Sound Insights Into "Black Panther," "Roma"
Ludwig Goransson
Ludwig Goransson, Skip Lievsay reflect on their nominations, collaborators
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It’s been an eventful awards season for composer Ludwig Goransson who in recent months earned his first career Oscar and Golden Globe nominations--for Best Original Score for Black Panther (Marvel Studios/Disney). Last week he also won his first two Grammy Awards, sharing Song of the Year and Record of the Year honors with Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) for the stirring, searing social commentary, “This is America.” 

Goransson is gratified over his good fortune to have had the opportunity to work on such groundbreaking fare. The chance to score Black Panther sprung from his long-time collaborative relationship with director Ryan Coogler. “I grew up in Sweden dreaming of scoring Hollywood films,” recalled Goransson. “I moved here about 11 years ago. It feels now that I’m kind of living a dream. I’ve been working with Ryan for 10 years. We met at a party, played pool together and randomly started talking. He talked to me about these Swedish music artists and we bonded. We were students at USC together. He was in the directing program. I was in film scoring. A couple months later he asked me to score his five-minute student film. I could tell immediately that Ryan was really special and unique. He had a deep artistic vision already. I just didn’t know how fast he was going to rise.”

That ascent had Goransson working on Coogler’s first feature, the acclaimed Fruitvale Station, and later Creed before taking on Black Panther. Coogler wanted traditional African music to be in the foreground of the score for Black Panther. “That was a new musical language for me,” said Goransson. “Studying, learning and understanding African music became an incredible, fun experience. I love film scoring because you get to explore different music worlds. Ryan gave me time to go to Africa, to study the music and experiment. I then had some time in my studio to experiment with an orchestra.”

Black Panther had Goransson weaving African music with orchestral, modern and hip hop. “African music, the counter rhythms are complicated, more along the lines of different orchestral instruments playing drum rhythms,” related Goransson. “I found myself using instruments as passive undertones to African sounds.”

Among the biggest lessons Goransson learned was that African music, all the rhythms, “have a meaning, written for specific occasions--a sermon, a wedding, a funeral. It was important that we use this music, incorporate these elements for specific moments of culture properly within the context of the movie.  I was fortunate enough to work with incredible musicians who I met on my journey, working with different sounds and a different universe of sound.”

As for what’s next, Goransson is working on the new Star Wars live-action Disney streaming series, The Mandalorian, exec produced by, among others, Jon Favreau. “It’s inspiring to dig down into that universe which brought us one of the best film scores ever written. It’s a big challenge and an honor.”

Skip Lievsay
Skip Lievsay added to his Oscar pedigree, picking up two nominations--Best Achievement in Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing--for writer/director/producer Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (Netflix). In 2014 Lievsay won the Best Achievement in Sound Mixing Academy Award for Cuaron’s Gravity. That year Lievsay 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.

Of his two most recent nominations, Roma re-recording mixer and sound designer Lievsay said, “I’m very happy to be recognized by our colleagues and the Academy, truly a great honor! I’m thrilled for my crew--Craig Henighan and Sergio Diaz, Alfonso Cuaron, and the entire Roma team. People are seeing the film in Dolby Atmos, and it’s gratifying that it is being received so well by audiences.”

Cuaron and his sound team first used Dolby 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 Oscar nominee Yalitza Aparicio), 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, Cuaron 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 shed light on the contributions of his nominee colleagues, Sergio Diaz in the Sound Editing category, and Craig Henighan and Jose Antonio Garcia in Sound Mixing.

“Jose provided fantastic location recordings,” assessed Lievsay who noted that Garcia’s work “enabled us to do the elaborate panning we have in the film.” Lievsay cited Garcia’s penchant for recording “interesting sounds” and masterfully handling location sound effects.”

Lievsay described Henighan as “a skilled sound editor, sound designer and recording mixer,” who’s been a joy to work with over the years.

And Lievsay said of sound designer and supervising sound editor Diaz, “He lives in Mexico City. He understood and drew very deeply from the sounds Alfonso was asking for--birds, street vendors, cars. He makes the movie feel like a documentary, accurate to what was happening in that time, in 1971, in Mexico City. He is calm and wise.”

Roma is nominated for 10 Oscars. In addition to the Sound Editing and Sound Mixing recognition, the nods are for Best Picture, Foreign Language Film, Directing (Cuaron), Cinematography (Cuaron), Screenplay (Cuaron), Production Design (Eugenio Caballero), Lead Actress (Aparicio), and Supporting Actress (Marina de Tavira)

This is the 16th and concluding installment of our multi-part The Road To Oscar series running in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on, with select installments also in print issues. Next is our coverage of the Oscars themselves. The 91st Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 24, 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.

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