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The Raw Reality of ‘The Revenant’

Producing the Sound Design for a Critical Scene

In director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film The Revenant, set in the remote American wilderness of the 1800s, frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) seeks to avenge himself against the hunting party that left him for dead after a near-fatal bear attack. Iñárritu put tremendous effort into visually presenting a cold, raw reality in The Revenant by shooting outdoors in harsh conditions and using only natural light. This passion for realism carried over to the film’s audio, so the director sought out Skywalker Sound‘s Randy Thom, a supervising sound editor/sound designer/re-recording mixer on The Revenant who specializes in creature vocals, to craft a realistic bear attack from an entirely CG bear.

“There was never any real bear that was being photographed. ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] did a wonderful job on the visuals, making the bear believable visually. It looked dirty and leaf-covered and grimy, as a bear would be roaming around in a wet forest,” explains Thom. “The challenge for us was to do something on the same level with sound. It had to be all organic, and we had to be careful the bear attack didn’t sound ‘Hollywood,’ or overdone and exaggerated.”

Alejandro González Iñárritu (left) directs Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of The Revenant
Photo by Kimberley French

The bear displays a range of emotion, from being nurturing with her cubs to being aggressive during the attack on Glass. Thom began in Skywalker’s extensive sound library, pulling a variety of bear vocalizations. He built the heavy breathing sounds to accompany the injured bear from recordings of horses with respiratory problems. And since the library didn’t have recordings of a bear attack, Thom admits, “I had to resort to using my own voice a couple of times, too. Luckily I’m a big guy with a big voice and so I can pass as a 400-pound bear if necessary.”

He used Serato’s Pitch ‘n Time Pro to ensure the separate elements sound as if they are coming from the same animal. “Creature vocalizations are the hardest kind of sound design to do, and the bear attack sequence is fairly long. I had to make it dynamic and run the gamut of emotions the bear goes through.”

Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass

“Alejandro is always exploring how picture and sound feel together,” says re-recording mixer Frank A. Montaño. “It may be a literal-sounding scene or a subjective-sounding scene that has the correct impact to create the right feeling for that moment, and that’s when he says, ‘We got it.'”

Adds co-supervising sound editor/sound designer Martin Hernández,When something you did feels like it belongs and really helps to tell the story that Alejandro wanted, that is very satisfying. It really pays off for all the hours you put in.”

Oscar Nominations

The Revenant was nominated in the sound editing (Martin Hernández and Lon Bender) and sound mixing (Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Randy Thom and Chris Duesterdiek) categories for the 88th Academy Awards. The winners will be announced on Feb. 28.

Read More

Read Jon Silberg’s article about production on The Revenant, from the December 2015 issue of Digital Video magazine: