Captain America: Civil War is the first film in Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and holy freaking awesome was this picture pure entertainment. I don’t know what it is about the Captain America franchise but it’s undoubtedly the best out of all the origin films. Maybe Black Panther and Doctor Strange will have some clout, but man, Civil War was as funny as Guardians of the Galaxy and just as exciting as Winter Solider.
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo the Avengers start to feel political pressure from all the collateral damage they’ve imposed while saving humanity. It’s one of those story lines where you think, ‘oh yeah, they do cause billions of dollars in destruction and probably have killed hundreds of innocent civilians doing what they do.’ When they’re urged to sign a document that will keep them in check and be held accountable for their actions, two sides form – one led by Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) who believes the Avengers should remain free and the other by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who supports the government’s mandate. As the difference of opinions slowly starts to boil among the Avengers it spills over in an epic battle of who’s right and who’s wrong.
Taking the Captain’s side is Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) while War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Vision (Paul Bettany), and two newcomers – Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) defend Iron-Man’s position. With the number of characters on screen in the dozens it was up to supervising sound editors Shannon Mills and Daniel Laurie to keep the audience acoustically tuned to the story line.
One of the plot challenges for sound was having the characters stand apart from each other. “Civil War was a really difficult project because each character has their own special abilities,” says Mills, who also served as sound designer. “Even though we had sounds developed from other movies a lot of the characters have evolved with greater powers or even different ones. Not to mention the new characters who show up.”
While Laurie headed the dialogue side of things Mills concentrated on the sound effects. “A big concern with Joe and Anthony early on was how to deal with so many superheroes in one movie and make them sound unique,” mentions Mills. In order to build sounds that would differentiate each character Mills tackled the hardest one first, Black Panther, and worked his way down. “With T’Challa/Black Panther it’s an introduction of a new character and he doesn’t have an origin story yet so we took every opportunity to tell his story and show off his powers to the audience through sound. Like for instance the ring he wears. It has this mystery to it and obviously some unique abilities so we wanted to make sure the audience recognized it was special.”
Another aspect they took into consideration – which illustrates how sound can enhance the narrative – is when T’Challa is wearing the Black Panther suit. It’s made from vibranium, the same steel Captain America’s shield is designed from, but when he moves and fights he’s nearly silent. “We played him very stealthy. He’s the Black Panther so we wanted him very subdued – it’s part of his character. He’s almost like a ninja. You don’t hear him coming. He’s fast, he’s quick and the only sounds you really hear from him are when he extracts his claws or if a bullet ricochets off his suit. The directors wanted to hear the accent of the vibranium characteristics so that it was similar to Cap’s shield.”
Mills then moved to one of his favorite Marvel characters, Spider-Man. “Having worked on The Amazing Spider-Man, this was a special treat,” says the designer. “Spider-Man isn’t in the film for very long, but we wanted to make the most out of his appearance. We did a lot of experimenting with his webbing and his suit, recording and combining different sounds from fishing lines to spraying cans of ceiling foam. We did all kinds of things just to make it new and interesting for the audience.”
In Civil War both Vision and Ant-Man showcase new powers that sound needed to consider. “You see Vision a little differently in this film. He walks through walls and through people. He’s an interesting character and we went through a few iterations with his powers,” says Mills. The Solar Jewel on Vision’s forehead allows him to change his density so as he becomes lighter and walks through things post used wispier, thinner sounds. Then when he makes himself very dense later on they accompanied sounds that were very heavy acoustically.
Like Spider-Man, Ant-Man brings a lot of comedy to the screen, but he also (SPOILER ALERT) uses a power that allows him to grow hundreds of feet tall during the battle between the Avengers. “Ant-Man has never tried this power out in the field before so it was important to make him sound clumsy and a little off since he’s not completely in control of it. He’s still trying to figure out the kinks,” says Mills.
What’s great about this movie is the amount of dialogue – we’re not just on a saturated action thrill ride of fighting and explosions. There’s actually a ton of story between Rogers and Stark and the rest of the Avengers. “I don’t think they ever stopped talking,” laughs Laurie. “We had to do a lot of clean up to the production tracks because the set recordist was definitely up against it with all the background noises. Our guys like Tom Johnson were constantly cutting and cleaning the dialogue right up to the very end.”
Even though most of the characters are behind masks the directors are not big on ADR especially for the comedic moments. “You can change a lot when you don’t see a character’s lips but it wasn’t the first option we went to,” mentions Laurie. “It’s a helpful tool but it can hinder the process and change the performance the directors are so keen on.” The one character they did take liberties re-recording was Spider-Man because his dialogue was constantly being changed for the story.
Other than the dialogue Laurie had to provide a sense of realism to locations using wild tracks when shooting in one location stood in for another. “Early on in the movie we see Captain and Scarlet Witch chasing down Crossbones [Frank Grillo] which the bulk of it was shot in Atlanta but it was supposed to be set in Lagos, Nigeria. We brought in various Nigerians for a loop group and recorded different dialects of them screaming and shouting to give the sequence authenticity.”
Helping sound out tremendously was picture editor Jeffrey Ford. “Jeff is hands on all the way through which is fantastic for us,” says Laurie. “One of his favorite parts is doing sound so he’s always trying to get more mix time to create a track with shape and balance.” Also benefiting sound was when Ford would make them aware of changing visual effects or when scenes had too much loop group or a certain sound was distracting to the story. “The directors put a lot of trust in Jeff. He was constantly listening to what we were doing and would suggest changes. And with him being on top of the visual effects we weren’t creating sounds that wouldn’t be in the film,” adds Laurie.
A scene where picture and sound complemented each other takes place in a Berlin, Germany car chase where Winter Solider and Captain America are trying to elude the police with Black Panther in tow. “We had a lot of fun creating that sequence mainly because we rented a track and did an extensive amount of vehicle recording,” says Mills. “The scene combines a lot of different elements from the cars to the European sirens to the characters running and fighting each other. We didn’t want to overwhelm the audience and thankfully it was a shorter sequence so we could really go for it.”
From early on in the film you could tell sonically how different this Marvel film was from the others. It wasn’t trying to be loud or noticed. Several sequences that echoed this sentiment are when Winter Solider has his flashbacks of when he was a killing machine. The first being a car crash he causes to steal a briefcase of top-secret materials. The crash, which could have been bigger than what it was, was extremely subtle. “The directors wanted those scenes to be real but not totally real in the sense that something was a little bit off. So whenever Bucky has a flashback as the Winter Solider we would give a surreal sound to them so you knew something wasn’t quite right,” says Mills.
Providing peaks and valleys to the track was important to sound. “You don’t want to tire the audience so we were always looking for opportunities to duck down before a big moment,” notes Mills. “Jeff did a really great job visually and it allowed us to build from the smaller moments into the bigger ones.” One of those bigger moments was the Civil War among the Avengers. The 16-minute sequence took four weeks to shoot using Atlanta and the Leipzig International Airport in Germany for its locations.
“When we received the cut what helped us tremendously was how the directors planned out the story by having only seeing a few characters on the screen at once,” says Mills. “Meaning, Iron-Man and Captain America would be fighting then we’d see Vision and Scarlet Witch before moving to Winter Solider and Black Panther. In between the action we would take breaks in order to move the story or make a joke. This helped reassert the story for audience before going back into the action.” While they wanted to acoustically make the battle as epic as possible the dialogue was just as important. “We had thirty days for our final mix and that was one of the sequences we worked on the most,” adds Laurie. “We needed to make sure the action didn’t override the talking points and the score was epic enough but didn’t swamp the dialogue.” Speaking of score, a small Easter egg happens during the battle when Spider-Man mentions Star Wars. If you listen closely you might hear a few notes of the famous theme song.
Looking back both sound editors couldn’t help themselves in sharing how fantastic it was to work on Civil War, with Mills adding, “Even though Marvel films are in the superhero genre they try to make each one different which makes it fun for us because we get to do different type of work. We really couldn’t have done it without the entire team and the close collaborations we had with the Russo’s and re-recording mixers Tom Johnson and Juan Peralta.”
Photos: Film Frame, Zade Rosenthal/Marvel