Many recent blockbusters films have fit a mold so to speak, made of special effects, suspenseful action and explosions. Add in a couple big name celebrities, and you have a surefire return on investment. However, Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, positively smashes the mold with some unique tactics that make this experience one that any moviegoer – and especially audiophiles like me – will salivate over.
The film follows Dr. Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock), a brilliant medical engineer on her first space shuttle mission with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (played by George Clooney). Kowalsky is commanding his last flight before retiring, and a seemingly routine spacewalk sparks disaster. The shuttle is destroyed, leaving Stone and Kowalsky completely alone, spiraling into blackness, and tethered to nothing but each other.
The geniuses who helped bring the film’s audio to life are Sound Designer and Supervising Sound Editor Glenn Freemantle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), and Sound Re-recording Mixer Skip Lievsay (No Country for Old Men, Big Lebowski), who also works on a lot of the Cohen brothers’ films. Gravity was originally mixed in 7.1, but the ultimate version of the film’s sound is the Dolby Atmos mix.
The SFX of Gravity
Though the film was shot for IMAX and 3D, it’s not the visuals that make this film unique. What sets the film apart is a creative and artistic approach to the sound design and mix that breaks most modern film conventions. According to the 1979 film Alien, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” This property is due to the fact that space is a vacuum and there is no atmosphere in which sound could travel. Cuarón spent four and a half years researching and developing this film and wanted it to be as accurate as possible. That meant the sound needed to be what you would “hear” in space. Lievsay stated, “The problem with going with ultra-realism when your movie is set in space is that sound doesn’t actually travel in a vacuum. So you’re now extremely limited when it comes to what elements you can build your film’s soundscape around.”
Cuarón’s brilliant hire of sound designer Glenn Freemantle was fruitful immediately. “Glenn established the idea that — since an astronaut has air in his or her space suit — if they were to touch something, the vibrations inside of their suit would then allow this astronaut to hear things, that the sound could then travel to their ears through touch,” Lievsay stated in a phone interview with the Huffington Post. However, even if sound traveled inside the astronauts’ suits, it would only be through direct contact, and in turn would be the sound of the vibrations between the object and the suit. This reason is why most of the SFX for Gravity were recorded with a transducer rather than a standard mic, since a transducer records vibrations.
One of Freemantle’s Foley editors, Hugo Adams, had a connection with someone who worked at NASA, so they were able to get all kinds of information about the material of the tools and structures. “We went into General Motors, and we went into their test area. … We recorded on all these different mics, and then we recorded the robots that make their cars, and we stuck mics to them. Anything we could get that was metal or moving. We even recorded these air conditioning units for inside [the spacecraft]. We just recorded a stack,” Freemantle said.
They followed a similar idea in regards to all the radio chatter coming from Earth. “Through our contacts, my company got hold of a group of NASA guys [who] worked there. And I set them up in a hotel room, and we Skyped them one day, and we sort of said, not giving away the plot or anything like that, but gave them scenarios that might happen in space. And recorded about four hours of proper space talk and scenarios and chatter. … We had four of them, and they had their own mics so we got some absolutely amazing stuff. It’s very subtle, but it’s the detail that you go to, to try and create this world that is true to what would be happening,” stated Freemantle.
The Dialog of Gravity
The main actors spend most of the film in space suits communicating through radio transmissions. Skip Lievsay created a special EQ to give the impression the dialog was being heard over a radio. Having the option to turn the effect on and off came in handy because there were many emotional scenes where Cuarón chose to use a less processed sound. Lievsay was quoted as saying, “As it turns out — a certain amount of emotion is lost, the edge that a human voice can have gets taken away the more that we try and make a recording sounds like it’s coming in over the radio. That kind of filtered effect can really undercut into the energy, emotion, and drama that one gets from listening to a human voice.”
One scene struck me as particularly stunning, and it happened when the camera slowly zoomed in on Sandra Bullock’s character while she was in her space suit. The shot went from being outside of her helmet to inside her helmet. The sound of her dialog transitioned with the movement, going from a radio transmission EQ to the sounds inside her helmet, complete with the slight echo from the helmet itself. The microphones the actors had as part of their space suits were real microphones used for production audio.
The main feedback I heard about the film’s dialog is in regard to the panning dialog following the characters on screen, as opposed to being panned to the traditional center, or even right or left. Cuarón used this same technique in his previous film Children of Men, where all the dialog is panned to the character’s on-screen placement. In regards to the technique, Lievsay stated, “Most filmmakers will argue with you that that is a distraction and that you need to hear it on the center channel, or maybe on the left side — maybe. And I think one of the great things about cinema is the presumption that things are happening outside of the proscenium. That the film is pointed in one direction, but everything else is still going on outside of that frame.”
The Score of Gravity
Composer Steven Price began work on the film as the Music Editor, but after hearing Price’s musical ideas, Cuarón awarded him the Composer role. Some of the score was recorded with samplers and digital equipment, but some of the orchestral pieces were recorded at Abbey Road, which was then digitally manipulated. As a result, the final score sounds emotionally orchestral without sounding raw. Since a lot of the film is absent of sound, the score was used in in conjunction to what is happening on film, creating a ballet of crashes and action without the sounds to accompany it.
In addition to panning the SFX and dialog, the same technique was used with the music. It was initially mixed into stems in 5.1, then those stems were mixed into 7.1. Lievsay would control the volume while Music Editor, Christopher Benstead, controlled the panning. Lievsay described the mix, “What we did basically was, we would rotate the whole track. So if you imagine a steering wheel, on the top of the wheel is LCR [the left, center, and right audio channels behind the movie screen], and on the bottom of the wheel is left surround and right surround. And you turn the steering wheel, you can see what that’s going to create panning-wise. … So the emphasis goes from front to back, so it creates a gigantic feeling of movement when you reverse roles, basically, and the energy which is always in the front rotates to the back, and the afterburn — in the form of the reverb — ends up in the front.”
Gravity is by far the best film I have seen mixed for Dolby Atmos. It not only sets the film apart from others released recently, but it is a great “advertisement” for what Dolby Atmos can do for a film – even a film primarily using silence. If you are going to see the film, my advice is to opt out of the 3D, and look for a theatre with IMAX and Dolby Atmos. Not only will you view the film as the production team intended, but you will experience a film like none other.
View the Film Sound Profile from SoundWorks Collection: