'Cowboys & Aliens'

Aug 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Blair Jackson



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On paper, it’s an idea that can’t miss: Cowboys (and Apaches) in 1873 Arizona are confronted by an alien invasion! It’s spaceships against horses; six-shooters, single-shot rifles, bows and spears against horrifying, zapping destructo rays from beyond the galaxy. Cowboys & Aliens is two—yes, two!—movies in one: an Old West saga about a mysterious amnesiac who stumbles into the town of Absolution only to learn he’s wanted there for committing heinous crimes he doesn’t remember, and one of the strangest sci-fi adventures you’re likely to see. Jon Favreau (the two Iron Man films) directed this intriguing hybrid, which is based on a 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. The appealing leads are Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde.

Effects sound designer/mixer Chris Boyes

Effects sound designer/mixer Chris Boyes

I was about 20 seconds into the first preview for the film last fall when it dawned on me that Cowboys & Aliens must have been really fun to work on sound-wise, and indeed, interviews conducted during the final mix in mid-June with supervising sound editor Frank Eulner, FX sound designer/mixer Christopher Boyes and sound designer Dave Farmer confirmed my suspicions. As Boyes puts it, “For both Frank and me, it was a gas because one thing about this film is it honors the Western tradition, and you are very much in a Western film when it opens and whenever we’re being cowboys in the West. We’re very true to the desert and the town. But then it’s this whole other thing, too.”

Neither Boyes nor Eulner had a pure Western under his belt (Boyes came close with the wonderful animated Rango earlier this year), but each brought extensive experience in different genres to this film—including work on the two Iron Man movies together. Multiple Oscar-winner Boyes’ CV lists the blockbusters Tron: Legacy, Avatar, The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean series, and King Kong among many others; while Eulner’s resumé includes such films as Hellboy, Saving Private Ryan, The Village, Blue Velvet, Backdraft and Mars Attacks! For Cowboys & Aliens, sound designer Farmer worked exclusively on the alien side, creating creature vocalizations and some alien crafts and weapon sounds. He is particularly well-known for his imaginative creature voices, having worked on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong, Red Riding Hood and Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, as well as videogames in the God of War series, BioShock 2 and many others.

Eulner says that he and Boyes were first approached about working on Cowboys & Aliens while they were on the final mix for Iron Man 2: “Jon said he wanted us to start thinking about this film, and thinking about spaceships and cowboys and aliens and what they’re going to sound like. It’s really exciting having a director who’s thinking about sound that early, before he even starts shooting. He plants a seed in your brain and then it gets to grow in there for a month or two before you get to execute any of the sounds. And you start hearing things every day—‘That might work for a spaceship,’ or, ‘That might work for this other thing.’”

They were pressed into service just a couple of weeks into shooting when they were asked to prepare a rough scene for Comic-Con (where Favreau and the top cast members appeared). A little later, Eulner says, “We went down to the set, too, which was interesting. We were in Santa Fe for three or four days, and we recorded some production sounds and some of the Native Americans whooping. We recorded gunshots in the canyon, with the black powder rifles they used back then. We try to be as accurate with all the firearms as possible—until we embellish them,” he says with a chuckle.

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