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[Bob Smith and Ron Patton are former active duty submariners and are currently Vice Presidents and Principal Analysts at Sonalysts, Inc. of Waterford, CT. They were sound technical consultants to Paramount Pictures for the movie Hunt for Red October. This Film recently won the Academy Award for Sound Effects Editing. In this article, Bob and Ron recount their experiences in working with Paramount to create the award winning sound effects for the movie.]

And the winner is…. At times during the evening of March 25, 1991, the anxiety level was high. After all, the sound effects editing crew had said they were hopeful for at least an Academy Award nomination for their work on Hunt for Red October. Would it be the next award? And the winner is …… But by 11:15 p.m., when the majority of the 22 Oscars bad been banded out, some of the tension bad waned. They don’t give an award for anything as obscure as sound effects this late, do they? It’s time for the big ones: actors, actresses, and directors. Dances With Wolves beat Red October for an award for sound at 9:30 — that was probably the one.

Then… what was that? Sound Effects Editing? That’s the category! The nominees are Total Recall, The Hunt for Red October, and Flatliners. Anxiety peak again. And the winner is… Hunt for Red October!!

The next day was a flurry of media coverage. After all, it’s not every day a small company in Waterford, Connecticut gets recognized as a player in an Academy Award win. The interviews seemed endless: television, radio, newspapers. But there were a few minutes at the end of the day to call and congratulate Cecelia Hall and George Watters ll, the actual recipients of the statuettes.

For all involved, it was an exciting week. In Hollywood, it’s their living, and many go through a lifetime in the motion picture industry without even a nomination. For us, there was one opportunity to work on one aspect of one film, once in a lifetime, and it went on to be the only part of that film to win an Oscar. Contemplating the odds was mind boggling. However, the odds can be turned in one’s favor through perseverance and hard work, and both played a role in this win.

The road to that exciting moment began when the movie was still in the concept stage. Back in 1986 when a movie based on the novel Hunt for Red October was in the rumor stage, a letter was written to Tom Clancy to try to find an inroad to some involvement in the production. Clancy wrote back saying that the dramatic rights were sold to Mace Neufeld, the producer, and that as far as Clancy could tell, he was out of the decision loop for movie production.

Meanwhile, Jim Patton (a former submarine commanding officer and no relation to the author) was receiving the endorsement of the Submarine Force to be the technical consultant on the picture. At first, Jim recommended to Paramount that Sonalysts be contacted to get involved in the development of display screens for the various sonar equipments on DALLAS and RED OCfOBER. Somewhere along the line, however, this aspect of film support fell through.

All was quiet for over a year, and then through a connection made with Captain Mike Sherman (Director of the Navy Office of Information in Los Angeles), it was determined that Para mount might be interested in some outside assistance in the area of sound effects. This seemed like a perfect fit Sonalysts knew submarines, bad a complete sound recording facility. and knew the limitations of what could be put in a film without jeopardizing national security interests. The door was open.

The first order of business was to reread Clancy’s novel, determine the array of sounds that would be required as part of the soundtrack. and get a letter off to Paramount demonstrating the knowledge and desire to be a part of the sound effects work. That February 1989 letter to Glen Neufeld further opened the door. Neufeld requested a cassette tape sampling of underwater sounds and information on a proposed approach to the job, which were sent in March.

Another couple months of silence made it apparent that Paramount bad decided to proceed on its own; but then in July. a call was received from Cecelia Hall with a renewed interest in sound technical consulting services. It was arranged to meet with her and George Watters at Paramount in August to go over some raw movie footage and present some ideas for both background noise on the submarines and the more obvious sounds like torpedoes and sonar pings. Although movie budgets appear to be huge, in some departments, every penny is counted. The date of this visit was planned to be concurrent with a trip to California for other business.

The evening at Paramount involved viewing the first black and white footage of the not-yet-released film. The screening room was truly amazing with its seats like those in First Class on an airplane. In addition, there was an opportunity to meet the movie’s executive producer and film editors. All in all, it was a unique and enjoyable experience.

For Cecelia and George, however, the evening was a revelation. For months, everyone had been telling them that submarines don’t make any noise, that their reason for existence is silence. As the footage rolled, we rather matter-of-factly spoke of the abundance of sounds that characterized all phases of submarine operations. They were ecstatic. Submarines actually make noise! After all, sound is the sound editor’s job, and if submarines literally constituted the silent service, their work on this film was destined to be pretty boring. This meeting at Paramount convinced Cecelia and George that they needed some help to make this picture as authentic as possible.

The next step was to make plans for them to come east to record some submarine sounds and to invent a few others.

Making plans according to the Submarine Force’s operational schedule is sometimes a trial Working within a movie production schedule can be equally trying. Making the two coincide is truly a test of patience. After several changes in the host submarine (even DALLAS itself was mentioned at one point) and in the times of Paramount’s visit, a specific submarine and a date were finally agreed upon. Approval had been granted for two days of dockside recording in early October aboard the USSSHARK.

The only problem was that SHARK was at sea until the day prior to Paramount’s scheduled arrival (we all know how port arrival schedules go), and the sound team had committed to the trip based on the assurance that all would come off as planned, assurance given with just a touch of uncertainty. So Cecelia, George, and John Fasal (one of their sound effects recording engineers) arrived as planned, even though SHARK was still at sea and no personal contact had as yet been made with the Commanding Officer, Russ Carr, because of the lateness of the decision.

After some initial discussions, the group headed to Groton for lunch at a nice restaurant overlooking the Thames River. As beverages were delivered, internal sighs of relief came as all eyes beheld the USS SHARK coming up the river into port. It was casually mentioned that this was the submarine on which we would be spending the next two days, and how nice of them to time their arrival during our lunch. One uncertainty down, one to go.

The phone call to Commander Carr that afternoon was private, consisting of introductions and initial plans rather than the final preparations I’m sure our guests thought it contained. Fortunately, Commander Carr, his entire wardroom and crew, and the parent squadron and group staffs were most accommodating, and in retrospect, the entire episode could not have gone more smoothly.

On SHARK during the next two days, every imaginable sound associated with an operational submarine was captured: the obvious sounds of alarms, masts going up and down, and hatches opening and closing, but also the subtle background noise caused by ventilation fans and electronic hum. It was the director John McTiernan’s goal to have each compartment on each submarine in the movie (DALLAS, RED OCfOBER, KONOV ALOV, and the deep submergence research vehicle (DSRV)) have its own identifiable background sound, so a lot of time was spent in a lot of different compartments recording a lot of almost nothing.

One place on SHARK that could not be accessed for recording purposes was engineering. However, the movie required the sounds of an operational reactor plant, so it was arranged for a half a day at the Millstone Nuclear Generation Station to capture the sounds of steam noise, turbines, condensers, and the other unique combination of sounds that identifies an engine room.

Back in the Sonalysts sound studio after two very full and successful days of recording, it was time to create those sounds that could not be recorded directly, such as sonar and torpedo pings, propeller noise, and the infamous sound of the caterpillar engine on RED OCTOBER. So with oscillators, synthesizers, digital reverbs, and various household appliances, the first cuts at some of the more memorable movie sounds were made. Ever-present during those sessions, however, were the words of our Submarine Force leaders: credibility, not realism.

When the Paramount team left Connecticut, it was believed that the movie would contain many of those sounds precisely as they were recorded or created. A little known fact is that what you hear in a movie is often in no way related to the sound it’s attempting to imitate. For example, during their work on Top Gun, Cecelia and George could not obtain through live recording the number and variety of jet engine sounds required throughout the movie. Therefore, the majority of those sounds are slowed down and otherwise manipulated renderings of leopard roars.

Red October was no different. The ultimate source of many sounds was as distant from the real thing as it could be. Crowd noise at a race track provided the underwater ambience in the movie. A combination of outboard motor, car, and howitzer sounds produced the torpedo sound that kept us all on the edge of our seats. The sound of evasion devices being ejected was created by dropping large bags of Alka Seltzer into a swimming pool. Some sounds came from the vast Paramount library. Others were tailor-made and played over the phone for comment during late-night calls from California to our homes.

The sound of hull popping during submarine depth changes was unique in its origin. Originally, the sound of hammer taps of SHARK’s exterior was recorded. Not satisfied with the result, Paramount engineers created a variety of alternatives, one almost too extravagant to believe. The sound of grand piano strings being severed by a wire cutter was recorded by one engineer in hopes of it being the right sound. It was nowhere close. The tape ended up on the floor along with many other rejects. Who knows what happened to the piano. The final sound in the movie was simply a recording of Cecelia tossing pebbles into a drain culvert.

The director of course is in ultimate control of what sound does and does not make it to the final product John McT~eman had some very strong opinions about the overall effect he wanted to create with sound. So in some cases, Hollywood won over both credibility and realism. When the director wants beeps, the director gets beeps. That’s why, despite mild protests, DALLAS’ passive sonar displays had that very unique sound quality.

After two visits to Paramount to help in the editing and sound evaluation process, our participation was more or less over by the beginning of 1990. With three months left until release, there was much work left to do, but it mostly involved editing and putting together all of the pieces that had been painstakingly created. This was Paramount’s job. Meanwhile, it was back to the normal work schedule and trying to forget all of the footage seen dozens of times, in hopes that in March, the movie would be fresh.

That was wishful thinking. March 30, 1990… As important audiences gathered for the movie premiere in Hollywood and Washington, D.C., a mini-premiere celebration was also taking place in the Submarine Capital of the World as local submariners gathered in force to watch their movie. The aviators had their tum with Top Gun. Now it was the submariners’ tum. The media coverage was an unexpected treat There were interviews by local television and newspaper reporters, and just prior to the movie, an opportunity to speak to the audience in the theater about the work on sound effects.

Then… it was showtime; and two hours and fifteen minutes later, it was over. Yes, the sounds were well done. Yes, the acting was solid. Yes, the story line was consistent. But the lingering question was: “Was it a good movie?” There was nothing new or fresh about it, even though this was the first time it was seen with all the parts put together. All of those scenes in their original black and white monotony kept flashing back; it was all too familiar. So it was necessary to ask others if it was a good movie, and we were relieved to find out that most thought it was an exceptional film, a real thriller. However, it was then realized why many movie people don’t care to see the products of their work and why many recording artists don’t listen to their own albums. They get so involved with the details of the creation that the artistic appeal is lost.

Participation in the making of Hunt for Red October provided a unique opportunity to bring the best of the submarine force to the big screen. Movies, especially good ones, have an impact that is far reaching and immeasurable. Many kids will likely grow up aspiring to be the Mancusos and Jonesys of tomorrow. They will see that being a submariner may not be a glamorous as some other Navy jobs, but it takes a special kind of commitment. and extra measure of leadership skill, and a determination to be the best of your kind in the world. They will realize that the cost is great, but the rewards are also great.

And the winner is ….. the U.S. Naval Submarine Force. This was your opportunity to shine, to reach out to your leaders of tomorrow, and you succeeded. Congratulations one and all!


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