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Recording the History in Spielberg’s "Lincoln"

By Liana Bailey

Daniel Day-Lewis stars as President Abraham Lincoln in this scene from director Steven Spielberg’s drama Lincoln from DreamWorks Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox. © DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved

Daniel Day-Lewis stars as President Abraham Lincoln in this scene from director Steven Spielberg’s drama Lincoln from DreamWorks Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox. © DreamWorks II Distribution Co. LLC. All Rights Reserved

American University professor Greg Smith recently lent his talents as an audio film specialist to Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Lincoln. As the assistant sound designer for the movie, Smith helped bring historical authenticity to the project by walking in Lincoln’s footsteps to capture what he heard during his presidency.

The School of Communication sat down with Smith, Assistant Professor of Audio Technology and Affiliate Professor of Film and Media, to discuss working on the sounds of a movie that the media is calling a masterpiece:

How did you get involved with Spielberg’s latest film?

Smith: My mentor, who is sound designer for the Lincoln, Ben Burtt, called me up one day with the question "What sounds did Lincoln hear?

SOC: What was your specific role in helping with the movie?

Smith: I had to brainstorm and think about, “What did he actually hear during his presidency?” and “How can I incorporate these sounds into the film?” Many of the sounds needed for the movie are right here in D.C. It was just a matter of trying to find them.

SOC: What were some of the sounds that you recorded for the film?

Smith: I traveled to the St. John's Episcopal church where Lincoln attended services. The church was built in 1822 and still has the original bell heard by Lincoln and even the pew he sat on. Audio: Hear the bell ring

Along with one of my students, I was able to climb into the bell tower and record it. We were told that we the first people to go up into that bell tower in over 50 years. Lincoln also walked on the very same floorboards that are in the church today and I was able to get the sounds of the wood creaking as well as the creak from the pew where Lincoln actually sat.

Some other interesting sounds that I worked on were in the White House. Gaining access was difficult at first but once we were given the green light we were able to record quite a few things there. We recorded the doors located in the East and Green rooms; opening and closing and knocking on them. And Burtt and I recorded three of the mantle clocks that were in the White House in Lincoln’s time; one of them was on the fireplace mantle in his White House office.

SOC: What was one of the most interesting experiences working on the film?

Smith: I had the opportunity to travel to Frankfort, Kentucky to record the sound of Lincoln's actual gold pocket watch. The watch has been passed down by Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. The watch is located at the Kentucky Historical Societal Library. The curator was quite gracious in allowing me to come in and record the ticking of the watch. Audio: Hear Lincoln's pocket watch ticking

SOC: Why do you go through so much effort to record authentic sounds when you could just mimic the sound using a modern equivalent or through digital technology?

Smith: I figured why not do it? And it’s fun. I’ve spent years recording sounds all over the world, and in fact, donated quite a few of them to the Bender Library in a sound effects collection. It was also fun to challenge myself to be historically accurate. It made the project a lot more important to those of us working on it. If we have the opportunity to record accurate, authentic sounds we always try to take advantage of it.

Professor Smith will speak about his work on "Lincoln" at a lecture co-sponsored by the School of Communication and the Department of Performing Arts on November 29 at 2:30 pm in the Wechsler Theater on AU’s main campus.

Smith is an SOC alumnus who received his MFA in 2010 in Film and Media Production. During his career, he has worked for Lucasfilm and IMAX. His current projects include a charity Christmas CD. Next semester, he plans to teach Post Production Film Sound and Fundamentals of Audio Technology.