‘Unbroken’ Sound Mixers Find Delicacy in a War Movie

The final film in our Ears on the Oscars series challenged its mixers to honor the truth of Louis Zamperini’s story

Last Updated: February 2, 2016 @ 10:13 AM

As a sound mixer and six-time Oscar nominee, Frank Montaño concedes he gets a little help in the recording booth: viewer’s imaginations.

“Some people don’t realize movies are a 50-50 marriage between visual and audio stimuli,” Montaño said. “The big difference is, with sound, you can close your eyes and still take your audience where you want: the jungle, the ocean, a place of solitude.”

Or, in Montaño’s latest Academy Award-nominated work, a B-24 Liberator bomber that’s the initial setting to “Unbroken,” the real life story of WWII hero, Olympic athlete and Christian inspirational speaker Louis Zamperini.

Also read: Jack O’Connell Gets Shot Down and Captured in Newest Trailer for Angelina Jolie’s ‘Unbroken’ (Video)

The film, nominated for best cinematography and sound editing, also earned sound mixing Oscar nods for re-recording mixers Montaño and Jon Taylor and production sound mixer David Lee, who worked in the Dolby Atmos system to convey the havoc of fierce battles, the solitude of the open ocean and the brutality of a prison camp. (Montaño and Taylor are also nominated for mixing “Birdman.”)

War has been done so often. How did you make “Unbroken” stand out?
MONTANO: Actually, there aren’t many air battle sequences out there that start a film. We’ve had war movies about World War II, especially the European theater. A lot of Vietnam films. But air battle sequences are actually very sparse.

So was it tough capturing authentic sounds?
We were lucky enough to have one of two B-24 Liberators that were not modified.  So we recorded them and had that as a base. You augment and sweeten the sound to enhance it. But the battle sequences are really about reporting, capturing the nuances down the bullet casings that make the threat real.

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

How do you prevent a war film from being sonically chaotic?
Ten out of ten stories are story driven, and from a mixing standpoint, the last thing you want is for someone to lean over to someone else and ask “What did that guy just say?” So you have to create that magic “sound pocket,” where the movie is sensitive to first-time viewers and doesn’t take them out of the film. Because once they’re out of the story, it can be hard to break back in.

And what audience did you have in mind on “Unbroken?”
If your demo is, say, 18-25, that usually means you change the pressure of the sound. It gets bigger and bolder for younger ears. I think ours is a little more dialogue heavy, but really, what you see in “Unbroken” is three films in terms of sound. We opened with an angelic score, when Louis is flying. Then it there’s the sonic transition to a squadron rumbling. Then that hands off to a more poetic sound as he’s in solitude. But the sound through whole journey — from crash to being on a raft for 23 days — has to mirror Louis’ life.

Is it tougher to make a movie when the subject is real life?
Our approach was to be transparent. The movie opens up with the line, “This is a true story.” Not “based on.” The film itself is a living legacy, so you want to be transparent and, hopefully, give it that timeless quality that Louis’ story has.

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

That’s seems like a lot of pressure to get it right.
As a whole piece, it is delicate. You want the sound to get to the root of the sequence. That’s the only way to make sure you’re supporting the larger story.

Which is?
It dawned on me several weeks in that, while you’ve got the excitement of fighters and planes and gunners, we’re seeing Louis as a caretaker. He’s not not armed, not a gunner, not flying the planes. He’s tending to the wounded. He moves around in the plane, hangs out a cargo door, to try and take care of the entire crew. That caregiving is what makes Louis’ story so compelling. That’s what gave us a sense of inspiration.