Sounds like winning sound mixing team with 34 noms

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"Transformers" team: With 34 Oscar nominations among them to date, it sounds like the sound mixing team nominated for DreamWorks and Paramount's "Transformers" is bound to win sooner or later.

Despite their great track record of being recognized by their peers in the Academy's sound branch, Kevin O'Connell, Greg P. Russell and Peter J. Devlin have never managed to prevail in the final vote by all Academy members. That could all change, however, with their current nomination for Michael Bay's blockbuster "Transformers," which grossed $319.1 million domestically and was last year's third-biggest boxoffice hit. Produced by Don Murphy, Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Ian Bryce, it was executive produced by Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay, Brian Goldner and Mark Vahradian.

Academy members, whose final ballots are starting to turn up in their mailboxes, will now have another chance to consider O'Connell, Russell and Devlin's work. Looking at the sound trio individually, O'Connell's 20 nominations go back to 1984 and "Terms of Endearment." Among his noms are those for "A Few Good Men," "Twister," "The Rock," "Armageddon," "Pearl Harbor," "Spider-Man" and "Spider-Man 2," all of which are shared with Russell except for "Twister." Among Russell's 12 noms going back to 1990 and "Black Rain," all of which are shared with O'Connell, are "Con Air," "The Mask of Zorro," "The Patriot" and "Memoirs of a Geisha." Devlin's twin nominations for "Transformers" and "Pearl Harbor" are both shared with O'Connell and Russell.

Their sound mixing Oscar nomination for "Transformers" is one of three Academy nods the picture received (along with sound editing and visual effects). They face competition from the sound mixing teams for "The Bourne Ultimatum," "No Country for Old Men," "Ratatouille" and "3:10 to Yuma."

For some insights into the art of sound mixing and how those of us -- including Academy members who aren't in the sound branch -- can recognize awards worthy sound mixing, I spoke Wednesday afternoon to Kevin O'Connell and Greg P. Russell. I also wanted to know how they feel about having gotten all those noms from other sound guys without having gotten to take home an Oscar yet.

"The reality of it is, I think, if you're nominated by your peers that's the best compliment of all," O'Connell told me. "There's three to four hundred films every year, probably closer to 400. Five of those films get that nomination, and I've been fortunate enough to get it 20 times. I never take it for granted. It always feels just like the first time to me and I feel grateful for it and I feel honored."

Is it difficult for Academy members who aren't in the sound branch to make decisions about the best sound when it comes time to vote? "I think in some cases yes and in some cases no," he replied. "Obviously, there's production and postproduction. If you're in postproduction -- as picture editors are and as visual effects guys are and as sound people are -- we all sort of know what goes on with each other. When you're in production, people tend to know what art directors do, what cinematographers do and what set decorators do more than what I know of them. And you have to put actors in that category, too. Actors don't spend any time on the mixing stage unless they're an actor-director or a producer of the film. So I have to say that it's not their fault that they don't know because it's just not part of their world -- just like cinematography and art direction isn't part of my world.

"I do believe there's a little bit of a misunderstanding sometimes when there's a picture that's in the sound category that's also up for best picture. (If) 6,000 people think that's their favorite film of the year (they) could tend to vote for that. So sometimes that could tend to sway the vote a little bit. But there are times when there are exceptions to those rules and they've all been broken in the past. Sometimes films are up for best picture (as well as best sound mixing), but then a film that isn't like 'Jurassic Park' will win (as it did in 1994) or 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' will win (as it did in 1992)."

"I think it's a category that's misconceived often," Russell agreed. "There are a number of years that I (can) and the collective sound branch can assess the fact that the actual best sounding film won that particular year. But there are so many different (reasons) why people vote for what they vote for -- some of which has to with a film in our category also (being) nominated for best picture, best director and a lot of other categories. Not to take anything away from 1996 and 'The English Patient' winning for sound mixing, but there were a number of amazing pieces of work done that year, including 'The Rock,' which we were nominated for, and 'Independence Day,' 'Twister' and 'Evita' were also up that year. I wouldn't have guessed that 'English Patient' would have won for sound mixing, but it did and it was the movie of the year.

"I think that people get passionate about a film and that whirlwind of voting can kind of flow right through many categories -- hence the term 'sweep.' And that's happened a number of times. And then there are many years where the music of a (film) is such a strong contributor to the actual feeling of the film sound wise, whether it be a musical or not. 'Ray,' for instance, and certainly 'Chicago' and 'Dreamgirls' (were) all fine jobs, but people connect with the music very easily. I have found through the years just from my observations that if a soundtrack has a phenomenal score and if it is nominated for sound mixing it's got a very strong chance of winning. And that's proven to be the case many times."

"Transformers" could benefit from the fact that Academy members with young children or grandchildren are likely to have seen it last summer and may have watched it again on DVD since then. "Well, that's what we're hoping," O'Connell laughed. "It was a very popular movie. I think one misconception if there's any about what we do is that I get the nomination -- myself and Greg -- but really I'm just the front man for an army of people who contribute to that. And that begins with the production sound mixer and his team that weather all conditions to try to bring us the best possible recorded track they can.

"Anybody who knows production knows that when it's an action movie and they've got big giant fans blowing or artificial rain blowing through the scene, any of those things create extraneous conditions for the production mixer to try to get a good track. So Peter Devlin on this particular movie did an amazing job. And then what happens is, Peter hands that track over to the sound editors. And these guys on this particular film are Ethan Van der Ryn and Mike Hopkins and Erik Aadahl (who are nominated for best sound editing)."

In fact, O'Connell added, "I think sound editors is an antiquated term for these guys. They are really sound artists and the work they do is so important to the success of a film -- especially in 'Transformers,' when you look at the fact that those robots start out as jets or muscle cars or helicopters and are really computer-generated images. To sell those images, directors rely on sound. These guys not only stepped up to the plate, but they hit it out of the park with these sounds that they created."

Asked to explain the difference between what sound editors do and what sound mixers do, O'Connell pointed out, "Sound editors are the guys responsible for creating and designing the sound effects for the movie. What they do is bring us the material, which would be all of the robot sounds and all of the foley (recreated sounds like footsteps that are synched to images on the screen). All the dialogue is cut and split for us and smoothed out so we can mix it together with the ADR (automated dialogue replacement that is rerecorded during postproduction and matched to the actors' moving lips on the screen). They're really responsible for the content of what's in the movie.

"Then they bring it to the mixing stage where myself and Greg Russell (work on it). I have to say that Greg Russell's contribution to this particular film is enormous. He took maybe literally 10,000 tracks and boiled it down to the six tracks that you (hear) when you go to the movie theater. And that's not a technical job. That's a very talented creative job that he did to achieve that."

Explaining who actually does what on the sound mixing team, O'Connell continued, "Greg does all the sound effects and on 'Transformers' the burden fell on him. I handle all of the music, which can be up to 60 channels of music. And then I (also handle) all the dialogue, which can be up to 25 or 30 tracks. Also, my responsibility was to work with Mike Hopkins in trying to create the sound of our robots' voices. It's really just men leaning into microphones talking (normally), but we had to treat it with our equipment to try to make them sound more robotic and by the way we placed them in the theater and around the room to try to give them that omnipresent feel.

"Peter Devlin is the production mixer. Peter is on the set with Michael Bay and when he says 'action' Peter's the guy who's responsible for bringing us that track. Anybody (in sound mixing) will tell you, you're only as good as your production mixer's track and Peter is phenomenal. When you have a movie like 'Transformers,' you're going to see a guy running down the street and bombs are exploding and cars are flipping over and we can still hear the guy's voice. And he's running and we're hearing him (breathing hard) and that's because Peter is very talented in figuring out how to do that. My hat's off to him. I could never do that job."

Picking up that same thought, Russell told me, "We had a fantastic sound design team (of) sound editors headed by Ethan Van der Ryn and Mike Hopkins and their principal sound designer, Erik Aadahl. Erik was primarily responsible for creating the sounds for the robots with Ethan and really designing the palate of sounds for us to work with. They went out and recorded a lot of material and processed a lot of material for me to work with to create our predubs that are what we call groups of effects that are broken down in families. On this particular film there was a lot of sound, obviously, to bring (the robots) to life. The most predubs I've ever had on any one movie has been 23 predubs and I had 29 predubs on this film. I needed a lot more separation (of sounds) so I had flexibility for Michael (Bay) in the final mix.

"Of those 29 predubs, nine of them were dedicated to the robots. The main objective for us was to try to make this believable. One of the things that was crucial to Michael in making the movie was (his feeling that), I will only do it if I can make this really believable that these things can live in this space, interact within the streets of, let's call it, Los Angeles or whatever city it might have been. Sonically the challenge on our behalf was to create all of the environment and all of the movement and all of the sounds for these robots to be real."

Having worked with Bay for so long, is there a style of sound that they understand him to prefer? "It's not so much sound preferences other than a stylistic approach to mixing," Russell replied. "I'd say his signature is to be bold, to be articulate and to create as much definition so that you can pinpoint an audience to what you want them to be seeing and listening to. There's so many sounds happening in these big sequences that a big part of it is not so much what to play, but what not to play and to clear out anything that might be muddying up the track. Kevin and I strive for definition, definition, definition, trying to keep our thoughts on all of the detail. Granted we know that it's big and impressionable and bold, but we want all of the nuances and the subtleties to come through.

"And Michael's a big part of that, as well. He wants to hear things that he has worked so hard visually to create with his visual effects team. Now he gets into a sound stage and he's worked hard on that visual and the rotation of, let's call it, the ears and movements of Optimus Prime's head and we wanted servo sounds and different mechanical sounds for each and every one of those movements. We covered most of them, but he would inevitably see things that he didn't hear things for and then we would accommodate and make sounds for (them) during the actual final mix. He loves big sound. He has big images and he wants his sound to be as dynamic as what's on the screen. We've been a part of all of his movies. I have done all of them except his first, the first 'Bad Boys,' but from 'The Rock' on from 1996 I have been in the (sound) effects chair on all of his movies (and O'Connell goes back with Bay to 'Bad Boys' in 1995). His movies are big visual effects driven films. Visually his work is so amazing and he is as demanding within a sound team to create and support those visuals."

So how does an Academy member who's not in the sound branch decide who's done the best sound mixing? "Well, every movie has three basic elements -- dialogue, music and effects," O'Connell noted. "I mix dialogue and music and Greg mixes the effects. We have to be in perfect harmony with each other in terms of trying to tell the audience the story through the use of sound so that when you're watching the screen you're believing every ounce of what you're seeing. Most people don't understand that when a movie's shot there's not an orchestra over on the left side of where they're shooting playing the music and those robots (we're hearing) didn't really exist so they weren't there. What it is is the crafting of all of those elements together -- the dialogue, the music and the sound effects -- to be the voice of the story and make you believe that what you're watching is real. If we've achieved that, then we've achieved our goal.

"The editors are guys responsible for the content. So if you like the cleverness of the way that (the robot) Optimus Prime transforms -- we're hearing a clank and a 'zzzzzzzzzz' pop and then a gear sound and then a this and a that and then the tires spin and lock into place as he's transforming -- those are the guys who've decided what sounds should go where to illustrate the story they want to tell. And that's why Ethan, Mike and Erik are sound artists. You can't call that a technical category. That is painting with sound and that's what these guys have done. They completely blew me away and I've done probably 170 movies. By far, 'Transformers' was the most complex I've ever worked on and, I think, probably is the finest track we've ever delivered."

Looking back at all those noms he's amassed over the years, O'Connell observed, "One of the things about being nominated 20 times and never winning is it's given me a little bit of a voice to the world as to what we do. I've been talking to radio stations. I've been doing TV interviews and a lot of print interviews. I believe the more the world realizes what we do, the more exciting it is for people because everyone at home has their home theater and their 5.1 sound, but they don't know why they have it. They have it because of what we do. We're the guys who create that. We create the 5.1, which is six channels of sound -- 10,000 tracks boiled down to six. And that is not technical. That's all artistic."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Sept. 17, 1990's column: "The news that Japan's Nomura Babcock & Brown will be pumping at least $50 million and, perhaps, as much as $100 million into film production by the Walt Disney Co. and Interscope Communications is very much in line with my forecast here Aug. 29 of what to expect in the way of foreign investments in Hollywood.

"In these troubled times moviemaking may well be the only game left in which international money can still reap big rewards within a relatively short time frame. With the stock market, real estate and the oil markets all in various stages of disarray, Hollywood has the advantage of still offering world-class players an opportunity to roll the dice and bet with dollars that are cheaper to them because they're starting out with strong currencies like the yen and the pound.

"Hollywood can anticipate interest in financing film production not only from Japan, but also from investors in the United Kingdom and the Middle East. At a time when the Persian Gulf crisis has disrupted banking in some countries in the region, a large amount of investment capital is understood to be moving into other parts of the world. Hollywood stands to be an important destination point for such funds...

"The details of how Disney, Interscope and Nomura Babcock will share their films' profits have yet to leak out, but it seems reasonable to expect that the split will be in line with the terms of the studio's Silver Screen deals. The approach Hollywood takes to providing for such investments to be recouped and profits to be shared will not be the only factor involved in putting other such deals together. How studios support investor-financed films with domestic marketing commitments will also play an important role in making such deals happen..."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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