The last issue of MPEG Magazine has an interesting article about the sound design of “The Book of Eli” with sound editors/sound designers Steven D. Williams, MPSE, and Eric Norris, MPSE. Let’s read:
After tackling survival in urban America in Menace II Society, Dead Presidents and American Pimp, directing team the Hughes brothers—Albert and Allen—have turned their attention to the end of the world.
In their latest, The Book of Eli, due mid-January from Warner Bros., the world as we know it has ended. In this post-apocalyptic landscape, it’s everyone for himself and no-holds-barred in the struggle for survival. Eli (Denzel Washington) fights his way across America bearing a precious book that holds the secrets for the survival of mankind.
Just what does the end of the world sound like? That’s the question that faced supervising sound editors/sound designers Steven D. Williams, MPSE, and Eric Norris, MPSE, as they approached this daunting film. “When I read the script, I saw very exciting sound opportunities,” says Williams. “Everything that ends up on the screen sonically has to fit.” The audio post was done at Universal Studios Sound.
The movie was shot in the desolate desert outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. “There are a lot of wide-open spaces,” explains Norris. “It has an Old West feel to it. A lot of life was damaged and destroyed in this apocalyptic event, so we had to build that into the sound.”
Williams had the benefit of having worked with the Hughes brothers for 17 years, since Menace II Society. He notes that their last movie, From Hell—about Jack the Ripper in 1800s London—also required the creation of another kind of world. “But for The Book of Eli, surviving the environment is a big part of the story,” he says. “Water and all other resources are scarce. Our sound had to make that harsh, unfriendly world more believable.”
The directors put a big emphasis on sound, according to Williams. “They think about it before they start shooting,” he says. “Before they shoot, they let us know what the movie is about; they send us movies to listen to and talk about what they’re thinking. We also had the opportunity to go to the set and get a sense of what they were trying to achieve.”
Williams and Norris also note that their efforts were supported by a strong team, including editor Cindy Mollo, A.C.E.; supervising Foley artist Gary Hecker; and re-recording mixers Chris Jenkins and Frank A. Montaño.
Though a post-apocalyptic world can be quiet, there are gun battles aplenty in The Book of Eli, and that was one of the more challenging aspects of the sound editing/design work. Norris notes that the Hughes brothers mentioned two films—director Michael Mann’s Heat in 1995 and the 2005 Australian film by John Hillcoat, The Proposition—in terms of how they wanted the guns to sound. The opening gun battle in the latter, says Norris, was quite effective. “You don’t hear the guns at all—just the impact, the ricochet and the debris,” he says. “It gave you a visceral feeling.” This was crucial to the movie, in which Eli gets directional cues for where to shoot based upon where he hears the gunshots.
The sound editors also got a good feel for what the directors wanted from the gun battles in Heat. “The brothers aren’t into big Hollywood-sounding guns,” says Norris. “They are more into realistic-sounding guns. Having said that, they wanted it nice and big, but not over-the-top.” Williams agrees. “They’re into realism,” he adds. “Michael Mann [in Heat] is known for using a lot of the production sound captured on set. It has a visceral feel for guns. We wanted to make sure we weren’t Hollywood-izing our guns.”
Easier said than done. One thing they learned right away was how profoundly the environment in which the guns were recorded added to the overall sound. It turns out that most firing ranges are located in canyons, giving a distinctive sound that didn’t match the film’s location. “We didn’t want the canyon tail off the guns,” explains Norris. “The big battle happens at a house in the middle of a desert with wide open spaces.” The team ended up bringing on re-recording mixer John Fasal, who is well known for his wealth of knowledge, for location recording.
They spent several trips doing test shoots, bringing the sounds back to Norris’ cutting room and comparing them to get exactly what they wanted. “Finding the ideal location is a science project,” says Williams. “You have to go out there physically and once you get there, you have to really spend time going into different areas in that location. You have to do that before you bring the whole team out there.” The two winning locations ended up being the Burbank Police firing range and the Ojai Valley Gun Club.