Friday, January 23, 2015


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

Jon Taylor and Frank A. Montaño joined the two-fer club this year on two completely different projects

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.

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