Though he’s become one of the most prolific, respected sound editors in Hollywood, Don Sylvester discovered his love of sound in Georgia.
Raised in DeKalb County, a Lakeside High School alum and a 1975 graduate of the University of Georgia, Los Angeles-based Sylvester is the architect of the feature in the new racing thriller “Ford v Ferrari” that tends to make people who’ve just seen the film want to immediately get behind the wheel and go really, really fast.
Typically, cinema audiences are referred to as viewers, and big-screen spectacles are judged according to their visuals. But just as integral to engaging an audience in the sensory cinematic experience, is sound.
Centered on two real-life pioneers of auto racing, car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and unconventional British race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), “Ford v Ferrari” shows their journey to bring a custom-built Ford race car, the GT40, to the epic 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France. There the maverick designer and driver go head-to-head with Italian car icon Enzo Ferrari’s cherry-red Ferrari, whose cars had dominated the race for six years running.
That climactic race becomes a symbolic battle between the Ferrari way, creating high-performance, improbably sexy bespoke machines and the assembly line approach dictated by CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) where corporate solidarity trumps individual desires.
A big part of “Ford v Ferrari’s” appeal is how effectively it puts the audience behind the wheel with Miles in a perfect union of sound design, acting and editing, as he quests for the “perfect lap,” of car-body synergy. IndieWire calls it “the most realistic racing movie ever made,” an accolade partly attributable to Sylvester’s adrenaline-stoking, you-are-there sound work.
Sylvester’s interest in sound was in many ways incubated at UGA where he was one of the originators of the university radio station WUOG. “That was like my fraternity,” he says.
Working as a DJ at WUOG, his taste ran towards music that contained narrative elements: Genesis, Kraftwerk, Hatfield and the North. “I liked painting pictures with music. I would mix different songs together and be particularly drawn to songs that had sound effects already in them.”
“My entire sensibility is formed in that period of my life,” says Sylvester of his time in Georgia. “I think I developed taste…and really dedicated myself to learning a lot about music and media and, tangentially, sound.”
He just wasn’t sure how to apply those interests to a particular job. Sylvester worked for a time at Atlanta’s WAGA-TV but he quickly learned that TV news was not for him. “People said ‘if you want to work in the factory, you have to work in the factory town,’” and so Sylvester eventually relocated to Los Angeles where he worked in music production and then at a law firm, thinking he might become an entertainment attorney.
“But once I discovered the dirty underbelly of the entertainment business I didn’t like it. So I decided I wanted to do something that I actually could say I did. I wanted to make something.”
His wife Penelope “Penny” Shaw, with whom he has two children, was then working as a film editor, and thought, with his ear for music, he might do well as a sound editor.
Her insight led to an enormously rewarding career for Sylvester. Over the course of his work in Hollywood, Sylvester is credited on more than 100 films, including the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” — for which Sylvester won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Best Sound award. His credits include “3:10 to Yuma,” “The Wolverine,” “Logan,” “The Hate U Give,” “The Fault in Our Stars” and six collaborations with director James Mangold, who also helmed “Ford v Ferrari.” The film is already being mentioned along with Sam Mendes’ WWI drama “1917” as a contender in sound editing at the 2020 Academy Awards.
Sylvester says he’s had his share of challenges as a sound editor, but none as anxiety-producing as trying to replicate the distinctive automotive “voice” of the Ferrari and the Ford GT40 that become characters as essential to the “Ford v Ferrari” story arc as the bromance between Shelby and Miles.
“We had to do a lot of research on this particular film because we were recreating a real event which has real people in it and it really took place. And as far as I know there were a lot of people who would come after me if I didn’t get it right,” he says.
What proved even more challenging was actually getting his hands on those iconic cars.
It turns out that the kind of people who own $10-15 million dollar vintage race cars aren’t inclined to let a Hollywood team of sound editors record their car in action.
“A lot of the people we contacted didn’t want to talk to us. They weren’t interested,” says Sylvester.
“They wanted to own the car, they didn’t want to share the car.”
Sylvester managed to track down a vintage GT40 hand-built with Ford parts in Ohio. And during a serendipitous family trip to Atlanta, Sylvester found out about a vintage 1959 Ferrari Testa Rossa owned by a Powder Springs man who ended up lending his coveted collectible to the production.
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And though he says he’s not a car buff, Sylvester (who rocks a BMW M340 in real life) also isn’t immune to the essential appeal of “Ford v Ferrari”: speed.
“I did ride as a passenger in the Ferrari. And that was a thrill,” he says. Because of sound restrictions in Atlanta, the Testa Rossa sound had to be recorded at a track in Florida. But Sylvester says that a portion of the Le Mans racetrack scenes were shot on roads in California, Savannah and also in Atlanta, among other locations. As Miles’ car drives the Le Mans track in the film, “you actually go to six different locations in the country,” says Sylvester.
When recording sound, the team wasn’t able to drive the cars as fast as they had been driven at Le Mans says Sylvester. But part of his job is to create the effect without endangering a valuable vintage automobile.
“The good news is you don’t have to drive a car really fast to make it sound like it’s going fast.”
While what directors and cinematographers do on a film is fairly clear to most audiences, sound editing remains shrouded in some degree of mystery, says Sylvester.
Very little of what people hear when they watch a film happens when the film is being shot. Instead, the entire soundscape — car horns, actors’ dialogue, the kind of ambient white noise we hear as we move from home to outside to car — is all constructed in a lab by sound editors.
“A lot of people don’t understand that…we basically rebuild the soundtrack from the ground up. There’s so much that we add that people don’t notice, that just sounds natural. The majority of our work is to just make it sound natural.”
“We create worlds through sound that are not literally there,” Sylvester explains.
Working in sound editing is a happy continuation of Sylvester’s lifelong interest in storytelling through sound but also his desire to be a creative working in a side of the industry that allows him a welcome degree of anonymity. He doesn’t do junkets or press conferences, or even many interviews as a part of his work, which currently entails wrapping up the new 20th Century Fox Marvel Comics X-Men film “The New Mutants.”
“You’ll find that most people in my end of the business are not looking for attention. I think we just hope to have a sympathetic director and a good story and time to do our work. I think that’s all we really want.”
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