In 1913, when reigning golf champion Harry Vardon came to play in the US Open at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., he was spectacularly defeated by 20-year amateur Francis Ouimet. The game was one of the greatest sports upsets in history and helped turn Ouimet into a folk hero and Americans into golf enthusiasts. Up until that time, Englishmen, Scotsmen and the wealthy dominated the game. But Ouimet’s victory introduced the notion that golf was not just for the rich, but could be learned and enjoyed by the average American.In The Greatest Game Ever Played, directed by Bill Paxton, the quiet sounds of the game of golf escalate to a larger-than-life proportion reminiscent of the character portrayed. The subtle and dynamic design of sound help create a grand retelling of the events of that game and the lives around it and reminds us how sound can help drive and increase the degree of clarity of a story. Soundeluxe supervising sound editor Mike Wilhoit took on the challenge of crafting the film’s innovative sounds.According to Wilhoit, “Bill likened that day to two warriors in their best form who meet on a battlefield at a moment in history with their own personal visions of victory, and changed the course of the game of golf and their lives.” Wilhoit’s most recent credits as supervising sound editor include Must Love Dogs, Are We There Yet? and Little Black Book. His long list of character-based films such as Vanilla Sky, The Affair of the Necklace and Almost Famous made him a natural for The Greatest Game Ever Played. This would be the third outing for Paxton as director. His previous directing credits include Frailty and Fishheads. For Paxton and Wilhoit, this was a first-time collaboration. Wilhoit had met Paxton during production of 1998’s A Simple Plan, where Paxton was the male lead and he served as the supervising sound editor. With Paxton’s belief in the importance of sound as a narrative tool, collaborating with him was both inspiring and demanding, according to Wilhoit. “One of the biggest challenges of making The Greatest Game Ever Played was living up to what Bill wanted. He’s a creative and motivated director and very hands-on in the post process, taking the time to make editorial choices or come up with ideas. He’s passionate about what he sees and wants and his enthusiasm transfers to you. So one of the biggest challenges was not to disappoint him.”After assembling his sound team of Gabriel Guy, sound recordist, Daniel E. Fluhr and Christian Minkler, sound re-recording mixers, Doc Kane, ADR mixer, Michelle Pazer, ADR editor, Michael Hertlein and Kimaree Long, dialog editors, Nick Foley, ADR recordist and Jeffrey Wilhoit, foley artist, Wilhoit’s initial tasks were the technical aspects of the sound. The team needed to create and record vintage golf clubs and balls, horse and carriages of the era, background crowds at golf games and Model T Fords. In 1913, golf clubs were made of wood—either hickory, ash, lemonwood, lancewood, greenheart or dangawood—and golf balls were made with rubber threads and gutta-percha. Harry Vardon had his own golf ball known as the Vardon Flyer. The sound of hitting and driving was much different than with modern clubs and balls, so they had to be recreated, then their sound recorded with a digital audio recorder. After attending many golf tournaments, Wilhoit and his team needed to record more genteel “ohs and ahs” than exist at today’s games. The sounds of the Model T Fords came from a sound library. Wilhoit’s primary editorial tool was Digidesign’s Pro Tools. A departure from effects-laden films, The Greatest Game Ever Played celebrates sound by appreciating its value. Since it is character-driven, “every moment in the film, is driven or enhanced with sound,” says Wilhoit. “Bill’s desire to carry the audience through the character’s lives is emphasized through the fine tuning of every sound element in the film. Whether it’s mixing the dialog track to make a word or a phrase have more impact or emotional content or sound effects for the playing of the game.” The pair collaborated to build tension through sound or lack of it. With Paxton’s penchant for enhancing the moment, he wanted the sounds of frogs and crickets to be heard from the front porch of the Ouimet home during a particularly poignant scene between Ouiment and his father. So Wilhoit and his team recorded these sounds from Paxton’s country home. One of Paxton and Wilhoit’s biggest sound challenges was the nature of the US Open game played between Vardon and Ouimet. This was not an ordinary game so it called for extraordinary and inventive ways to take the audience on an immensely visual and sensational audio journey. Wilhoit tells how they made “the golf balls fly through the air at jet speed with a dramatic trail of the sound of wind behind them. And when a ball went into the hole, there would be a big explosion.” There was a lot of creative foley with pings and pongs. The dramatic sounds for the path of the golf balls was an effective way to dramatize the moment-to-moment play of that game. It was as if the game were the showdown and shootout at the OK Corral, or the tense drama of Hadleyville’s main street in High Noon. Perhaps the most rewarding part of crafting the sound for the film was when Wilhoit realized they were “pushing the expectation of the audience.” By taking them through a visual and sound trip in the direction of the ball at various speeds and dramatic landings, they would experience golf in a new dimension. Much like Ouimet’s effect on the sport, their view of a golf game would be changed forever.
Written by Kathy Anderson