There is not one sound in a film that the audience hears by accident. Like every frame, every single noise is a conscious decision. As the supervising sound editor on the Academy Award-nominated war film, Lone Survivor, Wylie Stateman is responsible for the planning and execution of each and every one of those sounds, and how they're integrated into the film. Although Stateman's team includes foley artists, production mixers, composers, and many others, he is in charge of most creative decisions that determine what the audience hears.
Most people not directly involved in the making of films have only a faint idea of what the sound editor does, if they consider this job at all. It's a position that defies easy description. While the director is on set, the editor assembles footage from the dailies to form a cohesive narrative—and the sound editor gives that narrative its audio component. However, the sound editor's job starts long before the first shot (or in the case of Lone Survivor, before the first shot is fired), working closely with the director. Below, Stateman describes his contribution to the film.
In preproduction I made [director] Peter Berg a sampling device that had gunshots on it. It had buttons that said "ricochet" and "mortar fire," and he could actually trigger it during the table read with his actors and make gunfire noises in the conference room.
Pete Berg very much wanted the movie to have a documentary feel. There’s one scene where these four guys are running through the woods being chased by Taliban, and they have to throw themselves off a cliff because there’s no place to go, so it’s either die there or tumble down into the unknown. When you’re dealing with photography on an action scene like that, the best you can try to do is just get the shot so a lot of those falls and running through the trees, there’s no production track—all pictures and no sound. Foley artists create the sounds of these men rolling down the hills, and that's one element. We had to create a soundtrack for that out of nothing, in order to assemble the beats for editing the sequence.
Lone Survivor is filled with radio noise. The story is about these four soldiers who gradually lose contact with their base. One of the contributors to the mess of this situation was the loss of radio. Radio doesn’t occur on the set. It’s something that we developed as a conceptual thing. We use some production voice, some placeholder voice, and we start to develop a concept of radio contact, broken radio contact. But how do you make a radio transmission sound real?
Radio sounds like degraded sound, but in our particular case, we wanted to present it as degraded communication. We would cut syllables out of words, or play syllables backwards, or put a piece of distortion in the middle of a word. Rather than deteriorating the radio, we played with time delays, and made it all similar to the modern loss of communication. When you lose someone on your cell phone, sometimes it goes echo-y, sometimes you only hear every other word.
When you watch a movie, you’re looking at a frame and nothing outside that frame exists visually. There’s a correlation to that in sound, and yet the sound doesn’t live inside that box. The sound lives behind the screen and in the auditorium. We’re not restricted by the edge of that frame. We’re deciding whether a sound lives in the screen, or whether it goes out and lives over the audience’s head, or behind them, or in the middle of the frame. In Lone Survivor, our goal was to put the audience inside of the frame. The guns, the sound of people moving around, the radios, are all from the perspective of not viewing it from the seat, but as if you were inside the frame with the characters. When somebody runs into the frame, we don’t just present it from the perspective of the audience, they actually bump into you and we have the sound of their clothing. There’s an audience participatory element.
[Images courtesy of Universal Pictures]