For ‘Life of Pi,’ the Secret to Its Sound Is in the Silence

Oscar nominated sound mixers Doug Hemphill and Ron Barlett faced technical challenges and a spiritual journey with "Life of Pi"

Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" was a famously difficult movie to pull off, a philosophical and spiritual journey featuring a young protagonist (don't work with kids) stranded on the open sea (don't work on water) with his only companion, a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (don't work with animals).

Throw in a beloved bestselling book whose devoted fans would be comparing the adaptation to the novel, extensive special effects that included a menagerie of largely CG animals, and Lee's decision to shoot in 3D for the first time, and only the truest of true believers would have dared suggest that the movie would end up an international hit with grosses approaching $450 million, and a critical favorite with 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and both sound categories.

For Oscar nominated sound mixers Doug Hemphill (left), Ron Bartlett (right) and Drew Kunin, "Life of Pi" was both a technical challenge and a spiritual journey — as Hemphill termed it, "one of the most beautiful mixing experiences I've ever had." Hemphill and Bartlett spoke to TheWrap about sound, silence and the particular challenges of an impossible movie that turned out to be possible after all.

What was your basic approach to the sound mix on "Life of Pi?"
Doug Hemphill
: It was all based on the tacit understanding that the sound reflected [the character] Pi's inner life and the arc of the story. That was our roadmap, but since Ang is incredibly creative, we took chances here and there and went to different places. And the way I always work, I try to stay in the audience. It's not a technical job to me. It's a job of feeling emotions and participating in the film and the story, and responding with sound as if I was an audience member. Would I like to have quiet here? Would I like to have some sound that would help tell the story better? It's just a million choices that are sometimes based on your instincts.

You talked about the quiet, and a lot of the movie takes place in a setting that seems very quiet: the open sea, particularly when it's calm.
Hemphill: There are so many things going on in the film, and one of them is the Buddhist idea that you can't have anything until you lose everything. Ang said to me, "Sometimes in film there's a desire to fill in the quiet spaces with something, and I don't want to do that." He wanted to have that quiet, and let people think and absorb, as Pi was doing in the film. It takes confidence to be able to do that.

Ron Bartlett: There were moments in the film where we really went with a more sparse, isolated feel. Out in the middle of the ocean we purposely dialed some things back and didn't fill the track up with sounds for story reasons. Pi's abandoned, he's alone, he's totally isolated, and we didn't want to wrap a lot of sound around him.

Hemphill: That's a maxim that was used throughout "Life of Pi" in the track. It's like a writer saying, "Let the readers finish the sentence and bring themselves into the story." Certainly with sound and music, when you hold back a little it can be just right for the story, because it doesn't crowd the audience.

I spoke to composer Mychael Danna, and he said at first he sometimes found himself trying to put too many ideas into the music. But he had to learn to dial it back, and simplify what he was doing.
Hemphill: The whole film is like that. It's not a literal movie about including the sounds of everything you see. It's about what is necessary to tell the story and leave breathing room. Mychael was definitely very conscious of that, and I think he wrote one of the most beautiful scores I've heard in a long time. I can't tell you the effect that score had on us when we were working on it.

Bartlett: The music was really the heart and soul of the film, and it was a dream gig to mix that kind of score. The challenge was to make it the best I could, because I had so much respect for it.

Let's talk about the sequence in the movie where Pi and Richard Parker find themselves on an island occupied by tens of thousands of meerkats, all of them chattering away.
Hemphill: We were just laughing about that last night. Ang said to Eugene Gearty, who did the sound design, "OK, you've got 100,000 meerkats in the movie, Eugene. What are you going to do?" And Eugene knew it had better be good. He was out recording meerkats until he probably became the world's leading expert in meerkat vocalizations.

Bartlett: He used some great tricks with the sound design to make it feel like a crowd. And there are so many different emotions running through that sequence. Pi is elated, he wakes up with the sound of the water lapping, and now he's got land and water and food and everything's great. And then he find that something weird is going on. So many different emotions, all in one sequence.

Was it tricky to find just the right balance in a sequence like that?
Hemphill: Very. Volume changes, revealing things but leaving the audience enough room to dive into the story — all the little adjustments make such a big difference. I'll give you another example: One of our biggest challenges was when Pi and Richard Parker are in the lifeboat and they're dying, and the tiger's head is in his lap, and Pi says, "Can you feel the rain?" We worked hard to get the flat, dead-sounding rain plops, and have that be very sparse and funereal. And with Richard Parker's vocals, we made a very conscious choice not to have any growls, just labored breathing and wheezing. As Ang said, Richard Parker has his head on Pi's lap not because he's his friend, but because he's too weak to attack him.

Bartlett: Things were so exposed in the film that you had to have the exact right sound, the right level. Everything was magnified because of the sparseness at times. And then it would go the other direction, like the storm sequence or the shipwreck sequence, where you're flooded with sounds. It goes from the sparsest raindrops to the hugest storm.

The two storms, though, play very differently onscreen.
Hemphill: Yeah. I've worked on a lot of movies with storm sequences, like "Master and Commander," and the first storm sequence in "Pi" wasn't a big action setpiece for me. It was about Pi being frightened and alone and separated from his family. So the storm had a real emotional content to me. It wasn't about, "This is a Ferrari with the pedal to the metal."

And for the second storm, we changed the paradigm. That storm was about Pi's epiphany. Even though visually there was a huge storm, sonically it was the music that was telling the story and conveying the emotion. I was tasked with having a certain amount of what you saw in the soundtrack, because you see the storm. But what I chose to do was use filters to take frequencies out that would leave the music room and freedom to play, but still give the audience the sense of a storm under the music.

Bartlett: To rack focus, but respective of sound.

Hemphill: That's what we do. To the layman I say, "You know how a cameraman racks focus to determine what you'll be looking at? We do the same with sound."