Israeli Sound Man Walking on Air in Bid for 'Gravity’ Oscar

Niv Adiri and his team are up for an Academy Award for Alfonso Cuaron's space film, where finally the sound effects adhere to the laws of science.

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It was only at the end of a long night, after hours in a studio, that Niv Adiri checked his phone to find it bursting with voicemails, missed calls and text messages. First he opened a message from his wife, Abbie, that had arrived several hours earlier.

“You are nominated for an Oscar,” she wrote, with typical British understatement. The other messages confirmed the news, but it was only after he went online and saw his name on the Academy Awards website that he really took it in.

Adiri, an Israeli who has lived for 14 years in England, is one of a team of four contending for the sound-mixing award for one of the most talked-about films of the year, “Gravity,” directed by Alfonso Cuaron. The Academy Awards ceremony takes place on March 2 in Los Angeles, but next week Adiri will experience a kind of preview at the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, where he has been nominated in the sound category.

If your heart was pounding when you watched Cuaron’s movie, it probably wasn’t because of Sandra Bullock or George Clooney, the amazing visual effects or the spectacular views of Earth. It was probably the sound imitating Bullock’s heartbeat.

“The entire hall shakes with the bass of the heart; it’s something you feel more than hear,” says Adiri, who worked for three years on the film, playing a major role as sound designer and recording mixer. He was also responsible for mixing the sound effects.

“We designed bass frequencies of the heart that beat at their own pace, and the speed varies according to what’s happening in the film,” he says. “I created a special sampler program that would make it simple to control the speed and make it flow better.”

Enjoy the silence

In “Gravity,” two American space-shuttle astronauts (Clooney and Bullock) find themselves lost in space after a Russian satellite disintegrates and shrapnel destroys the shuttle while the two are spacewalking. Sound was an integral part of Cuaron’s original concept: to make a movie in space, where there’s no sound at all. Cuaron mentions this lack of sound in the text on screen at the start of the film.

“The first time Alfonso explained his sound concept in 2010, we said, ‘Great, we can go to a pub, there’s no sound in space,’” Adiri says with a laugh. “But of course, it was a very complex assignment. We arrived at the idea that the sound the viewers heard would be through Sandra. The sound would emanate from contact and vibration, so everything she touched we’d be hearing as if it were from her head. We’d also be hearing her breathing in her spacesuit and pounding heart.”

The team created hours of material with contact microphones that absorb vibrations. “The movie has layers upon layers upon layers of sound and hundreds of tracks, but people understand the sound very quickly because the mind can grasp something it’s familiar with,” Adiri says.

“Our challenge was to convey something that the viewers would very quickly understand. When Sandra touched something underwater there were special filters with a different kind of vibration. All the high frequencies disappear, and we worked solely with very low frequencies and sub-basses.”

At first it was hard for Adiri to see scenes of explosions and not add noise to them. "Alfonso wanted everything taking place outside the space station … to be depicted with music because there’s no sound. We and composer Steven Price worked closely to create a mix between the music and the sound design,” Adiri says.

“Price created music that sounds a little like sound effects, and we created a lot of vibrations and linked it all together. The moment she enters the space station and takes off her suit, all the sound comes back and everything sounds normal. Working on this film was a pleasure. We had to go all the way on everything. We couldn’t give up for a second.”

Rung up by Robert Smith

Adiri, 39, who lives with his wife and two sons in Wheatley, a large village and civil parish about five miles east of Oxford, was born and raised in Kfar Vitkin between Tel Aviv and Haifa, where his family farmed. After milking the cows he would practice piano and drums for a few hours. When he was 10, a new cassette player got him organizing parties in the town’s disco.

“From when I was very young I sat at home and listened to Israeli artists like Matti Caspi, Yehudit Ravitz and Shalom Hanoch,” he says. “Even then I was very curious about how music is built from different elements.”

After serving in the Paratroopers, he did sound work in Tel Aviv for live performances, and later worked as a professional DJ. In 1999 he moved to London and studied sound at the SAE Institute, a school providing private post-secondary education for creative media technologies. That move beefed up his theoretical knowledge.

“Because I didn’t know anybody and I lived in a tiny room, I spent most of the time at school,” he recalls. “I took advantage of every moment at school.”

The first door opened right after he graduated, when he got a phone call from Gearbox, a company that sold, supported and trained people to use audio equipment. He had been recommended by some of his instructors from college.

He worked at Gearbox for two years and became an expert in Pro Tools, a sound recording and editing system. He worked with some of Gearbox’s biggest clients like the Cure, Massive Attack and Basement Jaxx.

“One of the things I’ll never forget is how one Sunday the phone rang and the man on the other side said, ‘Hi, this is Robert Smith [the Cure’s lead singer]. I’m sorry to be bothering you on a Sunday, but I have a few technical questions and I’d love it if you could help me.’

Adiri says he thought to himself, “Bother me all you want!” "As a DJ I had played the Cure a lot, and suddenly I found myself sitting in his house that overlooks the sea, putting his studio together and working with him on the computer. It was a little surreal.”

His next project was to work with the recording team of another legend, Joe Strummer, formerly of the Clash. Work on that album continued even after Strummer’s death.

Enter Harry Potter

Adiri’s entry into the world of cinema happened almost by chance, during a period when sound studios were suffering from the economic downturn more than a decade ago.

“More and more musicians were installing private sound systems in their homes, which hurt the studios. Some of them closed. There was less work and it was hard,” he says.

Adiri came back to Israel for a vacation and even started to make inquiries about work, but only a few days after he landed he received a call from England with a tempting offer.

“They asked me to come in for two days to join the sound team of a new movie and to help them with dubbing it into foreign languages,” he says. “I decided to cut my vacation short and flew immediately back to England.” The movie was “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” directed by Cuaron.

Ten years ago Adiri began working as a freelancer for Glenn Freemantle’s Sound24 company at Pinewood Studios, where he remains to this day. He made a name for himself in the film industry.

He worked on Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours,” Pete Travis’ “Dredd,” Dustin Hoffman’s “Quartet” and James McTeigue’s “V for Vendetta.” The sound editing team on “Slumdog” was nominated for an Oscar, but Adiri’s nomination for “Gravity” marks the first time his name has appears on the list of nominees.

What’s the work plan for a production like ‘Gravity’?

“Usually you adjust the sound to the image, but ‘Gravity’ was unusual in that the only thing that was real was the face of each actor. Not their hands, not the Earth in the background – none of that was real. So we built the sound at the same time as the image; it wasn’t as if we finished shooting days and then came the sound phase. We kept getting more and more pictures and more and more updates, based on which we created, got things moving and made changes.”

Can you explain how Cuaron managed such a complex production?

“Alfonso had the idea of the film in his head, which evolved over time, and he knew what he wanted to achieve. He likes to be in control of every detail, of every frame of the picture, of every sound track, of the music. I understand that because I’m also a control freak. I like being in control of what I do because I have an idea in my head and I want it to come out as best as possible.

“On the other hand, Alfonso was very open to ideas and suggestions, and he likes to let people do their work even as he gets involved. Danny Boyle was the same way; it was amazing to work with him. He trusts the people he chooses and lets you take something as far as you want. Then he brings you back.”

Adiri recently worked on the movie “The Book Thief,” directed by Brian Percival, which he described as very slow and intricate work. He’s now working on “Black Sea” starring Jude Law and directed by Kevin Macdonald, and the science fiction film “Ex Machina” by Alex Garland, who also wrote “Dredd” and “28 Days Later.” He’s about to embark on two new projects he can’t yet talk about.

The elegant invitation for two to the Oscar ceremony is also a way for him to treat his wife. “Without her support I couldn’t have succeeded. There are long periods when I’m immersed in work that requires a lot of focus with my mind and ears,” he says. “It’s great that I can reciprocate with something.”

A still image from 'Gravity.'Credit: AP
Niv Adiri at work.Credit: Courtesy
Alfonso Cuaron.Credit: AP
Sandra Bullock.Credit: Reuters
A still image from 'Gravity.'Credit: AP
Niv Adiri. Photo courtesy.
Cure lead singer Robert Smith. Credit: Christian Córdova

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