Emmys: How ‘The Vietnam War’ Sound Team Crafted Emotional, Immersive Audio for the Acclaimed Docu-series

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Marines marching in Danang

Filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick present the Vietnam War like no other documentary has to date. According to picture editor/sound designer Erik Ewers, the 10-part, 18-hour docu-series The Vietnam War (now available to stream on Netflix) dug deep into the Library of Congress archives, using footage and recorded material that has never been used before. They were also one of the first production companies outside of Vietnam to have full, unprecedented access to the North Vietnamese’s footage of the war. The series also has personal accounts of the war from roughly 80 witnesses, including soldiers and civilians. The result is a comprehensive look at the strategy of the war, how it was reported, and the lasting impact that the brutality of war has on its survivors.

Ewers was joined by sound designers/sound effects editors Dave Mast, Mariusz Glabinski, and Jacob Ribicoff (also music editor). They earned an Emmy nomination for ‘Outstanding Sound Editing for a Nonfiction Program’ for their work on The Vietnam War Ep. 6, “Things Fall Apart.”  Here, the team discusses their approach to recreating the sound of the Vietnam War and how sound was used to add to the emotionality of the story.

Picture Editor / Sound Designer Erik Ewers

S&P: What were the filmmakers’ goals for sound? How were you able to help them tell this story through sound?

Erik Ewers (EE):  I think a major goal for Ep. 6 “Things Fall Apart” was to make the episode experiential, where people would have the opportunity to experience the combat in Vietnam in a way that would be brutally realistic without over-sensationalizing anything. My goal from the beginning was to have an episode where I could do that.

I talked to filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about how we could approach the Tet Offensive, because out of the 40-page script for that episode, the first 31 pages were almost all combat. So I explained my idea and they thought it was interesting but they were hesitant. If I’ve learned one thing working as a picture editor with Ken, it’s that if you don’t put sound effects in from the very beginning then he has a tendency to tighten up a scene and make it shorter. So in order for this experiential thing to happen, we tried to build sound design into the film from the very beginning. Then we went from there. They saw the value in the middle of the series, to demonstrate the low point of the Vietnam War as well as the horror of battle and the sounds of battle. I was grateful that I had the opportunity to put together an episode like that, to have the time to develop sound. Then to have Jacob [Ribicoff], Mariusz [Glabinski], and Dave [Mast] working together with me on that.

Dave was developing the sound of this series while we were still picture editing.

Dave Mast (DM):  There was a heavy interest in being able to make a sound effect that indicated when we were going backward or forward in time. So we had to come up with these transition effects that let the audience know we were moving through time.

Jacob Ribicoff (JR):   One of the unique experiences of working on the Tet Offensive episode was working with Erik, since he was the picture editor and a sound designer. He did an amazing job of choreographing these battles. He used the correct weapons for each side — the Americans, the North Vietnamese, which were often Russian in origin, and noting through panning where the different sides are as you’re watching the action unfold on the screen, and where the gunfire is coming from. All of those details were carefully plotted out. I think we collaborated very well together. Erik gave us this very detailed roadmap, and then I was able to dig deeper and drill down to find emotional sweeteners or sounds that added to the gunfire — sounds that made you feel like you were there, and that you were under siege as a viewer.

Mariusz Glabinski (MG):  I’ve been lucky enough to work on Ken Burns’ projects since 1997. Every time we start a new project, we have a spotting session and discuss scenes, vibes, and how to approach it with sound. But what was interesting about the sound for The Vietnam War is that both Ken and Lynn Novick had different, new approaches to the filming style and to sound as well.

Right from the beginning, with episode one, the opening is very abstract and unusual. We are going from the end of the war to the beginning of the conflict in reverse. Footage is played backward and that created great opportunity for sound! Ken and Lynn had some specific notes, but they also let us be creative and come up with a lot of abstract and unusual tones and sounds, something that you will not always associate with a historical war documentary — sound that you feel more than hear!

Also, knowing the subject matter, we were able to do extensive research into places, weapons, and historical facts. So when we started working on The Vietnam War, we had knowledge and some understanding of how any given scene could feel to the soldiers and people during that conflict. We wanted to be as true to the subject as possible.

Analyzing on-camera interviews and reading interview transcriptions was helpful to place yourself in the mind of the soldiers. Often in those interviews, I will find some sound clues, like ghostly silence in the middle of the jungle. All you hear is insects and wet humid air and you would listen for any enemy noise that could come from a few feet away in the thick jungle. Or rain, that masked any sounds and was deafening after hours. That’s how they describe fear, not being able to see the enemy and also often not being able to hear it as well, due to all the loud nature sounds pumping in their ears.

Sound Designer/ Sound Effects Editor Jacob Ribicoff

S&P: Where did you do the editing on this? Were you all together? How did you divide up the work?

EE:  The first part of the sound edit was included in the picture editing. We were able to choreograph the sound and the rhythm, oftentimes the randomness of battle. Jacob (whom I’ve worked with many times, going back to Ken Burns’ The War series) and I both share an enthusiasm for that kind of sound.

Dave was more involved in the abstract sounds and concepts that would help us step out of the moment and float above it or make it surreal like it’s unbelievable to the viewer that this is really happening. We love to do that a lot in the film.

Once we got to the sound editing phase, I was eager to talk to Jacob to get his input on things and get his ability to take what we did and shape it even better and fine-tune it and polish it. So that was the second phase, which to say it was icing on the cake would be a disservice to what he did in this project. For me, it was the perfect storm of creative minds, with Dave Mast, Jacob Ribicoff, Mariusz Glabinski, and I.

JR:  While Dave and Erik were working in Walpole, I was working at Soundtrack in New York City ( ) where I have my cutting room and project studio.

Sound Designer/ Sound Effects Editor Dave Mast

S&P: Dave, how did you approach the sound of the time transitions?

DM:  I looked for something abstract that the audience could latch onto. It could have been anything relevant to what was happening. There were 20 or 30 effects that were involved in the time transitions, and the variations of it.

EE:  We had designs in the script, moments where we wanted to jump out of time or jump ahead. Those signifiers, story-wise, indicated that we wanted to do something different there in the picture edit. So we’d ask Dave for a sound that would fit. We’d say, “We’re envisioning this. How do you think that would work?” And then he’d take that and play with it while I moved forward with picture editing. Dave would come back with ideas that he would pass by me first and then those would go to Ken [Burns] and Lynn [Novick] for their input. Then we’d incorporate those into the edit.

Sound Designer/ Sound Effects Editor Mariusz Glabinski

S&P: In terms of scope, how much of the show’s sound was designed in post, and how much was pulled from archival sources? In Ep. 6, for instance, the show opens up with radio chatter in the helicopter. Was that design or archival material?

EE:  That is one of my favorite questions when people ask me about what we do. In this particular episode, overall, I’d say about 98% had to be added in post because they didn’t bring sound people into combat along with the cameraman. The sound was only included for interviews. The only exception that I can think of in all of Ep.6 that was combat-related was one reporter had a tape recorder during the attack on the US Embassy. He was sitting across the street, hiding behind a tree describing what he was seeing, and you could hear the combat. He was smart enough to stop and let the sound of it take over and he was narrating for us. When that moment came up in picture editing, and I heard that piece of audio — it was just wild sound that had no picture with it — I thought this was a perfect way of narrating this scene because he was actually part of the experience. He wasn’t a voiceover actor sitting in a booth reading narration. He was there during the combat. So I was able to incorporate his voice into that moment, experiencing battle.

The opening sound of radio chatter in the helicopter, that was actually sound from a Vietnam helicopter, just not that one in that moment.

So 98% of the sound we had to add to create the feeling of combat. I just want to say, for authenticity’s sake, there was a desire to not over-sensationalize or “Hollywood-ize” the sound. I got to talk to many of the veterans that are in the film when they came in for consultant screenings. I would take a couple hours and sit down with them and ask them what it sounded like because they were willing to talk about their experiences, and that was incredibly invaluable.

JR:  The reporter who had the tape recorder by the embassy, that recording was like gold. In it, you hear voices and shouting. You hear the real emotionality of those voices, the desperation. Also, the way the recording has degraded — it’s distorted and there are breaks in it and there’s static, all those things you’d have to work for days to recreate. Having just an ounce of that archival material was so incredibly powerful. Those recordings have traveled through time and those experiences have reached us now. For everything it does for you emotionally, and also as a device for time travel, it reaches you in a subconscious way.

There’s an importance to using voices in sound effects work. I didn’t think much about it going into the project, but I found it incredibly effective. We had two- or three-day sessions where we recorded Vietnamese voices specifically. We recorded them in New York City and we were able to get a different range of ages for both men and women. Those voices along with other recordings that came from a variety of places were peppered in and around the combat sounds of gunfire and debris. The voices took it to another level because they have a way of bringing you, in a direct human way, to the scene of the action.

EE:  At the end of this reporter’s narration of the attack, he demonstrates his own genuine form of PTSD. In almost a surreal moment, he creates this sort of poem about this frog hopping through the spurting blood of a dead Vietnamese soldier on the green, green grass. That stuck with me. No one would normally consider that as something viable for a film. It’s almost an afterthought in a story that has to keep moving. But to me, it was what the Vietnam War is all about. Ken and Lynn agreed to let me cut a scene around it. Then it was completely solidified by the surreal sound effects that Dave brought to it. He created this dreamy, ear-ringing stunned silence of the aftermath of battle. That “poem” was one of the most powerful things that I experienced in the whole project.

DM:  The sound we created — that other 98% — we almost approached it like a Hollywood film. Hopefully, people don’t even notice that there isn’t archival sound because every footfall and jingle of belts and gun battles are all sounds that we added.

MG:  As with many historical documentaries utilizing archival footage, often the original material has no sound or has very poor, distorted quality of recording so there are two tasks working on shows like that — one is to recreate sounds for the footage to make it believable and sound like it’s a part of the original film, and the other is to enhance the material with subjective tones and sound design.

Many scenes, even with some existing dialogue, were enhanced with those two elements. We were adding Foley, sound effects, and sound design in a subtle way, so as to not make it noticeable, but to enhance the feeling of a particular scene. Often I would take some dialogue from a scene and run it through some processing, making a completely new sound out of it. But the base was an original recording from the location.

I’m always trying to use “historical-sounding” sound effect libraries, like FSE (Film Sound Effect Library).  It’s a library of recordings from 1966 by recordists Peter Handford and Gerry Humphreys. Those sounds may not be suitable for any current productions but are just perfect for any archival needs. The era, recording techniques, and equipment are all giving that specific vintage sound that is hard to recreate, even with so many new and wonderful plug-ins these days!

Also, I had some wonderful location recordings from the set of Brian De Palma’s film Casualties of War, given to me by a friend of mine, Maurice Schell, who supervised that film. Those had great analog recordings of helicopters, war camps, and jungles. Recorded on analog Nagra recorders, they had that great fat-sounding low-end. We used those helicopter sounds extensively, both for archival footage and for creating interesting sound design, by twisting and processing it in various ways. That bass was just wonderful and after processing it, we could get very haunting and eerie sounds out of it.

I also used recent recordings by Frank Bry, who has a wonderful array of libraries of guns and bullets, from hits and bys to whizzes and everything in between. Those sounds were slightly processed before the mix, again to give them that archival sound feel.

General William Westmoreland and President Lyndon B. Johnson

S&P:  There are other recordings featured in this episode. There is Lyndon Johnson and Jack Horner of the Washington Star. There was a news anchor for NBC reporting on the Tet Offensive, and he had been shot in the leg. What was the quality of those recordings? What was your approach to cleaning them?

EE:  We looked through hundreds of hours of material from CBS, NBC, ABC, Associated Press, and any kind of network coverage that was happening back then. Much of the material was outtakes, things that never made it to television. We stumbled across the injured reporter scene that you referenced, and we appreciated the raw nature of it. We wanted to preserve that raw nature. He or the cameraman thought to roll tape, to show how close they were to the trauma of battle.

The news reporter’s experience was one of the many threads in this film. We encountered it, reacted to it and tried to incorporate it as a segue in that moment that we were talking about how the war was happening everywhere. His report personified that because at the end of his segment he says now the war is in Saigon, like that’s the center of it.

The Johnson and Nixon tapes are indescribable — as if we are witnessing the moments where our leadership turned and went the wrong direction. There’s an intimacy we give the viewer with the President of the United States and his confidants. It speaks for itself. And the irony is that these presidents chose to record themselves on a daily basis… wow.

Soldiers on a search and destroy operation

S&P: How were you able to use sound creatively in this episode? 

DM:  There’s a certain element of the era of Vietnam that allows you to be more experimental. That really opened things up for sound design. We can create more of an emotional feel. I feel like people’s memories of that time era opened the gate for me to be more experimental.

EE:  In terms of using effects and design creatively, for me, my favorite thing to do on any film of Ken’s is to think outside the box. And by that, I mean outside the television screen. If you are just cutting effects to what you see on the screen, you are limited in what you can do, particularly for moments that are real (as opposed to abstract moments). You’re going to do sync sound and footsteps and tank treads and gunfire. I like to think outside the screen and into the 5.1 surround environment, or even a stereo environment, about what is happening to the far left of the moment on-screen, or to the far right. So from the get-go, I was thinking about what was happening three shots later. So let’s say there’s a tank, I will start the sound effect of the tank three shots before and have it slowly come in from the back of the room or in from the right. So you hear the sound of the tank three shots before you see the tank. The viewer has been given a clue as to what is outside of the box. That is the way that I like to use sound to tie potentially unrelated images — a shot from NBC with a shot from ABC and they may not be the exact same moment but they’re from the same battle. That allowed us (Dave, Jacob, Mariusz, and I) to create a sound environment for our images to live in. It was really fun and exciting. It allows you to have ambushes come in from the far back or the far left, and those begin before you see them on the screen. You hear the rocket come in before it explodes on the screen.

JR: Outside the box also meant going from the literal or hyperreal into an abstract place that was meant to convey emotion. When you had people giving their personal narratives and getting to a very emotional place in their story, you would find yourself able to create abstract sounds that push the boundary into emotional territory. That is something that is unprecedented in a Ken Burns documentary. Maybe that happened with the score in some of the past documentaries but now we’re able to do this with sound design.

At one point there’s a veteran talking about losing his hearing for a period of time and the fear and alienation that he felt while he was momentarily deaf. We were able to muffle sounds or add echo and then muffle the echoes of the sounds.

There was another moment with handheld footage and the camera is being jostled around. It’s almost abstract footage, just shear motion of things and people flying past the camera and moving around. That’s where I built something with voices and yelling. Then I reversed some voices and yelling and built it up to a roar so that I could pin all of this on the imagery that was put in place. I was able to build that to a deafening roar and then cut it off. The contour and shape of the story and the way the images were cut allowed us to go from a traditional documentary narrative into a place that’s more abstract visually and sonically.

MG:  We started working on the series before we heard any music from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, but for years I was a huge fan of Trent and his band NIN (Nine Inch Nails), and recently heard all the great score they did for so many films. So I knew more or less what to expect and was trying to design sounds in that realm of the spectrum — sounds that are dark and industrial, with a lot of experimentation.  I was just having fun with it. I have a template of Pro Tools sessions that utilize many weird and interesting plug-ins. So I’m able to import picture into that session and just play with sounds live as I watch scenes. Then I’ll edit and catalog all the sounds and put them into my library. Many of those creations are unusable, but then you get something very special that later I can use for all sorts of scenes, based on emotions. It’s something to add some color, an underlying tone under all the other sounds.

There were a few scenes in The Vietnam War that were almost like a radio play. You had a subject, a veteran of the war, telling us a chilling and horrific story and through the interview, we only see the talking head on the screen, but underneath in the background, you have a ghostly representation of the action that he is describing to us. It was very tricky to find the right balance of how to use those sounds, to be tasteful and not go over the top, to just enhance the story and not illustrate it too much. But I think we achieved just the right balance. Still today every time I watch those scenes, I have goosebumps, just as when I watched them for the first time.

South Vietnamese troops fly over the Mekong Delta

S&P:  There are so many gunfire and helicopter sounds, all very percussive and staccato.  How did you keep the overall soundtrack from becoming repetitive?

EE:  I’ve always viewed combat documentary filmmaking as a rollercoaster ride. If all of the moments are a steep drop, then it’s going to get old very quickly. You have to have points where you pause, like that moment when that soldier went nearly deaf. We’re inside his experience and you hear his heartbeat and the ringing of his ears and muffled sounds.  That is a rest. You’ve gone down the “rollercoaster” drop and now you are making a turn and getting ready for the next one. It allows that next explosive moment to have an impact. There is an ebb and flow, a give and take of the sound design and picture design. In this documentary, the sound and picture go hand-in-hand. We give the viewer a chance to enjoy the whole ride and not just try to overwhelm them. There has to be an elegance to the brutality that we are trying to convey. That was one of the missions I had from the get-go, to make sure that there were these points that broke the rule of combat and went nearly silent or still — moments that were reverent.

JR: There’s a meditative nature to these veterans remembering and filtering their experience through so many years. There’s a calmness and distance, a melancholy. The score — by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble, and Dave Cieri, really gets to that. It’s an eerie, queasy feeling and there were ways of extending and working along with the score, with tones and elements that came from us. That was an emotional additive as well.

Picture Editor / Sound Designer Erik Ewers records gunfire sound effects

S&P: Did you get to capture any custom recordings for the series?

EE:  The sound effects libraries we were pulling from were fantastic. A lot of it was raw effects that came from the Band of Brothers series on HBO through Tom Hanks and Playtone. But we realized there were some sound effects that weren’t quite right for the scene, like the reverberated sound of battle in the city street, echoing off the buildings.

So we hatched up this brilliant idea to record our own gunfire. Through some connections, we had the opportunity to go out to record with a police officer who had an AK-47, two M16s, and we asked some other gun owners, one of whom had a vintage AK-47 from 1970. So with the blessing of this police officer as our supervisor, we went into the woods here outside of Walpole, New Hampshire, and found a safe place to set up some microphones about 250-feet apart, going away from where we were shooting. We spent about 1,000 rounds of all different varieties. We shot some leaves, some small saplings, and a downed tree or two and just made a day of it.

DM:  Even though I was up here in New Hampshire, I didn’t go out with them to shoot the guns, but I was really glad that they got the recordings.

EE:  With the AK, as you’re aiming at this little tree, you feel like you will be able to hit it. Maybe on the first shot — if you’re calm and your weapon is positioned properly, and you can take careful aim, you’ll be able to hit it. But if you’re trying to fire multiple shots, the gun is bouncing all over the place. It’s difficult to get the gun back onto the target. I used to shoot in skeet competitions and so I understand how to hold your body and how to fire. But with the AK, I shot everything but the target.

DM: Erik is a better editor then he is a marksman.

EE:   I’m not a good marksman but we ended up having a huge library as a result of the expedition and so that was invaluable.

MG:  Also, we recorded a full set of Foley with our Foley artist Jay Peck at Stepping Stone Foley Studio in NY. Foley added that extra layer of details to all the archival materials.

Most of the recordings we did, we processed before mixing to add that old, historic flavor so it will sit with the archival sounds and not stand out as new recordings.

Mass funeral for South Vietnamese killed by Viet Cong in Hue during the Tet Offensive. (October 1969)

S&P:  Of all the episodes in The Vietnam War docu-series, why did you choose Ep. 6 for Emmy consideration for sound editing?

EE:   From the very beginning of the creation of this episode, sound was as important as picture. We knew that if the sound wasn’t dynamic, elegant, provocative, scary, and intimidating, if it wasn’t all these things and filled out the experience, then the Tet Offensive wouldn’t come across as an intense, non-stop battle that lasted for months. It literally lasted months, day in and day out, every day all over Vietnam. We knew that if we were going to do justice to this moment in history, it had to feel relentless. We knew from the beginning — Ken and Lynn as directors and myself as picture editor and sound designer, Dave and Mariusz as sound designers… we knew from the beginning that this was going to be the one that was going to demand the most attention in sound. It’s no accident that Jacob was our sound effects editor coming in because I wouldn’t have anyone else do it.

JR:  It’s really immersive from start to finish. All the other episodes have the immersive sections and moments but probably none more pervasively than Ep. 6.

EE:  Jacob drooled over this episode as much as Dave, Mariusz, and I did, from a creative standpoint. We were all just hungry for it.

JR:   The footage, the color… what I wasn’t prepared for and what was inspirational from a creative point of view was the footage. It was so amazing and so dynamic. It inspires you in terms of what you can do with sound.

EE: I heard a statistic from someone on our crew that the Library of Congress has thousands and thousands of hours of footage from the Vietnam War. Of that, the films that were made on the Vietnam War prior to ours probably used 10% to 20% of that footage. We went 70% to 80%, if not more into that footage. We went deeper than anyone else has.

Also, I believe we are one of the first production companies outside of Vietnam to be allowed into the North Vietnamese archives. We had full, unprecedented access to all of their footage that they shot during the war. That allowed us to tell the story in a way that no one else before us had been able to. For example, in Ep. 3, the footage from the North Vietnamese and the footage that we had came together to show the same battle from different sides. We had the American footage, footage from the North Vietnamese, and footage from the South Vietnamese, who were our allies.  We had all of it, from all three sides, in the same moment. That is documentary filmmaking on a rare level.

Learn More: http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/the-vietnam-war/

-S&P-

Images courtesy of PBS, Bettman/Getty Images

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