Audio: MPSE Career Achievement recipient Harry Cohen talks <i>Deepwater Horizon</i>
Issue: January 1, 2017

Audio: MPSE Career Achievement recipient Harry Cohen talks Deepwater Horizon

STUDIO CITY, CA — On February 19th, supervising sound editor and sound designer Harry Cohen, MPSE, will be presented with The Motion Picture Sound Editors’ 2017 MPSE Career Achievement Award. Cohen is an 18-time MPSE Golden Reel Award nominee, whose more than 150 motion picture and television credits include The Hateful Eight, Divergent, Django Unchained, Prometheus, Inglourious Basterds and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. The 64th MPSE Golden Reel Awards ceremony will take place in Los Angeles.

In 2016, Cohen (pictured) served as sound effects designer on director Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, which is currently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Sound Editing (Supervising Sound Editors Wylie Stateman and Renee Tondelli are named in the nomination). Recently, Cohen reflected on recreating the sound of one of the world’s worst oil rig disasters and his passion for his craft.

Post: Deepwater Horizon has a very rich soundtrack. Was it a challenging project?

Harry Cohen: “Yes, it was. I traveled to New York to edit it. I made three trips to the East Coast before doing the final edit back here in LA. The picture was in a constant state of flux. Week by week, we’d get new versions from the director and it didn’t always allow for a clean conform. So I had to re-edit the sound several times to get it to stick. But each time I re-edited, it got a better. I got deeper into it and it took on more character. The final edit was for Dolby Atmos. It’s slightly different from the normal theatrical mix. It has more sound in the surrounds.”

Post: It must be amazing?

Cohen: “I wish everyone could hear the Atmos version.”

Post: The oil rig is almost a character in the film. It’s a monster.

Cohen: “Yes. That’s right. We also talked about the well head as ‘the monster in the basement.’ We consciously gave it a monstrous overtone. There are two major sound events with the head. I played the kick like I’d play a dinosaur. I mixed oil sounds with lots of processed vocal and creature sounds. The blow out had to be much more powerful. I played that like it was a Saturn V rocket.”

Post: Did you have any real world references for those two events?

Cohen: “We had YouTube videos. But much of the audio in the film was over-recorded to convey power to the audience. It also has a certain amount of distortion. The sounds were distorted slightly on purpose. Especially the fire sounds.”

Post: Are the sounds realistic or more abstract?

Cohen: “It was a combination of both. I used a sampler to build Kontakt instruments with lots of different elements for the fire. I think I had 20 different Kontakt instruments with hundreds of fire sounds in each. I had some creature sounds to back it up, rocket sounds, oil, and things I recorded in my swimming pool with a hydro-phone.”

Post: In your swimming pool?

Cohen: “Yes, for the underwater textures.”

Post: It sounds like alchemy?

Cohen: “It is. There are plug-ins that allow us to morph sounds together. You can get a fire sound that growls or an oil sound that spits and hisses.”

Post: When you are working on a film like this, do you hear sounds in your head before you create them, or do sounds emerge through the editing process?

Cohen: “It’s both. I have a concept for a sound before I start but as I am finding my way towards it, things occur that I didn’t expect or I find things along the way. You collect them as you go. That’s why, as I edited sounds again and again, it kept getting better.”

Post: The film tells a true story, but it does so in a very emotional way. Did you try to incorporate that emotion into the sound?

Cohen: “Sure. Of course! We always play on the emotions of the scene. That’s what all of the creature sounds are for. They appeal to the ancient part of your brain. When you hear a large predator, you feel fear. Did you notice the fire growling? To me, it’s very plain. It’s right out there. We did that to involve you emotionally.”

Post: Did you have to educate yourself about the world of offshore oil drilling?

Cohen: “Sure. When I came onto the project they had already amassed a library of URLs to check out on YouTube. One showed the Deepwater Horizon rig on fire from a distance. You could hear the fire. It was really nasty. You become an expert in whatever the film is about. It has to have a basis in reality. You need touchstones to build on.”

Post: Who did the mix?

Cohen: “Six people contributed to the mix. We had Mike Prestwood Smith, Dror Mohar, Michael Keller, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hemphill and Eric Hoehn.:

Post: That’s a lot of contributors. And yet the finished sound is very consistent.

Cohen: “I give credit for that to our supervisor, Wylie Stateman. He was a strong voice during the mix.”

Post: “You’re now working on Fast and Furious 8. Have you been involved with that franchise before?

Cohen: “Yes. I did Fast & Furious 2 and 6.”

Post: Are there any new wrinkles?

Cohen: “There are always new wrinkles. They started out as street racers, now they are global agents. The films are about fast cars with lots of crashes, weapons and things of that nature. The cutting style is fantastic. It calls for lots of special sound treatments. We’re having a lot of fun.”