Double-dipper sound mixing Oscar nominees talk 'Birdman' and 'Unbroken'

Posted by · 2:56 pm · January 23rd, 2015

A handful of people ended up with multiple Oscar nominations this year, and a number of them are names you've heard. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, for instance, was nominated for producing, directing and writing “Birdman.” Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater picked up the same trio for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Boyhood” respectively, while Anthony McCarten double dipped for producing and writing “The Theory of Everything.” And of course the prolific composer Alexandre Desplat was nominated for his work on both “Grand Budapest” and “The Imitation Game.” Set decorator Anna Pinnock also picked up two for her work on “Grand Budapest” and “Into the Woods,” but a pair of sound mixers made the cut for two entirely different projects and stood out as a particularly interesting trivia nugget this year: Jon Taylor and Frank A. Montaño.

Industry mixers are typically set up at one studio or another, and in Taylor and Montaño's case, Universal is home. So they were tasked with bringing the sonic environment of Angelina Jolie's “Unbroken” to life. With its multiple environments, it's really a bunch of movies in one: a war movie, a lost-at-sea movie, a prison movie, etc. Meanwhile, Taylor's relationship with Iñárritu meant he got the call for “Birdman,” and he brought his Universal partner along for the ride in what was, ultimately, a complete about face from “Unbroken.” At the end of the day, Taylor picked up his first two Oscar nominations to date for the projects, while Montaño – last recognized with a “surprise” nod for 2008's “Wanted” – landed numbers six and seven.

I spoke to both recently about their work on the two films and the drastic differences in their separate worlds. You can read through the back and forth below. (It's a long one, but super informative.)

“Birdman” hits DVD/Blu-ray Feb. 17. “Unbroken” is now playing in theaters.


HitFix: First off, congratulations to both of you. Two nominations for two very different films.

Jon Taylor: We fooled 'em twice!

[Laughs.] Well with Unbroken, it's an interesting project because it's kind of multiple films. It's a war movie, it's a water movie, which is obviously mana for sound guys, and you get the prison movie aspect. So when you saw that this was what you were going to do, is that what came to your mind, that this was going to be a heavily involved, multi-tiered thing?

Jon Taylor: Seeing the film for the first time as a first cut, definitely, I was thinking about it being three different movies as you said. Which is exciting for sound people. I mean your canvas is changing so therefore your color palette changes.

And before really diving in here, Jon, you are dialogue and Frank is effects, correct?

Jon Taylor: You are correct.

So, with the war movie aspect of it, how did you get into truthfully depicting this kind of sonic environment, looking at like what the sounds of these missile bursts and stuff would have been like on the plane and things like that? How did you go about researching it?

Frank A. Montaño: I guess I will speak on that. None of us have actually been in that environment so obviously everything's replicated and sweetened and manipulated to fit picture. But through that sequence, which was interesting after watching it several times through, you have this onslaught of Japanese Zeros attacking Louis' and crews' E-24 Liberator and all this mayhem ensues during this bombing raid. What we'd come to find, working through it time and time again, is that Louis himself was actually the caretaker of the crew. He never fired a weapon; he was moving throughout the plane, going into the underbelly, trying to close the cargo doors, being exposed to the elements and to the enemy, and then coming back helping fellow crew members that needed his aid throughout that whole sequence. You look at it as a war sequence, but the root of it is Louis' spirit through the film.

Sonically we want to make it as immersive as possible, to put the audience in harm's way as Louis truly was and the crew was. So just being able to open up the spaces and pan and move things around [to hear what] you didn't see was quite effective. And then obviously the low frequency information. So we tried really not to hurt anybody, keep the sound pressure up but manage the frequencies to not turn anybody off or make it too loud or uncomfortable. But we wanted to make it threatening and just on the edge of being unbearable. So that was the goal, and obviously clearing dialogue lines. And there was no music in the sequence, Kris, as you probably noticed. So it really allowed us to take liberties in a lot of the movement, interior-to-exterior overheads, etc.

Jon Taylor: And at the same time as Frankie said, also it's just keeping Louis – keeping it pointed toward Louie. So his dialogue – I mean it was all clear, just subtly, just so we could stay with him. And that was something that we sort of recognized a little bit into the film, was how important it was to actually stay with Louis through that scene so to hear his dialogue clear.

How did things change for you when it got to the stranded-in-the-ocean portion of the movie, which is a long stretch actually? Things like that really depend as much on what you hear as what you see, I think, as an audience member. So how did you approach that?

Jon Taylor: It's a really good question. I'll speak first, even though it really was all up to Frankie to keep it going. But the production in that scene was unfortunately in four little dialogue pieces that we were able to salvage. Other than that it was all ADR [automated dialogue replacement] that Becky Sullivan had to go shoot around the world in all these different places. We got – I don't want to say lucky, but we were so blessed to have great actors. These guys pulled off incredible performances in these booths re-creating themselves being stranded in the ocean. So that's where it started. I mean the whole thing, keeping it interesting with nice clear dialogue that wasn't cluttered by extraneous ambient noises that were there in production. That really made a difference. So the dynamics were there sonically and frequency-wise. we pretty much had that going for us and then Frankie took over.

Frank A. Montaño: Which is always bad news for the audience!

Jon Taylor: [Laughs.]

Frank A. Montaño: You know what, Eric Norris did a great job, man, on tracking. We had a discussion with sound editorial, after seeing the film, of what I was really trying to create. Again, the mix was originally 7.1, the original final mix was 7.1. So I really wanted to get depth of field with atmospheres, because like you say, it's kind of one-note, obviously, minus the rain sequences and/or the storm. So we really wanted to make it not too cutty, but shift enough from high shots to low shots in and out of the raft, underwater, etc., just keep it interesting, keep it moving without really being noticed, try to keep it transparent so that when things did dynamically come into play, there was a large difference. But it was a great job done with the Foley, with the raft, the movement, etc., really to set that connective tissue in so that the dialogue, the ADR, had something to actually lay over and blend into throughout that whole sequence with the water laps and the winds, moving things around just to kind of keep it interesting and a lot of perspective changes, but not too cutty was the goal.

Did you do an Atmos mix on it?

Frank A. Montaño: Yeah. We got a call very early, prior to actually starting on the film, and the question was should we or shouldn't we. And I was a proponent. So we were fortunate that we were able to actually even mix it on – we finaled in 7.1 on dubbing stage six [at Universal] as the install of the Atmos was being done on the Hitchcock Theater. So we finished Oct. 17 with the final mix approved by Angelina in studio and then walked over on Oct. 20 and started the Atmos pass, which JT and I are cut from the same cloth – the fact that it's a learning curve, obviously. All films have a learning curve. It doesn't matter the sound format, they all have a learning curve, so as you might have heard before, Kris, as you move through the film, you find your legs, you find the pocket, you find the direction sonically. Somewhere around reel three or reel four, you know, 30 minutes into the film, 40 minutes into the film, you finally get your legs and you go back and do reels one and two over again. And it was the same with the Atmos. We started with reel one, which was a lot of heavy lifting sound effects-wise and transitional-wise from effects to dialogue. So we went through and by the time we got to the end, we doubled back. What did we do, JT? One through four again?

Jon Taylor: Yeah. One through four, yep.

Frank A. Montaño: To put it in the right pocket, to stay out of the gimmick world, you know, stay on the right side of the gimmick line. The movie lent itself to Atmos atmospherically, musically. So we thought we got it in a really nice pocket and we're very proud of the Atmos pass.

Jon Taylor: Going back to that raft scene, because obviously, yeah, like you said, it's probably about 27 minutes long of being on the raft. But when you think about the event that happened…

Frank A. Montaño: Forty-seven days.

Jon Taylor: Yeah, 47 days long. If you think about what happened while on the raft, as far as the sharks, as far as the two plane passes, you know, the different things that happened, the bird, the seagull, the catching of the shark – even though it's just three guys in a raft so many events happened in those 47 days or that 27 minutes, and accompanied with Alexandre's score, very simple from the track-running scenes and things like that in reels one and two, when they finally went in the raft, the music was completely different. It was very sparse, where it just really blended in with the ambience rather than just overpowering the whole scene. In fact one of the greatest things about the score is when it finally starts raining, when they're in the raft, you have all the high components of the rain coming down, the drops, all of the higher-end components, and Alexandre didn't score any high instruments. There are no violins or anything in there. It was actually mostly French horns and trombones and cello and bass. It was so thought-out so elegantly that it just kind of blended. I mean, the way that Frankie takes the backgrounds and moves it the way that the ADR sat in, the Foley and then music, the components were really just perfect. It just naturally just came together.

Now you guys are usually set up at Universal but you have a relationship with Alejandro, is that how this worked?

Jon Taylor: That's correct. I've done five movies with him.

Well, let's talk about “Birdman.” Very similar to “Unbroken.”

Jon Taylor: [Laughs.]

Frank A. Montaño: [Laughs.]

I mean, that's got to be part of the fun of the job, doing these completely different things, right?

Jon Taylor: You're exactly right, Kris. We're so lucky to be able to these movies. I mean from the huge Hollywood hits to these couple of the more indie-style movies, which “Birdman” is.

I thought it was great that the sound branch singled out both “Birdman” and “Whiplash,” because obviously they both have this drumming element and that's at the forefront of what you hear throughout “Birdman.” So was that kind of your first way in on this movie, is dealing with that treatment throughout?

Jon Taylor: I would say that because I've done movies with Alejandro, I kind of knew what he would expect, and although we never really had a conversation of the tone of the movie, it was pretty obvious. I mean from the very beginning, drums come in. Music is narration for Alejandro. It's never really underscore. There's always a purpose for it. So when there's music, it means that it's narration. It's telling the story. It's at the forefront. So that being said, the challenges were that when there's dialogue, we have to hear the dialogue, but at the same time those drums have got to keep playing. I mean they are telling the story as well as the dialogue that you're hearing. So that was the challenge, in as far as doing little tiny dips around each word with a fader, an EQ in space and reverb and whatever you could possibly do to make it work. So every cue was a challenge.

And then in this one you have a full-blown action movie toward the end of it there at the end of the second act so you get to play with that as well.

Jon Taylor: That's right.

Frank A. Montaño: The effects on the movie in general were handled in the same way. Like JT says, there is a narrative to all the components. It's interesting. There's dialogue, music and effects and they all have their place and time in “Birdman.” And it can be from subtle to dynamic all within a short period of time. But we do break out into a very quick little action sequence. At about an hour and a half into the film it kind of pops out and throughout that we only had a little bit of time to actually let that kind of take the forefront and then, of course, his ego, his subconscious, whatever Birdman is, comes flying in and gives him another pep talk. So it wasn't a lot of time, actually, to let it live like a classic action sequence. But nevertheless, all the bits and all the parts equal the sum of the whole for the entire effect of the film. So it was a lot of fun to work through each scene. And because the challenges were really – it was a continuous shot throughout the film, so there's just a lot of movement to the track. JT was moving music around the room. We're obviously tracking the camera and keeping the audience engaged without taking attention away from all of it. And story is forefront. So it was a lot of fun.

That must have been a challenge, too, for your production guys – the mixer and the boom mic onset – with this kind of flurry of movement.

Jon Taylor: Yeah. But that's the thing about what Alejandro did. They practiced for many days. But regardless, Tom Varga, who was the production mixer, man, he killed it. He really did such a fantastic job. It's amazing how little ADR is in that film. Very little.

Wow, interesting. I love it when the sound branch singles out movies like this that you might not immediately think of as a sound movie. But when you really think about it, the way sound reverberates in that theater in “Birdman,” it's a different identity than the way the dialogue and such is represented throughout the rest of the movie. So everything has its kind of place, as you say, and starts to delineate.

Jon Taylor: Oh, completely. The theater definitely had its own – we call it the belly of the whale, and it had to have its own atmosphere and you felt that the audience was there. I made sure the voices build it and so forth but it was really about the presence, the actual low-end sort of force that comes out when you pan around to the front of the stage, where you actually see the belly of the whale, and then you get that low-end presence that just fills the whole place up.

That movie is absolutely amazing all the way through. I read the script nine months before we saw the movie and I'm sitting there looking at the script and I go, “OK, another cute small little indie from Alejandro here. Nice little dialogue saying, blah, blah, blah.” And then I saw the cut and my jaw dropped. I was like, “This is a massive film.” I mean really, really, really big, very detailed. And to be immersive, it's like you can do two things. You can completely go with the camera everywhere, but if you do that it's a little distracting. Or you can play it sort of traditional and get away with things. But in this case we did – we kept the focus on the story, you know, when the characters are on screen, we kept [their dialogue] coming out of the center channel. So regardless if they were left screen or right screen they were coming out of the center channel. But then when they panned off, then we went into whole immersion pan world. I think this film really benefited from keeping focused, yet when the camera really goes, you go with it. If the people are going off screen they all get panned off. So from the beginning we took the drums and we're like, “OK, we got the voice down. We have the voice of Birdman. We know what he sounds like. Now let's get into these drums. What can we do? How crazy can we be with this thing without being just too ridiculous?” So we had to sort of go through and figure out our limits and then go from there. But it didn't take Frank and myself very long to understand it. We didn't have to do multiple reels and then go back. We got it in reel one.

Frank, had you worked on Alejandro movies before or was it just Jon?

Frank A. Montaño: Yeah, just JT. My trial by fire.

What did you think?

Frank A. Montaño: It was a great experience. It truly was. It's rare that you get an opportunity to work on a movie such as “Birdman.” And I just had the best time, being Mexican American and him being a Mexican director – really connected on that level. And as soon as he started treating me like he treated Jon, I knew that I was okay.

Well straight-up, that's my favorite movie of the year. So I'm glad you guys got recognized for it. And congrats on getting two nominations on these movies. It's an awesome little footnote to the season.

Frank A. Montaño: Thank you. It's a big honor, obviously.

Jon Taylor: For sure. A big honor, but super excited. The first thing that excited me was exactly what you pointed out, Kris: two completely different films, two completely different sound styles. Frankie and I definitely have a signature sound that we go for, and that's “Unbroken.” “Unbroken” is a signature sound. That's what we go for. Alejandro's movies, I have a separate signature sound for his movies and it's very aggressive. You just lay it down. Don't pull punches. Just let it happen. Don't hold it back. It's definitely a different mind frame, and we're fortunate to have been able to work on those two movies and many other movies this year that we're super proud of.

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