- LOS ANGELES
A Quiet Place (Paramount Pictures) got cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen to think about audio in a way she hadn’t before--and it’s a lesson she plans on carrying over to her future exploits, even when sound isn’t as inherently integral as it was to this particular film’s storyline.
Set in a post-apocalyptic, not-too-distant future, A Quiet Place is where mysterious creatures hunt people based on the slightest of sounds. John Krasinski--who directed and co-wrote the feature--and Emily Blunt portray a couple having to live a quiet existence, literally, in order to continue to exist, along with their kids played by Noah Jupe and Millicent Simmonds.
“A Quiet Place got me wondering why--unless there’s some big obvious sound--we don’t think more about the audio element during production,” related Christensen. “This movie forced me in a good way to think about sound--which we should be doing even for a more ‘ordinary’ script with dialogue. I remember anticipating a big sound in a scene of A Quiet Place. I was thinking along with John. Do I want to move the camera? Or would the impact of the sound be stronger if the camera were static? The choice of moving or not moving, being near or far away, different ways to place the lens--decisions as they relate to sound became the great lesson for me, something to bring along with me for future projects.”
Photographing for sound in A Quiet Place had closeups subtly accompanied by the sounds of breathing or clothes rustling, with longer shots effectively being silent.
Closeups of Regan who is deaf--and portrayed by deaf actress Simmonds--required a special kind of closeness when we see her try a new hearing aid. The closeness was needed to put ourselves in her head so we can relate to the disappointment she feels when the hearing aid doesn’t work. A special macro lens was devised to gain that special proximity to Regan. Christensen explained that the up-close focus of anamorphic lenses isn’t good enough for such a situation.
Krasinski sought out DP Christensen, having met her when his wife Blunt was working on director Tate Taylor’s The Girl on the Train. Krasinski told SHOOT he was particularly drawn to Christensen’s work on two of director Thomas Vinterberg’s films, The Hunt and Far From the Madding Crowd. “She is uniquely talented and has a great way with landscape and light, which is what I wanted for A Quiet Place. I saw this as more of a throwback film, with a feel like Alien, Jaws, Rosemary’s Baby--almost nostalgic. That’s one of the reasons we shot on film. Right from the beginning, we fought hard for that.”
Christensen affirmed that lobbying to lens on film was worth the effort. “John’s overall vision called for a cinematic look, an epic look,” which ultimately led to the deployment of primarily Panavision Millennium XL2 35mm cameras with a mix of anamorphic and spherical lenses, the latter for night exterior scenes. Film, said Christensen, also was conducive to capturing the soft, warm feel of a loving family.
Christensen’s body of work includes Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, Molly’s Game, starring Jessica Chastain; the Denzel Washington-directed Fences starring Washington and Viola Davis; director Anton Corbijn’s Life; Marc Evans’ Hunky Dory; Oliver Ussing’s My Good Enemy; and Jonas Elmer’s The Other Life. Christensen’s alluded to collaborations with director Vinterberg also include her first feature, Submarino, which earned her a Golden Frog nomination at Camerimage, as well as a Danish Film Academy Robert Award for Best Cinematography. Her lensing of Vinterberg’s aforementioned The Hunt garnered her The Vulcan Award at Cannes and the Danish Film Critics’ Award for Best Cinematography.
As for what’s next, at press time Christensen was wrapping director George Nolfi’s The Banker, starring Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie, Nicholas Hoult and Nia Long.
Skip Lievsay took on re-recording mixer duties on writer/director/producer Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (Netflix) with an Oscar pedigree already firmly in place. In 2014 he won the Best Achievement in Sound Mixing Academy Award for Cuaron’s Gravity. That year he had two Oscar nominations, the other for the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. His earlier work with the Coens yielded three additional Oscar noms--two for True Grit in 2011 (for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing) and one in 2008 for No Country for Old Men.
Roma has Lievsay again in the Oscar conversation, in some respects expounding upon his and Cuaron’s earlier Dolby Atmos exploits on Gravity. Cuaron and his sound team first used Atmos on Gravity; the Dolby system allows sounds to be precisely placed and moved in three-dimensional space. Cuaron recalled that “Atmos was in diapers back then, but I was so impressed. I wanted to see what Atmos would do in an intimate film, With visuals, you see foreground, midground and background. We wanted the sound to have the same kind of layering.”
Roma introduces us to Cleo (portrayed by Yalitza Aparacio), a young domestic worker employed by a family in Mexico City’s middle-class Roma neighborhood. Delivering an artful love letter to the women who raised him, Cuarón draws on his own childhood to create a stirringly emotional portrait of domestic strife and social hierarchy in the midst of Mexico’s political turmoil in the 1970s
Lievsay said of the audio approach to Roma, “Our plan was to design and create almost like in a documentary by sharing very realistic sounds from the period--sounds that Alfonso would have heard in that neighborhood growing up. We worked for weeks creating a super-realistic atmosphere to help the audience step a little closer to the screen and be a little more involved. Atmos was a tool that helped the audience to step into the room and be there with the events and the drama.”
But that immersive experience extended well beyond any interior room. There were the streets of Mexico City. “Each street,” said Lievsay, “had its own unique soundtrack--the street vendors using whistles and bells to call attention to themselves. Then you have the cars, the sound of traffic. The sounds move from one place to the other.” This dynamic also applied to pivotal moments in the story, including the rioting scenes in Mexico City and the big ocean sequence toward the end of the film.
The audio tracks were “rich and dense,” full of detail, related Lievsay. The mix files were reportedly six times larger than any others that Dolby had ever received. This audio richness enhanced the Roma experience.
Lievsay worked closely with re-recording mixer/sound designer Craig Berkey, his colleague on past endeavors such as No Country for Old Men and True Grit. “Craig and I divide the work--that’s how we divide and conquer,” related Lievsay. I usually do music and dialogue. Craig is a talented sound designer while also mixing sound effects. We worked in two different rooms simultaneously on Roma. Alfonso could bounce back and forth between the rooms, listening, taking notes, sorting through all the material. He would give me something to work on or refine and while I did that, he’d go to the other room and give Craig his feedback. Basically he would get twice as much work sorted out at the same time.”
Lievsay described Cuaron as “a terrific person, very spiritual, fun and smart,” open to experimenting. “We went into scenes not knowing exactly how we were going to achieve things but he gets us to embrace the challenge, to try stuff, to be creative.” That’s why, assessed, Lievsay, Roma is “so fresh and different.”
Like Lievsay, Ai-Ling Lee has both an audio and Oscar lineage. Based on their work on director Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, re-recording mixer/sound designer/supervising sound editor Lee and her compatriot, supervising sound editor Mildred Iatrou Morgan, became the first women ever nominated for an Oscar in their categories. Now their return engagement with Chazelle, First Man (Universal Pictures), is also garnering award season attention.
First Man chronicles the multi-faceted backstory of the first manned mission to the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and the decade leading to the historic Apollo 11 flight. A visceral and intimate account told from Armstrong’s perspective, the film explores the triumphs and the cost--on Armstrong, his family, his colleagues and the nation itself—of one of the most dangerous missions in history.
The range of sound is vast--from Armstrong’s taciturn tendency rooted in tragedy and resolve, to being placed inside a space capsule that seems on the verge of breaking apart as it careens through the cosmos. The sounds of the capsule engine blend in and grow with a musical score from composer Justin Hurwitz.
Regarding the nature of her collaboration with Morgan, Lee related, “We seem to have a similar taste. We like to get feedback from one another. She is more focused and more experienced in dialogue and ADR. My focus is on sound design and mixing. Being a sound supervisor, she has a vast knowledge of film. I’ve learned about other films from her. We have a really inclusive working relationship with our crew.”
Lee said the overriding takeaway she has from her experience on First Man is how much Chazelle “actually trusts and relies on sound to tell a lot of the story on screen. He gives us an astronaut’s perspective, how that feels, using sound to convey the excitement, dangers and difficulty of what he’s going through. There are instances where sound is used almost like music. That’s something I really enjoy.”
This installment of our The Road To Oscar series started with cinematography and segued into sound. Now we return to lensing, albeit of quite a different variety, with DP Tristan Oliver who shot Isle of Dogs (Fox Searchlight), director Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated fable which chronicles a journey that begins with a city’s dogs being exiled to a vast garbage dump due to a contagious canine flu. Accustomed to being pampered, the former house pets go wild, forming little survivalist groups. The protagonist group is led by Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston) and consists of Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum).
“The biggest challenge on any stop-motion movie,” assessed Oliver, “is shooting on something like 50 sets. Yet with 50 cameras running on 50 sets, the movie needs to feel like one hand made it, that one eye shot it. Across an event of this size, you can’t be hands on in every place. You need a crew that holds the whole thing together as a piece of visual coherence. You on one hand are looking at achieving the way the director wants it to play while still exercising a creative part of yourself. You also have to be hand in glove with the art department. Otherwise you can’t make the movie. You keep an eye on how upcoming sets are being prepared and constructed, the material being used, the textures so that the camera can do it all justice.”
In an earlier interview, Paul Harrod--who production designed the film with Adam Stockhausen--said of Anderson’s work on Isle of Dogs, “He is continually challenging you to think a little bit differently. I have over 30 years of experience professionally in stop motion animation. Most heads of departments on the film are similarly very experienced. We would all get together and talk over the best strategy for doing something--based on what we had done in the past. We’d present those strategies and Wes would say he didn’t want to do it the way it was done before. ‘Let’s look at how we can do something that isn’t a rehash of some of the projects you’ve done in the past,’ he would say. That can be both challenging and a little frustrating. You ask yourself what good are my decades of experience? Why not hire people with no experience and none of the baggage we carry? But as you start to see the results of trying to look at a problem from a completely different angle, it becomes kind of fun and exciting. It reinvigorates and renews your passion for your craft. That for me is the biggest takeaway from working with Wes. Isle of Dogs isn’t like anything else I’ve ever done. It’s quite unique. I think I will try to go forward with any projects--stop motion or live action--and bring that fresh perspective and renewed enthusiasm for craft.”
Reflecting Anderson’s nontraditional approach to stop motion was the use of long tracking as well as pan focus shots, keeping everyone in character. Cinematographer Oliver realized this within a tiny depth of field due to the size of the sets. He also figured out a special way to light dog fur so that it didn’t look flat. Oliver’s contributions were significant in terms of advancing the storytelling. He is an alum of Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and a stop-motion specialist whose credits include the classic clay animation Wallace & Gromit shorts (among them the Oscar-winning The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) and stop motion features such as Chicken Run and ParaNorman. Oliver was also live-action cinematographer for the Academy Award-nominated Loving Vincent, a fully painted animated movie where live footage is painstakingly overpainted in the style of Van Gogh.
Oliver noted that Anderson “tightly steers” his films. When taking on a project for the director, Oliver affirmed, “You’re not going to make anything other than a Wes Anderson film. His aesthetic is the spine of the film. We are the conduit to get what’s in his head up on the screen. He is driving everything in terms of look, design and story....And he’s always looking to do something different. I learned a lot on Fantastic Mr. Fox but found that he had increased his scope in terms of what he wanted with Isle of Dogs. That’s why each collaboration is so creatively challenging. Your game has to go up quite a bit each time.”
This is the eighth of a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 91st Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 22, 2019. The 91st Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif.,and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network. The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.