“I Am Legend” spreads to theaters today. Sound editorial for Will Smith’s search for survivors in NYC was administered by Skip Lievsay. Hot off the great “No Country for Old Men”, (and considering his track record) we can expect Skip to start soon on the Coen Bro’s next, “Burn After Reading”. On “Legend,” In addition to his editorial work, he also mixed the film’s dialogue. Music mixer Rick Kline and effects mixer Jeremy Peirson rounded out the crew. Kline just finished work on “The Great Debaters” while Peirson designed sound for this year’s “Noise”, which boasts a synopsis ripe with opportunity for it’s sound crew. Production sound for “Legend” was provided by Tod A. Maitland. Member of a literal sound family, Maitland’s father and two brothers have all worked in the field. He is currently working on Peter Jackson’s next, “The Lovely Bones”. I feel like a broken record reporting another film James Newton Howard is composing but here we go: In addition to JNH’s six films this year, he already has four slated for release in 2008. One final tidbit I unearthed while researching “Legend” is Mike Patton of Faith No More and Mr. Bungle fame provided his unique vocal prowess to some of the specific creature voice design that haunts the barren NYC landscape.
I want to thank sound supervisor and re-recording mixer Skip Lievsay for taking time for this Q and A!
DS: It’s hard to imagine NYC without the specific sound staples like endless car honks and city drone that we’ve come to expect as the local sound. How was the landscape’s sound perceived after the plague hits?
SL: During the research, Franics created a specific soundscape for the film. As you say, removing the city from the city – cars and people, changes the sound of the city completely. Aside from the physical structures, the research shows that when the electricity goes off the city rapidly looses much of what we think of as city and reverts back to nature.
In New York City there are several underground springs and streams that would flood the underground infrastructure and the metal supporting structure. Buildings would begin to crumble. Above ground, animals and creatures would take back the parks and there would be a new city soundscape very similar to what we think of as a New England forest.
Gathering these sounds was not as difficult as removing the actual city sounds and traffic sounds from the production recordings. As you might imagine, some scenes had to be replaced with ADR because of traffic sounds.
DS: Was there time to establish a contrast sonically for before and after the pandemic?
SL: The film begins after the epidemic has already killed almost everyone. There are several flashbacks, mostly dealing with the evacuation of New York City at the beginning of the disaster. These scenes are about emergency vehicles and helicopters and hysterical crowds trying to escape the city.
DS: The literal money shot in the film (costing 5 million dollars alone to shoot) is the evacuation of NYC over the Brooklyn Bridge. With a set piece that massive and recognizable, what did your team do to sell the size and weight of the bridge’s collapse?
SL: Sound Designer Jeremy Peirson used all of the giant metal recordings that we had in our library and could scrounge from our colleagues. Recording at high bit rates of 96k or 192k allowed us to pitch down our recordings with little distortion. This was one of the ways to give more heft to the sounds.
DS: With over 1,000 extras on location for the bridge scene, did you guys get to record any of the crowd reactions during the shoot?
SL: There were good recordings from location mixer Todd Maitland. These were mixed with sound fx and group ADR tracks. Emergency vehicle sounds and production yelling completed the track.
DS: I’ve read that the infected are described as “in a state of perpetual hyperventilation”. How were their vocals approached and did the conceptual design of their bodies give you and your team any advantages in making them scary?
SL: Jeremy and I spent much of our time recording actors and animals to mix together for the creature sounds. We had hours of recordings and then hours of editing in the process of chasing down each type of vocalization. Jeremy would prepare mixes of each type of sound for review by Francis. These temp mixes informed Francis about how the creatures would operate and this helped Francis and the CG team with their creature design. These vocals were in flux to the very last day of the dub.
FSD: You have worked with the Coen brothers for the length of their entire career. With so many great film collaborations, which was your favorite?
SL: I have many favorites. “I Am Legend” was very challenging work and I enjoyed working with Francis again. I believe that the tracks for “The Who Wasn’t There” and for “No Country for Old Men” were the closest I have come to meeting the original goals with the fewest missed opportunities.
DS: You are part of a literal hand full of sound folk I’ve seen with an opening title credit. The Coens make an effort to recognize the role sound plays in their films with the title card. I’ve heard requesting for a sound title is an uphill battle and most directors can’t do it without a fight. What did it take for Joel and Ethan to be able to do it?
SL: It is my understanding that the main titles and the order that they appear are regulated by several guilds and their agreements with the producers and the studios. Joel and Ethan had always given me head credit and because they didn’t belong to any of the guilds, there wasn’t an issue. When they joined the directors guild they made an arrangement and were able to continue to make the head titles as they saw fit.
DS: Recently, a colleague of mine made the observation that sound is one of the only crafts with Oscar eligibility that does not get a regular opening title card. Can anything be done to change the status quo?
SL: There are many others that don’t get main title credit. The agreements between the guilds and producers refer to the main titles with the separation of them being only for “Artistic Contribution” In most cases they consider all other workers to be contributing as “Craft Workers”. Filmmakers may wish to adjust this and in future they may adjust these rules to embrace others’ contributions. I don’t think the guilds would be happy about any changes. As my esteemed colleague Dan Sable used the infamous quote, “They don’t leave the theater whistling the foley”
DS: What was your first gig like?
SL: I worked very hard for $75 a week on a terrible movie that was sold to the Navy to show to sailors on their aircraft carriers.