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Sound Mixing

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By Mark London Williams
Gregg Rudloff knows his way around an award season or two, having added a sound-mixing Oscar nomination last year for Flags of Our Fathers to a previous nom for The Perfect Storm and the statue he took home for The Matrix.
With that pedigre, you might think Rudloff would have a bias toward the aural pulse-quickening that loud, action-driven films can provide – or at least, a sense that it’s easier for such work to get noticed by awards voters this time of year. But, he said, that’s not necessarily the case.
“A good mix supports and enhances the storytelling,” he said. Rudloff doesn’t simply look for loud or fast. Instead, he looks for the sound to be constantly evolving, lest the mix become “stagnant … repetitive. That can get boring.” If the mix is too big or too loud to begin with, then “there’s a small dynamic range … you really have nowhere to go.”
But sometimes, the places to go belong to a brave new world unforeseen by mixers in the analog days. In a digital, multitrack age, mixers have “a lot of instruments playing” in their particular orchestras – the dialog, music and effects tracks, and all the subsets thereof, Rudloff said.
Though he works on the sound-editing side, Oscar winner Alan Murray agrees.
While loud and fast-sounding films can “open the door for mixers to be more dynamic,” Murray said there are considerations beside the explosion-and-bullet quotient to consider in a sound mix. “Do you feel surrounded?” asked Murray, who won last year’s sound-editing Oscar for Letters from Iwo Jima and earned his fourth nomination for Flags of Our Fathers. “Does the sound excite you?”
And what about authenticity? For example, in Flags and Letters, Murray asks how important is it to recreate World War II battle sounds exactly as they may have been heard, especially given how few are left who can attest to the accuracy of such sounds?
When considering a mix, Murray does ask if he feels “the people involved try to remain authentic.” Still, authenticity can be more of a suggestion – the idea, ultimately, is to have the people watching and listening to the film to think, “Yeah, that’s what that would sound like!”
One example he cites is the T. rex in Jurassic Park. “Nobody’s heard a T. rex before,” he said. But the sound used for the creature in the film “did seem realistic,” more so than you’d get with the old trick of slowing down the sound of a lion’s roar.
Modern digital tools has both expanded the mixer’s palette and made his job more complex, Murray says. “If I had a hundred choices before, it’s gone to 100,000. Also, with digital pictures, there are things you’d never see in a film before.” All of which – like crane shots in ancient Rome or more amazing galactic adventures – require their own palettes of sound.
“I welcome the expanded things I can do with sound, (but) it doesn’t help if you’re under the same time constraints!” Murray said he sometimes takes the time constraints many mixers face into consideration in judging how successful a particular mix is.
Rudloff says another gauge of sound success is, not surprisingly, whether you can hear it. If you have to turn to someone and ask, “What did she say?” while you’re watching a movie, then “you’re not in the movie, you’re in the theater,” he said.
Another factor is that not all theaters are created equal, Rudloff said. “You’re at the mercy of exhibitor venues,” he said. There used to be a bake-off for the sound-editing category, though not one for mixing — an event that’s been eliminated from the process.
That leaves films to be seen and heard wherever voters can catch them. “You’re at the mercy of exhibitor venues,” Rudloff said. “No two rooms are going to sound identical.” That’s true even at the most sophisticated facilities, such as two otherwise identical state-of-the-art mixing stages at Warner Bros. that nonetheless still have a different feel.
Or as Murray asks, if the dubbing is being done on the most expensive dub theaters in the world, how are those sounds done justice at awards time? Especially if voters aren’t even seeing – or hearing – those mixes in theaters at all, but off screener DVDs they get in the mail.
Then again, Murray also notes that the bake-off — with the emphasis on screeners — was ended fairly recently, and the results weren’t all bad: “I’m the first experiment with it, and I walked away with an Oscar!”

Written by Mark London Williams

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