In a sound effects-heavy movie, clarity is key to a successful mix, according to the re-recording mixer on Paramount Pictures’ Transformers: Dark of the Moon, 14-time Oscar nominee Greg Russell. As Russell tells it, “Definition, detail and a great dynamic range are absolutely essential to focusing an audience on what you want them to hear at every given moment throughout the course of a movie.” He praises supervising sound editors, Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl, for coming from the exact same mindset, in terms of clarity and definition. “There are tricks to achieving clarity,” says Russell. “It starts with a decent sound design, making some clear choices within the building of the palate of sounds, so it’s not a cacophony of material. Too many sounds are just going to mud out the mix. You cannot hear seven or eight things on top of each other. It’s just not feasible.”
The film was mixed in 7.1 surround sound. Russell liked working with that format – even though he hadn’t done a 7.1 sound mix before – because there was more room to physically spread sounds out in the room. Van der Ryn first suggested using 7.1 surround sound and Russell agreed, but Paramount didn’t support the format and didn’t want the dual inventory scenario. It wasn’t until director Michael Bay was on board with the idea of using the new format, that they were able to convince Paramount to allow it. Since the picture was shot in 3D, and was obviously going to be one of the biggest sound films of the year, it made sense. Bay noticed right off the bat the difference in the placement of sounds in the surrounds and was told the definition was due to the 7.1 mix that he had fought for.
For additional clarity, the mixers would also pitch audio up or down and use EQ to separate sounds in the same frequency range. Russell credits his years of mixing music for his ability to sculpt separate spaces for different sounds using EQ and pitch.
Early on, Russell and the editors were “mixing in the box” on computers without a dub stage, but it wasn’t working, so they brought in seasoned mixer Jeff Haboush to do the crash-downs of the material and changes, and went to a real mixing stage to get the temp right. For the final, they got four-time Oscar winner Gary Summers to mix dialog, and brought Haboush back to mix the 64 tracks of music for the first traditional “three man mix team” on a Michael Bay film!
Russell’s long collaboration with Bay has had a major impact on his career. “His movies are so large in scale from a visual effects standpoint, that they become very complicated to do from a sound perspective, both in design and mix,” explains Russell. “Because of the fact that Michael raises the bar with every picture, clearly every person working with him has to bring their ‘A’ game and raise their bar to meet him. That has challenged my own skills to the degree that I am a much better mixer today, having worked on Michael Bay films. Having a long history with a director is a phenomenal thing, because you come to understand their own unique processes.”
For more on the sound of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, see below.