Storytelling with Sound: Behind the Scenes of “The Revenant” with Martín Hernández

By in Audio Post, Pro Mixing, Video Editing

Supervising sound editor and sound designer Martín Hernández is a true pioneer of motion picture sound. His atmospheric and immersive soundtracks are celebrated for being as innovative as they are unconventional. Over the course of his career, Hernández has been nominated for two Academy Awards for his work on Birdman and his most recent film The Revenant. His credits also include critically acclaimed films such as Pan’s Labyrinth, Into the Wild, Babel, City of God, Amores Perros, and many more.

In our exclusive video filmed at NAB 2016, Hernández discusses his creative process and provides a behind the scenes look at his work on The Revenant. The film represents yet another successful collaboration with his longtime friend and director, Alejandro González Iñárritu. For The Revenant, Hernández and Iñárritu wanted to keep the sound as realistic as possible by capturing audio from the characters’ perspective and location. At the same time, they wanted to convey a sense of fantasy and otherworldliness, since the environment in which the film takes place is very foreign to our world today.

“We wanted to keep the sound as real as possible—and at the same time unreal,” Hernández explains. “It’s a very interesting and challenging process to see how much of the real world leaks into the dream world, and how much of the dream world leaks into reality. The Revenant happens in a world that has no reference to our own. Our geographical references are buildings, lights, and cars. But if you stayed in the woods for a year, those references vanish. They lived in a completely different world sound wise as well. It was a process to understand that we were in a completely different world, seeing it through the eyes of the main character.”

Hernández began his career as a radio host in Mexico, an experience that taught him how to tell a story without visuals and shaped his approach to sound design for film. While the more traditional model of sound design is for the film to be cut first and then the sound added later, Hernández works in parallel with the film crew to create a soundtrack that tells the same story through sound.

“The process of thinking and creating sound to illustrate a radio program is very similar to film,” Hernández says. “We wanted to have storytelling through sound that doesn’t have to be the same as the visuals. The editors have to learn you can’t just illustrate what is there. There can be completely different experiences in the same place—you need contrast in storytelling. If you think about it, you have to adjust for perspective of the character—what they are hearing as the move through the world, from their perspective.”

Collaboration was an essential part of the creative process throughout the making of The Revenant. Hernández worked closely with Iñárritu to ensure the sound he was creating matched the director’s vision. He wanted the sound to explain to the viewer why the camera was in specific locations by changing the audio with each camera shot. He also collaborated with one of his heroes—the Japanese composer, Ryuichi Sakamoto, who contributed the score to the film. He relied on Media Composer to facilitate the creative process, and he’s extremely excited about new Avid Cloud Collaboration workflows for Pro Tools and Media Composer.

“Avid [provides] a completely revolutionary way to work,” says Hernández. “If you don’t think in storytelling mode, you’re missing more than half of the purpose of a sound editor. Now with Media Composer, you can share ideas instantly. Avid Cloud Collaboration is going to be revolutionary. If I am working on an idea and I’m working with a composer, I can have his tracks and updates instantly.”

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As an audio engineer and artist, I’ve recorded, mixed, prepped and cued for live broadcast, infomercials, radio, books on tape, and have done audio postproduction and scores. Since starting with Digidesign in 1996 I’ve had various roles in sales and marketing and today I serve as the product and solution marketing director at Avid. I love playing guitar and the art of making magic in the studio and while I currently don’t work in the field, I still make time for making music.