The Woman Behind The Oscar-Nominated Sound Of 'Unbroken' The film's tricky dialogue and dogfights were made possible by Becky Sullivan — the fifth woman ever nominated for the sound editing award. NPR's own Becky Sullivan met her to learn about the craft.
NPR logo

The Woman Behind The Oscar-Nominated Sound Of 'Unbroken'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/388015879/388075798" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Woman Behind The Oscar-Nominated Sound Of 'Unbroken'

The Woman Behind The Oscar-Nominated Sound Of 'Unbroken'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/388015879/388075798" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The most anticipated awards at the Oscars are usually the prizes in the acting and best picture categories. But tomorrow night, we want you to pay special attention to sound editing. Like many of the more technical categories, its nominations are dominated by men. This year, a woman was nominated for her work on the World War II film "Unbroken." She's only the fifth woman ever nominated for this award, and her name - Becky Sullivan. Here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we have our own Becky Sullivan, so we sent her out to profile the other Becky Sullivan.

BECKY SULLIVAN #1: Hi.

BECKY SULLIVAN #2, BYLINE: Hi. You must be Becky Sullivan.

SULLIVAN #1: Hi, nice to meet you.

SULLIVAN #2: Becky Sullivan?

SULLIVAN #1: Yeah.

SULLIVAN #2: The meeting of the Beckys took place in her office on the Universal Studios back lot, geographically not too far from where she got her start back in the '80s. She was in her early 20s and wanted to get into the movie business, and the only industry person she had even a tiny connection to happened to be a sound editor.

SULLIVAN #1: And this guy said to me hey, you know what? We need a receptionist at the front desk. So during the day I was the receptionist and at night, at 6 o'clock until midnight, I would stay and work with the sound editors.

SULLIVAN #2: For 20 years, Sullivan specialized in re-recording actors' lines or ADR - automated dialogue replacement.

SULLIVAN #1: You bring them onto the stage and you show them what was shot on production. And we go through line by line and re-record their dialogue.

SULLIVAN #2: Unglamorous, maybe, but essential. Sullivan worked on the ADR for movies like the original "Robocop..."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROBOCOP")

PETER WELLER: (As Alex J. Murphy) Let the woman go. You are under arrest.

SULLIVAN #2: "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BILL AND TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE")

KEANU REEVES AND ALEX WINTER: (As Ted Logan and Bill Preston) (In unison) No way.

ALEX WINTER: (As Bill Preston) Yes way.

SULLIVAN #2: Even "The Avengers."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE AVENGERS")

ROBERT DOWNEY JR: (As Tony Stark/Iron Man) That's what we call ourselves. It's sort of like a team. Earth's mightiest heroes type thing.

SULLIVAN #2: These days, she's a supervising sound editor, the top dog on the sound editing team, head of her own crew. When director Angelina Jolie came to her to do the sound for "Unbroken," Sullivan was thrilled. She says she loved the book "Unbroken," the best-selling biography of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner turned POW who survived World War II and alcoholism. And she loved that Jolie wanted the film to sound as authentic possible.

Most of the movie's first act is set on a B-24 Bomber. Sullivan hunted down the only surviving unmodified B-24, and spent a day recording all of the plane's various sounds - planks from the cockpit, overhead flybys, engines firing and stalling and of course, the bomb bay doors.

(SOUNDBITE OF B-24 LIBERATOR PLANE)

SULLIVAN #2: Jolie filmed those scenes in an aircraft on a soundstage. But that sound is nowhere close to what a World War II dogfight would sound like in real life. So Sullivan and her crew had to make it. She pulled that sound up on her computer and hit play.

(SOUNDBITE OF B-24 LIBERATOR PLANE)

SULLIVAN #2: The movie starts rolling, guys are yelling, bullets are flying. The only sound we hear is the plane.

(SOUNDBITE OF B-24 LIBERATOR PLANE)

SULLIVAN #2: And so this is stuff that you recorded in the plane?

SULLIVAN #1: Yep.

(SOUNDBITE OF B-24 LIBERATOR PLANE)

SULLIVAN #2: Another click adds the background, in this case, mostly wind.

(SOUNDBITE OF B-24 LIBERATOR PLANE)

SULLIVAN #1: I'm going to add the dialogue.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNBROKEN")

JACK O'CONNELL: (As Louis Zamperini) Bombs away.

SULLIVAN #2: Hearing just the dialogue and the background noise - no guns, no bullets, no attacking planes - it sounds empty. It sounds fake. Sullivan adds another layer.

SULLIVAN #1: OK, here's the guns.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNBROKEN")

SULLIVAN #2: There were about a thousand different tracks in total. And when you watch the finished sequence, the sound tells as much of the story as the visuals do. And it feels real.

SULLIVAN #1: So you're on the war machine of the plane. And it's loud and the wind is buffeting and the .50 caliber guns are going off. And then the plane crashes - and all the noise of the crash and they're underwater and the struggle and all the things that are happening. And then they come up and it's dead silent.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNBROKEN")

SULLIVAN #2: That chaos of the plane crash, cutting to silence - that transition is an example of how a good sound editor can build drama.

KAREN BAKER LANDERS: I would say about - what is it - 90 percent of the sound that you hear on the film has been replaced by us.

SULLIVAN #2: This is Karen Baker Landers. She and her co-editor Per Hallberg won the Academy Award for sound editing back in 2007 and 2012 for "The Bourne Ultimatum" and the James Bond movie "Skyfall."

LANDERS: It's 50 percent of the experience, you know, the sound. And just start watching films and imagine if there were no sound. You know, I think sometimes sound gives so much credibility to a picture.

SULLIVAN #2: Per Hallberg told me the best sound editing is invisible.

PER HALLBERG: Illusion for the audience is to feel that when they're watching a movie, that's actually what that was and how it went down, and that it's seamless.

SULLIVAN #2: The best sound editing can sometimes sound like there is no editing at all. Maybe that's why this Oscar category is so tough to predict. I asked these voters and winners if it was any different from their expert perspective.

LANDERS: Yeah, it's a crapshoot. You never know. But that's what makes it fun.

HALLBERG: You can never tell because it's a lot of voters. And I think the reality is that a large percentage of them doesn't quite, quite know either how to vote.

SULLIVAN #2: Of course, Becky Sullivan knew who to vote for.

SULLIVAN #1: I did. I voted for myself. I couldn't help it. I was the only woman on there.

SULLIVAN #2: Oh, and we couldn't help ourselves. We sat down to Google our name. And it turned out neither of us was number one.

SULLIVAN #1: There's a fashion designer named Becky Sullivan. And you know what? I kind of need her help right now because I have no idea what I'm going to wear to the Oscars.

SULLIVAN #2: Becky Sullivan, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWO OF A KIND")

BOBBY DARIN AND JOHNNY MERCER: (Singing) Two of a kind, for your information. We're two of a kind. Two of a kind, it's my observation. We're two of a kind, like peas in a pod and birds of a feather. Alone or together - you'll find that we are two of a kind.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.