The Art Of Crafting Off Screen Sounds – Becky Sullivan And Anna Behlmer Discuss Sound In “The Zookeeper’s Wife”

Creating the purr of lion cubs was amongst the audio tasks in “The Zookeeper’s Wife” Photo courtesy Scion Pictures.

By: Marjorie Galas

Animals scream from 90 acres of land. Bombers fly overhead.  A piano’s music drifts through a basement chasm.  These elements are crucial to the story of “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, yet they occur primarily off-screen: that is, the viewer never sees them.   Crafting authentic and accurate sounds for these cues fell to the capable hands of supervising sound editor Becky Sullivan, re-recording mixers Terry Porter and Anna Behlmer and the members of the film’s sound department.

A period drama based on the factual account of the Warsaw Zoological Garden owners Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) who successfully rescued Jewish citizens by smuggeling them through an underground system on their property in WWII Poland, the sound team’s approach began with research. They had to authentically portray the sounds of nature, warfare, ghetto and domestic life through a six year period.  A WWII history buff, Sullivan turned to her personal library of sound recordings to match the fighter plans, gun fire and other battle elements.  The list of zoo sounds that open the story proved more challenging to nail down.

“We had to show the love for these animals,” said Sullivan. “They had to sound authentic but not get cartoony.  We had to create a personality for them.”

To audibly define Adam, a baby camel that frequently trailed Antonina, a wealth of camel sounds were recorded. After testing levels of chattering, they opted for small moments of vocals.  This course of spot testing sound also helped balance the gentle purring of Antonia’s lion cubs.

When Antonina saves a suffocating baby elephant, Sullivan used recordings of a baby sea lion whose breathing patterns and squeaks worked best for the injured mammal. The team then thoughtfully built the off-screen elephants’ backdrop sonically.  This included highlighting the heavy footsteps of the anxious father’s charging and the distraught mother’s eager trumpeting.

For the scenes that depict the refugees in the Zabinski’s basement, Sullivan and her team were looking for ways to dictate space, sell the danger and extend the sense of dread. Working with foley artists, they captured the sound of creaks on different types of wood.  Adding these sounds to the track, the re-recording mixers worked with reverb and delay to differentiate distance and pressure of individuals on the upper floor.  Porter applied these techniques as well as compression to the piano’s music to dictate its expansion in the basement space.   In addition to creating location-based sounds, the team ensured sounds corresponded to actors’ reactions and visual nuances.

“Niki (Caro, the film’s director) did a great job of shooting directional cues,” said Behlmer. “If something drew our attention, we watched the action and figured out how to orchestrate it.”

During the pre-mix and dubbing stage with editor David Coulson, Caro worked very collaboratively with the sound team, regularly discussed refocusing sound and adjusting sound effects to ensure they captured the emotional landscape she envisioned. This included finessing the layout of an explosion; from a plane’s overhead flight to the scattering of debris.