Skip Lievasy is nominated for two Oscars this year: one for his work on “Gravity,” and one for “Inside Llewyn Davis” – competing against himself in the sound mixing category. Mr. Lievasy is pretty much a regular on the red carpet, having been nominated for Oscars in previous years for “True Grit” and “No Country for Old Men,” and having assembled a stellar and eclectic CV working on films from “Do the Right Thing” to “An Inconvenient Truth” to “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” He teaches Rico about the difference between Oscar’s two sound categories, the importance of letting talk sound like talk, and how he turned a door into a car.
Rico Gagliano: So I can tell you — I do a lot of sound mixing for this show, and listening to that clip gives me nightmares. It is so complicated. First of all, do you remember how many sound elements were involved in there? How many individual sounds?
Skip Lievasy: Probably more than two hundred.
Rico Gagliano: Where do you begin with something like that?
Skip Lievasy: It’s all about the dialogue. Drama is all about what the actors are doing and how they are relating to each other, and how they’re informing the audience about what’s happening and what they’re feeling, and that almost always comes across in the expression on their face and what they’re saying.
Rico Gagliano: In this case, both of those stars are in spacesuits, so their voices are constantly manipulated — they’re always speaking through intercoms, or they are inside a helmet. What were the difficulties of that?
Skip Lievasy: It became a matter of having as little of the radio-processing on the voices as we could get away with, because the more filtered the voices were, the less dramatic the detail and depth of the performances. We were diminishing the performances, the more filtering, the more realistic we tried to make it.
Rico Gagliano: I can just imagine the arguments over incremental details that must start happening. “No, we need just a little more crackle.” “No, that’s a little too much crackle; we’re losing a little bit of emotion.”
Skip Lievasy: That was it! We had that discussion continuously for three weeks.
Rico Gagliano: Let’s move on, to probably my favorite movie this year: “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Totally opposite end of the spectrum here.
Skip Lievasy: Favoritism, huh?
Rico Gagliano: Sorry dude — that’s what I’m rooting for. It’s about a struggling folk musician in the sixties. This is the scene where Llewyn is in a car, on a road trip, talking to a jazzman played by John Goodman, who is not a fan of folk music.
It seems so simple, that scene. What’s so special about it?
Skip Lievasy: That scene was filmed in a stationary car, and the whole travelling image was created digitally.
Rico Gagliano: So you created all of that road sound. None of that really exists.
Skip Lievasy: “Created” is a bit of a broad term for recording a bunch of automobile sounds, but yes!
Rico Gagliano: But you’re being humble though. There’s more to this scene than that — the sound of the cars driving by, you can tell there’s a lot done to recreate that “whoosh.”
Skip Lievasy: We did. It was a bit of a challenge, those car-bys.
Rico Gagliano: What is that?
Skip Lievasy: A car-by. So when a car passes by, it’s like the automobile equivalent of a foot step. A “car-by.” We kind of went to the basics: had a recorder, and drove a car by the recorder. But often times, particularly at the volume that we ended up playing it to be realistic, it sounds kind of like ‘whooom.’
Rico Gagliano: It doesn’t have impact.
Skip Lievasy: No. So we added a sound. If you analyze it, when a car passes you by on a two lane black top, going the opposite direction, that creates kind of a “whoosh,” like a wind, which doesn’t actually sound like a car. Just sounds like a [imitates wind sound] “whooooo.”
So actually the whoosh that we used is a sound that I recorded for “Barton Fink” for the Coen Brothers years ago.
Rico Gagliano: It’s from the movie “Barton Fink?”
Skip Lievasy: Yeah — it’s from a recording studio door that had a big difference in air conditioning from one side to another, so whenever you opened that door, you got a big [imitates wind sound again] “whooooo.”
Now that sounds like a car-by, doesn’t it?
Rico Gagliano: Yeah! Why didn’t you just use your voice and put it on the soundtrack? That was a pretty good imitation right there.
Skip Lievasy: It’s tempting.
Rico Gagliano: I’m sure it is! Skip Lievasy, good luck on Oscar night.
Skip Lievasy: Thanks so much.