The Story Behind The Oscar-Nominated Sound Of ‘Ford v Ferrari’

It was back in September when Ford v Ferrari premiered a the Toronto Film Festival and, about halfway through the movie it hit me, “Boy, the sound in this movie is amazing. There was something all-encompassing and realistic about it, yet it was never overwhelming. It made you feel the power of the car we were in. (After the movie I tweeted Ford v Ferrari should win the sound Oscars, something I’ve never tweeted about, or even thought about much before.)

Oh course, probably like you, I am the definition of a layman when it comes to sound mixing and sound editing on a motion picture. So, after Ford v Ferrari received its much-deserved sound mixing and sound editing nominations on Monday, we spoke with two of the four freshly-anointed Ford v Ferrari sound nominees, Don Sylvester (his first) and David Giammarco (his third) about what went into creating the sound for this film. (And they are adamant what we hear is all-natural car engine sounds, no “Hollywood bullshit“ went into it like, as Sylvester puts it, throwing in a “squealing hyena.”)

Also, there’s talk the Academy might combine both the sound mixing and sound editing awards into one category. I asked David Giammarco and Don Sylvester about this and their answers might surprise you.

I’m always appreciative of a good sound system and sound mixing and editing, but Ford v Ferrari was one of the first times I thought, “This should get an Oscar” while watching it.

Don Sylvester: I mean, the whole idea of the sound, in my opinion, is that the sound informs you of the story and it fits in with what you’re following. If the sound becomes the purpose of the scene, I think the sound then becomes distracting. So, with that in mind, yeah, we tried to make the cars and all the other sound effects in the movie make sense to the storytelling ability of the story. But, at the same time, I had this strong feeling that I wanted the cars to be the loudest things on the screen. And it’s like standing next to a 747.

David Giammarco: And then it became a balancing act between supporting what we see on-screen — letting these characters really develop and play — and let these cars play with the music. We really tried to get that balance of having the power there, feeling the power, and letting it play and weave in and out within the film with dialogue, music, and emotion. You know? We had to walk that line and we hope to achieve that. And, hopefully, we did.

Is there a fine line between encompassing versus overwhelming?

Giammarco: Yeah. And so then it became a deciding thing as to what is the most important sound at this moment in the film at that time. And sometimes it’s taking the engines away as Ken Miles is making his big decision about what to do — whether to win the race or not. And other times it’s focusing on vibrations. And other times it’s let the music take the whole thing. And so it could be wind. It could be crowd. It could be so many different things that need to be most expressive in that particular frame in the film.

So, is it just as straightforward as recording the sound of a car engine and putting that in the movie? I realize that’s probably a dumb thing to word this…

Sylvester: Alright. First of all, we’re not just recording a car engine, we’re recording a GT40. So, that being said, the number of mics that we put on this car was numerous. On the exhaust, and on the transmission, and inside of the cabin. We had many recorders. So not only did we have the right sounds, but we also have the wrong sounds. We have too many sounds. And so what we need to do in the editorial, and then ultimately in the mixing process, is decide what sound at that point in the film needs to be heard. And when you’re inside the cabin, it sounds differently than when you’re outside. Okay, that’s just recording the car. But recording the car and then putting it into the film was another thing because you’re not getting a car to do what the film is doing because that’s a racing scene, and when we recorded the cars, we weren’t at Le Mans going 200 miles an hours

So, the short answer to that is you get the right car and half your battle is done. The other half is molding it in to fit the storytelling of the scene and how it fits the picture, and that’s very difficult. Luckily we had a fine editor names Jay Wilkinson who took these car sounds and crafted them into the car — just creating a realistic version of our recordings that matched the story. Then, of course, Dave had to mix it into the film and it doesn’t always fit into the film. And that’s when Dave has to apply some sort of trickery.

Well, the trickery aspect is what I was wondering about. You hear these stories about movie explosions being amped up with a tiger roar, or whatever. But the sound here sounds very natural.

Giammarco: These cars were characters and they were beasts and they didn’t need much else. The cars themselves and those engines, they sound amazing. Sometimes we might add certain elements of things just to enhance particular moments of a car, just to feel the power of it, just to give us a little extra. And there were some times EQ manipulation and some pitch changing and things like that. But, by and large, it was the cars and them being what they are.

Sylvester: You know, what you’re referring to, this is the essence, what you just said. I should just write that down for our director, Jim Mangold. What you’re hearing is the essence of what he’s doing. I mean, Jim doesn’t buy anybody’s bullshit. Look, if we put in a squealing hyena or something in it, he could hear that and he’d throw it away. He doesn’t want to have any kind of hyped-up Hollywood stuff.

I kind of want to make that the headline. “You will hear no squealing hyenas during Ford v Ferrari. Guaranteed.”

Sylvester: [Laughs] One hundred percent guarantee.

There’s talk of combining the two sound Oscars into one award. You’re nominated for both mixing and editing. What would you think of this being one award instead of two?

Giammarco: Well, our industry’s changed so much since when these awards were developed. And now, with technology, so much is happening in editing where we’re mixing and doing work on the editorial side that’s carrying all the way through to the final, and so the lines do blur and then they are crossed. And now editors are mixing, and mixers are editing. And so it seems to make sense that it’s the evolution of where we’re going.

Oh that’s surprising. I would have assumed you’d have wanted it to remain separate.

Giammarco: No, I just, I don’t know how it’s going to end up going, but it’s certainly a situation where the work is blending, you know? Not on the location side of things, because the location requirements is completely different. But as far as editing and mixing, a lot of that work is blending and developing. A soundtrack develops in editorial and it’s carrying through to the mix. It also depends on a case by case situation, I think. Some films more so than others.

Sylvester: I was just going to say that there’s definitely a lot of different disciplines at work here in the editing versus the mixing. And not all good mixers are able to edit. It’s very clear. But also not all editors are expected to mix. What’s happening is that it seems economically more efficient — not to mention more creatively more effective — if the guy who makes the sounds has control over them to the end of the movie. Rather than turning over his recipe to somebody else who then tries to reinterpret it and it becomes a clash of ideas. So, a lot of times, if the director works closely with the editor to create what he thinks is the right atmosphere and sound for the film, he doesn’t want to have to recreate it in the mix with a new guy who comes in and says, “Well, you know, this is how I do it.” And so, if for no other reason for creative control, it’s probably a good idea to streamline the process.

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