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Oscar winning sound designer Ben Burtt spent time working with editor Michael O’Halloran on both the visual and audio sides of ‘Red Tails’, now sweeping box offices around the country. “Doing the two jobs together is really great, because I can develop the sound as I’m piecing the images together,” Burtt says. “That way, you can structure the timing of things to favor a better sound design.”
That combination helped enhance the authenticity of the Red Tails sound and visuals. “We had to go in and figure out what things looked like and sounded like for these World War II pilots in order to construct authentic audio environments in terms of the actual engines that were appropriate for each plane, the weapons, the sounds inside the cockpit,” says Burtt.
To capture some of those sounds, Supervising Sound Editor Matt Wood and Sound Designer David Acord recorded tracks from two P-51s flown around Novato and Skywalker Ranch.
“I actually got to go up in one of the P-51s and that was really great,” Wood says. “I’ve never experienced anything like that before — the power of those planes and the control that they have at such high speeds, plus they sound and look so menacing. Such incredible engineering.”
For the dogfight scenes, Burtt listened closely to air combat documentaries to establish a basis of what each of the planes sounded like. “I made them all distinctively different so that when you would cut from one group of planes to another, they were different sounds,” says Burtt. “Each of the planes’ sounds were like musical notes. They had pitch and tone, and we got a chance to play with that in those scenes.”
That philosophy also applied when creating the sounds for the planes’ weapons, Burtt adds. “Each plane had different sounding guns. Every attempt was made to match up a different type of sonic texture to the different planes and keep it in the realm of credibility. If you do a Star Wars movie with spaceships, you can go wild and make really different sounds because there’s nothing to compare it to.
For this, though, I was trying to address historical reality as well as getting the mix to make sense to the ear.” Red Tails was mixed at Skywalker Sound with David Acord handling effects and Foley, Juan Peralta on dialog/ADR and Scott R. Lewis mixing music.
In addition to the conventional 5.1 and 7.1 theatrical mixes, Rick McCallum opted to push the envelope and have Red Tails mixed in the all-new Auro-3D 11.1 format. The Auro-3D format adds an additional set of speakers above the audience, adding a new dimension to the sound field.
“It’s amazing, especially when we’re in a scene where there are planes above you in the shot,” Wood says. “We didn’t want to overdo it as far as using those speakers, but we wanted to see what shots would benefit from having some wind or planes or music playing up there. It was really another way for us to immerse the viewer into the experience.”
The Red Tails score
Given the historical reach and impact of the Red Tails story, director Anthony Hemingway sought to find a composer who understood how to subtly add feeling without being overpowering. “I also wanted to keep the soundtrack period, but I wanted to make it contemporary at the same time,” he says.
Hemingway selected Terence Blanchard, whose discography of film scores include Inside Man, Cadillac Records and Malcolm X. Blanchard saw Red Tails as an opportunity to stretch. “I knew coming in that the score had to be sweeping and broad, since that is what George Lucas is used to,” he says. “The emotions behind the people are probably the most important character in this film. I wanted the soundtrack to convey the emotions that they were going through.”
Continues Blanchard, “The thing that’s beautiful about working on a film like this for me is that the intensity is in the performance of the actors and I just needed to bring in some music that slightly enhanced what they were doing. I had to stay out of the way, because I didn’t want to screw around with their performances.”