Some days ago, I asked to Paul Ottoson for an interview on the sound of “The Hurt Locker”. That was days before the Oscars night, so he becomes very busy, but he made an effort and sent me the answers to all the questions I did. Many thanks, Paul!
Designing Sound: Tell us… How did you get involved with “The Hurt Locker”?
Paul Ottosson: I got a call from one of the producers and the post supervisor. They had this great script they wanted me to read and the director wanted to meet with me if I liked the script. I loved the script and went to meet with Kathryn and Mark, the writer.
We sat and talked for a bit at her office and got along really well. They liked that I had a military background. Kathryn also mentioned she had not intentions to have any music beyond something over the credit roll. It would be up to me to design the entire thing. I liked the idea even though I knew it would be hard.
DS: How was your relationship with Kathryn Bigelow on the film? How was the importance she gives to the sound of the film?
PO: I loved working with Kathryn. We talked a lot about the overall sound of the film. It had to be very organic and yet have a design to it. We always needed to be there and most of the time in some kind of danger even though we might not see it most of the time. We ended up playing the perspective of every person in the scene a bit differently.
DS: When you started to work on the sound of “The Hurt Locker”? How long the process took?
PO: Well I think I was the first one that got hired, this is way before they shot a frame and you start thinking about it already then. I re-read the script take notes etc. I think all and all I was on the movie with a crew for perhaps 4 months.
DS: What was the most you enjoyed from the film? A favorite scene. perhaps?
PO: It was a rare movie to be on, I really love the movie, the entire movie. I’m very proud to have been a part of it, I think a big part of it. The crew did a fantastic job. The big set pieces are all really good scenes. I honestly can’t say I have a favorite scene. I think because I don’t think of the sound as much as a separate element but a part of the movie in it’s entirety.
DS: What were your main tools to work with sound on the film? Any interesting technique or specific process to talk about?
PO: The trick was to always stay organic it was important to not through off the audience with some “cool” over the top sound design or sfx. It had to kind of melt into the fabric of the movie. Of course we try to push it but without going over the limit. I used a lot of band compressing. I use MacDSP plug-ins a lot. I love how their plug-ins sound. It makes me stuff sound better and they’re so easy to use.
DS: How was the approach on the foley and field recording processes?
PO: All we tried to do was to always get it to sound real. Get the perspective right was important. Every cut was played and mixed of the perspective of the person we were with.
DS: And the mixing? What were the main goals on the mix?
PO: The mix was a bit tricky, I mixed it perhaps in a different way then most traditional mixers would have. Also perhaps because I have not mixed as much as most mixers out there. I think that also helped, we needed a
out of the box thinking mix. Had to make the mix sound like you would not expect it to.
It all came from that the sound would have to carry a lot of the scenes when not to much happened. I paned a lot of the dialog in the hectic scenes. It might not seem like a big deal but for those who knows it is. Usually we mix foley and dialog up the center cone.
When you pan dialog, now the air drone that the dialog is married to paned to the left which would leave a hole in the center so then I had to sneak in another fill in the center. I also needed to fill in with bg’s to fill in all sides otherwise the right side would seem empty. Then the foley needed to follow as well. Which mean I needed to shoot more foley other wise there would be nothing in the center or where ever the other character were on screen. I also did not really let anything sit still in the mix. I swiped EQ’s, rode the fader volume up even with simple bg’s to get a more dynamic and changing mix.
Like a very quiet scene when the get ambushed, after the gun fight is over it seems like there is not that much going on but mixing wise there is tons. Every perspective was cut and mixed different to make it feel a bit more stressful laying there in wait. After a gun fired I would even mix the tails with different eq and compression.
I would even sit and mix the attack on guns on the compressors to get the kick of the gun then maybe I wanted to compress and push the swell of the gun echoing around the mountain range. It was a really deep mix and I think the mix succeeded with helping to tell the story and keep you more in the movie then perhaps as an audience.
DS: Let’s talk about the first scene. I love every bomb-deactivation scene, but the first one is awesome. When the first bomb explodes, everything get slow down and you get a detailed vision of the moment, feeling the ground shaking, the wave expanding, etc. Great moment to make a great sound. How were your sound decisions on that scene?
PO: I drew from my time in the military. I was in a volunteer army when I was perhaps 15.
Then I was a ranking officer in the army when I was around 19-20. I remember the first time we blew up explosives. We had to “guess” how much plastics we would need to cut a railroad track in half. We truly just guessed and piled on a bunch. We then went underground in a bunker and detonated. It was insane, the pressure wave made the air in front tremble. I will never forget how it felt, it wasn’t that it was loud, it just shocked the entire body. When a bomb blows up and you’re really close you don’t die from the shrapnel but ahead of it is a shockwave expanding very fast. Your lungs can handle around 7lbs per sq inch. The shock wave expands in your nose and mouth and blows out your lungs at 100lbs per sq inch. It pops every capillary in your body.
So playing it from the EODs perspective he would never hear it. He would feel it and he would be dead before sound would get there. Thats how I played it and I came back to real sounds after his dead, then I played the scene as a viewer, like the others heard it.
I used insane amount of low end for the slow mo stuff to emulate what I felt when I blew up that bomb some 25 years ago.
DS: I really enjoy the way you manage the POV of each character, specially when the guys have the anti-bomb suit. You can feel what he feels, listen to his breathing, hear what he hear, it’s really great. What where the main concept used on the sound to give that feeling? There’s something special on the editing and the mix there?
PO: Kathryn liked it, it was kind of like an astronaut walking by himself in space. I felt that hearing his breath we would get his mindset. That he was focused and it put us in his space. I played it all around us, I even cheated it and played it a bit around us even when we were close to him.
DS: For James, war is an addiction and he see everything like a challenge. For the others is different, for example with Owens, his vision is more dramatic and he feels the pain and fear to death. How the sound design helps to expand the vision of each character of the film? Any special work for each character?
PO: Each character was treated different, James had a more solid walk and his movements were more deliberate. Eldridge being more scared did not have the same confidence in his walk and his gear made a bit more sound. I tried to use more of his scared breathing.
Ray Beckett, the production mixer did a fantastic job capturing all that live stuff from the set.
DS: One thing I loved was the helicopters. They come in the best moments and reminds you that you are in a “serious war”. In the tense scenes, in the calm, great details. For example when James is talking with his baby, you start to listening the helicopters and then start the final scene with the contrast of the end. How the audio team deal with the helicopters? How was the mix on those cut-scenes?
PO: We needed to maintain the war and where we were, we could not forget that there is still a war going on. I used the helicopters as well as jets to drive in and out of cuts as well as building tension in scenes. Even to escalate shots and dialog in a scene.
Like when the man comes up to Sanborn and ask if he’s from California. Sanborn gets angry he doesnt know if he is going to kill him and he start to yell at him and poke with the gun. I pushed two jets going by at supersonic speed with tons of sub info and kind of gave the scene a crescendo.
DS: I think tension is a key factor on THL. Sound design and music helps a lot there. How was the approach of the sound to make that hard-tension moments?
PO: To always keep you on your toes, sometimes to play foley louder then I would have in a regular movie. I would start out with a real environment sound then morph it into something a bit strange, still real but strange. I think the audience did not hear the change but they felt that it was un natural or strange and it helped with the tension.
Also as a final note, these things I have mentioned is easier to do when you’re working on a fantastic movie. When the script, acting, picture editing, the score, photography, the practical visual fx when it all is done in the best way possible and when you have a fantastic director like Kathryn making it all come to life.