'Cowboys & Aliens'

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



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Boyes adds, “We went over to these box canyons that were really hard to get to. We were on our hands and knees climbing up with a bunch of [production assistants] so we could fire off guns in the canyons and get these tremendous echoes and delays.” Along with Sound Devices 744 recorders and shotgun mics, they also brought along a couple of handheld Sony and Zoom 4HN recorders so they could capture the shots from numerous perspectives. “I’m glad we had small ones because it wasn’t an easy trek,” Boyes says.

Oscar-winner Mark Ulano handled the production recording in a number of challenging locales, many with horses competing for sonic real estate, along with the people being captured with booms and RFs. Additionally, the sound team had a huge library of horse sounds from which to choose at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, Calif., and “the Foley crew supplemented the horses—[Foley artists] Dennie Thorpe and Jana Vance are really, really good at doing horse hooves, and it’s a challenge in the effects chair to blend the two,” Boyes says. Lora Hirschberg (who won an Oscar for Inception last year) mixed dialog and music; the score is by Harry Gregson-Williams. (See the sidebar, “A Western Sci-Fi Mash-Up.”) Though the design work and predubbing took place at Skywalker, the final mix, which ended in early July, was at Stage 1 at Todd-AO, Santa Monica, which is a Euphonix System 5 room.

Supervising sound editor Frank Eulner

Supervising sound editor Frank Eulner

When I mention that between the alien crafts and all the action on the ground, a film like this would seem to have enormous surround possibilities, Boyes laughs and says, “And they keep saying they want more surround! The surrounds are very active in this film. We’ll be in the desert and you’ll hear the crickets and the air and the wind, and suddenly something will come flying out of the middle of nowhere, and the juxtaposition couldn’t have more contrast. You’re in this very historically accurate visual representation of the Wild West and you have these cowboys climbing up to look over a ledge, and suddenly here comes this completely foreign sound zooming out from behind you. It creates an incredible dynamic and contrast that we use as a tool to scare and shock—because the townspeople seeing these aliens and the technology are really frightened; you can see it on their faces so it’s incumbent on us in the mix to reflect that.”

“The technology of the aliens has been challenging because we didn’t want it to sound sci-fi exactly and we didn’t want it to sound too high-tech either,” Eulner notes. “We didn’t want it to sound like movie lasers, which are sort of a cliché by now.”

Instead, they sought a balance between futuristic and the somewhat plausible. The main alien crafts in the film are multiple-wing “speeders,” which resemble large metallic dragonflies, except that they are equipped with advanced weaponry, as well as a supercharged version of a cowboy’s lariat that can snag somebody off the ground at dizzying speed. Eulner and Boyes developed the initial sounds for the speeders (including some screaming geese Boyes recorded while on vacation and electronically twisted on his trusty Synclavier as one of the elements of the speeder-bys), then had their work embellished by Farmer, who came onboard a little later in the process.

“Chris and I did a pass,” Eulner explains, “and then Dave took it to another level. Then I got it back and did some things, and Chris would do another pass. It was nice to get other people’s perspective on the same material. It’s a cool way to work if you have the right people to work with.”

“You need to have the right team,” Boyes agrees. “Nobody’s here to grandstand, or say, ‘I did it all,’ and that goes for the entire editorial team. In fact, one of our dialog editors, Marshall Winn, recorded this hummingbird and it’s become a signature element in the film. I’ve recorded hummingbirds in Costa Rica and all over the place, and this is the best recording of a hummingbird we’ve ever had.”

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