From blasting bullets and the purr of an Aston Martin to propulsive music and exotic atmospherics, the suave and kinetic sound world of the 007 films has long been an alluring aspect of the popular film franchise, now celebrating its 50th year with the recent release of Skyfall.
“Sound has always been a big part of a Bond film experience, but the expectations were especially high on this film,” said Greg P. Russell, one of the two sound mixers on the movie along with Scott Millan. “We wanted this to be a really special Bond, not just because of the 50th anniversary, but we knew it was going to be a very smart, very articulate and well-crafted film because Sam Mendes was the director.”
The unconventional choice of Mendes, known for more cerebral fare like American Beauty and Road to Perdition, to helm the 23rd Bond film has paid off not only with a more than $1 billion global box-office bonanza but in accolades from critics who have hailed the director for re-energizing the franchise and lifting it to a new plateau.
In making a quantum leap to a $200 million budget Bond film, Mendes, known for his keen attention to every aspect of film-making, brought his own set of priorities to Skyfall and that included sound. “Coming from a theater background it’s the words that are most important to him, then it’s music and then it’s the other sound effects in the film,” noted Millan who has worked with Mendes on three films going back 12 years to American Beauty. “They’re all to be used to convey the story and propel the emotions of the storytelling,” he says. And Skyfall, he added, “is not a conventional Bond movie where about 80 percent is action – Sam has a brought a very mature perspective with a story that’s more relevant to our time and not so heavy on outlandish action.”
“The clarity of dialogue and intelligibility is key,” Russell said. “But the music is a big strong presence in the movie and rightfully so, and the sound effects work in grounding the reality to the big set pieces.” And there are indeed some spectacular set pieces, from a London train bursting from the underground into the offices of British intelligence to a fight on the ledges of the 59th floor of a Shanghai office tower.
Mendes put together a production team for Skyfall that included many of his previous below the line collaborators while adding some new ones. Four-time Oscar winner Millan had mixed the sound on three Mendes’ films, while Russell, a veteran of numerous movies directed by Michael Bay including the three Transformers movies and Pearl Harbor, was working with the director for the first time. The two mixers met on a project a year ago, and they reteamed on Skyfall.
Both boast a host of honors, Millan has been nominated eight times for a sound-mixing Academy Award, winning for films including Apollo 13, Gladiator, Ray and The Bourne Ultimatum. Earlier this year he received the Career Achievement Award from the Cinema Audio Society. Russell has been nominated 15 times in the sound-mixing Oscar category – for films including Memoirs of a Geisha and the first two Spider-Man movies along with the Bay pictures – but has yet to bag one.
On Skyfall, the two split responsibilities. Millan worked on the dialogue and music, while Russell was in charge of the sound effects. They both came together for the final mix which was the last part of the movie to be completed before it was locked.
The music in a Bond film is always an important element, not just the score itself but the recurring strains of the signature 007 theme. On Skyfall the composer was 10-time Oscar nominee Thomas Newman who has scored four Mendes films. “The Bond films have a very notable theme, it plays a big part in the tone of the film and in the mix,” Millan said.
Russell said one of the biggest challenges was, as to be expected, the palpitating 12-minute opening, always a highlight in any James Bond movie. However, the most compelling sound experience for him was the finale when Daniel Craig as Bond is trapped in the house he grew up in, and the villain, played by Javier Bardem, is looking to take him out. “This helicopter is hovering above in surround sound and then comes the big explosion – it’s a big artillery moment in the movie, it serves the narrative well and I really enjoyed working on it.”