Filmed in the Jordanian desert working under some of the most rigorous conditions, The Hurt Lockeris a great character study of three different ranks in the army that work as an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) team during the post invasion period in Iraq. The film opens in Baghdad with the first mission as Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) liquefies inside his bomb suit from the force of an IED (Improvised Explosive Device or a Roadside Bomb) explosion. This is completely unexpected as director/producer Kathryn Bigelow has a lead actor (Guy Pearce) die in the opening of her film; this is the beginning of a series of unpredictable missions that place an EOD team in midst of panic, paranoia, and fear, as their lives hang by a thread with each confrontation as their new leader enjoys every minute of the chaos. For each soldier in the EOD team, it’s just one step closer to death door through the leadership of a man who needs his fix of fear and unpredictable threats that are emotional pleasures.
After SGT Thompson’s death, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) replaces him as the team leader of the three man EOD unit and becomes the central character in this drama. SSG James loves the fear right in his face; it’s those more dangerous missions that give him a rush. He’s been enlisted for so long that his love of being on the edge is fueled by its addictive pleasure. William desperately needs risky adventures, the confrontation of war, and not a comfortable life back home with his family. The second character is Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), who approaches their missions with caution and safety. He tries his best to keep their missions under control, but SSG James has his own ideas when it comes to diffusing an IED. It’s not like the caution of SGT Matt Thompson who put on a bomb suit as a last resort when he had to walk to its location and check it out because the cart attached to the EOD droid mechanically broke down. SSG James doesn’t use a droid; it’s always necessary to put on a bomb suit during every mission so he can personally examine the explosives and always try to disarm them. Finally, the third character is Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), a young kid who thinks experience is a given because you’re in Baghdad, but when push comes to shove, he’s a coward. His job with SGT Sanborn is to communicate with SSG James via radio inside his bomb suit and provides him with rifle cover while he accesses the situation. The story challenges the EOD with their survival during wartime, a variety of unpredictable locations, threatening unknown characters, and their missions with SSG James, that always reduces the chance of making it back to campVictory alive.
The Hurt Locker could have been just another war story if not for the vision of Kathryn Bigelow and her collaborations with re-recording mixer/ sound designer/supervising sound editor Paul Ottosson and composers Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders. “You start really from the beginning; you start even in the development process. You’re thinking in terms of how to shoot it and also how to score it. There’s another component here that also makes this a very unique situation, that’s the editors. They are a team who are musically attenuated, beautifully musically oriented. I like to discuss with the editors very early on in our first assemblies of the film on how to approach the score if there is one. This is way before we actually decide to bring our composers on board. We were trying to determine what the sound of the film should be,” explains Bigelow.
One of largest factors that determines the intensity, emotions, and reality in The Hurt Locker is its ‘sound,’ so the director explains her philosophy, “When I say sound, that’s all of it, that’s all the effects, all the detail work, and of course the score, because all of it needs to feel like it’s one piece. It has to be able to be integrated and yet set itself apart at the same time, so it’s a complicated proposition.” Creating a film score this way dictated an entirely different approach involving Paul Ottosson’s talents of sound designing and sound editing. At the beginning of the filmmaking process the sound design was going to dominate the film without a score, but after a series of decisions it became an integral part of the film scoring process. Paul sent files of his sound designs to Marco and Buck and they’d integrate them into their ideas and approach when composing, then they would send a Mock-up back to Paul for review. When the score was complete and a master was mixed down by engineer John Kurlander to represent the composers view, the mastered score and an alternate version with every track available, so any combination of the scores sounds could be mixed and balanced with Paul’s sound design to achieve the desired feeling for the film were given to music editor Julie Pearce to take to the dub for the final mix at Sony.
The results consumed viewers with a variety of intense feelings and emotions that takes them inside the film to experience the war through sound, whether it’s in the Iraqi desert or on the streets of Baghdad. By intricately using sound design with score and micro mixing a hybrid by planning each sounds speaker placement from the perspective of the drama, an environment exists. It places the viewer in the location, as all hell breaks loose you’re at war. This approach achieve aural integration, yet the sound design and music successfully sets itself apart at times, even if they both are coming from different combinations of speakers. This approach combined with great acting, realistic sets, critical editing, the idea location, an excellent script, and Kathryn Bigelow’s vision capturing the magic through their cameras, took filmmaking to a completely new level and redefines how a film is made.
Besides intermingling sound effects, music, and dialog, with a different approach, the way The Hurt Locker is filmed was unusual. The filmmakers used multiple points of view and constantly moving cameras to capture the immediacy that places the viewer in the center of the fog of war. “With four units covering a particular scene, an actor might not realize that a camera was suddenly forty degrees off his left shoulder,” says Bigelow. “The crew sometimes didn’t know where the actor was going to go. It created this tremendous situation that heightened the realism and the authenticity.” This technique combined with Paul’s sonic hybrid was an adrenaline rush of fear and tension on every EOD mission with the realism of a documentary. “We had cameras everywhere,” says actor Jeremy Renner. “We called them Ninja cameras, just hiding all over the place. We never knew where anything was.” The actors faced the unknown with the unscripted shot angles that captured the randomness of the action, the actor’s movements, and their expressions. It’s taking the risk to experiment that made Kathryn Bigelow’s film powerful. The chemistry of candid filming merging with an environmental sonic hybrid was the invention of The Hurt Locker’s originality. These risks and taking chances paid off for the director who won two Oscars for Best Achievement in Directing and Best Motion Picture of The Year with her unorthodox vision that dared to be different.
Born in Sweden in 1966, after he finished school in Hässleholm, Sweden, Paul Ottosson and his friends traveled to Los Angeles in 1987 to become rock stars.
Ottosson may have made the best decision in his life when he decided to remain in L.A., while his friends returned to Sweden. Five years later with the help of a friend his career began at a recording studio. At first Paul started working on commercials, then music videos, and finally the art form that would lead him to work with some of the biggest names in the business, the largest studios in Los Angeles, and major motion pictures. Eight years after coming to America, he entered the film world as the sound effects editor for The Demolitionist and in 1998 Ottosson won his first Emmy for the episode Rat in the series National Geographic Explorer. As his career progressed he’s been recognized for his work as a supervising sound editor and sound designer with Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Spider-Man 2, nominated four times for A Golden Reel Award by the Motion Picture Sound Editors, U.S.A. for Best Sound Editing, and nominated for two Satellite Awards winning one for Best Sound (Mixing and Editing) in 2012. He’s worked as a sound effects editor, sound designer, supervising sound editor, sound re-recording mixer, and combinations of these positions for over one hundred and six projects including The Scorpion King (2002), S.W.A.T. (2003), Spider-Man 2 (2004), The Grudge (2004), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Grudge 2 (2006), The Messengers (2007), Spider-Man 3 (2007), Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008), Drag Me to Hell (2009), 2012 (2009), and The Hurt Locker (2008), where he was the re-recording mixer, sound designer, and supervising sound editor. Before the Oscars this year, Ottosson won a BAFTA for Best Sound and the Cinema Audio Society, U.S.A. Award for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Mixing for Motion Pictures for The Hurt Locker, but it was his two Academy Award nominations for Best Achievement in Sound with Ray Beckett and Best Achievement in Sound Editing that were special.
It was the afternoon of Wednesday February 17th when the multitalented Paul Ottosson and his wife Karen Han, the Erhu soloist on The Hurt Locker, were on their way to the airport to fly to London. With a Swedish ascent Paul tells me, “I’m going to London for the Critics Choice and the BAFTA awards.” My interview with Ottosson blurs the lines between music and sound design; this hybrid heightens the viewers awareness of a film about explosives, bombs, and an improvised explosive device know as an IED or a roadside bomb. We talked while he was on his way to leave L.A., the next thing I discover is that he’s in the airport on his cell phone talking about this subject, and the tension grows as he boards his airplane and is still discussing scenes from The Hurt Locker and takes his seat. You can just imagine our conversation as he wants to use the word ‘bomb,’ but it’s definitely not advisable on a commercial airline. We found a code defining the explosives, but even talking about the war in Iraq and people dying was a challenge that we overcame to finish our interview.
Eighteen days latter on Oscar Sunday February 7th at I hear the television on in the next room. Listening from a distance I hear the nominations for Best Achievement for Sound Editing, and the winner is, Paul N. Ottosson for The Hurt Locker. Strange as it seems, next I hear the nominations for Best Achievement in Sound, and the winner is, Paul N. Ottosson and Ray Beckett. Real life is stranger than fiction, especially the timing of Paul winning two Oscars as I was working on his feature.
Destiny calls, so enjoy a candid look into Paul working with composers Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders, and Erhu virtuoso Karen Han on The Hurt Locker. Ottosson’s work represents his filmmaking talents and collaborations; it’s the originality of his sounds, how he assembled them with the music, and what decisions he made for the combinations of speakers the sonic hybrid came from, that earned him two Academy Awards. Congratulations!
Should I refer to your work in this film as sound effects or sound design?
I would say sound design because this was such a long thought process. It wasn’t just cutting sounds to what you see; it’s really building the arc within the scene and its perspective. We approached this from the events surrounding the characters, but we tied it in with the location or environment, so the combination of sounds can bring you closer to where people are and what’s going on. So I would say sound design rather than using sound effects and just editing them in the film.
How did you get involved to work on The Hurt Locker?
I received this call when they were still writing the script; Kathryn and Mark Boal (writer) wanted to meet with me. Marco and Buck knew that they didn’t want to have any music in the movie at all. So they called me and explained that they were making a film called The Hurt Locker. Later on the producers called and said, ‘We have the script available.’ I have to always read the script before a meeting because I need to know what the movie is all about. They called me back after I read the script and I really loved it, so I said, ‘Yea, I’d love to meet with Kathryn,’ she’s done some fantastic work in the past. A meeting was set up with her and the writer, so I went up to her house and we talked about the movie. She said, ‘The sound is unbelievably important in this movie, we have to get this right. You have to build a lot of this awesome tension because we won’t have a lot of music in the movie (pause), as a matter of fact there might not be any music at all.’ It was up to me sonically to create this arc that tells us where we are in the movie. It was challenging to hear, ‘We have a movie, once we start cutting the picture it’s all about you,’ and I’ve never had that challenge before. We actually ended up with quite a bit of music in the movie eventually.
How was the decision made to use music in the movie?
The picture editors, Chris Innis and Bob Murawski, started putting in a little bit of music as they were cutting the movie. They were only using a little bit, it’s non-descriptive, and it was just borderlining sound design, borderlining music. Eventually Marco and Buck became more involved and they tried many things with different instrumentation, but whenever we heard it we didn’t think, ‘Hey, its score coming out.’ It was a long process of trial and error to get to this point. The picture editors started putting the music into the movie, but then Kathryn accepted a motive idea about the music and it became this trial and error for everybody to see what they liked.
What did Kathryn want for sound design and how did she express the integration of the music with the sound effects?
We had these discussions; it had to be very organic and real. You have to be able to build this arc within this big set piece. Like the sniper scene, it lasts between fifteen to twenty minutes, so it was difficult to maintain the arc. This extremely long scene needed to have the same tension that music would give you. If you don’t have any music in a thrilling sequence, it could sound empty, so it’s challenging to create sound design for a scene like this. Also Kathryn wanted music to support the bomb whenever it occurs in the film, while most of time the three soldiers from the EOD unit are on the screen. The first time we see SSG James as a leader is during the sniper scene, this is when the other two soldiers accept him as their leader and the team become stronger, so there’s this camera shot where he’s feeling a great deal of tension. The emotions that Kathryn Bigelow captures on actor Jeremy Renner’s face, a fearless man with an overwhelming rush of pleasure to disarm devastating power, the climax as disconnection is achieved, and the Staff Sergeant’s need for more never ends. This is all captured in Jeremy Renner’s face with a fantastic picture from some great photography. That’s a particularly hard scene because we weren’t going to have any music until all the tension was resolved. When all of their enemies were killed the music came in to underscore the EOD team bonding together.
During the shoot out certain circumstances put the EOD in situations where they had to help each other, so the fifteen minutes before that are all sound effects. That’s the only thing for this scene that we built which you hear, so I had to construct it similar to the way you would score a film. It had an arc that gave the impression of how it affected the characters differently. SSG James is in control, he knows what to do and yet SPC Eldridge is terrified, so I played a lot with the perspective of the sound, who the characters were, like we did with SPC Owen Eldridge. I had 5:1 sounds that I panned a little center in the room, not just the center speaker, but directly center in the room and you hear this oppressive feeling. Once you’re in that he’s really scared, but when you’re with SGT Sanborn and SSG James it almost feels like open winds, you could hear them breathing. James is breathing calmer, then we cut to the enemy’s perspective of looking at him, his breathing, there’s more trembling in his voice, so I try to hit all the cuts to tell the story sonically with all of these characters, the spirit they were in, whether they were scared as well as their reactions. I tried to get the more ominous winds over where the bad guys walk into the room. It was like scoring with a full symphony orchestra, but with Foley, sound effects, backgrounds, and human breathing.
Where did the music come in here?
The EOD is ambushed in the Iraqi desert by an insurgent sniper team, leading to a harrowing all day duel. Marco, Buck, and I all worked with Kathryn to tastefully immerse you into fifteen minutes of film that heightens your awareness of where you are, overwhelming you emotionally with the film surrounding you to take you inside the movie. When you’ve got them right where you want them, the intensity of this riveting experience takes you from watching pictures and hearing sound to actually being in Iraq and experiencing what it offers. The music comes in just before the last enemy gets killed. He’d been laying there in silence for quite a bit of time now and that’s when we hear a full on melody. It’s the first time that we actually have the Main Theme being expressed musically in the movie and that’s after the kill, before that you can hear tiny little hints of melodies, so it’s at the very end of the scene when the music resolves everything. This scene was very important to show that SSG James could be the leader, so this hot head that everybody wanted to die or go away actually had a real purpose for these people. SGT Sanborn has taken a step forward with his role in the group and he felt more important being the guy who looked after them, while SPC Eldridge is scared to death, so SSG James tells the next call, ‘You know, I think I see something,’ and then says to Eldridge, ‘Why don’t you access the next call?’ he’s empowering SFC Eldridge with trust and responsibility, which is extremely important and the music scores this when it comes in, that now they’re all together as one solid group. The music in that scene was very important, when they became unified as a group.
In your working process as a sound editor and designer, when do you start thinking about the music for the film?
Once I read the script it was such a strong script and really got into my head. I lived with it everyday from that point on and I just kept reading it. The first time when I read the script I asked myself, ‘Do I like this? Do I want to be part of it?’ Then I would read it again and take notes to see sonically what someone could do to help out the scenes, what came to my mind when I read it. Then they went to shoot it, but I met Kathryn six or seven months before they started shooting the movie. They returned with a directors cut, that’s when I thought of the crew, when they started working on the directors cut. We wanted to try this out because Kathryn was still saying, ‘We don’t want any music in the movie,’ so we said, ‘Well, let’s try a reel and see how it’s going to work out.’ The scene we tried was in reel number two, when SSG James has now entered into the EOD, on a his first mission he approaches this other soldier and finds out that they want to send out a robot, but he puts on a bomb suit instead and approaches the bomb. I custom designed sounds for this scene, mixed the whole thing, and then Kathryn came over with the picture editors and we looked at it. Kathryn said, ‘I love this; I really think it’s going to work.’ That scene only has music in the very end, it’s when the bad guy is sitting on top above SSG James and looks down at him right after he disarms the bomb, but then he starts running and that’s when the music starts. Even before that with the sound design there are some solo things that are sounds I created sounds from an instrument played by Karen, the Erhu. I would record her Erhu and distort it, tweak that, and layer it in different harmonics, and sometimes there were certain harmonics that would play well together. We captured this as a part of nature and we can manipulate it, but she can’t perform with it. I asked her to do certain things with her instrument because I knew what I wanted it to sound like in the end. She would perform these things and then I’d take them and manipulate them afterwards.
You probably wouldn’t recognize the sound as an Erhu, but that’s what it is. It has this live feeling and it’s very organic because she was playing the Erhu. If you even tried to play it on a synthesizer it just wouldn’t have the feeling of an acoustic instrument.
You sent Marco and Buck your sound design so they could use it as a reference and then write and organize their music around your sounds, then send their results back to you.
They received all my sounds in stereo, but I also sent them individual sound files, this would be the mix down of a reel for their reference. They would use it for inspiration and see how their music would work with it. I sent them a mix of broadcast wave files in stereo. Actually it might have been a mix in 5:1, but I also sent them individual sound files from the city, like helicopters, a call to prayer in Iraq or the call to the mosque, alarms, car horns, and other sounds. They made these sounds a part of their score, so the film music is very organic based in the real world of Iraq, just like being there. That’s how we managed to bridge the music and the sound effects together seamlessly, so you’re not aware of where a lot of these cues start unless we really wanted it to feel like a particular part like the sniper scene. The music needs to take over at this point and give us emotion, but there are a lot of things you might not even be aware of that is music because they sound very much like a part of the sound design. Then there are these huge areas, like when the EOD enters the bomb building and finds the boy with the bomb inside his stomach in a warehouse where they are making bombs. That holds for six or seven minutes and the team walking around there is not music, but it might sound like it is borderline music. I would take different instruments and tweak them to create this landscape that could be a part of it, and then I combined that with the real sounds of the city. A lot of people might think this was a part of the score, but it’s not, the score doesn’t start until they get into the building.
Did the editing of the film affect your process in anyway?
Yes, it’s an ever changing process until we pretty much print the master of the movie. Once they locked this movie it stayed locked for the entire time. There was one shot they swapped out in one of the scenes, but it’s an ever changing film. You cut the scene, like the first scene I cut for them was much longer the first time around. It was maybe twenty five minutes long when SSG James first came and disarmed the bomb, so I built for those twenty five minutes. In the movie now it’s actually fifteen minutes instead, so they cut ten minutes out of that because it’s a very long scene. It’s a drag because you’re working with this art where you have to hit all the emotions in the movie, and then you get the reel back a month later and its ten minutes short. Its like, ‘Well the stuff I have doesn’t work anymore,’ so then I try to rebalance, recut, and redesign it for what the movie is now.
Were your sounds that you sent to Marco and Buck accompanied by instructions from Kathryn or both of you?
There were a few times we met up at Kathryn’s house and we looked at the movie. The first time was it was a lot longer movie, but we talked about the scenes and what we should do in these scenes as far as the music versus sound effects, what is driving the scene, and where the emotion is coming from. We had these discussions ongoing there the whole time, but we were all free reigns within that. You’re hired for what you are adding to the movie, so you need to embrace what it is they want to have out of the movie, and then with your experience and knowledge of sound, you add your style into the movie and hope that the movie you made created something they thought of. This is what I do everyday. With sound I try to enhance the movie, support what the stories telling, and make it a little bit better, clearer, and more interesting. With Buck and Marco, we found the music’s direction with the temp music they had, also from the temped sound effects, but then we take that to another level because we’re professionals. Luckily Kathryn, she respects you for your work, your opinion, and she wants you to add something to the movie. Then you follow discussions sometimes and you get it one hundred percent right and maybe next time there’s a few things Kathy wants to change, so it’s these creative minds getting together that try to make the best.
Did you take into consideration what their music might sound like or how they would approach specific scenes by choosing certain sound effects for specific parts of the film? Absolutely, if they had a score that was more in the lower range then I would write something in a higher or the mid-range to complement what they’ve already done.
If they already covered the lower end with their music, if I did the same thing it would make it unclear for everybody. It would erase what they’re doing and minimize what I’m doing, so we both paid attention to that, but if I did the scene where the sound was in the lower range and they composed the score in a little bit of a higher range, we complement each other and work with the orchestra together. Sound effects are very important to everyone watching the movie because they express the reality of where we are in the film. The music was composed with that in mind and vice versa.
At the beginning of the film, during the first EOD mission we hear a huge subsonic bass sound.
The very first hits are actually from sound effects, they are not from music. That’s all sound effects for sound design; the music doesn’t start until a little bit later and then you hear the full on song. When the robot starts driving the music feels more prominent because there are a lot of sound effects. We can’t put you in the middle of Baghdad right away because there are car horns, people yelling, screaming, cars driving in, and jets flying above us. We get inserted right into war in the very first frame with everything coming on at once.
Since Marco and Buck sent you their complete score not mixed down, but relinquished the access to control every track of music they recorded individually, how did you approach the final sound of each scene you worked on?
We broke their score down so that we would have the real high strings on one set of stems, then I would have some synthesized or tweaked out strings on another stem, and then the percussion was broken out, all the solo instruments are broken out, with some cues I probably had forty or fifty tracks of music in there. They already had done the premix of their score, so it was all representative of what they had in mind for the music, but once we put it into the movie sometimes we need to play something louder or lower because of the sound effects or how things are reading on the screen. Maybe sometimes the percussion was too strong, so I’ll hold up on the percussion, the first eight bars, and then we come in with it or I’ll have the percussion start the cue and we’ll bring in the strings sixteen bars into whatever we’re working on.
What guided you to create the final hybrid for the film?
The heart of is in a great mix. You need to understand what the movie is about, what’s driving this particular scene, what’s driving the shot, what this is all about that we’re looking at right now and that’s something which requires you to understand the movie that you’re working on. With The Hurt Locker the whole story is going on off screen the whole time and we play with peoples emotions. Every single shot, it’s such a tense mood from beginning to end. I went to see a screening of the movie and talk with the audience afterwards with a question and answer format, people don’t eat popcorn, their not drinking soda, and they were on the edge of their seats looking at this movie. When we mixed this film you needed to capture the audience by giving them these peaks and valleys and those peaks and valleys are in the movie. Many of the movies playing these days are driving at ten the whole time, everything is sitting in your face the whole time and that’s not what we’re about. We really wanted to give you a sense by taking you up and down and up and down and keep it going and build it up to where things made sense, but that comes from your heart, your feelings, and understanding the story as you’re mixing.
Marco and Buck gave up total control of their music so you could decide what score tracks to use in the final mix. Were you ever concerned about how they felt when their professional engineer (John Kurlander) created a final mix of the score combined with your sound design for you, but then you took the recordings of the their separate tracks and mixed them down from your point of view?
Absolutely, but at the end of the day it’s the story on the screen that you need to send all your love to, it’s tempting your hard feelings. There were sound effects and sound design that I created that might have made it in, and the sound was ‘maybe,’ but when you are mixing the movie it all comes together at that point, until then it’s all temp. We have the temp music versus the temp effects, so nothing is probably mixed yet. You always want to be respectful of everybody’s work, but in the long run you only have respect for what the movie is. That’s all you are servicing, you’re servicing the movie and not our self.
After getting this involved with the film music, what are you views on it?
I really love music. Coming from a guy that works with sound design, it might be strange; I love music because a lot of times it can tell the story in a very nice way across the cuff. When Marco and Buck got nominated for an Oscar I was so ecstatic for them because I know how hard they worked and how difficult this was to write music for compared to a traditional one hundred piece orchestra with all of its strings, horns, and various instruments. There’s some expectation of this score with an orchestra and it’s an easier sell to get this. Yesterday I said, “Buck, sometimes I would use a solo track and it would sound like an instrument out of tune with itself and it didn’t make any sense, but then as I mixed all of the other tracks in, it becomes this really beautiful, haunting score, sometimes very simple, but yet tremendously touching. Film music used well is so important for the movie; it has thoughts with the small nuances of the little twists and turns in a movie. In a blink of someone’s eyes the music can give some phrases with the score. It’s important to define these things that are hard to explain and sometimes audiences don’t even pick up. Sometimes people get too afraid of the movie by itself and over use music as well as sound effects, and those elements are with the story and the person or actor that’s on the screen. There are so many movies I go to where they are really pushing the love in a scene where the music is almost telling you their in love before I know they are in love in the scene. Those things bother me tremendously, but I really love music in movies and have hundreds of CD’s at home with scores. I drive around actually listening to scores in my car. I listen to The Passion of the Christ, I really love that, Schindler’s List is really beautiful, anything that John Williams has composed sounds beautiful, and it’s almost unreal. I can’t play The Hurt Locker around the house because of our son, he actually cries when he hears it; he’s terrified of the score, everyone’s terrified from it. I listen to older Morricone scores and the score for K-PAX a lot lately; I love its simple synthesizer pop. I watched the movie not long ago and I just love the music because it simple and helps drive along the movie in a simple way. I love Christopher Young’s music, I’ve worked with him on quite a few movies (Drag me to Hell, Spider-man 2 and 3, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Grudge, and The Grudge 2), he’s a fantastic composer.
Marco and Buck recorded Erhu player Karen Han in their studio for a musical part of the score. You also worked with Karen, how was she involved with your part of the process?
Just the emotion, she can do these incredible things with her instrument that I probably don’t even know how to create. On a synthesizer we played I guided and directed her, then she adds her own emotions to it and you get something that you can’t create any other way, even by cutting, twisting, and sampling these things. It’s a direct connection with her looking at the movie when we’re doing it, then I’ll take that and modulate it, tweak it, and it really doesn’t sound like an Erhu anymore, but the emotion is there. There are these small twists and nuances in it that follow what’s on the screen. Also, since I used her a lot in the movie, it could be used as a bridge to sound design with and the music. Whenever we heard the music start, unless those times intended it, it made you aware that you were watching a movie.
With The Hurt Locker you should never have to feel like you are watching the movie, you needed to be in that movie or it really wouldn’t work. There’s no traditional arc of the movie that expects these things to happen, the arc is more you and the viewer going through what the characters are going through and to make that happen we had to put you inside the movie, we couldn’t have you watch the movie, it just didn’t work. I could take the Erhu from the sound design into the music because it was already in the music a lot of times. Also there was a lot more instruments I ended up doing that with, on cellos and simpler things with some pianos.
What was the first part of the film you started working on as a sound designer?
The first part was when SSG James enters the movie and he’s going to disarm the first bomb, this was when I really first sank my teeth into the movie. That scene was twenty five minutes in the movie. Kathryn and I needed to be comfortable that it’s going to work out great, to know what we’re doing, and actually do a whole movie with very little music in it, so that was our big test. After finishing the film we still ended up with about fifty minutes worth of music or close to an hour.
Tell me about the scene when SSG James goes and disarms one bomb, then when he slowly picks it up six red cables come out of the ground connected to six more bombs that completely surround him.
Mostly that scene was underscored with music. I had some sound effects in it as well, the piece and the crescendo is mostly music there. I had some sound design that was very musical, that I also had built up and supported it to make it a much bigger thing. It was an important scene, like getting caught in a spider’s web.
Considering how the score was constructed as a hybrid between music and sound design, did mixing both elements and fusing them together take on the presence of an environment?
That’s what it was, one environment. It really needed to sound like everything that you heard came from one source, so that was definitely the goal when mixing this. There were a lot of times I would equalize the music a lot when it came in. You have to take out some the shades that made it very musical and I would do that across the first four bars just to have that soft in on it. Sometimes I would do the same technique with my sound effects; I would shave off whatever gave the sound a character onto the music they wrote. This is the gradual entrance of sound effects and the gradual entrance of music and it’s the same approach when they leave the film, the gradual exit of the music and the gradual exit of all the sound effects with the music. There’s a lot of work that went into making this invisible, both music and sound effects. You need to be in the movie, watch it, enjoy it, I love it, and I’ll specifically think what it was that made you feel or love it. This is one great movie without pointing out one single thing.
What are the most powerful scenes where the sound design integrated into the music becomes one with the film?
This is when the EOD goes into the warehouse and discovers it’s a location where bombs are being made. When they get inside they find this little boy laying on a table with a bomb inside his stomach, from that part to how the scene ends, it’s a great blend of music and sound design for around seven minutes. I would dare anyone to tell me where something starts and when something ends, and I bet no one knows what was surrounding that scene. It’s how you’re blending these things in and out of each other. There’s also that first scene in the movie, it’s a very strong piece of score once we get to the part where the soldier is driving the robot to the location of the bomb. There’s lot of work here, there are even sounds of percussion work that was really conservative in my sound design that drives this and by thinking of the music and sound design I can play them very well together during that scene. When you hear sounds like when a guy comes up to the cell phone, those are from the sound design and a tonal sound that tied this together. It was in the sound design, but then the music is building, the sound design is building, it’s almost like there worlds became one very unique sound. We had to work together to really get a sample there and probably most people wouldn’t even think that this is a fifty-fifty combination of what you’re hearing.
The scene when the boy is dead and we see SSG James carrying him in his arms was quite powerful.
When he was carrying him it was mostly music, but then we have sound effects bridging this and that’s an area actually where I pulled out all of the sound effects, I loved that music. It has this very simple line in it and it’s such a beautiful piece of music. At some point I discussed it with Kathryn because I was going to bridge the two cuts where he’s carrying the boy with the music, but it became too much like we were trying to pour something on, that’s because ultimate beauty is setting in. You should hear it all the time, but I love that strong music when he’s walking out with the boy in his arms.
This film parallels America’s surge into MarjahAfghanistan, where the Taliban have planted a lot of IED’s. What is you view or philosophy on going to war?
It’s about politics. I don’t think we will ever get away from war unless humanity is gone. That’s the only time we’re ever going to see peace in this world. There’s something about war that makes people still important and powerful. Some people go home by going to war; they don’t have any other home than the war. You can see how SSG James couldn’t live a normal life, he’s at war and he can’t function in the world we live in everyday.
That’s a great tragedy and part of this movie and the politics, that if we are going to go to war, we better make sure the reason for it is more important than even going to war because there’s someone’s father, someone’s mother, there’s someone’s son or daughter or family that we are ruining, destroying, we’re taking one part out of it, on both ends, on the receiving end as well as giving end. It’s probably easier for someone to go to war when you don’t have to go to war or for the guy you’re sending out there. Sometimes war is a necessity, but you don’t have to do it.
Kathryn brought up the idea of using a 360° soundscape in the film, what was the approach behind this technique?
No matter where you are in the movie we try to put you in a situation, wherever you are, there’s sound all the way around you. I was in the military for a year and a half and a lot of times you don’t see the enemy, when you hear something you need to identify what this is very quickly and if this is a friend or not. That’s the sound; we try to create this 360° world of uncertainty because that’s how it is. You look at some of these shots, you see a guy in a building, is it someone looking at me or going to take a shot at me? That’s was really important for the movie to always remind you where you are, that you’re in the movie, that you’re not watching a movie. If all the sounds you created came from the front, their assuming you’re watching this movie, so by building the sound all the way around you, I’m putting you directly in the drama, its events, and where it’s located. I even used techniques that you basically never do in the movies. I would pan dialog left to right as the camera moves left to right because a lot of times the camera shows the POV of a person, it wasn’t a static camera looking at people talking, it was someone’s POV of watching other people talking, so when they turn their head I would pan the dialog over to the left and then have something else come in on the right. It’s extremely hard to have this dialog moving through the room, if you don’t do this correctly it’s strangely obvious. That’s why people usually don’t do it in movies, it is so hard to do and if not done right its very confusing. Like in the sniper scene, we needed this to be there because everybody wasn’t sitting in the same location. You have people yelling to the left, someone getting shot to the right, and someone shouting an order in the center and we did it all around us.
What do you love about film music?
I might be more of a movie lover because everything is mixed up to make the film work, if it’s a score in one movie or if it’s a lack of score, I just love movies. And I’d always go to them when I was a little kid. I don’t know how many times I would go see The Good, Bad and the Ugly; I didn’t have any more money. I might see it two or three times over a week when it came it to the theater, so I have a huge love of movies. You can have someone walk into a movie not knowing anything about the subject, what the movie is about, and within an hour and a half or two hours you have touched someone, the thought of it might even change your life or they might just get an incredible good laugh for an hour and a half to cheer them up. Motion pictures are such a powerful and universal tool. We can make a movie here in the United States and translate it into German and the German’s love it, you translate it into Chinese and the Chinese love it, it’s great having art forms like music and movies, otherwise it’s very rare to do that.
Do you perceive the art of sound design becoming more dominant and integral in the outcome of film scores in the future?
Yea, it definitely has its place. As we sell art you need to find more talent that are working with it. You can’t take away from the movie; you need to support it and not overpower the movie with it. If you need a tool that’s used to support whatever the story is and technology which is a part of the skills, more of it is being embraced by directors, studios, and picture editors, so I would say, ‘Yes,’ it will end up more in films because people are becoming aware of how much you can do with sound that’s very organic with the situation that you’re in. A lot of time the music makes you aware, maybe the music is not that organic.
Look, when someone is sitting here getting ready to take off and they are playing some film music, when they hear it, they know it’s not an orchestra sitting playing in the airplane. I understand that, but for me there are musicians playing a film score in the plane. That’s something you can do with the sound design, you can put the listener directly into where you are and who is there performing. If you’re losing weight I actually saw the orchestra in the airplane.
The concept is fascinating because you can compose music and create emotions in a film and you can also design sounds to create reactions and emotion, but when you combine the two it creates this environment that surrounds the movie.
There’s actually no difference to me. With The Hurt Locker this was the best way to do this. With the composers and the sound designer working together we can do a great job and we made the film so much better by working with Marco and Buck. I’ve also used this technique in some of the horror movies I worked on; they work with this combination because there is a lot of tension in them. It’s a world that you need to build that you’ll never see; I worked with director San Raimi a lot on some of his horror movies. Like the film Drag me to Hell, it’s a very good sounding movie and again I worked with our film edition Bill on sound design with the things that you don’t see, but need to be there to scare and horrify you. That was a film I worked with composer Christopher Young on. It was far easier because you always are telling something on the screen what it is, so you have this palette of sounds, you can pick one from a million, but when you build it with reality and you take a sound off longer it doesn’t work anymore where you don’t see it. If you’re seeing something on the screen with some big visual effects, to me it’s an easier way to sell your sound because visually you already told it what it is.
When Karen Han plays the Erhu it emotionally communicates her devotion, pure expressions of her feelings, love, compassion, and respect for this world. Her musical desire reflects the responsibility to unify two great cultural traditions: bringing together the ancient East and the modern West. The Erhu with its voice-like sound and flexibility is the best instrument to approach this goal and accomplish it. This is why the virtuoso tries hard to extend her repertory, by not only performing traditional Chinese music, but also western classics, jazz, and a variety of musical genres and styles. Through her live performances and her classes Karen reveals the Erhu’s wonders to make her instrument more popular, so ultimately it will become widely accepted, as are European strings. Han believes that the Erhu surpasses many other instruments with its ability to express the deepest human feelings and touch the inner emotions of our soul. Karen’s musical expressions reach out to take her viewers and listeners on a life-long musical journey with a cultural hybrid that musically takes you away.
Han is an internationally renowned Erhu virtuoso, composer, and vocalist. The Erhu is a classical Chinese instrument with two strings having all of the tonal qualities of the viola, a traditional orchestral instrument. The Chinese violin dates back to well over a thousand years. It has a tiny hexagonal sound box covered with snake skin and a long slender neck. The horsehair of the bow runs under the strings, so the bow cannot be separated from the instrument. It’s played vertically, like a cello, but perched on the player's left leg. As a child growing up in China, her career began as Karen gravitated towards her father’s Erhu. Under his guidance, she grew proficient in music, dance, and song. She began at the age of six and in 1978 was selected out of thousands of other applicants to attend the best music academy in China, the renowned Central Conservatory of Music. Han is the youngest person to ever receive a Masters and Bachelors Degree in Performing Arts with Honors from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China. She has performed for foreign dignitaries and in many concerts throughout the world. The virtuoso has more than twenty years of professional experiences in television, film, and live performances. Her recording accomplishments include Oscar winning movies, television, radio programs, and seven albums. Karen’s first performance in a major motion picture was for the Oscar winning score in TheLast Emperor (1987). Since then she’s performed in over forty productions including The Joy Luck Club (1993), Jade (1995), The Pavilion of Women (2000), The Passion of the Christ (2004), Memoirs of a Geisha (2006), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007), Kung Fu Panda (2008), Star Trek (2009), The Hurt Locker (2009), Up in the Air (2009), 2012 (2009), and Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010).
On Wednesday at March 3rd, four days before the Oscars, I talked with Karen while she was in her car, parked at a library waiting to pick up her son in Hollywood, California, about her two major collaborations for The Hurt Locker. On one hand she collaborated with Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders performing beautifully on the films Main Theme, while on the other had she worked with sound engineer and designer Paul Ottosson at Sony to create sounds that retain their emotion when they are processed to be used as sound design. Its Karen’s playing that reflects extremely strong emotions and that is exactly what Paul Ottosson needed for some of his sounds. It’s this type of collaboration that sets itself apart from using Foley or sound effects in a movie. These are these nuances from the Erhu that are actually following what’s on the screen, connecting with the pictures emotions, and taking you exactly where the filmmaker want you. You are consumed by the films story, characters, and locations, you are inside the movie with its events taking place all around you somewhere in Iraq. It’s a one way ticket to another world that captures you. The art form of filmmaking inspires inventive approaches that can cross the line of reality into fantasy, even if the fantasy is based on reality. In The Hurt Locker’s sound environment you hear the intricate sounds around you, this is part of the magic that puts the viewer in a war zone to experience terrifying violence and life threatening moments that might possibly become uncomfortable causing the viewer to panic and leave the theater in search of reality outside of its doors.
Its exciting hearing the performances of Karen Han integrated into The Hurt Locker, a film that represents the madness of war, its pain, and the addictive pleasures of a Staff Sergeant who lives for everything it offers. Han is a soft soul living for the magic that her talents create, her love of playing the Erhu, and how it heavenly sings. It’s Karen’s emotional freedom that releases these mystical sounds as if she was touched by an angel. When you hear the Ehru’s celestial voice it spiritually moves you entering your soul. It’s the contrast of innocence and war that make Karen’s collaborations interesting in The Hurt Locker, an emotional connection between sound design and music, and a modern day pioneer who dares to be different by taking the Erhu into filmmaking territory to explore the unknown.
Why are you sought after to score films and what approach does the director or composer usually need from you because of the unique sound of the Erhu?
A film is an interesting way to express your musical emotions. By being a musician that performs the score, it’s just like you’re acting in the film. Most directors and composers treat each instrument as a character. When they use the Erhu, it’s used for a very special character. In The Passion of the Christ they used the Erhu to create the mystery of the devil, while for the 2009 version of Star Trek; they used it as the inner voice of Spock. For Hans Zimmer in Kung Fu Panda, it was used for Oogway the turtle, a character that has very deep thoughts. When I play the Erhu it’s used in all sorts of different films for all kinds of characters. It’s interesting that I’ve become the spokesperson for characters that can’t use their words to explain their deep thoughts and then the instruments sound comes out. For The Hurt Locker the Erhu was used on and off, inside the music and going through it. Also Paul Ottosson crated some twists for the Erhu, so he could integrate it into the film as part of his sound design. It really wasn’t attached to any character in this film but film music can be a character, a performer, and even a musical instrument playing. The music becomes the spokesperson for the character. Film music can add emotion, like when a character is thinking or even sad, these functions deal with how we use our mind and emotion, you can’t use words to explain them, so that’s when the music comes and speaks for them.
After you heard the score how did it work with the film for you?
Personally I loved the film, especially in a part where I performed the score, it made me very sad and I cried. I watched the film so many times, but in the beginning I always cry because I get this feeling of being touched by the characters, especially when SSG James gives the water to SGT Sanborn and SPC Eldridge. This is when my music comes out and I felt very touched, this is a place that you needed support, you take a breath, and then the Erhu helps out. When you’re writing, it’s just like changing to another sentence.
How does the sound of an acoustic instrument like the Erhu fit into images with violence, tension, and sound effects?
It’s not underscoring the violence. We tried using it two separate ways, one part was for the sound design, which belongs to Paul’s part of expressing the story and the other was performing the score to written music with Marco and Buck at their studio. I really didn’t know what Paul did with my instruments sound and where he used it. When I was working with Paul I played an even note for him, it was a very uncomfortable note that he treats or processes, so it comes out as a sound effect. The parts when the melody comes out, I tried very hard not play my Erhu as a Chinese instrument. I’ve taken out my approach to the Erhu that expresses Chinese feelings, the Chinese way, or vibrato and other techniques. After I changed that, it sounded like this artistic international sound, something very unique that most instruments can’t play.
What was the first sequence in the film you worked on and with whom?
I worked with Marco and Buck first, but I can’t tell you about the first part of the film I worked on because when I was recording at their studio they didn’t have me play to any part of the film. It was just a recording, but they did explain what type of feeling they were looking for with my performance. During my session with them they did play a little bit of the film, but I really didn’t see that much or even remember any scenes.
When you worked with Marco and Buck, how many sessions and how long did you collaborate with them?
Just for one session and this lasted about three hours. I recorded two different tunes with the Erhu, one was with a lower tone and one was a regular tone, so I just tried many things with my instrument.
On how many sessions did you work with Paul?
Paul explained to me what kind of sounds he was looking for; they needed an even sound for some of the parts in the film for the sound design. He would ask me to express certain things though my playing, like asking me to play staccato, very uneven sounds, or play this or that, that’s from Paul. I just tried to play all these different techniques for him. We worked together on one or even maybe two sessions. I don’t remember how many sounds I played for this, but three’s not that much. I mostly recorded several pieces with Marco and Buck for the score.
The Hurt Locker is available on DVD and BluRay right now and is still in selected cinemas worldwide.
What was the difference between the process and your approach when working Marco and Buck and then Paul?
Actually the process is the same to me because I’m a musician, I play the same thing, in my same way, and then whatever I can play, whenever that I’m able to play. The only difference is that Marco and Buck wrote the music out, so I’m performing the notes that are written out on paper, but when Paul asked me for something special then I’d just play with my knowledge. What I played for Paul aren’t musical things, I’m improvising with my Erhu to give him its sound for his sound design. By just using the sound of an instrument you can make it a little bit louder or shorter, but when you are reading and playing the music it’s different.
You’ve worked with the best: John Williams, Rolfe Kent, Michael Giacchino, Hans Zimmer, John Debney, James Horner, Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Byrne, Tan Dun, George Fenton, Mark Isham, and A. R. Rahman. Why does the Erhu's sound work so well within the context of film music?
I think it actually doesn’t, it’s not only just the Erhu working within the context of film music. It’s mostly because I use my feelings to work on the music. It’s defined by my place, it’s not only the Erhu because it’s my place and performance, and it sounds much closer to a voice or like people singing. My sound is much closer to a human voice used as an instrument and it cries when I play. I really try to use the Erhu as a human voice.
What are the strongest parts in film for you when music and image become one?
I liked all of the music in The Hurt Locker, particularly because it made you feel more intense. I really can’t think of any particular scenes in the film, I loved those parts when Marco and Buck’s music really supports the film. I’ve been watching it for so long, for two years, that I can’t remember because I’ve moved onto other projects and left this behind me.
What are the differences for you when performing music to images or no film at all, what changes for you?
It gives me more imagination whether I’m working on a film score or performing live and recording with no images at all, so it works both ways and there is no difference. Music is like having another imagination, and your world of imagination is somewhere that you can touch. It’s much deeper and it goes with many different personalities. It touches you deeper than the meaning of any words. Every note that I play gives me the impression of a big picture in my head, so I’m always creating a story with the music. This is the connection, even if I’m playing music with a symphony or jazz musicians; I’m always playing music that becomes a story
I’m like a storyteller who shares the story with the audience. It’s the same with film, when a film composer tells me that you need to pay attention to this very important part, for certain parts your bow maybe needs to be a little longer, all of these things, so I think about all these images that I learned by traveling down the road of life and then I make it into a story. For myself, I use this story to match the film composer’s needs, the film that I’m working on or the characters needs. It’s a generous way of communicating because music is a universal language, but all the styles of music I’m playing are communicating the same thing. When you’re happy, everybody knows you’re happy. When you’re sad, everybody can hear you’re sadness through your music. It’s a gift when I’m basically using my deepest imaginary thoughts to inspire my music through my technique on the Erhu and finally revealing my imagination through my music by giving it back into the real world.
How long have you played the Erhu?
I’ve been playing since I was six years old, so it’s been a long time. I actually loved singing, I like dancing from when I was two to four years old. My father thought that if I learned a musical instrument, it would give me a longer career and a better life. He knew how to play the Erhu, so he was my teacher and taught me in the beginning. My father played the Erhu for his pleasure. In the beginning I used my Father’s Erhu, the quality of it wasn’t very good because it was a cheap instrument made for an amateur, but when I went to The Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing they had more of a professional Ehru that you could borrow or buy.
In the last weeks thousands of U.S. Marines and soldiers assaulted Marjah, Afghanistan. It’s a providence infested with the Taliban. A newscast reported that roadside bombs were planted everywhere to kill our troops, what is your opinion of war?
I do not like war, I’m not into that. With my personality there’s one thing I can give back to you, I don’t like other people hurting me too much. If you hurt me once it’s OK and possibly I can forgive you, but the second or third time I’ll come back to defend myself. It’s much better having peace, I love peace, I hate war, but I can’t allow people who have no respect, hurting me, hurting my family, or hurting anybody that I love. I will defend them and myself. I don’t like war at all.
What The Hurt Locker communicates is very real; SSG William James is scary and always living on the edge of fear. The film is based around him loving war and living for the pleasure of diffusing bombs, always flirting with death.
I’m not sure; I think he’s a different character that already has a problem because he’s been through the war. There is a quote at the beginning of the film by journalist Chris Hedges which says ‘War is a Drug’, so he has already mentally changed his personality. I really think SSG James is normal, but he just changed. He’s a different person now because of the war. I really don’t know if this drug would help him or not. I don’t know if his old personality was like that, but he probably changed really quickly because he fought there.
He saw so many people die; he not only witnessed innocent people dying in Iraq, but also our own soldiers and his friends. All those things are not normal to us because we’ve never been to war, so I’m sure it affected him psychologically.
At the end of the film SSG James goes home to America to his beautiful family, but that existence is abnormal and dull, so he has a need to return to Iraq again.
That’s why Hedges says, ‘War is a drug.’ It changed and affected everyone’s normal life that fought over there, so SSG James doesn’t have a normal life anymore; he has to go back to war because he can’t stand his normal family life anymore. He loves taking risks and doesn’t really worry about death; he’s definitely an addict. I’m sure that meaning of the word drug in this film is not a good drug, but a bad one. It’s a factor to SSG James.
What do you love about film music?
Film music gives me freedom. It allows me to express all of my feelings. Composer’s have their engineers place baffles around certain instrumental sections to isolate their sound when the orchestra is playing, so they usually locate me in a box. I’m talking about the orchestra performing a concerto and most likely they give you the music that’s been completely composed, it’s been completely orchestrated, and then you have to follow the rhythm. When you become a soloist for a symphony orchestra, you have to make sure that you do a great job of collaborating with the orchestra, but film music is completely different. Sometimes you can play a little longer, you can express you feeling a little longer, and because of the film sometimes they cut you short, but since they are using computerized editing, you don’t have to worry about that. You can express your feelings and play freely, they can find the best parts or takes you performed that fits into the film. One thing I love about film music is that I’ve made more friends though it, music fans from all over the world because they watch the movie and ask, ‘Who played that instrument?” I have fans from all over the world, from South Africa, Australia, everywhere, you name it, Singapore, they send me E mails to express how much they love and enjoy the Erhu. Another thing I love is the media access; it’s a great medium because of film and the access to entertainment. It allows people to hear me, hear my instrument, and understand my music. I love film music because of the way it makes me feel when I’m watching a movie. It not only emotionally affects me, but certain types of music affect other people to. People love to see a movie and because of the film there’s more access, more people hear my music, hear my instrument, and hear this though my feelings to, that’s what I love about it.