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True Story, True Sound Design: Creating the Documentary-Style Audio for ‘Argo’

Argo, director Ben Affleck’s gripping and occasionally funny film about a secret attempt to extricate a handful of Americans trapped in Iran during that country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and the famous hostage crisis that it precipitated, required sound designers Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn to go for a gritty, realistic, at times almost documentary approach to portraying real events in what is at heart a Hollywood action movie.

Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in


. Photo by Keith Bernstein

“Sound is such an important player in this movie, and a lot of that encouragement and support came from Ben,” comments Aadahl. “For the entire opening of the film, where we’re at the protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and as the embassy gets taken over, he wanted the sound to play the reality of all of that as much as possible. He elected not to use music there. Alexandre Desplat’s score—which is amazing—comes in after the embassy gets taken over, and I think it’s so powerful because of that interplay: We play the reality of it, and then through the music we go into the internal emotional context of what has just happened.

“On a script level, reading that opening, we’re out on the streets with all these thousands of protesters chanting ‘Margbar Amreeka!—‘Death to America!’ or ‘Down with America!’—and then we’re cutting inside the U.S. Embassy through the windows as [embassy workers] are listening [to the protest], and sound is such a great tool for describing the geography of those spaces. So for me that was the central sound design challenge—making those crowds sound really real. We got some great stuff from production in Istanbul [where exteriors were shot], from Jose Antonio Garcia, an incredible production mixer.

(From left) Rory Cochrane as Lee Schatz (in vest), Christopher Denham as Mark Lijek, Clea DuVall as Cora Lijek, Tate Donovan as Bob Anders (holding script) and Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez. Photo by Keith Bernstein

“But we found we needed some more material to really sell the scale and some of the specificity of it, so Warner Bros. put together 100 Farsi-speaking extras and we got them on the [WB] backlot. It turns out Los Angeles has the largest Persian community outside of Iran, so we had this amazing talent pool. We set up all these microphones—in and around the crowd, up on the rooftops, behind windows, behind doors, down alleys, inside cars—so we could get the real angles and not do too much post trickery to make it feel real. We knew we would be cutting from behind these bulletproof windows to out in the crowd and all that, so we tried to do things that would match those cuts in the picture.”

Equipped with a few Sound Devices recorders and various mics, Aadahl and Van der Ryn led the Farsi group in various chants. “I wanted to get this vocal stuff out on the streets, not on an ADR stage, with real air, acoustics and dimension. At one point we had a small group of 10 on the backlot and they were doing these yells, and as we were going they were getting better and better because their voices were starting to fail and you could hear them pushing it more. There was a desperate feeling that was starting to ripen. It got to the point that security actually came out—people in adjoining offices apparently thought there was a real demonstration happening. I took that as a compliment that we were getting the right kind of energy.


sound editors Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl

“For the bigger crowd things, we used many Sound Devices with different types of microphones and different types of spreads. Physically, I like to be in the center position and kind of directing the crowd because I can listen as I’m going.”

Because verisimilitude was so important, Aadahl notes, “We also recorded 25 different ’70s-era vehicles—old Mercedes 220s, Peugeots, this whole fleet of ’70s international vehicles, most of them diesel cars. The headaches we would get after a full day of recording these! You could almost feel the oil dripping off us. We also had to go out and find the sirens of the time, the telephones, the old teletypes and all that. We wanted that all to be real. So many of those things and their sounds have become almost extinct.”

Aadahl says that he and Van der Ryn “share an obsessive perfectionism, but our aesthetics can be a little different, so we challenge each other quite a bit, which for me is quite inspiring. It’s a great partnership.”