With 12 Oscar nominations, director Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant leads the way, including a best picture and director nod. He won both awards for Birdman in 2015. The Revenant is a terrifying tale of survival that shows how far one man must go to overcome the harshest conditions. Set in the 19th-century American-West, the film is a true story of sorts of fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is attacked by a bear and left for dead by his fellow trappers. Bent on revenge, Glass finds the strength to travel 200 miles to confront his faithless friends. Among those Academy Award nominations were two in sound – best editing (Martin Hernandez and Lon Bender) and best mixing (Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Randy Thom and Chris Duesterdiek).
From the very first scene, one that features an exhausting battle between the trappers and a group of Indians, you realize the scope of the film is enormous. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki used a combination of ARRI Alexa cameras and natural light to shoot chronologically in rural parts of Argentina and Alberta, Canada where temperatures plunged well below freezing. As footage rolled into the editing room, it was an encounter with Iñárritu that gave sound editor Hernandez a unique direction for the film’s aural anatomy.
“I stopped in with editor Stephen Mirrione and they were putting a few scenes together, trying to see where the movie was going. Alejandro asked me to keep in mind what I just saw, but to build the sound of the film without looking at it.” Hernandez went back and started grabbing various sounds from the dailies and takes recorded by production mixer Chris Duesterdiek. “I looked at it as more of a feeling of what I liked, not by the sound’s meaning. I wanted to make a single piece that had production sound, effects and music to get a feeling if it belongs to the movie or not.”
When the music from Carsten Nicolai and Ryuichi Sakamoto took shape, all of a sudden they had a number of elements that made sense beyond what the traditional sound was doing. “Some editors tend to use sounds to fill what they see on screen. That seems to be ok, but it’s not a true meaning of cutting sound for film,” said Hernandez. “It’s important not to forget where the sound is coming from or where the sound is going to. The emotional storytelling can be told through sounds you’re not exactly looking at but you know they’re there and make sense.” The sound team anchored this philosophy to develop the tones and themes of the film, especially for the landscapes.
“Alejandro was always thinking nature as one of the performers on camera,” said Hernandez. “And it’s quite a task as a mixer to think about that. To think about how to make this character talk. You can change the scene and the film in so many ways so it’s important to make that dynamic eloquent in how loud and vast and big it is.”
Rerecording mixer Randy Thom echoed a similar sentiment. “Alejandro was wise enough going in that he knew he wanted nature to be a central figure. He provided us with those spaces for the landscapes to speak in a way. We could add in those subtle sounds – the trees creaking, the snow falling, the birds chirping or a distant avalanche. Our design became a complex bundle of noises that weren’t necessarily related to what you saw on screen, but performed the function of making the scene more believable. Alejandro invented a word for that noise. He called it ‘ca-ca yanga.’ Whenever he felt the scene needed to be more aurally complex, he would say add a little ‘ca-ca yanga.’”
Like nature, the performances on screen needed to be toned acoustically as well. “One of the few things Alejandro made clear was that he wanted the story to be told from Glass’s point of view and he wanted us to stylize the sound in a way that supported that notion,” said Thom. “For instance, in the first couple of sequences when we see Glass with his wife and child and the shots of the village burning, you’re supposed to get the impression that Glass is dreaming or that we’re in his head. For a sequence like that, to cover all your bases, you typically bring in an enormous number of elements so that anything you see happening on screen could have a sound. Because we knew Alejandro didn’t want to hear everything on screen, we were able to very carefully orchestrate the change of focus from one or two sounds to another one or two sounds.”
What they ended up doing as a base for Glass’s dream-like memories was use a combination of wind blowing and a rhythmic pattern. “The sound you hear that could have been breathing or almost a chant is actually from a frog that we slowed own. It was one of those accidental discoveries you make,” explained Thom. “That sound ended up becoming a recurring theme for us.”
A pivotal scene that took on its own set of challenges happens when Glass is attacked by a bear. “This film is a series of lessons in humility. The humility that nature is this unimaginably huge thing and that we as the human beings may seem important, but in fact, we are so infinitesimally small in this larger drama that’s happening in the universe,” explained Thom. “We realize this in bear sequence – we hear birds tweeting in the background and other things are happening. The point being that nature is oblivious to human activity and human tragedy. It’s a reason for us to be a little more humble.”
To pull this lesson in humility off, Thom had to start with the bear itself. “I began with the breathing of the creature and then found ways to insert vocalizations between the breaths.” The mixer ended up using five or six elements that contributed to the breathing and vocalization of the bear, including tiger and horse sounds. “I used tiger noises when the bear was being aggressive and horse sounds when the bear becomes injured,” said Thom. “I didn’t have any recordings of any injured or sick bears. They are a little harder to come by, but I did have a recording of a horse that was sick and had really bad respiratory problems.”
After the bear attacks Glass, she leaves before lunging back at him. Glass ends up shooting her with his rifle. Injured, she walks off screen where we continue to hear her breathing and struggling from Glass’s point of view. “I couldn’t make the transition from bear breaths to horse breaths too abrupt because of the risk that it would sound like another animal all of a sudden. So what I had to do was use little bits of horse breath even before the bear was shot and then gradually make them louder and louder so by the time the bear leaves the frame we only hear the horse. Once the bear is out of frame, I would put in a bear vocalization every so often as a reminder that it’s the same creature we’ve been listening to all along.”
Throughout the project and into the final mix the sound crew deliberated on the choices that made the most sense. “We wanted to blend and make an almost seamless track where the viewer wasn’t sure what was sound design or what was score and music,” said Hernandez. “I wanted to raise that question to the viewer without distracting.” The team did a lot of experimenting on the final mix stage because it was a type of film that didn’t lend itself in a very straight-forward way.
“I’ve been doing sound for 40 years now and I still go into a project not knowing for sure exactly how we are going to do it,” said Thom. “With Alejandro’s artistic ambitions being so high, the only way to get to the finish line was to try a lot of things. Artistically, you have to make mistakes, because if you’re not, you’re not doing anything new. On The Revenant, that took the most time – trying new things and shifting the mix around to give the audience a more powerful feeling.”