Creating the Sound for HBO Miniseries The Pacific
The Pacific, the WWII miniseries from the producing trio (Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Gary Goetzman) who brought us Band of Brothers, will debut on HBO on the evening of March 14. This 10-part series depicts the brutal war in the Pacific by following the intertwined real-life stories of three U.S. Marines throughout their deployment until they go home after V-J day.
If Band of Brothers is any indication, The Pacific will be gripping drama with a tremendous attention to the kind of authentic detail that builds the "you are there" reality. While much is written about how the visuals achieved that level of realism, the important contributions of audio don't always get the same attention.
I spoke with Tom Bellfort, supervising sound editor, who notes that watching the entire miniseries is an emotional roller coaster. "It is genuinely a quite an experience," he says. "You go through 10 episodes of the enthusiasm towards war and the Marine Corps, but by the end of the 10 episodes, you also experience some of the bitterness and cynicism towards the war."
Because the characters move from island to island, covering incredibly disparate environments—fields, swamps, rain forests—there's an ever-changing soundscape. Bellfort got onto the job via Todd AO lead mixer Michael Minkler, with whom he had worked numerous times in the past. "We felt comfortable with each other," he says. "We knew that it would be a tough slog and rough schedule and expectations were quite high."
In fact, expectations were extraordinarily high for the sound on The Pacific. How high? "I can tell you in three words: Saving Private Ryan, says Bellfort, referring to the 1998 multiple-Oscar-winning feature film. "That was the goal, to recreate the scope of that film. And it was Private Ryan without the luxury of the budget of that film." Or the schedule. For each episode, the editing team had 12 days and the mixing team had nine. "If you take a comparable look at a feature schedule, that's drastically faster," he says. "And the crew is much smaller and the budget is much lower." But there were so many parallels between the two stories—in that both depicted epic battles of WWII—that comparisons were unavoidable. "In Episode Five, there's a truly massive beach landing," says Bellfort. "And again, in comparison, we had the beach landing at Normandy for Private Ryan."
One of the things Bellfort did in preparing for working on The Pacific was to watch Saving Private Ryan again. "I looked at it again to see how complex that beach landing really was," he explains. "In terms of the emulation, we wanted a multi-layered and detailed approach and to make it chaotic, because that's what the war was all about." In fact, that scene had over a couple of hundred tracks, which were presented to Minkler and the mixing team. " In terms of the effects themselves, we did try to do some pre-mixing to make it more efficient for the mixer," says Bellfort. " To have several hundred tracks running at the same time and have 9 days to mix is quite a task. With all the dialogue, the loop group, the Foley, the effects, it truly was a massive undertaking. And I must say that HBO and Playtone were really, really great to work with and insisted on the highest quality possible. I think—at least I hope—we met their standards."
In another scene memorable for its soundscapes, in Episode Seven, the Marines have to take this airfield. "They have to run across a barren landscape," recalls Bellfort, who notes they cut with ProTools. "The scene lasts 20 minutes and it's nothing but the Marines running across the field, being slaughtered and shooting back until they take the airfield." That's 20 minutes of bullets, running, falling, being killed: to try to sustain that level of intensity for so long is very difficult to do. How did Bellfort do it ? "There is an element of chaos, but in terms of orchestrating that scene, there are times when the dialogue is more important, the screams are more important, the footsteps are more important," says Bellfort. "And then you try to vary the gunshots, the machine guns, the airplanes, the tanks, so that each shot has one significant moment. If you just give a barrage of gunshots, it becomes like mush. You try to articulate every shot, find what's most important with every shot: is it the footsteps? The bullet whizzing by? The impact of the bullet into the soldier? All these things have to be orchestrated and that's a function of the sound editor and the sound mixer. And, of course, there's also the element of music. You have to orchestrate all those elements so the overall impression is one of excitement, not dullness." Original music is by Geoff Zanelli and Blake Neely.
Bellfort says his working relationship with Minkler, the lead mixer, is based on "an understanding of what Mike wanted." "How he wanted things organized and how he wanted things cut in terms of the lay-out of the soundscapes," enumerates Bellfort. "And that's what we tried to give him. He had only nine days to mix an episode that's 50 minutes, which is half a feature. In the feature world, you'd be talking about six weeks. So we had to organize our tracks in such a way that he could find what he needed quickly. I had a well seasoned, experienced group of editors. It's only as good as they were, and they were excellent." Sound editors included supervising sound effects editor Benjamin L. Cook; dialogue editor Daniel S. Irwin; sound editor Hector Gika; Foley editor Paul Aulicino; sound effects editor Charles Maynes; dialogue editor John C. Stuver; and Foley editor/sound effects editor Bruce Tanis.
For the tremendous number of sound effects required for the miniseries, they relied on the vast sound library at Soundelux. "Another factor which was really useful was the lead effects editor, Ben Cook, had actually been on the shoot itself," adds Bellfort. "He had recorded a lot of guns and tanks and a lot of the environments as well, and that became the basis of our library, supplemented by all the stuff Soundelux has done over many, many years. All the sounds were really authentic and there was a documentary, truthful approach to our sounds, so that it wasn't dramatic. We didn't lie about the sounds. All the guns were genuine guns of WWII, the tanks are genuine tanks. We did our best to be truthful to the sounds of that place and time."
For a great example of that, says Bellfort, listen closely to Episode Four. "There is a series of shots where the Marines walk past bamboo forests, regular forests, open sea, and every shot has a distinct environment with crickets, birds, the creak of the bamboo and trees," he says. "That lends an eerie quality to the scene." Bellfort also points out the emotional impact of the sound of the rain. "It rained a lot there," he says. "The rain is so soaking and horrific. We had so many layers of rain, from individual drops hitting helmets, hitting leaves, on the canvas tents," he says. "It just gives the environment a really desperate kind of feeling of the mud and the horror they had to go through."