STUDIO CITY, CA — On February 18th, the Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) will present Kathryn Bigelow with its annual Filmmaker Award. The Academy Award-winning director of such films as Detroit,
Zero Dark Thirty and
The Hurt Locker is being honored for her “outstanding contributions to the art of cinema.” Bigelow is an apt choice for the MPSE’s (mpse.org) highest honor, as sound plays a crucial role in her films. She uses sound, not simply to support action and establish location, but as an integral part of the emotional fabric of the story.
No one knows this better than Paul Ottosson. The veteran sound designer, supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer has worked with Bigelow on her last three films, winning three Academy Awards (Best Achievement in Sound Editing for Zero Dark Thirty; Best Achievement in Sound Editing and Best Achievement in Sound Mixing for
The Hurt Locker).
The Hurt Locker
Ottosson was first introduced to Bigelow in 2005 by producer Greg Shapiro, who asked him if he might be interested in working on a low-budget film, The Hurt Locker. Ottosson read the script and was immediately intrigued by its story of an American bomb squad in the Iraq War. He had served as an officer in army of his native Sweden and spent much of his youth shooting guns and “blowing up things.”
Ottosson joined the film before it had even been cast and spent a year on conceptual sound work. He asked Bigelow how she imagined the score would be woven into the film’s action scenes, and she suggested that there would be no score, “just sound design.” She envisioned a highly-realistic and intensely-real soundtrack. She and Ottosson also determined that, as much as possible, the dialogue needed to be recorded live to capture the immediacy of the actors’ performances. That led to the hiring of production mixer Ray Beckett, who had a talent for capturing sound in a pure, raw state.
As the film moved into production, sound work began in earnest. “Kathryn made it very easy for me,” recalls Ottosson. “I felt pressure to do even better, because I got no pressure from her. When the real work began, we talked about how to approach it and decided to do it as scenes. I’d design the sonic landscape and then mix it down to a near finished state, because rough ideas didn’t work. We talked about making the audience a character in the film. That was very important to her. She felt that if the audience ever became mere ‘viewers,’ the movie wouldn’t work as well.”
The first scene Ottosson worked on for the film follows Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) as he dons his bomb suit, disarms an explosive device and then has a confrontation with his commanding officer, who punches him in the face.
Zero Dark Thirty
“I was tremendously nervous and played the scene back for Kathryn with no stops,” he says. “When it was finished, she said, ‘I love this,’ and it was the greatest relief. We used the same process for the rest of the movie and when we were done, she asked if I wanted to mix the movie as well. I believe I had captured what she wanted, and she didn’t want to mess with getting another mix team on board. It went well and we’ve continued to work the same way since.”
Ottosson’s collaboration with Bigelow deepened on her film about the killing of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty. Another tense and harrowing tale, it also featured meticulous, multi-layered sound design that serves to draw the audience into the heart of the action.
“What I love about working with Kathryn is that she knows what she wants and once we get it, she will not be wishy washy and change her mind,” he observes. “On these massively-difficult movies we don't have a lot of picture changes either. Once she finds her cut, it pretty much stays the same. No guessing.”
Detroit tackles a very different subject matter — racism in America — and, for Ottosson, posed a different sound challenge. Where he could draw on his military background for
The Hurt Locker and
Zero Dark Thirty, he lacked a similar frame of reference on the tumult that engulfed the US heartland in the sixties, having grown up in Sweden. He spent a lot of time researching things like the radio communications devices used by police of the era. He also went to elaborate lengths to build realism into the recording process. For example, he held ADR sessions outdoors to make the actors uncomfortable so that they would “deliver anger and hatred true to being on the street.”
As ever, Bigelow’s mandate was to keep it real. “Our mantra was ‘stay true,’” Ottosson notes. “We wanted to play the movie from the POV of the characters. It was an era of music and parties and so we had to leave space for source music. We also needed to hear sound from blocks down the street, not just the place we were in. The movie takes place mainly in one location, but it has the bigger scope of an entire city caught up in a riot with a constant barrage of sirens, police PA and crowds.”
Ottosson says that, while Bigelow is intensely focused and interested in every detail of her films, she brings a warmth and levity to the process that puts her collaborators at ease and inspires them to deliver their best work. “Everyone know her as an amazing storyteller,” he says. “Her subject matters are often grim and expose the ugliness of mankind and yet, personally, she is a tremendously funny person. She is also kind, caring and giving, and someone I am proud to call my friend.”