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SFP: ‘True Grit’


Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross in Paramount Pictures’ True Grit.

Photo: Lorey Sebastian

You never know what fascinating world directors Joel and Ethan Coen are going to visit. Their 2009 entry was the Oscar-nominated A Serious Man about an introspective Jewish fellow in suburban Minneapolis in the late ’60s. The year before that brought us the wacky comic caper Burn After Reading. And in 2007, they made the dark and brilliant Best Picture–winner No Country for Old Men. Now, on Christmas Day 2010, the Coen brothers return with another completely different tale—the period Western True Grit, which, rather than being a re-make of the famous 1969 John Wayne film, is a more faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel.

Skip Lievsay has been working with the Coens since Blood Simple in 1984, usually in the capacity of supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer. For the last four Coen films, he’s been joined by sound designer/FX re-recording mixer Craig Berkey, and together they’ve fashioned a way of working that has streamlined the sound editorial process. The key, they say, is not delineating certain tasks as being for a temp dub and then re-doing things for the final, but creating a mix that goes through a progression.

When we spoke at the end of October, Berkey and Lievsay were just about to start work on the final at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, on the west side of L.A. Both sounded extremely relaxed about the task ahead because so much of the mix work had been done ahead of time. “Basically, about two-thirds of the elements are in hand—dialog and FX and backgrounds are already thoroughly understood,” Lievsay says. “The new components are the score [by longtime Coen associate Carter Burwell], which they recorded last week, and which we’ve been working with from sketches, and the Foley that Greg Orloff will mix. It’s more efficient to wait for the Foley until you’re deep into versions, so we shot that over the last three or four weeks. What we end up spending our time on [in the final] is working on the balance. We can look at the movie and hear all of the components playing together and figure out what’s the best-sounding mix of all those things.”

“The ‘normal’ way of working is you show up at the final with numerous sounds and you’ve got a limited amount of time where it’s almost physically impossible to go through all those sounds so that everybody’s happy,” Berkey adds. “But the way we work, there’s none of that, ‘Oh, we had this sound somewhere,’ or, ‘Remember in the temp we had that?’ Because it’s a track that has progressed from the beginning of post with everyone working together, including the filmmakers; there’s no big moment at the final where you’re playing all this new material on an expensive dub stage and it can go great or it can go horribly wrong. We don’t have those moments; instead, we have, ‘Can you raise the cricket 2 dB?’ [Laughs] I try to work this way on every film now if I can.”

About the only controversy True Grit’s final was likely to engender was Berkey and Lievsay’s decision to bypass conventional stage workflow in favor of working in Pro Tools all the way through with a Euphonix (now Avid) MC Mix fader pack. “The way we’re working now is we have a keyboard and a trackball and this small fader pack,” Lievsay says. “It’s easier for us because we get to preserve our automation as we make changes.” Berkey also brought down an essential tool from his home studio in Vancouver, B.C.: a Wacom Cintiq interactive pen display that helps him navigate among sound elements smoothly and quickly.

Not surprisingly, getting to that point where the final is comparatively easy takes a lot of hard work spread out over many months once the Coens start editing the film. Lievsay and Berkey did much of their early work in New York (where the Coens live) at Digital Cinema. “When we start the editorial process,” Lievsay says, “we also start mixing and we start preparing tracks so we can have a screening whenever they want and be able to answer any questions if there’s something wrong with a track. One concern we had is that there was quite a bit of weather [during the exterior shoots], so we wanted to get on the ADR really early, solve those problems and then have the ADR in our temps. I go through the dialog early and mix it as if it’s the final mix.” Most of the production recording was handled by Peter Kurland, another part of the Coen team since the early days.

Skip Lievsay with Avid MC Mix and computer at Sony
Pictures Studios

“Craig generally limits his work in the early stages to the big sounds, and Joel and Ethan also like to have backgrounds, so he will make appropriate backgrounds for all the scenes in the movie,” Lievsay adds. “It helps them in their choices and judgments about takes and performances. They also like having gunshots and explosions wherever they’re called for.”

Craig Berkey and his Wacom Cintiq display

Berkey says that the backgrounds were a particularly challenging component of the overall sound design, as so much of the film takes place outdoors; the film was shot mostly in the high country of New Mexico and in Texas. “Joel and Ethan love a full ambient track, which is nice,” he says. “They want you to be immersed in the atmosphere of wherever you are.”

Working primarily from his own extensive library of winds, Berkey “spent a lot of time going through and making sure that they’re all interesting winds and fit together from scene to scene. In some cases, you want to have a progression of different types of winds that go from a warm, blustery thing to a very different kind of environment—in this case, [the main characters] are heading up into the mountains and it becomes colder and colder, so you want to be able to communicate that somewhat through the winds. Sometimes I end up EQ’ing things, but the key is picking the right winds to start with, so I spend a lot of time listening and making mental notes about which elements would work together, because sometimes when you start putting too many winds together, they lose their character and they become a big mush because they don’t have the sonic room around them to continue their signature. When we’re doing this, I’m mixing at the same time and I’ll put it in against whatever dialog track I have.” Berkey mostly uses plug-ins for his signal processing work, including Altiverb reverb, and McDSP and Avid filters.

When it came to gunshots and explosions, Berkey again relied on his own sound library material, but for horses, Lievsay supervised FX recordist/editors John Fasal and Jay Wilkinson for a couple of sessions outside of L.A. at a movie horse ranch in Palmdale and a horse hydrotherapy pool in Los Olivos—the latter for a key scene in which a horse swims across a river. “One thing we learned,” Lievsay says, “is that when the horse goes fully underwater, they dog paddle like dogs and there’s no sound—the only sound is they breathe through their nose, and they’re constantly blowing their nose out to make sure they don’t drown. It was one of those things where we had to do it to find out.”

Again, with the mix going through a progression, Lievsay and Berkey added elements and made adjustments as they went along in close consultation with the Coens. “Early on,” Berkey explains, “we end up with this first temp mix and then we keep adding to and conforming that mix, and Joel and Ethan listen to it with each cut giving us notes as we go along. We’re starting the final now, but I’ve been getting notes the last few weeks that say things like, ‘Maybe the backgrounds are a couple of dB too hot in this scene,’ or, ‘Could you add a crowd murmur here?’ They’ve been listening to our mix in 5.1 in a theater in New York, so when we get to the final mix, it’s about adding some new music cues, but they’ve heard every sound, they’ve listened to the mix and they know everything that’s there and have made notes on it that we’ve executed. Essentially, our mix starts about four months before we finish the final.”

Is it fair to say that the Coens, who work so brilliantly with words and images (True Grit was shot by the great Roger Deakins), are also quite sound savvy? “Oh, yes,” Berkey replies without hesitation. “They’re very particular, but they also like to leave room for us to put in interesting sounds and be creative. They definitely understand that sound matters.”