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OSCARS 2015: 'Unbroken' sound designers recreated a 30-minute scene from scratch

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The raft scene from "Unbroken" directed by Angelina Jolie
Universal Pictures
The raft scene from "Unbroken," directed by Angelina Jolie

Oscar nominated sound designers Becky Sullivan and Andrew DeCristofaro were put to the test when they had to recreate the scene when the characters were stranded at sea.

As the Academy Awards ceremony nears, we're taking a closer look at one of the categories that often goes under-appreciated: sound editing. 

Becky Sullivan and Andrew DeCristofaro were the supervising sound editors for "Unbroken." They've already won a Golden Reel Award from the Motion Picture Sound Editors organization for their editing of dialogue in "Unbroken."

When asked about one scene they were most proud of, Sullivan told us: "The raft scene brings all of our elements together in their best light."

Originally, director Angelina Jolie had shot the scene exactly where one might expect: the ocean. But the turbulence caused by the waves prevented any sort of steady shot, so they had to improvise a backup plan.

"They constructed a tank in a parking lot next to a freeway and a [theme park]," Sullivan laughs. "They put the boys in the raft and did most of the recording that way, but you can hear the traffic and people screaming on the roller coasters."

Which meant the sound editors needed a backup to the backup plan. Sullivan remembers giving Jolie the bad news.

I told her, "We're going to need to loop this entire raft scene," which goes on for two reels, it's 37 minutes of raft, I think. [The challenge was to] recreate the performances on that raft where they first arrive — and then they get weaker and thirstier as time goes on, and they're dying — to bring actors onto a sound stage six months later and say, "Okay, we just need to redo all this."

But Sullivan had no intention of leaving her actors out to dry; DeCristofaro recalls: "Becky worked really hard to help them find that voice and that space again." Several months after the scene was shot, Sullivan had to bring the actors back to a sound stage to have them perform the entire sequence again.

She went so far as to lay them on the ground, put some cushions around them, turn off the lights to try to get them back into the head space of being stuck on a raft in the middle of the ocean. "Everywhere we go there [were] water bottles," Sullivan recalls, "but I took all of them off the stage because their throats needed to dry out." 

Still, that wasn't enough, as Sullivan notes: "Then you need the [sound] bed to lay that dialogue into, so you have to have the backgrounds correct — the winds, the water."

That bed was also ruined by the noise pollution from the freeway and amusement park, and so, DeCristofaro says, "Every drip, every little crinkle on the raft, every water lap, you name it — that's all completely done from scratch."

And it's not just for some misguided perfectionism; as Sullivan explains: "Everything has to be real, so that when you mix in that dialogue and you lay it in there, everyone thinks we're there on the raft with those boys."

That feeling of verisimilitude requires a more nuanced approach in some situations than others. The filmmakers managed to wangle an operating B-24 to track the dogfight scenes, but as DeCristofaro says, "You can hide little edits when there's a lot of sonic energy. When you're in these quiet scenes, there's nowhere to hide; it's got to be perfect."

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