Oliver Tarney has the distinction of having worked as the sound editor on two films that were nominated for Best Picture this year: Captain Phillips and Philomena. He was nominated for Best Achievement in Sound Editing on Sony’s Captain Phillips. Having started as a musician, which gave him a keen ear and appreciation of sound design, Tarney faced numerous challenges with a project shot on water and using characters of a unique dialogue. The film is about Somali pirates who commandeer an American vessel captained by Richard Phillips, played by Tom Hanks. Foreign dialogue, rushing ocean water, the ominous blip from the sonar screen, a small skiff slapping against the waves as it rockets towards the lumbering cargo ship, the scream of the outboard motor to hushed and frightened conversation from the crew in the ship’s creaking hull, automatic gunfire ricocheting, the metallic sound of the ladder being hurled onto the ship for the pirates to climb aboard, and ultimately taking Phillips captive in a cramped module of the lifeboat that splashes into the water and out to sea. All of these sound elements helped build the suspense of Captain Phillips.
First came the technical issues, which are difficult on land but even more arduous when working on water: “Shooting on water on top of engine noise provided little usable production sound,” said Tarney. “A cramped lifeboat rocking around with five actors and a film crew in it is a far from ideal location to record clear dialogue. There were various technical challenges to be met on the dialogue side. The waterproof microphones used on set had a very distinctive sound. The acoustics of the lifeboat interior also provided a challenging reverb to match to, plus the lack of traditional scene setups compromised the quality of the sound that the recordist could capture in many situations, with much of the dialogue sounding distant or ‘off mic.’” The documentary style of hand-held camera implemented by director Paul Greengrass meant there were almost never any alternative takes to assist the dialogue. On top of all of these efforts, the sound editor and his team, especially ADR supervisor Simon Chase, would face yet another formidable issue: matching the Somali dialogue. “Each line of Somali had to be first translated … then, we had to find out if that line was what was actually wanted. If it wasn’t, then we had to work with Somali translators to find lines that would fit the mouth shapes onscreen and the new subtitle whilst maintaining the original energy. There were many instances of this type of change and the prep work, therefore, was incredibly challenging.”
In addition, his sound team had to make a cargo ship running full steam at 17 knots sound dynamic. Most of the interior shots, he said were shot on a gambal — a type of mount that keeps the camera balanced as the environment moves around it — so they worked with special effects and sound foley before they began to feel firsthand the disorientation and nausea of what it was like to be at sea. “The diesel fumes, combined with the lack of light and constant pitching and rolling as the boat is slammed by waves, makes for a truly unpleasant environment,” said Tarney. “We feel that this soundscape became a successful catalyst in developing the tension between Phillips and the pirates.” The sound mixers on the action drama also are nominated. They are Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith and Chris Munro.
After the Captain Phillips experience, Tarney segued to Philomena. What a difference from action sequences and the ocean to a small town in Ireland and a different kind of dialogue. Tarney again worked with Burdon, whom he calls “the perfect choice for both Phillips and Philomena” because Burdon, he says, “achieves an open and engaging sound when mixing dialogues.” Tarney was sensitive to the fact that Philomena was very emotional and performance-driven by nature. “The last thing I wanted was for the soundtrack to in any way pull you out of the emotion happening onscreen. This means everything we tracklayed — the sound design, the Foley, the ADR — all had to sit so perfectly that you were never for one second drawn away from the narrative or incredible nuanced performances.” It worked. Twice, on two films.