Inside the work of sound mixers
EmptyHeard any good movies lately? While film is quite clearly a visual medium, a tremendous part of any movie's impact comes from the effect it has on the auditory sense. And while dialogue and score are perhaps the most identifiable components of what a movie audience hears, in truth, a mind-boggling number of sonic elements must be captured, crafted and blended in order to create a cohesive, comprehensive and believable world of sound for each film.
The responsibility of creating that sonic world falls to a range of often-unheralded specialists -- mixers, editors and sound designers -- whose work requires both a technical savvy and an artistic ear. In short, if a film's going to play well, it needs to be mixed well.
"I think the mixing today is outstanding, but not often understood," says scoring mixer Bruce Botnick.
Botnick certainly knows his way around a mixing console: Early in his career, he engineered and produced albums by The Doors; and during the past 30 years, while continuing a career as a pop album producer, he's worked as a scoring recordist and mixer, enjoying a longtime collaboration with the late composer Jerry Goldsmith. "I don't think most people are aware that, basically, we still shoot silent movies. Almost everything you hear in the theater -- from the dialogue to the score to the background sounds of traffic or crickets -- is all created and added after the fact. And as advanced as digital technology has gotten, to create a truly believable sound environment from scratch still really seems like magic."
Like so much of the craftwork that goes into filmmaking, that magic is at its most effective when it is least noticed. "If we've done our job well, you shouldn't be thinking about it," says sound designer Scott Sanders of the postproduction sound company EarCandy, which has recently handled sound for Lionsgate's "Rambo," Rob Zombie's remake of
"Halloween" and last year's "Lars and the Real Girl." "Ideally, the hundreds or thousands of decisions we've made about all the sound elements should disappear, and an audience should just feel immersed in the world of the film."
The sound process begins on stages or locations, where production sound mixers battle overhead planes, power-source buzzes and all manners of sonic disruptions in order to capture actors' real-time performances. "I give production sound mixers and their crews a lot of credit for doing the work that they do in an uncontrolled environment," says Mike Riner, department manager of production sound and video services at Warner Bros. Studio Facilities. "It's often the case that people don't understand or appreciate the things the mixers are dealing with and how hard they work to get good dialogue in a real-world, practical set. There's very little patience for any delays caused by the sound crew, and while it's true that you don't see the sound guys moving around a lot between takes, or moving a lot of equipment around the set, they're constantly strategizing and planning so that they're ready to record usable dialogue when the director says action."
For production sound mixer Willie Burton, who won a sound mixing Oscar for his work on 2006's "Dreamgirls," usable sound results from a mix of gut instinct and technical know-how. "When you watch a movie, you know what any scene should sound like without having to think about it too much. When I'm on set, I'm thinking the same way -- using my ear to get the sound to where it feels natural. The challenge is that natural sound doesn't always sound natural when it's recorded. Sometimes you have to work hard to get things to sound the way they should."
When the work of production sound mixers is done, sound files move to the postproduction process. Dialogue and ADR editors work to either enhance or replace actors' lines, while group ADR editors create the background sounds that extras in a scene make (the chatter of students in a hallway, for instance). Foley artists create perfectly synced sounds to match actors' actions -- finger snaps, footsteps or the crinkle of a leather jacket. Sound effects editors assemble the elements that will create believable sonic textures -- from the hum of a spaceship to the roar of a battlefield to the squeal of tires. The sound designer works on more subjective specialty effects that a film's director may have a certain interest in -- perhaps the particular quality of a crucial gunshot (For "Halloween," designer Sanders was tasked with creating the ominous breathing of masked serial killer Michael Myers, which he achieved, after much trial and error, by huffing through five Starbucks napkins into an empty Starbucks venti cup).
All that sound can result in hundreds of separate sonic elements to keep track of, so a sound crew will often spend a couple of weeks working on predubs -- submixes that can be more easily worked on during the final dubbing-stage mix of music, dialogue and effects.
On the musical side, once a composer has written a score, the scoring mixer becomes involved in the process. Before a scoring date, the scoring mixer is the liaison between the composer and the scoring stage crew, making sure that any prerecorded elements of a score that need to be heard at a scoring session are delivered and communicating any special requirements for the physical setup of the orchestra or ensemble being recorded. Once the score has been recorded, the scoring mixer can begin working on the numerous tracks into a variety of six-channel mixes.
"You know that changes may still be made down the line," says scoring mixer Casey Stone, who works most frequently with composers Christophe Beck and John Ottman. "So instead of mixing everything down and saying, 'Here's the score,' we mix to what are called stems, so that elements are split out. The main orchestra, the percussion, synthesizer elements or a choir all get delivered as stems, so that things can be emphasized or quieted down, depending on what a director wants."
The scoring mixer's stems and the sound crew's dialogue and predubs all come together for the final mix on a dubbing stage, where a two- or three-person mixing crew works under a supervising mixer to create the full blend of sound that will be heard in theaters or through television speakers.
"It can't just be a technical process; there really has to be a creative element," says Richard Mercado, sound mixer and president of Action Audio and Visual, "You really want to help a director get his vision across. They may have a sense of what they want, but don't really know how to put it into words. If a director says, 'More driving,' it probably means he wants the pulse of the music up. But you have to listen to what the director is communicating and think about how that translates sonically into the overall mix. And you have to keep in mind that dialogue is king. If you can't hear that, you don't have a story being told."
Perry Robertson, sound supervisor and co-owner of EarCandy, says that a good final mix has a natural blend to it. "People might look at the consoles we deal with and think about everything we're working with and say, 'I wouldn't know what to do with all that.' But when you hear it, you really do know what's right. If you think about what it sounds like at the dinner table, you have a sense of how loud the cars going by outside are, what the dog down the street sounds like, the clink of glasses and plates, and how all that lies under what people are saying. We're trying to blend all those kinds of elements along with the music so that it sounds right and feels natural. If a mixer's doing a good job, you're going to hear all of it -- everything will have the impact it's supposed to have, and everything will work together to tell the story of the film."
So do mixers ever get frustrated by the intensely collaborative nature of the process?
"All that good mixers want is the best movie they can make," Robertson declares. "And a part of that is that you have to be willing to let the directors make decisions. ... We're trying to guide them, but each director has an idea about what the world they created should sound like, and how it should work with the music. My job is to make their film sound exactly how they want it to sound, only better."