There has been a lot of chatter lately about two films exploring the events surrounding the death of Osama bin Laden. One of them has captured the critics’ attention and is rumored to be a strong contender in multiple categories at next year’s Oscars. The other was released on television this year, two days prior to our Presidential election. Though very different in focus and scope, the two films – Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, and SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden (directed by John Stockwell and distributed by the Weinstein Company) – have met their fair share of controversy and opposition. Thankfully though, there isn’t much controversy or extreme scrutiny from the public when it comes to either film’s sonic landscape. That area remains politic and scandal-free, for the most part anyway.
The sound team at Monkeyland Audio was responsible for bringing the sonic spectrum of SEAL Team Six to life. The post production budget for the film was quite meager, the timeline was tight, and the amount of work required was insanely complex. This project was definitely one of the more intricate independent films I’d worked on this year, but also one of the most rewarding in terms of what we accomplished. As one of the film’s supervising sound editors, I feel that the Monkeyland crew not only surpassed the filmmakers’ expectations but, in my honest opinion, also succeeded in delivering some of the richest, most detailed and comprehensive soundscapes in our roster to date. We battled every detail together, championing through to the final printmaster. A big heartfelt “thank you” to each member of the Monkeyland sound team who made SEAL Team Six a sound experience to recon with!
The Monkey Sound Approach
SEAL Team Six is the story of a small group of soldiers charged with the heavy task of bringing down the most hunted man in the world. It is a story about camaraderie, and the film breathes an appropriate amount of humanity onto one of the most hotly debated moments in modern history. Though the outcome of this film is no surprise, SEAL Team Six wants its audience to invest in the characters and follow their journeys as both individuals and as a team… and this journey had to sound good.
Sonically, our goal was to bring a sense of the “personal” to the story. Building reality and realism in the soundscape were definitely of key to the soundscape, but more importantly was conveying the poignancy of the moments, the internal turmoil of our lead characters, the fear, the drive, the sadness, the confusion, and the uncertainty that plagued the daily lives of our servicemen and women. Realism with a strong serving of ka-pow became the general note for all disciplines here.
The sonic fingerprint for this movie derived its visual cues from the complex and tightly chiseled picture edit. The cut hopped from the steady film perspective, to GoPro camera mode, to soldiers’ helmet cams POV, to video surveillance perspective, etc., and we decided that the storytelling would be more effective if the audio also followed the heavy perspective shifts closely. To help sell the chaos a bit more, we took a “wall of sound” approach, hitting hard on all frequencies, building and carving out notches for the dialogue and ADR to play fairly against the explosive hail of gunfire and the heart-pounding score.
Director John Stockwell wanted a constant stream of chatter to flow through the tiny helmet earpieces, particularly when the U.S. soldiers were under fire. He wanted the soldiers’ breathing to play upfront, while the chaotic and appropriately-futzed ADR from the team members played slightly left or right of it. Several different types of futzes were experimented with in order to sell the sound emanating from the aforementioned POVs, as well for the sound coming through CIA control room speaker phones, and for the CIA agents’ headpieces.
The climactic firefight in the Abbottabad compound was a particular challenge, given the amount of futzed chatter (pointed lines, panicky screaming, etc), as well as the on-screen and off-screen gunfire and the dramatic shifts in perspective. The sound effects and Foley were also prepped to follow the detailed shift in perspective, allowing for certain cuts to be more jarring and “realistic” (particularly the weaponry through helmet cam mode). All throughout the firefight sequences and final raid, we jump from big, bombastic 5.1 to overmodulated, compressed and in-your-face mono.
The Business End of Things
The Weinstein Company acquired SEAL Team Six for distribution just after the picture department delivered the first official cut of the film to us (July/August, 2012), but the direction from above was to move forward with editorial and mix on the most current version of the film. We’d deal with an extensive and reworked “Weinstein cut” at some point in the future. Fortunately, the first version of the film mixed without incident. For this first incarnation of the film, our two mixers’ systems (Mark Rozett and Kelly Vandever) were maxed out in terms of voices and track count. Nothing was bounced or stemmed out prior to the mix, and all tracks had been extremely and extensively fine-tuned, volume graphed, split, and painstakingly “pre-dubbed” by Trip Brock and myself before handing the sessions over to Mark and Kelly for their one day of official predubs (yes, one day each!!!). The initial mix ran for six days plus one day for printing all deliverables.
After several private screenings and much internal review, the Weinstein Company delivered a new domestic version of the film to us (mid-October 2012), with over twenty minutes of added new material (including a number of newly shot interview scenes, several complex and recut battle sequences, some plot-infused newsreel footage, and a healthy bit of frame adjusting throughout). Another twenty minutes of the film had also been taken out completely. Though our sound design was pretty much “Swiss cheese” at this point, this new cut of the film further humanized and fleshed out our lead characters’ motivations, backstories and insights, while grounding the storytelling in a pseudo-documentary approach. The new cut worked.
Conforming this film was quite the experience, to say the least, but the end product turned out nicely. While the conform was underway, we shot Foley for the newly added sequences, cut in new sound effects and backgrounds, shot and cut new ADR, loaded and cut the new dialogue, and once everything was done, handed a couple of beefy sessions over to our mixers for the final sprint to the finish. Four days of down-and-dirty mixing took place, and we delivered everything right before Halloween. The film aired on National Geographic less than a week later, and is currently streaming on Netflix. Please check it out!
I look back on the SEAL Team Six experience and ask myself, “ How the hell did we do this and not completely lose it?” Oddly enough, the Monkeyland crew and I are not unaccustomed to working under such harsh deadlines, keeping such grueling schedules and still delivering rich, well-crafted and high quality mixes. The experience was fantastic, and I am happy that our team was able to meet and surpass the expectations of our director, our producers and our distributor.
One More Thing…
I would like to extend my warmest congratulations to the post audio team on Zero Dark Thirty. They’re a great bunch of guys who regularly deliver rich and detailed sound work to each project they tackle, and I know their work on ZDT will bring them many well-deserved accolades. Cheers!
Photo Credit: Peter Lago