Recording Captain Phillips and Gravity
by Chris Munro, CAS
It sounds somewhat ungrateful to complain about being nominated for two films in the same year. Though I was honored to receive both BAFTA and Academy Awards for Gravity, a part of me was disappointed that Captain Phillips has not been equally recognized.
These are two very different films with different challenges for production sound. Gravity was completely different from anything I had done before, whereas Captain Phillips is a prime example of how drawing on previous experience enables us to be better at what we do. Having worked with Paul Greengrass on United 93, the film about the terrorist takeover of a passenger jet on 9/11, I knew that Paul likes to shoot in a documentary style, with no rehearsal and a lot of improvisation, and to cast non-actors in key roles. When I came to work with Paul again, on Captain Phillips, this experience was vital but we now had the added issues of shooting at sea on a container ship, a lifeboat and in the Somali skiffs.
We were limited in the number of crew on the ship, but I was very fortunate to have a great crew with my usual UK Boom Operator, Steve Finn, and tech support from Jim McBride. Tim Fraser recorded 2nd Unit in Malta and in Morocco, and Pud Cussack looked after Boston and Virginia.
Chris Burdon and Mark Taylor were Re-recording Mixers; I’ve worked with both on previous films.
We had a very comprehensive previz of the film that we worked to. The previz helped us keep the VFX elements, still being designed, in sync with lighting, camera moves and sound. I had originally thought that we might be able to lock everything to the same timecode but, for a number of reasons, timecode wasn’t always practical as the controller. Touch Designer was used to control the robots and as a visual platform, sending midi triggers for us to sync to.
Will Towers was our Pro Tools operator. He made loops of the lines that we could play from a keyboard. The idea was that each line was on a separate loop, and there were alternative performances available for the on-screen actor to react and interact with. We would use different performances and adjust the timing for each take to create spontaneity while still having to be sure that certain lines were occurring at the correct frame space allocated in the previz. All film is a collaboration, but on this film I was collaborating more with VFX and the actor than ever before. It was also necessary for us to work very closely with Editorial as the film took shape and timing parameters or dialog constantly changed.
I used a Cedar DNS1500 during shooting to reduce some of the fan noise from the LED lighting rig and the robotic arms. This was only on one mix track. The iso tracks and another mix track were left unprocessed.
The communication system could rival NASA Mission Control at Houston. In addition to feeding scripted lines that the actors would respond to, we also played atmospheric sounds to Sandra to set the mood for each sequence. Additionally, we played loops of her breathing from the preceding or following shots so that she was able to get the correct breathing rhythm for the shot. Often the shot could start at one pace but finish with breathing at another pace so it was important that we were able to give the correct breathing rhythms throughout the shot.
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney could often be in rigs for hours on end so, as well as providing a system for them to communicate with each other, I also ran a kind of mini-radio station to play music, YouTube clips or anything to keep them entertained between shots. Sandra Bullock has often said that she had never previously had such interaction with the Sound Department yet we were at opposite sides of a dark stage for weeks on end. It was during one particular break during shooting that I discovered that both Sandra and George knew all the words to “Rapper’s Delight” and could sing a pretty good version!
You could be forgiven for thinking that most of Gravity was created in Post Production but, in fact, much of the shooting was oddly conventional. We had six weeks of pre-shoot, 12 weeks of principle photography and two weeks of additional photography, all with sound. Some of the sequences were shot on actual sets and boomed! For every shot, the DP concentrated on the camera angle and how the actor was lit. The Director concentrated on getting the performance that he needed and the Sound Department concentrated on capturing that performance the same way that we all do on every movie.
Glossary of highlighted words
Previz Essentially an animated storyboard, a previz video shows a rough rendition of all the elements and special effects in a sequence so every department can see how it all fits together.
Touch Designer A software program that facilitates production of animated videos and graphic sequences.