'War Horse'

Jan 1, 2012 9:00 AM, By Blair Jackson



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The other major aspect of the film is war, and that area also offered many challenges to Rydstrom and his team. There are a few big battles, including one in which a regiment of British cavalry unwittingly charges into a hidden nest of German machine guns, and a long, pivotal scene depicting trench warfare and its attendant horrors—the steady bombardments, the seemingly ineffectual assaults where hundreds of lives are lost trying to take over a few more yards of the contested “no man’s land” that separate the British and German troops. Still, this is a PG-13 film and the overall look of the film, even the war scenes, is more poetic than graphic.

Rydstrom comments, “Comparing it to Private Ryan, which had a sort of brutal, realistic quality to it—almost a documentary, you-are-there, walking through D-Day with a Bolex camera feeling—this is more distanced. And we did that with the sound, too; we tried to give it a more controlled, bigger-than-life feeling. There are still real guns and real artillery-bys and the sound of distant artillery. But I felt on this movie I could be more flexible with playing around with the war sounds than I was on Private Ryan, where I felt I had to be true to life. Here, I thought we could be a little more stylistic because of the tone and because, really, it’s a story about war perceived by horses, if you think about it. I thought we had the leeway to do more iconic war sounds.”

As is common with these sorts of films, the recording team captured a wide variety of guns and ordnance from various distances and angles using portable digital recorders. However, “We also dusted off the Nagras and did a lot of the recording of guns and artillery and explosions with those,” Rydstrom says. “They’re just as hard to lug around as they always were, but they gave us a really big, beefy sound. For a lot of the gun recording, we’d record on Nagras and a series of digital recorders at the same time and I could mix and match. But there was a quality to the Nagra recording the digital couldn’t match.”

For an important scene involving Joey being terrorized by a then-new Mark IV English tank, Rydstrom notes, “It was impossible to find a working Mark IV tank—the one they used on the set was something else underneath. For the tank, the engine became less important, and what we concentrated on instead was the squeals it makes and the grinding of the gears and the rattles. It ended up being a mish-mash of things. I even recorded my push lawnmower—this old-fashioned, spinning lawn mower—and I slowed that down and combined it with other stuff. I admit I did go into the Saving Private Ryan library and found a basic engine that would work and some tread stuff, but then we sweetened it and made it rattlier and squeakier than anything we had done before.” As for the new-fangled 250-round Maxim maschinengewehr (machine gun), Rydstrom credits production recordist Stuart Wilson with getting some excellent recordings of Maxims on the set.

Other war sounds—the majority of them off-camera, allowed Rydstrom and company to get creative: “We manufactured a lot of sounds of explosions and war as heard from a trench and I used things that weren’t real—I used glacier sounds or cracking wood and slowed them down and phased them and treated them a little bit. It was a way to get that claustrophobic feeling of the trench. We also manufactured all these really bizarre artillery pass-bys using vacuum cleaners and bowed metal—anything I could Doppler. There was great variety to it.”

However, dedicated film buff that he is, Spielberg also requested the inclusion of a certain sound that Stanley Kubrick had employed in his World War I film, Paths of Glory. “It’s the classic World War I artillery whistle,” Rydstrom says. “So we found one that was close enough that we were all happy and put that in. It was also a wonderful sound to pan through the surrounds because you’d get the sound of the war going overhead.”

Rydstrom and his crew did their sound editing and premixing work at Skywalker; then the action moved down to Fox’s Neve DFC–equipped Howard Hawks stage for the final mix, most of which was accomplished in a two-week window that Spielberg had in the midst of finishing his other new film, The Adventures of Tintin. Andy Nelson mixed John Williams’ lush and beautiful score—very prominent in the film—and Tom Johnson mixed dialog. “Steven was there every day, which was not always the case in my experience on other movies with him,” Rydstrom says, “and John Williams was, too. So it was as collaborative as you can imagine between those two and us and Richard [Hymns] and the sound crew. It was as an intense two weeks of mixing as I’ve ever had, but it was also very satisfying because everyone was there.”

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