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Sound Mixers Reveal Misconceptions About Their Art and Views on Immersive Sound

In advance of Saturday’s CAS Awards, THR caught up with sound mixers who worked on "Captain Phillips," "Gravity," "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "Iron Man 3."

Sound mixers are the first to acknowledge that there are still a lot of misconceptions about what it is that they do.

“Because of the nature of our senses, we expect to hear the things we look at. So with film, we expect the sound to be there, while on most of the big films, the sound is completely recreated and really very little of it would sound like what you’re hearing,” explained rerecording mixer Michael Prestwood Smith, a double Cinema Audio Society nominee for Captain Phillips and Iron Man 3, and an Oscar nom for Paul GreengrassPhillips. “The task is to let the audience believe they are experiencing something genuine, but also exciting and dramatic.”

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Speaking in advance of this weekend’s 50th Cinema Audio Society Awards for sound mixing, rerecording mixer Skip Lievsay — a double Oscar and double CAS nominee for Gravity and Inside Llewyn Davis – summed up that the primary job of a sound mixer “is to interpret the filmmaker’s wishes and the needs of the story … to heighten the drama or the comedy or the action or the quiet contemplation—whatever it is the filmmaker is trying to accent.”

This was a challenge on Captain Phillips, explained Prestwood Smith. “Paul treads a very fine line between drama and real life, and he seeks a truth in his films,” he said. “The difficult thing in mixing his films is while you want to be truthful to the material, you also need to make it dramatic and exciting. So finding the line between what is real and what is genre is a fine one. Often it takes a long time to hone that down.”

He described a very different challenge for Iron Man 3. “Those (tentpole) films are so huge and complex, you often find yourself with a mountain of sound to sort through … You really have to find the storyline. On a big action scene you are presented with hundreds of elements, but really, story in only dealing with a few of them.”

Like Prestwood Smith, production mixer Chris Munro — a double Oscar and CAS nominee for Captain Phillips and Gravity — also found Phillips to be a balancing act between a documentary feel and a high quality cinema experience. “We then had to add the additional physical challenges of working at sea in a salt water environment that was particularly hazardous for our equipment,” he said. “We needed to have long range radio microphones and communications systems for use at sea which meant designing and building equipment in to the pirate's skiffs. Interestingly, I used all that I had learnt about working at sea on Captain Phillips on another film that I have just finished working on. Heart of the Sea with Ron Howard, a film about an incident involving a whale and Nantucket whalers that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick."

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Munro also addressed what he sees as another common point of confusion.  “There’s a popular misconception is that all films are dubbed,” he said. “Though this may be true if you are seeing a film not in the original language, this is not the case these days. We all strive to use as much original sound as possible to retain the original performance.”

Lievsay related that in working on Alfonso Cuaron's outer space-set Gravity the team was faced with the “complicated conundrum of trying to make a soundscape while paying attention to the science—no air equals no sound. But we still had a lot of action that needed to be heightened by the sound.” The approach was to create the sound as it would be experienced by Ryan (Sandra Bullock).

“We used all the technology that was available to us yet still custom built a lot of the equipment needed,” Munro said of working on Gravity. “What was particularly inspiring about this film is that it required far more collaboration with other departments than usual. We worked very closely with the visual effects team and the editor. There was not only dialogue for us to record but we also had very sophisticated communications systems to run. We played atmospheric music and sounds to Sandra Bullock along with all of the radio dialogue that she had to interact with."

As technology evolves, mixers are also beginning to examine the potential of immersive sound, primarily Dolby and its Atmos system and Barco and its Auro 11.1 system.

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Gravity was given an Atmos mix, and Curaron was so impressed with the sound system that he urged screenings to be held in Atmos-supported venues. “I think it can have a big impact,” Lievsay said. “Though it will depend on accessibility in theaters. It's a little bit like Imax. Big movies will get those theaters for a few weeks, and then get pushed out to make room for the next film.”

Prestwood Smith, who did an Atmos mix for Iron Man 3, agreed, saying “the biggest problem right now is that it is a poorly represented format in theaters.”

Atmos and Auro were both launched 2012, and the latest counts have Atmos with roughly 450 installations and Auro with roughly 135. These numbers are growing as both continue to fill orders, but there’s still a long way to go.

Munro is optimistic about immersive sound and where his art is heading. “I think that recent advances in sound are becoming more apparent to audiences and that they are more appreciative of good sound. It used to be that audiences only noticed when sound was bad.”

E-mail: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com

Twitter: @CGinLA