Thanks to three key members of the film’s nominated sound team who spoke with IndieWire — supervising sound editor Donald Sylvester, re-recording mixer and sound designer David Giammarco, and re-recording mixer Paul Massey — IndieWire can share two videos that provide a first-hand demonstration of their work.
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Already, the film has swept the sound guild ceremonies: At this year’s MPSE Golden Reel Awards (the guild award for sound editing), it won the Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing for Effects and Foley. At the Cinema Audio Society (the guild awards for sound mixing), “Ford” took the top prize of Outstanding Achievement in Sound Mixing.
Below, you can watch the first 15 seconds of the race five times, with each pass a new element of the final sound design being added:
Pass 1 – Foley
Pass 2 – Foley, Group, Background
Pass 3 – Foley, Group, Background, Dialogue
Pass 4 – Foley, Group, Background, Dialogue, Sound Effects
Pass 5 – Final Mix
The Sound Story of Le Mans
Giammarco: The 30 minutes of Le Mans was something that we were working on collectively for extended periods of time, to get the waves, and to get balances throughout that scene working well, so that we were not going to bombard people over such a long period of time. And that has everything: It has big crowds, it has dialogue coming from everywhere, announcers, and sound effects, and music. We were big and small in every area throughout that 30 minutes. I think that the whole race was a dance to avoid that bombarding of the audience.
Massey: We spent an awful lot of time in the final mix working on Le Mans, experimenting with what parts should be very visceral and full of adrenaline, excitement, and raw racing, and what parts need to be calmer and potentially taking music cues out, really calming down effects. We need to not only not overwhelm the audience, but keep it interesting, change colors and perspectives, to keep the race alive and still reach a climax at the end.
Sylvester: We had to locate these rare, exotic race cars from 50 years ago and that was a challenge in itself. I mean, we did find a whole lot of cars and we eventually found one that we had access to and we were allowed to record. And then recording the cars themselves was half the battle because you really can’t take the car out and drive it the way they drive it in the film. You could drive it in a way that stimulates the speed and the competition type of maneuvering that they were doing.
Then molding that into the picture was the real challenge, because we wanted to keep the perspective alive when you’re inside with Ken [Christian Bale]. When you’re outside the cars speeding by you, the real sound of a car like that GT 40 coming into the pit with the volume of the engine, the heft and the weight of it all.
Giammarco: We started with great recordings and that really helped us all the way through. We had plant mics on and around the race track, then inside the cars. The microphones were set up in the engine compartments, microphones near the exhausts, microphones inside the cockpit. So, throughout the film we were able to pick and lean on what would cut through best, what carried the weight that we needed it to carry at that time for the particular areas. And the GT 40 was very beefy and robust. And then the Ferrari also would have the big engine, but not the displacement of the Ford. We were able to kind of accentuate the differences between the two types of motors so that they could be a little more recognizable when they were racing against each other.
At times, we didn’t want to be so engine heavy, and we would have more suspension going on in the car in the cockpit, vibrations and things like that, and rain. Everything was at our disposal, and what we could lean on best and when music should be the dominant player there, and then get out of the way with effects that would get in the way with music and vice versa.
Giammarco: None of us were there, obviously, at Le Mans, but the whole process is sometimes what was it like to be there. I did have a little help from a newsreel of the era, which allowed me to hear the PA announcers. But just the proximity of the pits meant that we needed to hear Italians next to the Americans. We needed to hear French call out from the stands.
Massey: There is very extensive crowd work done with a deep background crowd, and the closeup shouting, and the PA, and English, and the PA being repeated in French.
Giammarco: We were trying very hard to make it as full and rich as possible, so that if any of the cars drowned it all out, it would make sense that this is a loud environment all the time.
The whole atmosphere was supposed to be celebratory and carnival-like. 24 hours is a long time to spend on one event for any spectator, but after 24 hours it’s over, so they were there in full celebratory mode the whole time. And that’s what we wanted to convey, that even though it’s two in the morning, there’s still people shouting encouragement, and they’re up all night. It’s like a Mardi Gras for them, so that’s the idea required a whole lot of added tracks of group and background.
Ken’s Big Decision: Taking Away Sound
At the end of the film Ken Miles (Bale), on verge of winning Le Mans, is under pressure to slow down and let his two Ford teammates catch up. It’s a defining moment for the character.
Below you can watch the key decision moment four times, each time with a new element of the sound design added:
Pass 1 – Dialogue, Foley
Pass 2 – Dialogue, Foley, Background
Pass 3 – Dialogue, Foley, Background, Sound Effects
Pass 4 – Final Mix
Giammarco: That scene represents the combination of everything we know about Christian Bale at that point, and his character, and what he wants to achieve, and how he’s achieving it, and how he feels at that moment on a very personal level. So it’s almost got nothing to do with any external factors. It’s all internal for him.
Sylvester: It’s interesting what happens when you take away sound. I mean you can have a loud engine racing the whole time and you’re excited, but when the moment you start to take away sound and you start to focus on the individual that’s in the car, I think it allows you to sense that you’re more personal and intimate with the character.
Giammarco: I love how that scene plays. His decision moment is he’s racing at the fastest he’s ever gone in his life, and faster than anybody’s ever gone at that track, and we’re going in the other direction sonically, and music is blossoming, and we just hear him in the car, and his breathing, and his gloves on the gearshift. I think that’s Jim [Mangold] telling a story, and we’re trying to help it with sound, but it’s a really powerful moment.
We were trying very much to get inside Ken’s head, and to ride with him as he made this decision, and all the sound that was unnecessary because he wasn’t hearing it anymore; neither were we. And his ability to focus was part of the reason we take away this extraneous sound. And you might hear little rattles in the car, little tiny things that are really within a six-inch radius of him. But that’s his world at that moment, and that’s why we think the sound had to be so intimate, and close.
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