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NAB: ‘Captain America’ Sound Team Talks Challenges, What Makes Marvel Movies Great, and What Makes the Oscars ‘Frustrating’

Marvel Studios’ SVP of feature post production, Bruce Marko,e reveals the surprising percentage of movie budgets spent on the sound department

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” received rave reviews and raked in nearly $100 million domestically last weekend, but without the spectacular soundscape created in post-production, Marvel Studio’s SVP of feature post production Bruce Markoe thinks it would have been “horrible.”

Markoe joined Skywalker Sound designer and editor Shannon J. Mills and supervising sound editor Dan Laurie for a Q & A session with TheWrap following their panel, “In Heroes, We Trust,” at the NAB Show in Las Vegas on Wednesday.

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Find out what the biggest challenge was during the production of the movie, why sound matters more than most people think, why Marvel makes great movies, and why the Academy Awards can be “frustrating” for often overlooked accomplishments in making the movies you love sound great.

What were some of the biggest challenges you guys faced in creating the incredible soundscape for this movie?

SHANNON: There were a few challenges. The helicarriers at the end, obviously, don’t exist, and so figuring out what they sound like, as well as Winter Soldier’s arm, and what it sounds like. I don’t know if you remember the character in the computer, Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones). Dan and I working on that to create what his voice sounds like. He’s made up of all these big machines and things like that.

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Let’s take the helicarriers. Can you kind of walking me through the process of how you created their sound?

SHANNON: A little bit of experimentation. But because the helicarriers had new engines in this movie, different from “The Avengers,” we started with some rocket recordings, recording various rockets, as well as me holding a microphone out of my car window and just letting the wind beat on the microphone head. And then putting that stuff together in a way to create size and mass, because these things are huge. 

That’s crazy. This huge $160 million movie, and you’re still using backyard film tricks.

SHANNON: Exactly. They work the best. 

DAN: I would say from a dialogue point of view, we were given a brief that we should do as much production as possible, and they didn’t want to do ADR (additional dialogue recording), so our challenge really was to make sure the dialogue was cleaned up and presentable, and clear for everyone to understand. 

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What was the most time consuming aspect of this film that you were working on?

SHANNON: I think it was in the final mix, deciding what department ruled what area. “Here we want to to hear more music, and it’s carrying the film here.” You know? “In this section we want sound effects to take over.” That stuff takes time to work out and do elegantly. 

DAN: It’s mixing all the dialogue with the effects and the music, so everything is coming through as we want it. That’s, I would say, one of the major challenges of what we do.

SHANNON: We think about it the whole process, but there’s a specific amount of time at the end where we actually do it, and decide exactly what it’s going to be. So about the last four or five weeks.

BRUCE: We start the sound design process during the production of the movie while they’re shooting. We do some early design work and start auditioning things for the editor, director and studio. Especially some of the new sounds to try to get those defined early on, so we’re not waiting until the last second.

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How much of the budget is devoted to sound?

BRUCE: Of the total picture? One percent. Just one percent of a movie that, I would easily argue, if you played it with just very, rough scratched audio and nothing else, the movie would be horrible.

Yeah. I went to film school, and one of the things they taught me is that sound is the first thing people will notice if it’s wrong. That will take them out of the movie immediately.

BRUCE: I think it’s 50 percent of the enjoyment of the movie, so considering it has that much percentage of its impact, it’s an awfully small percentage of the budget.

Bruce, I imagine you’re involved with every Marvel movie. How do manage to juggle all of these huge projects? 

BRUCE: Probably, when I check my email next, I’m going to have about 200 of them. It’s a lot of work to try to manage the different teams of people who are working on these movies and try to keep the train on the tracks. It’s definitely a challenge the way these movies are made. All big movies are like that, though. The day flies by, let’s put it that way.

 DAN: It’s also a lot of fun working on Marvel films.

SHANNON: Yeah, we have a great time.

BRUCE: Marvel is a very collaborate studio, which is unusual compared to the other places I’ve worked. The key creative executives of Marvel are very involved in the entire process, including the post-production process, and that’s something you don’t commonly see. It makes for a great working atmosphere and I think it makes a better movie. And I guess we could easily say our track record is pretty good in that respect.

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I wanted to ask you guys this. What drew you guys to working in sound and post-production on movies?

DAN: I started in commercials and I got really bored working in commercials, I have to say. And one of the editors there was doing a feature, and he said, “Would you like to come and do this?” I can’t even remember the name of the feature. But I just had a ball, and had a great time. That was the moment.

SHANNON: I think for me,  probably as a kid seeing “Star Wars” and then later seeing the special that Ben Burtt did about how he created sound for those movies. Just being a young, easily influenced child, that really stuck with me.

BRUCE: I don’t remember any kind of a watershed moment for me, other than I was always a film nut and always seemed to key in on the sound. I loved the way that it affected the movie. I started a director of photography when I first joined the business, then I shifted into post-production and sound. I really just enjoyed the process and amount of creativity that one had. Even though it wasn’t always given as much time and credence as it needed to be, I thought it was a a really creative pursuit.

DAN: It’s like a massive jigsaw puzzle putting it all together. It’s terrible satisfying when it all comes together.

BRUCE: And a lot of people don’t appreciate it, or understand the complexities involved. But it is an amazing amount of management, creative work, collaboration and effort and energy that go into these soundtracks that really make a big difference in how these movies play. In any movie. Movies have great, quiet mixes, as well, so it’s not all about this big, loud stuff.

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I joke with my friends when watching the Academy Awards that whatever movies make the most boom-booms tend to take home the Oscar in the sound categories. Do you feel like sound is effectively judged and awarded every year? Or is it kind of frustrating that people don’t really understand what you guys do?

DAN: I find it quite frustrating, sometimes, to be honest with you. There are some films that you think, “They got an Oscar for that?” But then there are other films that deserved them. A lot of the times it has to do with how popular the film is.

BRUCE: I think so. And unfortunately these days, there are certain studios that spend more money pushing certain films for awards consideration by taking out more ads, holding more screenings … I think the studios that do push the films for the technical categories, typically, it pays off. I think it can sway voting, so unfortunately, it doesn’t always mean the best picture wins. Sometimes the picture with the most advertisements wins.

Also read: ‘Gravity’ Sounds Best to Cinema Audio Society

So I guess it’s not really that different from the rest of the award categories then. What would you tell people to look for when you’re sitting through a movie to judge sound categories?

BRUCE: You don’t’ want to hyper focus on the sound when watching a movie, because that’s not the full experience. I’ve seen movies some times where it really strikes me, and I really notice the sound work in the film, and it just seems to stand out for whatever reason.

Certainly I think when a film overall impacts you and you think, “Wow this film is fantastic.” You gotta realize, a lot of that fantastic was sound. It’s not just the writing, directing, visual effects and photography. Sound has a lot to do with the enjoyment of movies, so when you say I love that movie, think about that sound had something to do with that.

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