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The Aviator


Recordists (L-R) Eugene Gearty, Jeremy Pierson and Patricio Libenson

Most people probably remember billionaire Howard Hughes for the crazy, pathetic creature he was in his last years: wildly unkempt, living in complete isolation in a Las Vegas hotel, equally afraid of germs and people. But the Hughes of Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Aviator, is a dashing young man who became a successful producer and director in Hollywood beginning in the late 1920s. He was also a fearless pilot, plane developer and airline executive, and as portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, “all the eccentricities Hughes exhibited later in life were certainly present early on,” comments Aviator re-recording mixer Tom Fleischman.

One of the most challenging aspects of The Aviator was dealing with so many different kinds of airplanes: the bi-planes that dogfight in the making of the Hughes-directed 1930 film Hell’s Angels; the speedy racers that Hughes pushed to the limit (and even crashed); the mammoth wooden H-4 called Hercules, but mocked in the press as the “Spruce Goose”; and many more. Sound designer Eugene Gearty (Gangs of New York, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) had wanted to record the vintage plane sounds he needed for the film, but was initially turned down. This caused problems when the temps were being worked on during January and February of 2004, and Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s longtime film editor, wasn’t happy with what she had been given from libraries.

“Even Marty complained about it,” Gearty says. “But that became my ace in the hole — to say, ‘I told you so. Now let’s go out and get the real stuff.’”

So in early summer, Gearty and a small crew did a week of recording at four different airfields in California’s high desert, putting a wide variety of pre-World War II radial engine planes through their paces. Patricio Libenson “was my go-to guy,” Gearty says. “He’s a pilot, so he handled a lot of the logistics. Tom Fleischman is also a pilot, and he came out to help record the last couple days of work.” Giovanni Di Simone and Jeremy Pierson also worked on the recordings.

“We always tried to have three [sound] perspectives simul-taneously,” Gearty says. “One was a close-up, which was usually me with a Schoeps [KFM6] binaural head, and then we also had two spaced stereo pairs — Shure SM-7s and B&K 4011s — at different spots on the tarmac. Then, when we actually got into the B-25, we had some Schoeps BLM-03 boundary-layer contact mics taped to the fuselage.” Recordings were made to Zaxcom Deva (the Shure and B&K mics) and DAT (the Schoeps).

“My assistant, Larry Weinland, and I set up this database [in Pro Tools] so every entry in Sound Miner has at least three components representing the three mic setups,” Gearty explains. “We’d get these multiple pass-bys of liftoffs, and when you’d line them up later to a sync point, it was pretty cool. I could rifle through my library and get different perspectives of the same action.”

The crew captured a number of different planes. “Steve Flick said to me on the way out, ‘Get more than you ever think you’ll need because you’ll be amazed at how little you have when you really need it,’” Gearty says. “Now I know exactly what he meant, because even though I had a lot of material, I had to edit the living hell out of it to make it work. Using a Pro Tools|HD system, I edited everything myself and premixed it, and it ended up being so much cutting.”

He also cheated a little bit: “Patricio and I would come back every night after the records and go in his studio and download the data to Pro Tools, listen to it and assess it. He didn’t have air conditioning, but he had these big, regular home fans. Every time I walked by one of the rooms where a fan was on, I wondered, ‘Why am I not using that?’ So we recorded two of them, and sure enough, the proximity of the mics to the fan really made it feel like a plane. It had this soft, warm feel, and that was what we used for the sound of the Sikorski in what Marty thought of as his big love scene.” Gearty did all his effects (and Foley) mixing at C5 Sound in New York, his home base. C5’s Phil Stockton, another Scorsese vet, was supervising sound editor on the show and cut the dialog.

“When I was premixing, I built 5.0 elements for Tom [Fleischman],” Gearty says. “He had those on a master [fader] on the Euphonix [System 5 at Soundtrack in New York City, where Fleischman does his mixing], so I’d give him four or five 5.0s, and those showed up as a fader for each.”

Not surprisingly, too, the plane sounds afforded Fleischman some interesting possibilities in the surround mix. “There’s a point early on in the film where Hughes is flying a racer, and we have a couple of nice flybys that come and go from the surrounds, and it feels like it’s going through you. One of the interesting things about CGI is you’re able to do things that could never be filmed in reality.”

In the end, Scorsese wanted the sound effects to serve the story — nothing more. “A lot of the qualities Hughes has are qualities that Marty has, so in a way the film’s a little autobiographical,” Fleischman says. “He would even joke about it. Hughes was this driven, obsessive-compulsive character, and so is Marty. And that’s one reason he makes great films.”