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For Your Consideration – The Oscar-Nominated Sound Mixers

February 11, 2016 | By

Anthony Daniels (left) with Stuart Wilson on set.

Anthony Daniels (left) with mixer Stuart Wilson on the set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Oct. 6, 1927. Remember that date. Why? Warner Bros releases director Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer and its success subsequently alters the art of filmmaking. The reason: It’s the first feature-length picture with synchronized dialogue.

Think about that for a second. Think about all the films you love. All the great quotes you share with your friends. All the pop culture one-liners, the memes, the connotation behind “Bond. James Bond,” or “ET phone home,” or “Say hello to my little friend,” the laughter from “Did you think I’d be too stupid to know what a eugoogly is?” or “I love lamp.” Is it possible none of these would exist?

The silent film era thankfully broke way to “talkies” and though the development of sound in cinema proceeded well before The Jazz Singer, the film’s accomplishment showed studios the importance of investing and developing the technologies behind a synchronized format.

Today, the art of sound mixing has a large array of presentations to entertain our eardrums – 5.1, 7.1, 9.2, Pro Logic IIz, Dolby Atmos, IMAX, Aura-3D, to name a few, but the one vital aspect to any sound mix is still clarity.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded the same year The Jazz Singer was released and recognized the first achievement in sound during its third awards show. Douglas Shearer for The Big House (1929-1930). Eighty-five galas later, five prestigious films fill the best sound mixing category as nominees – Bridge of Spies, The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Bridge of Spies

From left: Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom and Drew Kunin.

From left: Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom and Drew Kunin.

If the amount of pristine dialogue per minute was the sole judging criteria to bestow an Oscar in sound mixing, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies would be the unanimous favorite. From the first frame to its last, the story is paced with a flow of clear dialogue that would make the crystal waters of Bora Bora look muddy. “Being a period piece it was quite challenging getting clean, isolated tracks with all the heavy traffic and urban sounds, but Steven was invested in doing so,” said production sound mixer Drew Kunin.

The narrative is based on a true story and follows attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) at the height of the Cold War as he defends a Russian spy and then later negotiates a trade with the Soviets for an American pilot. What subtlety grabs your attention about the mix are all the little nuances to the characters, especially the Russian operative, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). “Before Rudolf gets taken by the FBI he does all these involuntary sniffs and lip smacks that’s pure character. We didn’t want to miss those from a sound point of view because it’s key to his character,” rerecording mixer Andy Nelson noted. “It’s a sign of a great actor when they rely on those things just as much as the spoken word.”

Bridge Of Spies

Bridge Of Spies

While the dialogue took center stage, the music graciously complimented the high stakes narrative without overbearing scenes. “They spotted it to be very sparse musically, but what Thomas Newman brought had a lovely conflicted sense about it,” said Nelson. “The story is fascinating in that way you really don’t know who the real heroes and villains are in any of this. It’s like when James says in the court room, ‘Does doing my job make me a traitor?’ Thom did a great job capturing that feeling very well.”

When the sound effects did comb over the speakers Gary Rydstrom bridged them in a way that pleased the emotional storytelling. “When you see that beautiful tracking shot of people and the bricks of the Berlin Wall going in, Steven wanted to hear them clunk front and center. It was a very powerful way to portray that moment,” recalled Nelson. “Gary really goes into depth when it comes to his research and doesn’t miss a beat.”

The Revenant

Randy Thom

Randy Thom

Director Alejandro Iñárritu took to the vast open wilderness to visually tell his story for The Revenant. Long hours coupled with below freezing temperatures became second nature during production which blissfully illustrated the inherent struggles of trapper Hugh Glass’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) grim journey.

It was production mixer Chris Duesterdiek who endured those daily set challenges in the outskirts of Alberta Canada. With his Cooper mixing board and Zaxcom recorder, he and his crew (Charles O’Shea, Candice Todesco) braved the treacherous terrain to capture the dialogue for Iñárritu. “It’s pretty wild,” said Duesterdiek, no pun intended. “When you’re part of a team like the one Alejandro put together, you sort of know you may be dealing with something that could turn into lightening in a bottle,” reported the Vancouver Metro.

The Revenant

The Revenant

In post, beautifully shaped acoustics told a story that enlightened nature as a critical character but sound employed storytelling tones beyond what was happening on screen. “Alejandro was wise enough going in that he knew he wanted nature to be a central figure. He provided us with those spaces for the landscapes to speak in a way. We could add in those subtle sounds – the trees creaking, the snow falling, the birds chirping or a distant avalanche. Our design became a complex bundle of noises that weren’t necessarily related to what you saw on screen, but performed the function of making the scene more believable,” said rerecording mixer Randy Thom. “Alejandro invented a word for that noise. He called it ‘ca-ca yanga.’ Whenever he felt the scene needed to be more aurally complex, he would say add a little ‘ca-ca yanga.’”

Along with rerecording mixers Jon Taylor and Frank Montaño, sound built scenes on a philosophy of where the sound was coming from and where the sound was going to. In doing so elements are subliminally introduced into the story to enrich one of the film’s overall themes. “This film is a series of lessons in humility. The humility that nature is this unimaginably huge thing and that we as the human beings may seem important, but in fact, we are so infinitesimally small in this larger drama that’s happening in the universe,” explained Thom.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Chris Jenkins

Chris Jenkins

When Warner Bros. essentially opened up their checkbook and stepped aside for George Miller to reintroduce the Mad Max franchise, to me, it’s an ideology every studio should consider with a talented director at the wheel. Their reward: 10 Oscar nominations.

The return of Road Warrior Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) had the majority of its location work filmed in the southern African country of Namibia. Sound mixer Ben Osmo and sound effects recordist Oliver Machin battled the dusty dry conditions to record the infinite amounts of practical vehicles and cast, which included Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa and Hugh Keays-Byrne as Immortan Joe.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road

In order to keep pace with the constant action, production sound rigged a 4×4 vehicle dubbed “Osmotron” for their extensive list of audio gear. Among the equipment was four Sound Devices 788T-SSDs recorders, four CL-8s panels, a 744T, six Lectrosonics Venues, two Venue fields, a slew of Lectrosonics IFB transmitters and receivers, and a ton of DPA 4061 lapel mics. A total of 42 channels of wireless mics were available to stash inside vehicle cabins or on the principle cast. “It was a complex process keeping track of all the radios,” said Osmo. “My boom Mark Wasiutak would position himself where he could inside the vehicles. It was hard going for everyone, but ended up being enormously rewarding.”

Even with the radical efforts from production sound, rerecording mixer Chris Jenkins said the film ended up being about 95% looped. “When Gregg Rudloff and I arrived in Sydney, there was hardly any dialogue. It was something we were figuring out as we went along. We treated Mad Max almost like an animated film which has its advantages and disadvantages.”

As for the film’s sound effects and music it was how the rerecording mixers played them against the visuals that furthered impacted the dynamics of this gripping story. “It was really an artist’s perspective – does one use a fine brush to paint or a roller for a larger spray. Everything in the track was designed to complement the story,” Jenkins said.

The Martian

The Martian

The Martian

Have you ever laughed harder at a man slowly dying in front of your eyes than Ridley Scott’s The Martian? Yes, in the back or our minds (and those who read the book) we all kind-of-sort-of-knew botanist extraordinaire Mark Watney (Matt Damon) was going to be rescued from the Red Planet and brought back to Earth but what if he wasn’t. What if Scott pulled a David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) or James Wan (Saw) and blew our minds with an unforeseen ending where Watney dies. The agony of the crew losing their comrade for a second time – NASA’s reaction to an unsuccessful recovery mission – the legacy of the program going forward – it would have been incredible to see unfold. But even without the twist, the film picked up six Oscar nominations including best picture and best sound mixing.

Before rerecording mixers Paul Massey and Mark Taylor channeled their hands to console faders, production sound recordist Mac Ruth took the reins capturing set dialogue. The challenging part of Ruth’s preproduction was planning the mic placements for the spacesuits and helmets. Working closely with the costume department, the sound team placed a microphone inside to capture an original dry recording before post took for further processing. “We ended up taking those recordings and creating a hollowness sound to them,” said Massey.

THE MARTIANBut what made The Martian track so intriguing is how they developed the isolation we felt watching Watney go through his daily life in order to survive. “Ridley was very clear, and correct in my mind, in his direction to highlight the breathing of Watney when he was isolated and alone,” noted Massey. “For Watney, being stuck in this dangerous environment in a very enclosed space, emphasizing his breathing gave his life a more claustrophobic feeling.”

During the mix, you could tell post was not trying to split dialogue, effects, and music into three different groups, but marry them in a seamless way. “You have to realize the audience will be listening to a single track, so finding the correct way for that one soundtrack to work for the story is crucial,” said Massey.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

From left: Stuart Wilson, Andy Nelson and Chris Scarabosio.

From left: Stuart Wilson, Andy Nelson and Chris Scarabosio.

When Disney announced the deal acquiring Lucas Films for roughly four billion dollars back in 2012, the most tantalizing question of the merger was the possibility of more Star Wars films. Now four years later director J.J. Abrams has warped us into hyperspace with Star Wars: The Force Awakens – a film that has reaped $2 billion dollars at box office to date.

In 1977 Star Wars took us by storm-trooper, earning 11 Oscar nominations and winning seven. While The Force Awakens didn’t repeat the nom mark, it did snag five including four categories it won during its incarnation – film editing, score, visual effects and sound.

For production mixer Stuart Wilson his journey began in the 120 degree heat of the Abu Dhabi desert. “Nobody knew what to expect. We took far too much equipment because we wanted to be ready for everything. The conditions were tough and we worked from dawn to dusk, but it really bonded the crew,” Wilson recalled.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens


What made the trek even more difficult for Wilson was the number of characters he had to mic. Microphone location can make or break dialogue recording and it takes meticulous planning and understanding not only from the sound team but the cooperation from other departments. “I did a lot of homework going into the project,” said Wilson. “We had a plan in place for everyone – BB-8, C-3PO, R2-D2, Kylo Ren… a favorite being Chewbaca where animatronic design supervisor Maria Cork sewed in the right color mic and built the first windshield made from Wookiee fur.”

It was up to rerecording mixers Andy Nelson and Christopher Scarabosio to bring those set recordings to fruition. “I always want every scene to have clarity, emotion and excitement,” said Nelson. “Clarity is always the number one priority in a picture like this.”

Besides its clarity, the mix played exceptionally well with scenes that had minimal action – for instance when Kylo Ren tries to use the Force on Rey. “J.J. wanted the audience to feel something,” said Scarabosio. “With a note like that we had to think about what each scene meant to the story and decide what to focus on. We wanted the audience to feel the energy and the excitement – that you’re there with these characters.”

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