots, shots from space, places where it isn’t really possible to record. In that sequence, there’s a big hand-off between music and FX going on that’s really interesting.
“All the sounds we used were natural, but there are some creatures in there that obviously don’t exist today that we had to come up with some sounds for.” CGI dinosaurs in a Terrence Malick film? Yes! “They had a natural-history research department that would give us information about the structure of the skull and maybe the makeup of the skin and coloring—a lot of information we could use to relate it to some animal today to get a starting point. What kind of birds would be in that kind of forest scene at that time? We had to find different types of birds these creatures related to so we worked with some library sounds for that and then changed them to try to relate them to the size of the creature or make it sound a little more interesting or just different than the modern version.” Or as Aadahl puts it, “We got to reverse-engineer these species.”
Aadahl supplemented library material with original recordings, including some insect and frog sounds captured on an expedition to the jungles of Cambodia. “One night,” he says from the stage where he was working on Transformers: Dark of the Moon, “I found this little pond with some clicker frogs chirping away, and through sheer luck I found myself positioned between two of them with my little stereo X/Y right in the middle of them, so I got this amazing image of these two little frogs talking to each other. After about 10 minutes, I looked up from the rig and saw this little jungle cat sitting right next to me, hanging out. He must’ve been curious about what I was doing.” Aadahl used a Sound Devices 722 recorder and an Audio-Technica 825 in that instance. He also had a Neumann 191 on the trip, “but it was kind of rainy those days and the 825 is almost indestructible.”
Another sound design element in that sequence, and which appears elsewhere in the film, is what Aadahl calls “cosmic breath.” “I recorded myself breathing and took that sound into Pro Tools and manipulated it to get this feeling that you don’t perceive so much as an actual physical sound as much as a conceptual thing. There’s a tonal rumble that weaves in and out, with silence in between. Hearing it, you wouldn’t know what it was necessarily, but subconsciously there is that feeling of a timeless energy cycling.” Malick later dubbed it “the sound of eternal silence.”
The more “conventional” parts of the film—the ones with actors—also provided many occasions for interesting and unusual sound design. Berkey notes, “Terry likes the sound to be impressionistic sometimes. Typically, you can sync in some footsteps and a room tone and make it all sound real, but what happens if you don’t? What does the viewer think when things are a bit ‘off’? Like playing a scene where you’re inside a house and most of the Foley sounds are taken out, but the crickets outside are really, really loud—there’s a continuous bed of crickets and there’s a voice-over on top of that, so it almost makes you look at that scene as if you’re floating above it rather than cut-to-cut.
“There’s a scene in the first reel,” Berkey continues, “where there’s a close-up of a character talking on the phone, he then walks away toward a running airplane. In a conventional movie, you would hear the dialog up front, he’d walk away, you’d hear his footsteps, there’s a plane in the background, you’d hear the plane engine. There might be some music playing. But we did it differently. We don’t have the dialog playing, even though he’s talking right on camera. Instead, most of the sound is the airplane and this weird instrument called The Beam [which has piano wire strung across a metal frame and is amplified to create unearthly tones]. It took us forever to get the feeling right. Do we need to play [the FX] really loud to justify why we wouldn’t hear [the phone call], or should we play it sort of subtly, and then it’s even weirder because why don’t I hear him? You can do it endless ways.”
There is copious experimentation with sounds and mixing approaches on Malick’s films. Berkey says, “You just have to be willing to explore. He has us go on a journey, on purpose, to discover things. He doesn’t always know the destination, but he knows when we get there whether he likes it or not. In a lot of the film work we do, we’re trying to achieve something we know—you have sounds of things you see on screen and you’re trying to communicate that. In a film like this, you’re trying to achieve things you don’t know, and you don’t know how to get there and you don’t even necessarily know when you’re there so you can get lost. You do know, though, when you achieve something and you feel it: ‘Oh, that’s really interesting!’ That’s what Terry’s looking for. We spent many weeks on the mixing stage playing with sounds and trying different things so that later we had a better sense of where to go with [the mix].”
The pacing and editing of Malick’s films also have an enormous impact on the sound design because, in a sense, he often composes scenes in longer thoughts than most filmmakers. Aadahl comments, “You have the space and time in the film to actually create emotions that aren’t just on and off in two seconds, where you can really build these feelings—and very simply sometimes, maybe with the right lonely wind sound or the right distant single bird in the forest. Each of these sounds has an innate evocative essence that triggers something emotionally. Terry’s films give the audience the space to feel things on their own and not just have a nonstop pop score telling them what to feel and invasive picture editing telling them where to look every second.”
Originally, the final mix for The Tree of Life was scheduled for January 2010, with Berkey mixing FX and Chris Scarabosio handling dialog and music (which combines original score by Alexander Desplat with pieces by Mahler, Berlioz, Zbigniev Preisner and others). Working on the three-position Avid ICON on Stage B at Audio Head—the historic Samuel Goldwyn Sound Studios now owned by Picture Head—the duo mixed for a couple of weeks, broke off for a period to accommodate some picture changes, then came back together briefly before Scarabosio had to leave for another mixing commitment. At that point, Berkey took on responsibility for the full mix and by July it was finished and print-mastered. Except that Malick wanted more changes, including shortening the final run time to two hours and 15 minutes. This time, Berkey was unavailable, so Jeremy Peirson took over for the final touchups. (Joel Dougherty—who does everything from sound editing to conforming to scheduling to making sure everything is working at the mix—was the only member of the sound team to work on the film from beginning to end.)
There are easier, shorter and better-paying gigs than Malick films, but it seems as though nearly everyone who works with him—from actors to sound crew—love sharing in his utterly unique vision. The process is almost as important as the final result—how will this five, seven or even 9-hour cut ever become a manageable film? That’s what everyone finds out together, collaboratively. Aadahl notes, “Everybody in the room is asked about everything. Terry’s smart enough to know that someone might have an idea he would never think of. So let’s put it all on the table and see what happens.”
Blair Jackson is Mix’s executive editor.