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‘Birdman’ Sound Mixers Take a Wild Trip, With ‘Bumps and Bruises’ to Show for it

In our Ear on the Oscars series, mixers talk drums, fantasies and that deep Birdman voice

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s odd and exhilarating film “Birdman” puts the audience inside the head of a desperate, egomaniacal and often deluded actor played by Michael Keaton, and it fell to the movie’s sound team to create the aural space for the wildly subjective action to take place.

Re-recording mixers Jon Taylor and Frank Montaño won nominations for their work, alongside production sound mixer Thomas Varga. (Taylor and Montaño are double nominees this year, also landing nods for mixing Angelina Jolie‘s “Unbroken.”) They mixed illusion with reality and drums with dialogue to create one of the year’s strangest and wildest rides.

See video: Wrap Screening Series With ‘Birdman’ Michael Keaton: ‘We Knew We Were Onto Something Risky’ (Video)

Did you know that Alejandro was planning to make the entire film look like one continuous shot, and did that affect your jobs?
JON TAYLOR: It absolutely affected us. When I first saw the cut of the movie with temp sound, my jaw dropped. I thought, Wow, we’ve got a lot of work in front of us. I didn’t get any of this from the script. I thought, this is a massive, huge movie. It blew me away. The underlying tone is very Alejandro-esque, but what he did was totally new.

FRANK MONTANO: The unique way the film was made pictorially, with the one continuous shot, the camera allows you to become part of the movie. You are the camera going through this film. We had to get all the movement correct, and not distract from the story line.

It’s very convoluted, too, figuring out what’s real and what’s not real. We wanted to make sure through the entire mix that we were capitalizing on this unique opportunity, and allowing a first-time viewer to understand the whole thing.

Also read: ‘Interstellar’ Mixers Tackle Glacier, Corn Field, Spaceship Sounds: ‘We Started to Cry During Some of the Scenes’

It’s a very subjective movie–everything is taking place inside the Michael Keaton‘s character’s head. How do you achieve that with sound?
TAYLOR: Being that it’s a psychological movie, you’re supposed to never really know if things are real or in his head. And it’s also a satire of sorts on Hollywood. So it was completely acceptable to go over the top with pretty much everything. That was the goal, basically. And you have things like the Birdman voice – I mean, it’s not often that you have any kind of dialogue in the subwoofer. At least not on purpose.

How did you create that voice?
TAYLOR: You have to play around with it a little bit. If you use reverb, that can put you in a space, but it will also make you think it’s something in the past. Reverb on dialogue gives you that distant feeling of going back in time, but in this case we’re supposed to be right there with him all the time. It’s his alter ego, it’s a really much bigger version of him.

So what do you do? You place him in everything. You have to think of theater acoustics, and get his pace and his pitch right. How far down can you go and still be understandable? You have to go line by line, and it took about three hours to get his voice right in the mix.

Also read: ‘Whiplash’ Sound Mixers on Making Music Fast & Cheap: ‘Fear Is a Great Motivator’

Was Alejandro watching over your shoulder as you’re doing this?
TAYLOR: In that particular case, we kept Alejandro away for a while, as much as you can keep Alejandro away. We had a chance to score things out before he came in. And he said, “That’s great. Now let’s try it like this, like that, like this… But we got lucky on the voice. After he examined every other possibility, he went with what we originally had.

Some of what we see in the movie is the character’s reality, and some is his fantasy. When you were mixing the sound, did you need to know what’s real and what’s not?
TAYLOR: That’s a very good question. I don’t think we consciously worked on it that way, at least not most of the time. I think the biggest moment of that would be when he flashes into the action sequence, and then does the flying sequence. That’s probably the most magical component through the film.

MONTANO: Definitely, especially when he starts flying. But sometimes Alejandro liked things that are obvious, and sometimes he didn’t like the obvious, he didn’t like everything perfect – he liked bumps and bruises and everything sounding raw. He wanted more emotion that way. I think even if it is real, he wants to play it abstract, and vice versa.

Everything for him is about emotion. It’s not about the sounds, it’s only about emotion. Which means it’s very difficult sometimes to track down. But we tried our hardest.

TAYLOR: Even if we were the ones who ended up with the bumps and bruises sometimes.

Also read: ‘American Sniper’ Sound Team: Why Chris Kyle’s Gun Didn’t Have to Be the ‘Biggest and Baddest’

The drums are really at the heart of the film. That must have been a factor you really had to take into account.
TAYLOR: Oh boy, did we. The drums are narration. The drums definitely tell you what mood he’s in, but they play like voiceover. That’s why they’re so aggressive.

But you also have important dialogue, and you have to keep the focus on that dialogue. So the massaging we had to do between the dialogue and the drums was one of the trickiest parts of this movie. Making sure that you have the presence of the drums, but you don’t lose the dialogue.

MONTANO: But really, we had the greatest time on this one. It’s amazing how much you can still learn, two guys who have been doing this for 25 years.