“The core of the philosophy of Birdman is that it’s a moving target,” said supervising sound editor and sound designer, Martín Hernández. In a spectacularly choreographed feat, the film literally follows a washed-up actor (Michael Keaton), famous for playing the titular superhero character, as he attempts to prove his acting chops by mounting a dramatic Broadway play.
With all the moving camerawork, noise problems with production sound might be expected, and while Hernández noted that as much as 30% of the dialog may have been ADR, it was not because of poor audio quality, but rather because director Alejandro González Iñárritu wanted to change the lines or enhance the performance. “The production sound was amazing, especially given the challenges,” Hernández said. “It was surprisingly perfect and clean.”
The shooting circumstances were unique, but all the movement was rehearsed. Production sound mixer, Thomas Varga, recorded the audio using not only radio mics, but also two boom mics. “I think it was very challenging, but it was nice to work with someone who was totally aware of what he was doing,” said Hernández.
The production mixer also had time to grab wild tracks for post, recorded in the center of the theater’s stage, which the director liked to call, “the belly of the whale.” Crowd reactions were captured with Iñárritu directing the extras – laughing, being rowdy and applauding with varying enthusiasm. “I had all that palette of colors and temperatures. They gave me that as a beautiful production track,” said Hernández.
Hernández is a boyhood friend and long-time collaborator with the director, but after reading the screenplay for the film, he realized that Iñárritu was trying to go to a completely different place than he had done on previous films.
“He went away from what he was comfortable playing with,” revealed Hernández. “I didn’t think we could cut sound as we used to cut sound, because the scenes have a flow and you can’t cut the flow. Normally Alejandro likes, as he calls it, ‘the clashing of the sounds.’ The camera changes angle within the scene and there is a change of everything – backgrounds, texture, dialog. Obviously, that would not work on Birdman because here, everything is flowing. There are no cuts.”
The team had to develop a new whole sound concept, changing the way they edited audio to work with the style of the film. The soundscape was constructed of bits and pieces – things such as as fluorescent lights and creaky stairs – and then the sound elements were meticulously placed in reference to the on-screen action.
“If it’s a moving target, sound is also a moving target. Sound is constantly surrounding, shifting places and going from front to rear,” explained Hernández. “These were decisions we made in the cutting room.”
Just to cut the 24 drum tracks took Hernández four months. Once the tracks were edited and timed against picture, the filmmakers and drummer Antonio Sanchez went back into the studio and re-recorded the music against the picture.
“It was a crazy job, because every take had 32 microphones. We needed to have distance, and closeness and resonance. We even recorded outside the music studio. We put the microphones in the back alley and recorded Antonio again outside to get the reverb of a street,” Hernández explained.
Hernández stated that he was very lucky to be working with a great sound crew. From early stages, co-supervisor and sound designer, Aaron Glascock, designed and cut environmental sounds and effects concepts, pre-shifting and moving elements, building backgrounds and more.
Sound designer, Jeremy Peirson closely developed the scene where Riggan and Mike (Edward Norton) fight on stage with the crowd reacting. Co-supervisor, designer Peter Brown developed the workflow in the mix stage with Jon Taylor and Frank Montaño. Brown also fine-tuned specific scenes, such as the metallic robot attack in one of Riggan’s feverish dreams. Many of concepts from sound FX editor Roland Thai stayed untouched until the very final sound track.
Additional music editors Terry Wilson and Will Kaplan were a blessing on the stage. “When we had many notes to attend, Terry jumped into my sessions and helped during the mix. They prepared my notes and conversations I had with Alejandro regarding the music cues on the stage.” said Hernández.
Over the eight-month post sound schedule, the techniques and workflow for creating the soundscape organically evolved.
“It’s good to explore and we had time to explore, because the film allowed us to explore in those directions. Then something happens,” revealed Hernández. “I don’t know if it is magical, but it is something that naturally happens. You decide something when starting, but you don’t know if that is going to be the end of the idea, or if the idea might go off on its own. Many of these ideas went on their own without any of us driving. You cannot interfere with that.”