In a summer populated by superheroes and special effects, the return of the Bourne franchise stands out. For a man without a memory – even a CIA assassin – Jason Bourne has gone places that his creator Robert Ludlum likely never imagined, and the series has often been as much travelogue as intrigue. But wherever he winds up, he’s still just a guy – no capes, no superpowers. The closest thing to a Batmobile might be a Honda dirt bike that’s at home sliding down the banister of a Manila dock staircase.
And that’s what Per Hallberg finds most attractive about Bourne. The two-time Oscar winner was the supervising sound editor on all three previous Bourne outings, as well as iconic noisemakers like Blackhawk Down and Gladiator. But it’s Jason Bourne’s carbon base that informs the sound of the series, and perhaps even more so on The Bourne Legacy, which opens wide Friday. Bourne Legacy is the most introspective of the batch. Don’t worry – it has plenty of action and explosions, but Hallberg says he tried to make the sound as nuanced as the character.
Keeping It Real
“The allure of all the Bournes so far is that the character is real – he has real problems and he has to face them and solve them like anyone else,” observes Hallberg. “He’s certainly talented, but he’s as real as you or me, so the guiding light on all of these films is the be as real as possible. We don’t want to take the sound over-the-top cartoony. I think that’s what’s helped sustain it for so long.”
Working on Todd-AO’s Lantana Stage with a crew of about 15, including long-time collaborator SSE Karen Baker Landers, rerecording mixers David Parker and Gary Summers, and Foley mixers John Guentner and Blake Collins, Hallberg describes a kind of Whole Foods approach to audio, using only organic sound effects with very little processing, and relying (more than usual for an action picture) on Foley effects. However, each group of effects gets intense treatment, with certain editors working on specific types of SFX, such as sound designer Christopher Assells specializing in vehicle sounds and Peter Staubli focusing on weapons audio effects.
Assells echoes Hallberg’s characterization of the Bourne collection’s audio as up-close and intimate, even when it comes to vehicle sounds. Putting Bourne on the other end of the action spectrum from, say, the Fast & Furious franchise, Assells credits Soundelux sound effects recordist and editor Charlie Campagna with tracking down a Honda CRX 250 motorcycle, similar to the one used on location in the Philippines, where production mixer Kirk Francis had captured it as part of the film’s production audio, and taking it out to the California desert to close-mic its engine, chain, exhaust and tire sounds. “Then, depending on the shot, we’d pick the appropriate microphone to move up in the mix,” he explains. “You’re not hearing the exact same motorcycle as in the movie, which wasn’t feasible to record that closely, but rather a very accurate recreation of that sound.”
The Geography of SFX
Hallberg says directionality is critical in the placement of effects, because he’s using them as another way to guide the narrative. “Things happen very fast, and the sound is used as way to point the audience where to look for what’s coming next,” he explains. For instance, Hallberg relates a scene in which Bourne searches across rooftops for the heroine, with fast camera moves that blur most detail. The sharpness instead comes from the audio, with police sirens and footsteps foreshadowing from different directions across the 5.1 soundscape each next cut. The combination of sounds creates a trail of clues that both Bourne and the audience follow in tandem until both see their target simultaneously. “This includes the audience in the process of locating her,” he says, a kind of Where’s Waldo with an emotional payoff that’s shared between protagonist and audience. Hallberg pulls this off again during the motorcycle chase, putting the pursuing police into the narrative in the form of sirens and whistles and brakes screeching before they ever appear in the picture.
Each of the individual effects is also sharply drawn, with a minimum of ambient processing, if any at all. If Peter Gabriel calls looking for reverb, he won’t find it here. Hallberg says he’s not a musician but it’s clear he thinks like one, understanding that the notes not played are as important as the ones that are. The result is a sparse but punchy effects track, one in which the overall level is surprisingly reasonable for an action picture. This, Hallberg says, is a bit different from previous Bourne expeditions, which had to establish their action-pic credentials early on. This Bourne has more dialog and pianissimo passages, a lot of room tone between the sound effects and the sound design, with some of the slack picked up by James Newton Howard’s score, which Hallberg says was delivered, in temp form, early into the sound-spotting process, which allowed him to leave even more space in between sound effects.
“We were able to let the overall sound breathe a bit more this time around,” he says. “As a result, when action sequences do take place, those sound effects are preceded by much quieter scenes, so they stand out without having to increase their level. You have all the desired impact without having to make the overall sound louder. I’ve seen some pictures … where the sound has just been an onslaught of volume. It wears the audience out and when you come to a point where you really do need the power, you’ve already used it all up.”
The workflow was smooth, helped by keeping most of the work within the Todd-AO/Soundelux complex, with the final mix done at the Todd-AO West stage. Virtually all of the audio was handled as Pro Tools files and sessions for Foley and dub stages, eliminating file-format conversions. The final mix is 5.1, with a 7.1 version done for theaters and Blu-ray.
Hallberg is particularly pleased with how The Bourne Legacy turned out, something he realized only when he saw a staff screening after the final mix. “My thought was that it was close to perfect, and I say that not because everything was there but because nothing was missing,” he says. “There was nothing extra. All the pieces fit together perfectly.”
He also thinks director Tony Gilroy, who wrote the script with his brother Dan, accomplished what he calls “a huge favor for the franchise”: the possibility of more Bournes to come.