Ford v Ferrari Tag

Why Movie Sound Matters

Why Movie Sound Matters

Oscar season is a strange time for me. I love seeing films recognized and celebrated (especially those that might have been looked over in the past, like Parasite), but I get frustrated that awards viewers see categories like Sound Editing and Sound Mixing as opportune times to get a snack or go to the bathroom.

 

It’s great that both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences have separate categories for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing because they are significantly different disciplines. Quantifying the quality of mixing and editing can be difficult, if not downright stupefying, for someone unfamiliar with the process.

 

It’s first important to understand that, in most cases, most of what you hear when watching a movie was added or modified by a team of sound professionals after the film was shot. And the sounds that are edited into a film need to appear to be coming from the source on screen. The production sound (what was recorded on set by the production sound mixer) is sometimes

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Ford v Ferrari

used in the film, but there are times a scene or entire film is recorded MOS—meaning without sound. In those cases, everything needs to be constructed after the film has been put together by the picture editor.

 

Ford v Ferrari wouldn’t have nearly the impact, especially for car aficionados, if the Ford GT40 Mark II or Ferrari 330 P3 didn’t sound right. But there’s no way the film crew would be able to use the original cars for filming the race sequences. “Those are all kits,” said Donald Sylvester, Oscar-winning sound editor for Ford v Ferrari, during a panel before the Academy Awards. “They probably have Mazda engines or something reliable.”

With only 105 GT40s ever made, the sound team needed to track down one of the remaining ones to record, which turned out to be a difficult, and likely expensive, project. Many owners didn’t want to let anyone anywhere near a car valued at millions of dollars, let alone close enough to record—and possibly damage—it. In the end, the sound crew ended up using a car in Ohio that had been built out of original GT40 parts, but wasn’t one of the original 105. Without that sonic authenticity, the storytelling of the movie would have suffered.

 

But just using the recording of a car engine isn’t enough. On a film I recently worked on, I built layers of sound to create a believable environment inside a car. Door locks and windows, the sound of an accelerator pedal being depressed, gear changes, the clunks from the suspension, turn signals, the noise of tires moving over pavement, and squeaks from the seat leather as the driver shifts position all add realism to the scene that would be missing with the engine sound alone. And those are just the sounds from the car itself and don’t include the other layers of what’s happening outside the car (such as individual cars driving by, birds chirping, the lawnmower of someone cutting the grass at a house being passed, or a distant police siren).

While those car sounds were collected out in the field and then edited together in a Pro Tools edit suite, sometimes sound for a film is created in a studio by foley artists. And very often the materials used to create the sound in the studio have no relation to what is supposedly producing the sound on screen. Classic examples 

of this include squeezing cornstarch in a leather pouch for footsteps in the snow, snapping apart celery for bone breaks, and a watermelon being stabbed or smashed for some gruesome horror-movie injuries. Great foley artists are exceptionally talented individuals, and if you have 14 minutes to spare, I highly recommend the award-winning short film The Secret World of Foley that came out a few years ago and documents the work of some of these artists (one of whom, Sue Harding, worked on 1917).

 

Many times when a sound editor does their best work, it’s imperceptible to the viewer. Take, for instance, difficulties that can crop up when editing dialogue. A set is very rarely a pristinely quiet environment. A production sound mixer can do their very best to record the dialogue as cleanly as possible, but the shuffling feet of crew members, humming of the on-set kitchen refrigerator, or an A/C unit that wasn’t turned off can all make their way on to the recorder. And even if a light gel was flapping throughout the scene, if it’s the take the director wants to use, the sound editor needs to make it sound like the extraneous 

flapping was never there. (That example is from my own work experience.) Even differences in room tone between takes that are put together for a smooth visual scene experience would easily take a viewer out of the suspension of disbelief. But if the dialogue editor does their job well, you’d never know there were any issues.

 

Then there’s the sound designer. Not every movie has a credited sound designer, unless it’s a film that 

includes things that don’t exist in our world and the sounds need to be created from scratch. This could be as low-key as what an iPhone app that exists only in the movie sounds like to the lightsaber sounds created by Ben Burtt or the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, which were given voice by Gary Rydstrom.

 

This is a more quantifiable aspect of sound editing. Obviously Rydstrom couldn’t go out into the field and capture the real sounds of dinosaurs, as Donald Sylvester did with the GT40, so it’s easier to recognize the work that went into creating the sound of a dinosaur and how it fits into our perception than it is which extraneous sounds were deftly removed from a noisy dialogue recording.

 

But everything described above only encompasses one of the two awards. Without sound mixing, all of that work wouldn’t matter. Now, this isn’t the production sound mixing I referred to earlier that’s done on set. (The nomenclature can be confusing, I know.) This is done by a re-recording mixer once all of the sound editing is done. In order for the editing to sound believable, all of the layers that have been painstakingly put together by the edit team need to be joined into one cohesive soundscape. Sound levels are adjusted and how the sound moves around in space to match the action on the screen is set.

This is an art in itself and requires a trained ear, creativity, and the use of plug-ins like reverb and compression. Subtle changes in dB levels can completely alter the audience experience. There’s a moment in Logan (shown above) where Charles Xavier has a seizure that causes him to practically paralyze those around him. The high-pitched sound that lasts throughout the seizure until Logan is able to administer Xavier’s medication slowly becomes more intense. It was a genius sound moment, and in the theater I could see audience members becoming more physically uncomfortable as the scene progressed, mirroring the emotions of the characters, until the massive relief once the seizure and high-pitched sound stopped.

 

Both sound editing and mixing complete the world on screen, draw audiences in, and create visceral reactions in those of us watching. At their best, all of this is done without distraction or without us realizing what’s causing it. To remain engrossed and invested in the film, the sound of the GT40 or the roar of the dinosaur must seem accurate enough that we believe it to our core. To feel incredible relief once that high-pitched squeal finally ends, it needs to sound absolutely right. The next time you finish a movie, think back to the moments that worked well and I guarantee you a major reason is because of excellent sound work, even if you didn’t perceive it at the time.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Reviews: Oscar-Winning Films

The Academy showed some courage acknowledging that a non-Anglo film was the best of this
past year. (If only that had been true in the time of
Metropolis, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, La

Règle de JeuRashomon, La Dolce Vita, Bande à part, and C’era una volta il West.) Most of the
rest of the awards felt 
more diplomatic than sincere. But, to be fair, this was the strongest field
of contenders in recent memory (if your recent memory goes back a few decades)
So here are
our reviews of the winning films. By the way, anyone interested in looking deeper into that
unusually strong pack of nominees can click here

Parasite

Picture, International Feature Film, Director, Original Screenplay

Joker

Actor, Original Score

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Supporting Actor, Production Design

Jojo Rabbit

Adapted Screenplay

Toy Story 4

Animated Feature Film

Judy

Actress

Marriage Story

Supporting Actress

Ford v Ferrari

Film Editing, Sound Editing

American Factory

Documentary Feature

Ford v Ferrari

Ford v Ferrari

The old adage “fact is stranger than fiction” applies more to crime dramas like CSI and Dateline, but in the case of Ford v Ferrari fact can be more fascinating than fiction, and is certainly a heck of a lot more entertaining than much of what Hollywood has been delivering recently. While the physical 4K Blu-ray will arrive February 11, the 4K HDR version is available for download from the Kaleidescape Store now, which is how I watched.

 

The film’s plot is pretty simple: Ford is in the midst of one of its longest sales slumps in years and looking for a way to re-energize the brand and make its cars relevant to Baby Boomers, who are coming of age and looking for something more exciting to drive. Lee Iacocca’s (Jon Bernthal) solution is to tie the Ford name to winning, specifically at the grueling 24 Hours 

of Le Mans where Ferrari had long ruled the throne, including a string of six wins in a row. When Ford’s bid to purchase Ferrari (who “builds fewer cars in a year than Ford does in a day!”) is rudely rebuffed by “il Commendatore” Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) decides to go all-in on winning Le Mans, spending whatever it takes, and hiring the top race-car designer, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to put together a car and team helmed by veteran British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale).

 

If you avoided FvF during its theatrical run because you’re not a car lover or a racing fan, rest assured this film still offers plenty to keep you engaged through its just over two-

and-a-half-hour runtime. Watching history unfold with a story not many outside the auto or race industry are familiar with is interesting enough, but the dynamic between Shelby and Miles is the engine that truly drives this film.

 

Of course, car and race fans will appreciate the movie on a different level (a higher gear?), reveling in the technical details of car design and race mechanics, the lore of Scuderia Ferrari S.p.A., and what it took for Shelby and Miles to fight Ford’s corporate culture to create a car many felt the company simply incapable of producing.

 

The film is up for four Academy Awards—Picture, Editing, Sound Mixing, and Sound Editing—and Bale received a Best Actor Golden Globes nomination. And, further speaking to its broad appeal, it received a Rotten Tomatoes “Certified Fresh” rating of 92, with an Audience Score of 98.

 

Shot in ArriRaw at 4.5K resolution, FvF is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate; and the movie looks terrific, with tons of detail and texture in every scene. The images aren’t overly enhanced with unnatural sharpness, but use every pixel for truly high-resolution visuals that bristle with detail. In an early scene where Bale is working on a car wearing a shirt with a tiny and tight check pattern, you can see every fine square. Closeups show every pore and line in actors’ faces, and the paint jobs on the cars have a glossy, liquid sheen. You can also appreciate the various textures in different suit and shirt fabrics and interiors.

Ford v Ferrari

Many of the scenes are shot outdoors, and the day scenes frequently have the sky in that certain shade of powder blue that reveals a bit of digital noise, but this just gives the images a more film-like quality. While HDR isn’t used aggressively, it does provide wonderful shadow detail, adding depth and dimension. Night race scenes benefit in the form of deep blacks while still showing bright headlights. And I’m not sure that the Ferrari’s rosso corsa color actually pushes the boundaries of the wider color gamut, but it does pop off the screen.

 

Beyond these visual qualities, it is the director James Mangold’s (Logan, 3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line) dynamic filming style, angles, and editing of the racing scenes that make FvF so exhilarating. I frequently had to remind myself I was supposed to be reviewing the film instead of just enjoying it in order to pull myself back from the engaging images and story to take note. The race scenes pull you in with various perspectives, from driver view, to low follow, to over the shoulder, to tight on the drivers. You can feel the tension and stress both the racers and the cars are going through as they click through the eight-and-a-half miles of country roads for 24 hours at Le Mans.

 

The filmmakers painstakingly recreated the exact twists and turns of the 1960s Le Mans raceway as it existed during this famous race, a course that has been significantly modified over the past 50 years. And the realism of the lengthy race at the film’s climax never loses intensity or becomes monotonous as you watch cars and drivers increasingly wearing down under the stresses.

 

One scene where Shelby is trying to impress Ford II with the importance of having the right man behind the wheel of the new Ford GT nearly has you experiencing the G forces and stresses on the body as he muscles the car around a tight road  

course. It’s possibly the closest you can get to what racing actually feels like without ever actually getting into a car, with the images capturing the intensity, excitement, thrill, and absolute speed of the race. (If you do fancy yourself a racer—and wind up in England—I can’t recommend a day at Palmer Sport enough. I got to drive the Formula 3000 open-wheel racer, and it was absolutely brilliant!)

 

As good as the images are, race cars are the soul of this movie, and it’s the vehicles’ dialogue through their engine sounds that pull you into the action. From the opening shots—even before the production credits have finished—there is a swirl of cars racing all around you with race announcers in different languages filling the room. The crash and bang as they shift up through gears, the throaty room-filling bass of the naturally aspirated engines revving up to red line, the cars braking late and hard into a corner—the audio puts you right in the car and sounds fantastic.

 

Frustratingly, 21st Century Fox still refuses to provide Kaleidescape with the Dolby Atmos soundtracks for its releases, so the download was limited to the 5.1-channel DTS-HD, but that still does an admirable job of putting you square in the action, and the Atmos upmixer provides a nice sense of immersion.

Ford v Ferrari

Even non-race scenes are filled with ambience, from the sounds of mechanics working, to the echoey expanse of the Ford factory, to the spaciousness of the outside world. My only quibble with the audio is that dialogue—especially Bale’s—was occasionally difficult to understand. I don’t know whether this was due to the noise of the races drowning out the voices, or just the heavy accent Bale used for Miles.

 

Ford v Ferrari is an entertaining and dynamic film that looks and sounds fantastic in a luxury home cinema, and one that should be on the very shortlist for your next movie night.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.