Q & A with Sound Designer Paul N.J. Ottosson

“The Hurt Locker” Sound Designer Paul N.J. Ottosson

“The Hurt Locker” Sound Designer Paul N.J. Ottosson

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to sound designer Paul N.J. Ottosson, a double Oscar nominee for Best Achievement in Sound (with Ray Beckett) and Best Achievement in Sound Editing and a BAFTA nominee for Best Sound (with Ray Beckett and Craig Stauffer) for Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker”. The film, released domestically through Summit Entertainment, is a leading Oscar contender with nine nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal ("In the Valley of Elah,” story), it was produced by Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Nicholas Chartier and Greg Shapiro and executive produced by Tony Mark. Starring are Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty with Ralph Fiennes, David Morse and Guy Pearce.

“The Hurt Locker” received nine Oscar nominations, including: Best Picture, Best Actor (Jeremy Renner), Director (Kathryn Bigelow), Best Original Screenplay (Mark Boal), Best Cinematography (Barry Ackroyd), Best Sound Mixing (Paul N.J. Ottosson, Ray Beckett), Best Sound Editing (Paul N.J. Ottosson), Best Original Score (Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders) and Best Film Editing (Bob Murawski, Chris Innis). Its nine Oscar nods were more than any other film received this year other than 20th Century Fox’s “Avatar”, which also had nine.

It also received eight BAFTA nominations, including: Best Film, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Screenplay - Original, Best Sound (Ray Beckett, Paul N.J. Ottosson, Craig Stauffer) and Best Visual Effects (Richard Stutsman).

Among “The Hurt Locker’s” many awards wins and nominations are such key honors as: Critics Choice Awards - Best Picture & Best Director; DGA Award - Kathryn Bigelow; Los Angeles Film Critics Association - Best Picture & Best Director; National Society of Film Critics - Best Film and Best Director; New York Film Critics Circle - Best Picture & Best Director; and PGA - Motion Picture Producer of the Year Award.

Paul N.J. Ottosson has worked on sound in various capacities on over 100 films and television programs since 1995. Among his key credits are “Spider-Man 2”, for which he was Oscar and BAFTA nominated in 2005, “The Grudge”, “Spider-Man 3” and “2012”.

The Story: “The Hurt Locker”, winner of the 2008 Venice Film Festival SIGNIS Grand Prize, is a riveting, suspenseful portrait of the courage under fire of the military’s unrecognized heroes — the technicians of a bomb squad who volunteer to challenge the odds and save lives in one of the world’s most dangerous places.

Three members of the Army’s elite Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) squad battle insurgents and each other as they search for and disarm a wave of roadside bombs on the streets of Baghdad to try to make the city safer for Iraqis and Americans alike. Their mission to protect and save is clear, but it’s anything but easy since the margin of error when defusing a war-zone bomb is zero.

This intense look at the effects of combat and danger on the human psyche is based on the first-hand observations of journalist and screenwriter Mark Boal, who was embedded with a special bomb unit in Iraq whose members spoke of explosions as putting someone in “the hurt locker”.

Q: I watched a DVD of “The Hurt Locker” last night with the subtitles turned on and, just as I thought would be the case, I found that there were constant references in the subtitles to sounds — like “sirens wailing,” “glass cracking,” “television playing,” “people shouting in Arabic.” When you watch the movie without subtitles and listen as we normally do, the sounds don’t stand out the same way. We’re just used to hearing those background sounds. But when you see them in the subtitles it makes it clear just how important sound is to driving this movie’s story.
A: I think maybe more so in this movie than any movies I’ve worked on before — and there are some 130 movies I’ve worked on. We weren’t really depending on a lot of music in the movie because there was a feeling that when we heard music we knew we were watching a movie. We really wanted you just to be, you know, the fourth guy on the team, to be a part of the team. So the sound was very integral to us.

Editorial-wise we had to prepare a lot like you saw in the subtitles. Like the night scene where a tanker is blowing up. If you were to play that scene without the sound, it is a completely different scene. You still see all the mayhem and stuff, but you don’t get this overwhelming (feeling that) it’s almost like Hell. You hear kids crying for their mommies. People are killed or injured. Helicopters flying. Ambulances coming in and out. We have tons of injured. And you really tell a much denser story (through the use of sound) than you possibly could shoot and make sense of in a night scene.
Q: So the story is driven a lot by sound. Many of these sounds are background sounds and incidental sounds, but they’re all mixed together in a way that provides the backdrop to what we’re seeing on the screen.
A: Absolutely. Even the incidental sounds in the background are placed very specifically in the time line to achieve the pacing of a scene or make a reaction to an actor really work. There are very few random things sound-wise in the movie because we had the luxury of being able to place them exactly where we wanted. Sometimes when you film things might not happen exactly (as you want) because there’s something in the background you can’t control or there are so many things that need to happen perfectly. But we had the luxury to place all this stuff. In a scene like the bomber scene there’s pacing and timing that maybe follows the cuts or maybe drives the cuts and you build this over time to do maybe what music otherwise would have done in a scene like this. But, again, it was almost orchestrated like you were writing a piece of music for sound editorial.
Q: Your credit is for Sound Design. What does that mean?
A: Sound Design is the overall concept of this movie and how it should sound to really get that dirty grittiness of this to follow what’s going on the screen overall. It’s the concept of what they should sound like. There are concepts of how things should look in this movie. And, also, maybe these scenes will get into slow motion (like) when the first guy gets blown up. It’s something you would never see in real life — this extreme slow motion — but it’s a very important part of the story for people to understand what happens.

Like, when a bomb blows up and you’re that close like our EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) is, you don’t get killed by the debris or shrapnel because in front of that is this expanding wave of air, the shock wave. It hits your body way before anything else hits it. It’s expanding all the time. It enters your body through your mouth and your nose and it literally blows up every blood vein in your body, everything in your lungs, so you die way before you hear it and way before anything hits you. What I was trying to do with the sound design of the movie is tell you that this shock wave is traveling in.

So that very small explosion is how I set that up. And then we get into all these other sounds like maybe how a shock wave would be and by the time you hear a real explosion going off the man is already dead. So you perceived this whole explosion through him until he died and then by playing these realistic sounds (it’s) how his teammates actually heard it. That would be an example of a specific sound design moment. There’s a lot of thinking in this movie about how to make the sound correct because we always played it from the perspective of the person we were with.
Q: Is this something you talk about and plan ahead with a director?
A: I met with Kathryn and Mark, the writer, when they were finishing up the script. I think I ended up actually being the first person that they interviewed and then hired — because sound was very important for them. We sat and talked about the sound very, very early on while they were still writing and about how important it was to sound organic and real. When you work with science fiction movies you have more liberty to take pretty much anything and make it something very cool. You have a huge palate of sounds to pick from. But when you make something like “The Hurt Locker” it’s very, very organic.

Anything that you can stick into sci-fi movies wouldn’t have worked in a movie like this because you would be aware of that sound. You know, maybe it sounds brilliant, but it would make you aware that you were watching a movie. And we could never do that in this movie. It had to sound really good, really cool, but it had to be a part of something that you would buy into being a part of the movie — not just, say, a really cool sound moment sitting there by itself and then exposing that this is a movie. That would kind of kill the movie eventually because we didn’t want to be a movie.

But these are the things that we talked about very early on — how organic and real this had to sound. It had to be very, very complex, but without presenting itself as being this complex thing. You just needed to get the audience drawn into the movie and build the tension. It’s one of the hardest movies that I’ve worked on. In most of the stuff I worked on you see on the screen, which makes it easier to tie in a specific sound of something visually that you’re already brought into — like a huge thing flying by and exploding in the air, whatever it might be.

When we were working on the movie we would talk about specific scenes in broader strokes and then I would present things for Kathryn. She would come down to my office or I would go up to where they did the picture editorial. A few times we played back some bigger scenes on the mixing stage. The first time I said we should play back maybe 20 minutes of the movie to see if we’re on the same page with this before we get two hours into it.
Q: And how did that go?
A: It went well. Actually, Kathryn said, “This is brilliant. This is absolutely perfect.” She was very, very happy. It’s the first time you realize you’re really on the same page because before that it’s talk and sometimes what you think is blue might not be what I think is blue. You might consider a darker blue than I do (to be) blue. With movies it’s very abstract until you can see something or hear something that you now have a point of reference to talk about. The first presentation actually went from 20 minutes of the movie into about 40 minutes of the movie. That was the first thing we worked on.
Q: When was that?
A: This was three or four weeks into picture editorial. So they were far away from locking anything. There was no movie at the time. It was just 20 minutes of the movie that they felt pretty strong about. But it was very early on. I probably had another five or six months to work on it after that. This was in 2008 because this movie was finished in the middle of 2008. It was a hard movie to work on. There was no distribution on the movie. We were praying that somebody would actually pick it up. We all really loved it. I mean, when I got this call that Kathryn wanted to meet with me about this movie and I read the script (I felt it) was just brilliant and I was thinking I really need to be a part of this. Of course, the producer was saying, “We have this really good script, but also we have very little money.” Then I met with Kathryn and Mark after reading the script and I (felt) I had to work on this movie and I need to be a part of this.
Q: This was after you’d done “Spider-Man 2 & 3”. Was it before or after “2012”?
A: Before. That meeting with Kathryn was probably in the summer of 2007. I think I’d just finished “Spider-Man (3)”.
Q: Would you tell us a little more about how you do what you do?
A: We have to record an immense amount of sound for a movie like this. Some of this a production mixer (records) on the set. We had a big shopping list of things we wanted to record so we had very realistic sounds from the Middle East. So we recorded a lot of these sounds that we would work with and edit into the movie to make it sound like what we were looking at. And also in the desert we recorded guns and these things to make it specific for the movie.

We recorded a lot of Foley, which is people carrying the gear, the heavy bomb suits and the helmets. So there’s a lot of recording and working these sounds into the movie. There’s a lot of preparation. Generally, you don’t just grab all the sounds from something you already have. You try to create these new (sounds). So there’s a lot of that that goes into the editorial part, as well.
Q: We sometimes read stories about old time radio and how they would create, say, the sound of a fire by rustling newspaper pages. Did you do anything like that?
A: It was more about recordings that tried to emulate reality.
Q: When they’re walking over broken glass and we hear it cracking, is that actually glass cracking or is it something else?
A: It is glass, but also it’s a mixture of clay. Glass, itself, is a very thin brittle sound. It doesn’t translate as well into a movie. We cheated reality a little bit. It’s not only glass that makes up that sound.
Q: We hear so many sirens in the movie. Was it difficult to find the right siren sounds that you needed?
A: Some of them we managed to record while we were out there and some of them I had recorded for other projects before. But it had to be very specific, too — you know, does that siren sound like that out there? You had to be very aware of that as well as alarms going off and the (sound of various) guns that they use in the movie.
Q: When you look back at the challenges of production, is there any scene in particular that was really difficult to figure out how to achieve what you wanted to do?
A: With most movies, the whole scene is perceived (the same way by) everybody in the scene. But in this movie, it was such a terrible experience for these three people and they all saw it through different eyes. Like James (Jeremy Renner as Staff Sergeant William James) is a very confident guy so he perceived things one way. And then Eldridge (Brian Geraghty as Specialist Owen Eldridge), the more scared guy, looked at things in a different way.

So with every cut you tried to maintain the totality of the scene, but give every single cut its own character — how that person would perceive what’s happening. We’re cutting to one guy and he’s breathing more scared. That was the hardest part of the movie — to really think about every time we cut somewhere where are we right now and how is this person perceiving this situation? But then the next cut would be the next guy who’s 20 feet away. He would hear a lot of the same sounds, but they were played in a little bit different way because he perceived it in a different way.

This helped also to cause tension and stress in the movie. Most people seeing this movie feel very, very tense afterward — like they’ve really been through something. And the sound had to be part of that. When you see the camera moving and cutting (it was important) that we maintain this with the sound, but still we can’t make it choppy and take people out of the movie. We needed to tie things together, but still give us a new perspective on where we’re going. I think that was the biggest challenge. I don’t think it’s done very often in movies. It’s a very hard thing to do picture-wise and story-wise and sound-wise because if you become choppy you take people out of the movie. (Then) it’s just a bunch of cuts — like you’re watching MTV videos.
Q: At times we hear things and we understand what they mean although we aren’t actually seeing them happen on the screen.
A: This was one EOD team amongst other EOD teams (in) a war going on in the city. So there’s jets flying by and helicopters. I used a lot of these to like arc (the story). Like the first scene when they shoot the first bomb. Right now they’re in this mode that anything could kill them. For these scenes as the tension peaked I’d have this big jet roaring by in the sky. Maybe in the movie, if we had score there, we would have had strings build or there’d be some kind of percussion. There’s a lot of these things that we added that you don’t see to help with the arc of the scene or the tension building in the scene. The scene in the bomb building room where they walk on the crunching glass is also a scene that traditionally probably would have had music building tension, but we didn’t. We walked on the crunching glass (and heard) the wind through the window. So we kind of built up all these sounds, bringing up the weaponry, a kind of symphony of sounds building up to the reveal of where we’re going. A lot of these things you didn’t see, but they helped build the tension.
Q: In most films, as you’ve said, there would be a full score to help carry the action. Was there more sound work that had to be done here because there wasn’t as much music?
A: Absolutely. Far more work and in a different way because a lot of times you cut to cover what’s on the screen and tell the story, but now you need to come up with something else that would help tell the story. But also you can build in a way that music would have built it if there was music. It was far harder than hardly anything that I’d worked on. Sometimes on a movie you’d say music is going to carry this scene all the way up to this point — so the first three hundred feet in this scene you’re going to carry with music.

So you don’t prepare so much (sound) for that. It’s just detailed storyboards that need to be there for sound effects. But you don’t build this whole symphony of other things — (like) church bells to ring, a rooster crows. These things just kind of build (and are) things that would be in the area. And then you have to mix this in a way where you get the sense things are building and not just static. So the mix was very different because of this. When there’s no music, the dialogue and effects need to fill up a much bigger space than they usually do. A lot of times the music would kind of embrace the whole scene.
Q: Did Kathryn make a decision that she didn’t want to use music in the traditional way?
A: Yes. It was really important to her because whenever we heard (music) we felt we’re watching a movie. Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders did a fantastic job and I’m so glad the Academy recognized them for Best Score because this is a very hard movie to score. You had to write music that essentially doesn’t sound like music, but still has that effect of music.

There’s a few points where what they’re playing is all the instrumentation of full melodies and it’s just beautiful and so emotional. So when we get these real music pieces in like (during) the sniper scene when the camaraderie really welds this group together, when the music starts up it is such a relief in the movie. It’s just this beautiful strong music, but it’s just a few lines of very simple instrumentation. But it feels so powerful because we haven’t had any music before. It’s very effective.