Post: 'The King's Speech' and '127 Hours'

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



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James Franco as hiker Aron Ralston in Danny Boyle’s
127 Hours

James Franco as hiker Aron Ralston in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours

Speaking of making audiences uncomfortable, there has been much chatter about the lengthy arm amputation scene at the heart of director Danny Boyle’s much-acclaimed 127 Hours, the filmmaker’s first effort since he won Oscar gold for Slumdog Millionaire two years ago. That film—which was honored in a slew of different categories including Best Sound (it was also nominated in the Sound Editing category)—couldn’t be more different from 127 Hours. Slumdog was teeming with the buzz and cacophony of overcrowded cities while 127 Hours focuses on the real-life ordeal of a hiker named Aron Ralston (played by James Franco) in Utah’s beautiful but desolate Canyonlands National Park. When a falling rock in a crevice traps his arm, Ralston eventually decides the only way out is to cut off much of his arm with a pocket knife. More than one critic has commented that it isn’t the visual of an arm being cut off that is most disturbing; it’s the sound, which seems to accentuate every tendon severing, every stream of blood, every cry in a nearly unbearable symphony of pain.

“That was by design, certainly,” comments sound designer and supervising sound editor Glenn Freemantle, who assembled much of the post team that worked on Slumdog, including Oscar-winning re-recording mixers Ian Tapp and Richard Pryke, and FX designer/editor Niv Adiri. Post was at Pinewood Studios in England. “It was the most pain he’s ever had amplified a hundred times. The concept was to always be with Aron sound-wise. It’s all from his perspective. We did a lot of research on how he felt and how he heard things, how he heard the bone break and all. He stabs himself and you hear the heartbeat, the rushing of blood and the release of gases. It was all how he perceived things. The strings of his nerves were like electric strings that he had to pull that sent this shocking pain that was like electrical pulses.” For that, Freemantle’s team used a combination of distorted, plucked electric guitar strings and sustained electronic noises to communicate some of the searing pain.

There’s more to the film than just the amputation, of course, “From the point where Aron gets trapped,” Freemantle says, “the sound becomes a character within the film, as do all the things Aron has with him. Sounds that would normally be tiny become amplified because they’re all part of him. Everything around him that is for survival has a sonic character—his knife, his water, the ropes, his backpack. This is his world now, and every moment of it was us trying to keep him in this place with the sound—keep the tension and gradually changing in perspective as the film goes on.”

For location accuracy, “We went to Utah, set up mics all over the actual canyon where it took place and then shot [sound] 24 hours a day [using a pair Sound Devices recorders] for two days—changing batteries in the middle of the night, dealing with weather, et cetera—so we’d really have a sense of this place.”

Back at Pinewood, Freemantle and his mates “built a version of the canyon on a stage. We had a frame made about six feet high, eight or 10 feet long, clad it all in sandstone and limestone, and made it the width it was in the actual canyon so every sound effect we shot, we shot within that so the response time was like it would be in there.”

There was extensive FX and Foley recording using the previously mentioned knife and water bottle and such. “Every move had to mean something because we wanted to be in Aron’s head. Even a little crawling ant was tiny layers of sound. Dust blowing across the rocks. The knife sound changing a bit as it’s getting duller. Everything was amplified to a degree, but not loud because the space around it was brought down with it. It’s very subtle, but hopefully effective.”

And how’s this for going the extra mile: “We wanted to get the sound of his lips getting drier and more chapped, and to get the sound of water in his mouth. For every line of his dialog, we’d cut a dry lip in and out, the sounds of lips parting. It was all about the detail.”

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