Battle Acts

This site offers surround professionals an opportunity to exchange information, voice their opinions, and get their production questions answered by their peers. This was created for you to discuss issues pertaining to the surround sound revolution.

Capturing the widespread curiosity of movie fans since its initial announcement, Pearl Harbor is the historical account of the events preceding, during, and subsequent to the infamous, surprise attack of Japan on the Hawaiian naval base. Intertwined with the re-creation of these dramatic World War II milestones is a love story involving two fighter pilots who have romantic interests for the same woman. The film certainly conjures up images of a grandiose soundtrack to complement and reinforce the realistic, historical visuals. And, as you will discover, the sounds were created with their chronological relevance to the period settings of the film in mind, as well.

Supervising sound editors George Watters II and Christopher Boyes and their teams performed the sound editing and design at Walt Disney Studios Sound Department and Skywalker Sound, respectively. The final mix was performed in the Cary Grant dubbing theater at Sony Picture Studios, with dialog and music re-recording mixer Kevin O’Connell and sound effects re-recording mixer Greg Russell at the helm (both were recently Oscar-nominated for The Patriot). All of these film sound artists have worked previously with Pearl Harbor director Michael Bay. Pearl Harbor was created for the 8-Channel SDDS format, as well as a standard, downmixed 5.1 version for Dolby Digital and DTS.

Capturing Sounds of Authenticity

The cornerstone of the soundtrack production for Pearl Harbor was the acquisition of a new library of sound effects. There was a particularly keen desire for the sound of the movie to be true to the historical events. In other words, the sonic effects associated with artillery, aircraft, and the like should really be reflective of the visuals depicting World War II, as opposed to being derived from an existing library of modern sound effects that may have been processed for a 1940’s �feel.� In order to meet this objective, George Watters and Christopher Boyes set out into the field to record the sounds of actual period artillery and aircraft.

In order to obtain recordings of authenticity for the various warplanes, ranging from the British Spitfires and the German Messerschmitts (during the battle at the English Channel), to the Japanese Zeros and American P-40’s during the actual Pearl Harbor attack, to the American B-25’s bombing over Tokyo in the aftermath of the attack, Watters and Boyes relied upon the resources of Fighter Rebuilders in Chino, CA, a company that supplied the vintage aircraft and engines for the making of the film. Various stereo recordings of the aircraft were made as the pilots performed the necessary maneuvers to generate sounds faithful to the scenes depicted in the film. As Watters describes it, �We got the actual pilots who worked on the movie to fly the planes. It was easier to convey to them what we needed, since they could remember specific scenes, which made it really easy [for us].� He adds, �We were totally specific, and totally insistent, to get exactly the right airplanes that were used in the film.� Watters points out that extensive background research was required in order to ensure that the sounds of the vintage aircraft were indeed anachronistic to the historical events of the film.

Research was also essential so that the recordings of reports, as well as the associated dynamics and ballistics of the artillery, were dutifully recorded. Christopher Boyes led his team (including John Fasal, who also worked with Watters to record the warplanes) to Atlanta, GA where an expert and collector of World War II artillery was able to compile the necessary vintage guns that were depicted in the film (there were about 20 different types of Japanese, German, British, and American origin). There, they went into the field and spent two days recording the sounds of gunshots from various perspectives in stereo, and in some cases in four-track, so that ambience generated by the artillery firings could be captured, along with the direct sonic characteristics.

In addition to the actual recordings of gunshots, special silencers were used for these guns that enabled recordings to be made of bullet �whiz-bys,� ricochets, and impact against metal, glass, and concrete. Says Boyes of the comprehensive sonic capturing of the artillery, �I don’t think that there’s any film I’ve worked on where we’ve amassed as a large a field recording library than we did for Pearl Harbor.� He also describes the size of the new sound effects collection as something �on the likes of which I’ve never seen before.� Firings of the same gun were captured at various perspectives, which would then allow an editor to, for example, select a close-up recording of a gunshot and, at the same time, cut in the same shot taken from a more distal perspective for ambience. These perspectives of sound effects, which later made possible novel creativity in sound design and editing, is described by Boyes as �a totally different experience, sort of taking field recordings to the next level. This was an amazing tool!�

Sound Design

Boyes also set out into the field, near Skywalker Sound, to record a myriad of sounds that would later give certain effects such as bullet fly-bys and the crashing of ships against water their own distinctive character and visceral poignancy. For the former, in addition to recording the actual effects, Boyes and colleagues used washers, nuts, and various other objects, and projected them at high speeds using powerful slingshots. Microphones were positioned at various locations along the trajectory of these objects, so different types of �whiz-bys� could be captured to create what would ultimately become what Boyes referred to as �stylized bullet whiz-bys.� The rationale was to able to provide for a variety of characteristic effects to these bullet fly-bys. As he explains, the use of these sounds, along with the associated gunshots and bullet impacts and other crafted sounds of war, were to �echo the ghostly and haunting reality of what was happening [during the attack on Pearl Harbor].�

Having worked on Titanic, Boyes had acquired experience working with the design of sounds relevant to a ship sinking. Pearl Harbor became another occasion to craft such effects, except that instead of a ship slowly disappearing into the water, the sinking of the U.S.S. Oklahoma, for example, stationed at Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack, was comparatively faster and dramatic in its own way. In fact, similar recordings for metallic creaks, scrapes, and groans were made at the same location used for Titanic. However, once Boyes put his creative mind to use with these recordings, he created the final sounds to give the ill-fated ship the sonic sense of a fast sinking, but also with substantial power and depth.

Perspectives On The Mix

Of course, the soundtrack for Pearl Harbor will expectedly deliver with a lot of sophistication in terms of directionality and spatial placement of sounds. While such attributes aren’t necessarily new to movies with grandiose, dimensionally active sound, Greg Russell points out one of the characteristics of this soundtrack that he believes distinguishes the movie from his previous projects (including Gone In Sixty Seconds and Godzilla). �I don’t believe that there’s a film that I’ve been involved with that has had more panning � not just in terms of left to right, front to back � but such that you have airplanes flying all around you,� he recalls.

As for the use of the LFE channel, Russell notes that he engaged this channel for specific, poignant effects, rather than for every possible instance in the film. He also mentions that much of the low-end content in the soundtrack originated from the actual sound effects recordings, thereby giving them their own character and articulation, rather than applying artificial, more generic low-frequency processing.

As described in detail in previous SP issues [#14 and #18, to be exact], the two �extra� screen channels offered by the SDDS format invite a range of opportunities for subtle to dramatic enhancements. These advantages can be realized not only during the final mixing stage, but also during the preparation of multichannel pre-dubs. �We utilized the two inner [screen] speakers as a stereo pair, rather than panning sounds through all five speakers,� says Russell, in reference to the preparation of sound effects pre-dubs. �If there’s an explosion, for example, with low-end content, then I could place the low-end in the left, center, and right channels, and then the higher frequency content in channels 2 and 4. In my opinion, this results in greater clarity with what you’re hearing.� In addition to effects pre-dubs, the Hans Zimmer-composed music score, as well as dialog pre-dubs, were prepared in eight channels.

The process of preparing the final mix is typically hectic and intense in nature, and is only compounded by the director, who is monitoring the process, wanting to make substantial modifications such as with the selection of certain sound effects. For this production, Boyes, Watters, and Beau Borders set up a Pro Tools 5.1 facility at producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s offices so that Michael Bay was able to intervene in advance of the final mix stage. �We were able to assemble major sequences of the film with sound, sometimes with music and dialog [in addition to effects], to play them back as kind of a �pre-temp dub,’� says Borders. �We got lot of creative questions answered that way. There are substantial design issues that were worked out months before the mix.�

It is important to note that, in addition to the intense, dimensionally prominent sequences in the movie, there is also an abundance of poignant, more quiescent moments with the ephemeral use of directionalized sounds. As far the as significance of the soundtrack overall is concerned, Kevin O’Connell seems to have best summed it up. �I can’t think of a movie that I have worked on that displays or depicts surround sound like Pearl Harbor,� he remarks. �It’s going to be a great surround sound movie!�Perry Sun is the Movie Sound Editor for Widescreen Review, and can be contacted at [email protected].

Surround Professional Magazine