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Master and Commander
Film: 14 Nov 2003
By: HamiltonSterling
Worldwide theatrical release

As one of two sound effects editors working on the new Peter Weir film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, I was charged by the supervising sound editor, Richard King, with creating and cutting all of the sound effects for the storm. Though my cutting work included two additional reels as well as updating all of the effects tracks and predubs through myriad changes, the storm sequence was the most challenging and most rewarding work of my career.

As most people know, a final track is made up of many elements (see Richard's interview with NPR), tracks that are combined to form predubs like wind, ocean, water, ship creaks, and specific sync effects. To this can be added design elements. One idea that Mr. Weir wanted to pursue was the unique sound of the wind in the rigging, an idea he found in a remarkable documentary of the last tall sailing ship to round Cape Horn. In this silent film shot in 1929, the narrator describes the wind in the rigging as sounding like a thousand animals screaming.

A thousand animals screaming: the problem is not so much in the execution, as in potentially losing the realistic quality of the previously recorded, pitched, shaped, and cut material. Wind is a delicate thing, chaotic in frequency and amplitude. In order to find a mix with the design elements, there had to be a way of tracking what had already been predubbed in order that the mixer, D.M. Hemphill, could bring in the design sounds without them calling attention to themselves.

As a reader of the ancients, my first thought was of the siren's song, the harmonic lure that made Odysseus bind himself to the mast for fear of steering his ship into the rocks. That ancient sailor's call, the thrumming melodies of the lines and the sheets, these are what inspired my approach. First I tried for a physical effect. Most sound editors prefer to start gathering their sound effects in the organic world. Richard had recorded many wind effects working with tangible objects like ropes and grills, and to accompany this I tried recording my lyre harp to produce tuned harmonies. Placing microphones inside the sound box and driving high speed with the engine off down a mountain road while holding the lyre out the roof of my car was thrilling in more ways than one. And while this produced an interesting effect that was musical in nature, the physics of pitch shifting this into a gigantic aeolian harp of line and rigging weren't there.

Still a learning student of Kyma (I hope forever), I called Carla and Kurt and asked for advice on how to properly track, with both frequency and amplitude, the predub of the winds. The sequence, being long, needed to be processed live. Though I had worked with various vocoded sounds, using the wind to modulate choral and animal samples, what I really wanted, at least as an element, was that giant aeolian harp. Carla sent me some wonderful Sound examples of resonant filters at play, and these gave me ideas on how to refine my approach. The combination of these elements I then mixed in ProTools, keeping some separate, and combining others, tracking all with the previously recorded mix.

The wonderful thing about working with Kyma is that, like any good art form, the more you do it, the more ideas it generates. That is the gift of Carla and Kurt. Three cheers for Symbolic Sound. Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!

Hamilton Sterling is a sound designer, director, and Greek history buff.

Discussion (Descriptions, reviews, discussion):

Master and Commander has won the award for Best Sound at the 2004 British Academy of Film and Television's Awards (held February 15 in London).

-- CarlaScaletti - 19 Feb 2004

Hamilton Sterling, sound effects editor, Richard King, supervising sound editor, Michael Mitchel, sound effects editor, and Christopher Flick, supervising Foley editor, each won the Motion Picture Sound Editor's Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Effects Editing in a Domestic Feature Film for Master and Commander. The following night Richard King won the Acadamy Award for Best Sound Editing (held Feb. 28th and 29th in Los Angeles).

-- HamiltonSterling - 04 Mar 2004

----- Revision r1.10 - 30 Mar 2007 - 23:24 GMT - MatteoMilani
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