Oscars 2023: Creating ‘Synaptic’ Sound for ‘Top Gun: Maverick’
The “Maverick” sound team is a favorite to help bring audiences back to the theaters, emphasizing Tom Cruise’s breathing and joystick manipulations, as well as broadcast noises.
The key to the sound design of “Top Gun: Maverick” – and why it is the favorite for the Oscar for best sound – is the effective creation of the “synaptic” experience, which was carried over from Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” films. It’s a hyper-real soundscape that dynamically directs the audience’s attention to important elements, rather than a wall of sound.
In the “Top Gun” sequel, the synaptic sound of being in the cockpits of jet fighters with Cruise’s Maverick emphasized breathing and joystick manipulation while strategically layering jet noises. These included the sound of air rushing over the wings and the echoes of aerobatics. This definitely contributed to the film’s global success, bringing audiences back to theaters.
“We use the word ‘synaptic’ a lot when we get the chance,” said supervising sound editor James Mather (who worked on “M:I – Fallout” and this year’s “Dead Reckoning – Part One”). “It’s the reaction when people said they held their breath during the scenes they were watching in the cinema, and the word synaptic means it physically affects the audience. So it’s interesting.
“Tom’s all about feeling that, and whatever it is that makes that happen, he’s going to go with it,” she continued. “It’s part of his DNA.” He doesn’t have to explain… it’s not about the words… it’s about the physicality. It’s about the synaptic response you get.”
Mather was part of an Oscar-nominated team that split into two groups and spanned two continents. Dubbing began at Skywalker Sound in Northern California, under the direction of sound editor Al Nelson. But when they couldn’t follow the mix to London due to COVID-19, Mather took over, working with production mixer Mark Weingarten and re-recording mixers Chris Burdon and Mark Taylor. Then the sound continued to evolve, not only in terms of process, but also in terms of discovery. An example is the positioning of the dialogue during the flight scenes, which was facilitated by actors wearing flight masks.
However, the first important lesson they learned from original Top Gun editor Chris Lebanz was that the signature hard sound on cuts was the secret to sonic success. This was commissioned by director Joseph Kosinski with Oscar-nominated editor Eddie Hamilton and the sound team. “We took that philosophy (of the hard cut) into our film … authentic jet sounds wherever possible, layering them,” Kosinski told IndieWire. “Right before we started shooting all the sounds of these planes for a week, we had sound teams in the canyons as we flew over and got those amazing sounds. So start with reality. Then you start bringing some of the artistry into the mix.”
While Cruise regularly visits the mixing stages of his films to take notes, he was much more present on “Maverick,” explaining the visceral experience he had shooting the amazing in-camera aerial shots. “This was especially for a personal project,” Mather said. “I think the responsibility and the pressure to succeed was pretty heavy on his shoulders. And I think he came to us every other day. During the day, he trained for “Mission: Impossible” with jumps and motorcycle stunts, and then he came to our house. He can use his memory of what it was like there, and so there are probably certain nuances, sounds that were important to him that he might want to focus on. When you hear or feel the sound, depending on the volume, it should trigger the same response that reminds you of that experience.”
Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection
The opening arrival of Ed Harris as the commander who plans to shut down the Dark Star test flight program re-establishes Maverick’s rebelliousness as he flies over Harris and blows the roof off the guard shack. Yet what makes the moment work is the balance between thrust and scale, followed by the beauty and grace of Dark Star in a distant shot. “There’s a cute phrase we use called ‘The Silence of the Jet Roar,'” Mather said. “And these really effective sounds are only viable because of the silence that precedes or follows them. And this, more than any film I’ve worked on, explored that concept and that dynamic.”
The sound design is based on Maverick’s legendary love of flying and then pushing the envelope when it gets dangerous. This was conveyed using Shepard’s tone. “We can use a lot of tools to amplify that, which is a rising or falling tone that just keeps rising even though it’s not going anywhere,” Nelson said. “It feels like it’s constantly building, whining, all the elements, if you pulled them out, you’d say, ‘What’s making that sound?’ Nothing on screen actually makes that sound, but it becomes part of the device to build tension and then gasp. Early on, you occasionally hold back jet noise to emphasize later.
However, depending on the training mission, the voice team had to deal with dialogue: first the exposition that heightens the tension between Maverick and Rooster (Miles Teller) in the first training session, and later gaining the trust of the team to get it. prepared for a dangerous bombing mission. “We made sure that the voice and environment reflected the story of him still being Maverick,” added Nelson. “This is cool music that we know should be played loud. And then we’re in the air and these amazing F-18s are interacting with each other. And Tom tried to have the same dynamic as the first “Top Gun”, meaning you have to cut, you have to hit.
It culminates in a final canyon run to blow up a uranium enrichment site, which upped the ante with the visceral spectacle of cool Maverick with a group of nervous pilots. And for most of the series, all you hear is their breathing. “It’s all about how hard (Maverick) pulls those Gs,” Mather said. “And that’s what he says, you have to pay attention to the fact that it’s brutal.” And the sound of the sticks was important. This is again the stated knowledge of this machine. And we’ll show you exactly what you need to do to complete this impossible task. That’s what storytelling through voice is all about.”
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