In the films “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” the challanges were different but not by a huge margin- Alan Murray, longtime Supervising Sound Editor for Clint Eastwood, was very committed to making an accurate and dynamic track for the Battle of Iwo Jima, and had a special investment in the effort since his father was a USMC tank crew member in the battle. Alan is well used to going about making high quality sound tracks for the films he has worked on, and this was certainly not an exception to that- We (Alan, myself, and the ever talented and affable John Paul Fasal) were able to do a number of recording sessions for the films- recording the small arms used in the film with Dave Fencil, the key armorer here in Los Angeles, we also recorded bullet impacts and grenade explosions with armorer Gary Harper down at the Maupin Ranch in San Diego (with a hand cranked 1890’s Colt Gatling gun) to recording tanks, artilliery and explosions with the First Marine Division at 29 Palms Marine Corps base in the California high desert, and finally, also recorded an F4U and P51 Mustang in Paso Robles for the film.
Flags of Our Fathers
Letters From Iwo Jima
One thing about the overall landscape of war films (at least as far as I am concerned is the notion of “high” and “low” fidelity sounds, and the extreme usefullness of archival recordings as a legitimizing sort of element to sell the reality on screen- Gary Rydstrom echoed this notion in the commentary he did for the soundtrack he developed for the seminal “Saving Private Ryan” throughout that film, archival recordings of World War 2 combat were used as background elements for the battle sequences- you can hear him metioning it here….
“He found real recordings of World War Two battles and discovered they had the ‘storm’ quality to them. When he added the final layer of this distant rumble, he felt he had achieved a sense of reality and depth with the intricacy of the war in close perspective and also the sounds of the war on the horizon.”
Another thing I was ablel to take away from Gary’s work on this was the use he made (though according to him it was not entirely intenetional) of Distorted sounds and non distorted sounds to imply danger- My favorite example of this can be seen here, where the Camera POV is in one of the German machinegun bunkers on the Omaha beachhead where we have 2 German gun crews firing MG42 Machine guns at the American assault teams- we can hear the buns in a very sort “high fidelity” quality, with the accompanying details of shell casing drops and the guns action. and in the midst of it, a shell impact happens which is somewhat distorted. This implies a power which the dynamic range of the medium cannot contain, and allows a sharp, though subliminal impartation of the violent forces which are confronting our heroes- I personally feel it to be a quite significant and marvelous technique for making the landscape extremely dangerous and real….
Take a look at the 2:30 mark….
One of the things I have noticed is that there is a certain adherence in that track to Walter Murch’s “Rule of Two and a half” which really sort of puts to paper the concepts of modern “Hyper-Real” sound design- Using that rule, the landscape tends to favor the principal characters POV, vs a third party “God” perspective to whats happening on screen- so in those cases, it tends to be a little less cluttered with surrounding sounds vs the most obvious sounds on screen- Gary elucidates this notion in the SPR commentary as well-
“In the beginning of the film, in the Omaha Beach scene, Rydstrom wanted to recreate the experience of being shot at. For this scene he broke the scene into important elements. The most important elements were bullet impacts. For the pre-mix of the bullet impacts he had cue sheets stacks thick as phonebooks.”
Though it might seem obvious after viewing the film, the danger on the beach wasnt from the guns, or artilliery being fired at our heroes, but the small bits of metal travelling at supersonic speed that ripped the Americans bodies apart. The noise is surely immense from those guns and cannons, but when we carefully look at the mix decisions that were approved by Steven Speilberg and the producers we see all sorts of interesting decisions which might not seem entirely obvious.
The first fo these that I noticed in the theatre were the relative levels of the guns used by Captain Millers’ squad- the first, is the exceptionally iconic sound of Tom Hank’s Thompson M1 sub machine gun- it is, in my opinion, the coolest sounding gun in the film, and perhaps one of the coolest sounding guns ever… It is bold, and loud, and just is entirely awesome sounding almost evertime we hear it- oddly though, when we have the squads M1 Garand’s and Private Jacksons’ (Barry Pepper) Springfield 1903 shooting alongside it, they seem quite small and unimpressive considering that they are MUCH more powerful, and louder weapons. There are some moments when Peppers’ Springfield are huge sounding, as it is in the Romelle bell tower, but for the most part, Hank’s Thompson is the King of the battlefield.
I am hoping I havent lost anyone on this, but I think it is of some value to take a brief geeky detour and look at the gun that Hanks’ used, why it might have been addressed in the manner that it was…. (and since I do consider myself a military history buff, it is something I have spent some time researching)- the Thompson Submachine gun has a unique and iconic history in American culture- It was developed at the end of the first World War as a “trench broom” much like the nearly as iconic Browning Automatic Rifle that Ed Burns’ character Private Rieban carried. It was designed to be a fast firing close quarters weapon which could stop MANY men at once- (as illustrated in SPR when Ted Dansen and his squadmate laid waste to the German squad which were surprised by the wall collapse in the first village battle in SPR-
View at about 6 minutes to see what these guns are designed to do….
That sort of effect was first brought into the collective attention of the population with the Saint Valentines Day massacre in the 1930’s and the Thompson earned the nickname of “The Chicago Typewriter”. Interestingly- the Thompson in real life is a quite UN-remarkable sounding gun, due to it firing a pistol caliber cartridge- “Typewriter” moniker came from it sounding, well, like a mechanical typewriter… It is very “clacky” and not huge sounding…. like most pistols actually. Yet, due to the kind iconic reputation the Thompson legend has forwarded, we sound folks HAVE to make it THE baddest ass sounding gun ever. The one Thompson we had in Flags, was built to sound bad-ass as well, and in its case, I used a two gun layer to make it sound appropriate- mixing a Thompson 1928, with an English Bren Light Machinegun to bigify it…
The battlefield challanges on Flags and Letters were massive- and had a huge amount of talent and creativity applied to them by the sound team doing the editorial led up by Alan and Bub Asman, and the foley and fx crew built an amazing tapestry that immersed the audience. the FX crew consisted of Jay Jennings, Jason King and Steve Mann and the Foley was directed by Michael Dressel with editorial support by Valerie Davidson- the Foley was done by the insanely great Dan O’Connell and the team at One Step Up, who have surely run out of wall space to put all the onesheets of the films they have worked on….
I could go on for hours talking about that experience, but perhaps if anyone wishes to hear anything specific, I can try to address it in the Q & A.
DISTANT WAR – These are similar (or possibly the same) distant battle sounds used in SPR for the backdrop on the Omaha Beachhead
GREAT RAID • DESIGNED • BROWNING AUTOMATIC RIFLE • 30.06 • THE GREAT RAID – Here is one of the final weapons from the Great Raid- the PFX is evident, but a more explosive muzzle blast and bolt cycling layer has been added to create a mre dramatic closeup weapon sound.
Production Browning Automatic RIfle from The Great Raid- (PFX – GREAT RAID • B.A.R. LONGER BURST) – This recording, done by Paul “Salty” Brincat, is a wonderful thing- the ambience around the gunshot sounds fantastic, and it was the foundation for the designed BAR’s in the Great Raid.
PRODUCTION FX • DISTANT GUNFIRE – Distant gunfire Production Recordings from the Greaat Raid- When your PFX team is making such extraordinary effort the post sound team has a real obligation to make the sound of the film awesome- Again a tip of the hat to Salty and his crew as they provided an ocean of great material. He also was the Production Recordist for “The Thin Red Line”
Written by Charles Maynes for Designing Sound
Justin Drust says
Fantastic read Mr. Maynes, thank you for sharing!
Jeff W says
Great stuff Charles–thanks!
Charles Maynes says
geeky gun fact…..
30.06 stands for 30 (caliber)(year of 19)06
go forth- and impress your friends and co-workers….
Haydn Payne says
Using genuine WWII recordings is pretty cool, just knowing that the gunshots & explosions were genuinely being used in anger makes those recordings quite eerie to listen to.
Thanks for the article