Oscars: Nominee Lon Bender on The Revenant's sound design
Issue: January 1, 2016

Oscars: Nominee Lon Bender on The Revenant's sound design

BEVERLY HILLS — Lon Bender was up earlier than usual on January 14th, to be on-site at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills by 5:30am. That’s when the 88th Annual Academy Awards nominees were announced and Bender, sound designer/supervising sound editor at Hollywood’s Formosa Group and for Alejandro G. Inarritu’s critically acclaimed film, The Revenant, was named among them. Already a two-time Oscar nominee for his sound work on Drive and Blood Diamond, and an Oscar winner for 1996’s Braveheart, Bender received the nod this year, along with co-supervisor Martin Hernandez, for best Sound Editing. Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Randy Thom and Chris Duesterdiek also all received nominations for Sound Mixing for the film, which received acknowledgments in an astounding 12 categories, including Directing for Inarritu and Best Picture.

The film, which also earned star Leonardo DiCaprio a Best Actor nomination, is centered around a frontiersman on a fur trading expedition in the 1820s who fights for survival after being mauled by a bear and is left for dead by members of his own hunting team. A brutal story of survival in the American wilderness, it brought cast and crew to cold and wintry Calgary, where they faced bitter temperatures and an unpredictable environment. Bender (pictured at right) spoke with Post during his drive home from the nominations about his work on the film.

Congratulations – How do you feel?

“Thank you, today is a good day. It was a big effort by everybody! A real Herculean effort for everyone involved.”

You’ve been nominated before, and won for Braveheart. Does being nominated ever get old? 

“You know, it never gets old being nominated, but it also is a tribute to not just myself but to the whole crew who worked on the project. When a show gets nominated, it really trickles down to all the people you collaborated with. That’s a big part of it because nominations are really reflections of a body of work, not just a specific project usually, and it never gets old.

“Just like sound editing never gets old. There’s a magic to putting sound to picture that is so palpable and so fantastic no matter how small the sound is or how big it is. It’s a fantastic feeling that everyday you get to have the little successes of making something come to life just by putting a sound to a picture or working with music, integrating sound. It livens up all the scenes of a film and helps the audience understand where they are, what they’re supposed to be feeling and experiencing. It’s a great feeling.”

Music and sound is so important to a film.

“It really is. People connect sound with their memories — differently than images do and the sound is really pushing those buttons of emotions for people in a substantial way. When you’re a filmmaker, which I am, that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to push forward the story and enhance the emotion.”

In your opinion, what do you think was outstanding about the work you did on the film that earned you recognition from the Academy?

“I would say that the most outstanding aspect of this film would be the effort to capture real sounds in nature, which we did a lot of recording, including several hundred recordings of live Foley, footsteps of snow, capturing the essence of the wind and the harshness and beauty of the environment. I think the effort that went into that. Charlie Campagna did all the recording, Jon Title was the chief sound designer, Lisa Levine was the ADR supervisor, all of these people didn’t just turn in a regular effort, they turned in a star effort. And also my co-supervisor, Martin Hernandez, did a great job working with music and sound and putting them together and bringing a very important emotion to this movie. Randy Thom, another sound designer/supervisor really added a lot. She was responsible for the whole bear sequence that everyone responded to fantastically — so all of these people are part of the big team and we all worked together.” 

There were a lot of unique challenges on this film and there was a big emphasis on relying on the elements and the environment — if you heard a bird squawking in the distance, it was left in.

“It wasn’t just birds squawking. Alejandro wanted to hear things out in the distance to give scope and space that may or may not be a bird. It might be something — you don’t know what it is but something’s out there.”

Did you use any additional sound libraries, effects, in addition to the natural sounds?

“Absolutely. A major component of sound work on any film are those archives, and not just old sound effects from old movies, but they are from every movie we do. These recordings are what make up a sound archive. It’s the heart of any quality sound operation. Hollywood and movies are still ‘make believe’ and we use all the tools at our disposal to create the world of the director’s imagination and it’s hard work. Sometimes we succeed for the first time and sometimes it takes 10 times to succeed. Interacting with Alejandro involves doing things and doing them again and sometimes they were great and sometimes we wanted to fix things and that’s a normal process of making a film. And everyone was able to deliver a fantastic result.”

Did The Revenant turn out the way you hoped it would?

“Yeah, you bet it did. When the editing phase prior to the mix was complete, we spent hours and days and weeks of sitting and mixing things for Alejandro and [editor] Stephen Mirrione. The final mix was brilliantly done by Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Randy Thom and Chris Duesterdiek. It took [the film] to a whole other level and that’s what we hope for. That’s what it’s about.” 

What audio editing system do you work on?

“I work on ProTools 12 and use a DCommand mix console.”

What’s your favorite audio tool?

“I would say the microphone — it’s the most important tool to gain recordings of the natural world upon which all of our work is based.”