A sea of sound strengthens 'Storm'

The disaster movie's meticulously layered soundtrack makes the film an adventure for the ears as well as the eyes.


July 16, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

You've seen "The Perfect Storm." Maybe you even read it. But have you heard it? I mean, really listened? The wave-tossed blockbuster has been captivating audiences with its awesome visual effects. With heart-stopping scale, the film shows the massive storm system that ambushed the swordfish boat Andrea Gail and killed its crew of six men off the coast of Massachusetts in 1991.

Much has been written about the meticulous detail demanded by director Wolfgang Petersen ("Das Boot," "Air Force One") from the computer-effects techies at Industrial Light and Magic to make George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg look like they were fighting a real-life ocean instead of a tank of churning water.

But there's an entire level of "The Perfect Storm" experience that has been relatively ignored. Fully half of the impact of such a film is aural, and as much of the emotional tug can be attributed to what the filmmakers are doing with our ears as with our eyes.

A crucial role

Ever since the pictures began to talk, sound -- in the form of dialogue, effects and music -- has played a crucial role. If sound is taken for granted in films as visually stunning as "The Perfect Storm," it's a testament to the seamlessness with which the filmmakers have integrated it into their work.

Just ask Scott Cohen, president of Leader Cinema Corp., which owns Eastpoint Movies 10, one of Baltimore's finest venues in projection and sound. At a preview screening of "The Perfect Storm" Cohen noted afterward that the first half-hour of the movie was so quiet -- its dialogue next to unintelligible -- that he almost went up to the projection booth to bump up the volume. (Cohen uses a meter to make sure that the loudest sounds are at a safe level.)

But then came the first in a series of heart-stopping stunts, involving an accident with one of the boat's crew members, and he realized what was going on.

"At that point the sound levels came up," recalled Cohen, "and it made you jump." From there on in, as the storm gained force, the volume built right along with it, until at its climax the film was blowing everyone's hair back.

The sound for "The Perfect Storm" was added relatively late in the game, according to sound editor Kelly Cabral, who with Wylie Stateman served as sound supervisor for the movie. "We didn't get started working until April or May," she said during a recent telephone interview, "which gave us maybe two or three months' time. It was a fairly quick schedule for such an intense movie. We finished 10 days before it came out."

In most movies a portion of dialogue and ambient sound effects -- especially those that take place outdoors -- is replaced or "looped" after shooting is completed, during the editing phase of production. With "The Perfect Storm," from the time the boat leaves Gloucester, Mass., to the movie's conclusion at a funeral service, every line of dialogue and every sound was added in post-production.

"Because they shot the movie in such difficult circumstances, the sound we were given for our template was nonexistent," Cabral recalled. "Usually you get some dialogue, some production sounds, something to build [a sound design] around. In this particular case we had nothing to build around, nothing but the director's concept and countless hours with consultants who'd been out on the Andrea Gail and had been in really bad storms. So we could ask them, 'What does it sound like? What do you hear?' "

Cabral and Stateman used sounds they recorded in Gloucester and on Coast Guard ships, as well as effects from a library of sounds, to create a multilayered soundtrack that sought to re-create the screaming intensity of a Force 12 storm without sending filmgoers screaming from their seats in pain. And they did calibrate the volume level, as Cohen had noticed.

"Water is a sound that is very difficult not to tire peoples' ears with," Cabral explained. "Car chases are easy to deal with because there are so many elements. Something like water or a storm, which is just raging for an hour-plus, that's something that will completely fatigue an audience's ears."

They also concocted their wave sounds from a panoply of aural ingredients. "We would take the most basic water-lapping element and we would keep adding sounds, everything from animals to wind, just for one wave," she said. The roars of lions and elephants are particularly good for getting "the meat in the sound," she said. "You play with everything you can."

Hundreds of tracks

The sound team used hundreds of tracks of digital tape to re- create the triple storm that felled the Andrea Gail, and they had to bring all the actors back to a soundstage to rerecord the lines that had been lost during filming. An ADR (audio digital replacement) director was on hand to help with the performances, but "nine times out of 10 Wolfgang would come to the stage to get the performances he wanted," Cabral said.

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