Recording Sound For Fury
By Lisa Piñero
In June 2013, I was called to do a series of reshoots for Sabotage, the David Ayer–directed film that I’d worked on the previous fall. While shooting, I learned that Dave’s next film, Fury, was gearing up to shoot in England. I wanted in.
I love working with Dave; his unconventional shooting style and focused vision on End of Watch and Sabotage, the two films on which I’d previously collaborated with him, forced us to find creative ways to capture the dialog along with real-time sync tracks of actual environmental sounds.
But Fury was going to be different. This was a passion project for Dave; he had written a story that had attracted a fantastic cast, including Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal, Michael Pena, Jason Isaacs and Scott Eastwood. It was set in the battlefields of World War II, in Germany near the end of the war, and would be shot on 35mm anamorphic film by Roman Vasyanov, the Director of Photography I had enjoyed working with on End of Watch. Dody Dorn was onboard to edit and Andrew Menzies, whose work I had admired on other films, would be the Production Designer.
For this film, Dave planned a much more conventional visual style. Although the idea of a conventional visual style may imply a comfort zone of a familiar process and “old school” sound recording techniques, this is never the case on a David Ayer project. Dave challenges everyone involved in his films to push the limits of their craft. He strives for a sense of reality in his work that forces us to re-think our assumptions about the filmmaking process.
At the end of August 2013, I set off for a month of prep at Pinewood Studios. Packed in my bags were manuals and notebooks filled with photos and diagrams of actual World War II tanks and tank crew field gear, including communications systems, along with actual pieces of US surplus Sherman tank communications gear, including plug-in BC-606 comm boxes, throat microphones and helmet headphone wiring. Forty-five cases of sound gear were shipped and on the way to Pinewood Studios, and a new sound cart, designed with our shooting environment in mind, was being built for me by Malcolm Davies in Manchester, UK.
Early in prep it was determined that we would have essentially three shooting scenarios involving tanks:
1) Exterior Tank Action, in which tank commanders would perform scenes with each other and need to speak/hear one another on one channel (tank-to-tank), while tank drivers (specialist/stunt drivers) would have to be on their own channel with our tank coordinator in order to hear commands and cues. In these situations, we would record our cast only through production microphones. We would wire all cast members and use either helmet or body-mounted microphones (DPA-4061 or DPA-4071).
2) Exterior Process Vehicle, in which our cast was riding in or on a custom-designed tracking “process vehicle.” This vehicle was essentially a highly detailed, life-size fiberglass model of our Sherman tank Fury, attached to the base and suspension of a heavy‐duty military tracking vehicle. It featured a large steel platform apron, suitable for mounting up to two Chapman hydrascope cranes, lots of camera, lighting, and grip gear, and necessary crew. In this case, as above, we would wire all cast, and the tank coordinator would be in direct communication with the process vehicle’s driver seated at the front of the vehicle.
3) Interior Tank, in which our cast played out scenes inside a gimbal-mounted interior tank set. Here, we would wire all the cast and either boom or plant microphones for production dialog. We would also find a way to record the cast through the microphones of a modified vintage tank communications system.
Before leaving Los Angeles, I had acquired several sets of T-30 throat mikes. T-30s are essentially two small carbon microphone elements encased in rubber that are attached to an elastic strap and worn snugly around the neck. The capsules should be positioned on either side of the Adam’s apple. The microphone was designed to pick up sound vibrations through contact at the throat; this was more effective than relying on sound waves transmitted through the air in the extremely high noise environment of a tank’s interior. I needed to hear what these microphones sounded like; however, sadly, the mikes produced a very low-level and noisy signal. After more research, I learned that, over time, the carbon powder in these old surplus microphones solidifies into a solid mass, which does not allow the carbon granules to vibrate as they should with sound pressure in order to change the electrical resistance between the elements’ plates enough to significantly modulate the signal. These old microphones weren’t going to work without some modification.
There were other complications with the surplus vintage gear as well. The connectors used in these systems were specific to military systems and in some cases very rare and difficult to locate. Also, some elements were considered expendable in the day and not field repairable, which made them difficult to modify. We investigated the possibilities of using the actual radio systems in the tanks, but were dissuaded by our period tank mechanics, who recounted stories illustrating the extremely unreliable performance of these old tube radios. We needed a clever, resourceful engineer who understood the filmmaking process and was interested in tackling this project. I called Production Mixer Chris Munro for ideas, and he immediately assured me that he had the man for the job: James McBride.
Jim is royalty in the sound recording world, yet he is such a humble man you would never know it by meeting him. He was a valued studio engineer and an important technical contributor at the legendary Olympic Studios in London during its heyday. Jim designed and built the facility’s Studio One recording console. Many of the most important acts of the ’60s and ’70s, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, recorded their most famous records through the consoles at Olympic. (http://www.soundon sound.com/sos/aug12/articles/keith-grant.htm)
Jim has become Chris Munro’s go-to man for designing and building custom sound equipment for specific applications. One of Jim’s recent projects was finding a way to build a radio mike transmitter directly into a space helmet for the film Gravity. (Editor: See Gravity and Captain Phillips by Chris Munro, CAS, 695 Quarterly, Spring 2014)
Jim came aboard Fury, and after numerous meetings with all departments involved, we had a plan for our interior set vintage microphone recording scenario. Jim would modify enough existing vintage elements from the cast costumes, props and set dressing to give us a signal path from the vintage microphones (T-30 throat mikes and T-17 handheld mike) used by the actors to the inputs on my recorders. He would also modify the interior tank plug-in comm boxes (BC-606) to accept a return signal from my cart, so that each cast member could hear the mix-minus feed I was sending them via wireless monitoring from my cart. The actors would only have to plug in to what was now modified and practical set dressing in order to be recorded through their vintage microphones and hear each other (minus themselves) through their vintage helmet headphones.
In order to make this happen, Jim and his assistant had to meticulously modify equipment that was manufactured to be expendable and certainly not accessible for modification. In the case of the T-30 throat mikes, Jim carefully sawed through the very small Bakelite connector material and internal contacts in order to replace the old and unusable cable. Then, he glued it all back together so it was impossible to see that they were different from the unmodified pieces. He used a similar surgical technique on the flexible rubber piece that contains the carbon throat elements and replaced those with new elements that, while not high fidelity, replicated the sound of the originals when they were new. He sourced and found all matter of parts, including new cable for our cast PTT switch boxes that looked exactly like the original; a new SM-58-like capsule to fit inside the T-17 microphone that our tank commander would use; and small headphone speakers that could be glued to the sawed-off back of the visible part of our vintage headphones, so that they would look original but work as practical for our cast. The list goes on and on. I asked him for miracles, and Jim delivered them time after time.
Jim also worked on the exterior tank communication with the wireless company hired by the production company. Wireless Works had been hired to work out a duplex radio system for all the exterior tank operations. They were responsible for three huge areas: the communications between the tank coordinator and the tank drivers, the communications between our cast of tank commanders during exterior maneuvers, and all RF coordination on our sets. Jim worked with the Wireless Works onsite technician to help them integrate their duplex equipment into modified vintage equipment that the cast was using. Jim’s ingenuity and tireless work made it possible to incorporate vintage communication equipment into the production process on this show.
I should also mention the invaluable assist provided to us by Rob Lihani, who also happened to be the EPK Producer hired by Sony Pictures to document the making of Fury. Rob is ex-military and an expert in World War II militaria. He utilized his many contacts in the world of military surplus dealers and collectors in order to help us acquire authentic pieces of unused military surplus parts and equipment when no one else could find them.
When it came to production dialog, we knew that we would be dependent on wireless microphones whenever the tanks or process vehicle was moving. The tanks are LOUD and cast members might be in any number of positions while the tank was moving, so it was important to test various wireless mike positions before we started shooting. Tarn Willers and I spent several days at the tank training grounds testing a variety of lavalier microphones and mike positions on subjects as we placed them in different positions on the running tanks and the tank process vehicle. We tested a number of microphones in various positions, including several in the cast tanker helmets.
1) The tanks were really loud.
2) The tank process vehicle was even louder than the tanks, and dialog recorded on it would in all likelihood have to be replaced.
3)The DPA-4061 sounded best when used in the helmet flap position and the DPA-4071 sounded best when mounted to a chest position.
I came onto the project fully understanding that tanks are loud and that a group of many tanks are louder still. The fact that the “process tank vehicle” was much louder than an actual tank was somewhat disheartening. I discussed this with Dave, and although he knew it was a challenge, he felt very strongly that a towed process vehicle would not move like a tank and was even more problematic than having to ADR some dialog scenes shot on the current tracking process vehicle.
Given our challenge, we started to look for the best alternative solution that would give us the best results.
Our costume technician, Mark Wyndham, worked with Ben to modify the hero cast helmets for permanent placement of a DPA-4061 in each. The microphone was fitted into the helmet’s leather lining and exposed through a hole that was punched through for the purpose. Ben had our textile specialists dye Rycote Overcovers to match the helmets, and in the end, it was difficult to see where the mike was located, unless you were looking for it. Richmond Film Services modified these microphones with screw-on extension cables, so that the helmets could be removed easily without de-rigging the microphone cable and transmitter from the actor. Alternate mike placements were worked out on all our regular cast members’ costumes.
Meanwhile, Tarn and I worked on fitting out the cart that Malcolm Davies built for me. The cart was based on a frame made of small diameter speed rail, with shelving and accessories designed and manufactured by Malcolm in his shop. Malcolm builds many carts of this style for the BBC and other production mixers in the UK and Europe. It was Ben Greaves who urged me to investigate this style of cart based on his experiences shooting in the wet and mud of the English countryside, where weight and unwieldiness cost valuable time. The cart was fitted with my gear, including a Sonosax SX-ST, Deva 16 recorder, a Denecke GR-2 Master Clock, two Lectrosonics WBL Venue Racks with a total of 12 VRT modules, a Marshall dual HD monitor rack and a Sennheiser EW-300 stereo transmitter, all powered by a Remote Audio Meon LiFE. My follow/support cart is a Backstage Equipment cart fitted out with a top shelf and an SKB case filled with foamed out rack drawers that hold microphones, transmitters and other sensitive pieces of gear. Our sound trailer was provided by English film production transportation provider Translux, and Ben worked with them to fit it out properly for our sound equipment. It was stocked with expendables, snacks, and, most importantly, a teakettle—that essential piece of equipment in British culture. For transporting our gear at location, the production company built us a small covered trailer with a ramp for our follow cart and gear along with a Gator to pull it with.
As shooting began, we received huge support from our 1st AD, Toby Hefferman, regarding a standalone mobile shooting platform for sound and video. We were given a 4×4 insert car vehicle with a driver. A “room” was built on the rear platform of the truck using a speed rail frame covered with a fitted weatherproof cover. An antenna rack was attached up high over the rear rollup cloth door and a Honda generator was rigged to the front of the truck. Voila! We were a powered off-road sound & video follow vehicle, with a wall of director’s monitors hung along one side. This setup allowed us to track with moving tanks over any surface and to be instantly ready to record as soon as our truck landed for static shots. The “sparks” (that’s British for “electricians”) wired a box next to our onboard generator, giving us the ability to kill it and receive quiet power from their blimped generator when we weren’t tracking with tanks. For shots when the tanks weren’t moving, Ben had our guys run cable out for boom and ambient microphone positions. There was a lot of shouting and gunfire, and good ol’ copper gave us the best signal-to-noise ratio along with more dynamic range than that available using radio mike transmitters. I developed a huge amount of respect for our crew as they unflinchingly ran hundreds of feet of microphone cable through deep, flinty, clay mud day after long, wet and cold day.
But we still had to solve the challenge of the extremely high noise environment of the working tanks. In the end, after a number of false starts at other solutions, we hired a truck designed for location dailies screening. We had construction soundproof it further and Dody Dorn, our Editor, found ADR Mixer Jon Olive, who would bring a portable ADR setup and would do all the prepping required for the necessary ADR sessions. Once the sessions were prepped, our ADs would schedule cast members into our ADR unit for Jon Olive to record. One of our Boom Operators was always on hand to mic the ADR sessions. We used exactly the microphones and mike placement we used in the shot; we added a boom microphone and encouraged our cast members to take the positions they were in during their on camera performances. Using this method, we were able to get clean dialog for most of those scenes aboard the tracking process vehicle.
It was also extremely important to Dave for us to document the sounds of the many extremely rare, vintage World War II vehicles that we would be using in the production. The British Tank Museum’s German Tiger I tank was a particularly important subject. The last surviving operational Tiger I, we had this tank at our base camp for only a few days and its use was severely restricted to a certain amount of running time, all of which David Ayer wanted to use on camera. We needed to bring in someone who was familiar with the workings of vintage military vehicles and was skilled in sound effects recording. That man was Eilam Hoffman, who has traveled the world seeking out and recording effects. He has an impressive reel of multi-track sound effects recordings that includes many of the rarest military vehicles in the world. Eilam and his assistant scheduled several sessions at our Bovingdon Field base camp and the British Tank Museum in Dorset, and they were on set to record the Tiger tank on the day we shot it, so he could get Dave the sound of the tank’s tracks as they ground through the actual muddy field surface we were shooting on. His recordings of this Tiger are the only known multitrack recordings of a working original equipment Tiger tank. Eilam was a pleasure to work with, and yet another one of the dedicated film sound professionals I had the honor of working with in the UK.
Fury was an amazing experience and adventure. I am incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet and work with such a talented group of filmmakers on such a remarkable project.