Ask anyone in the business what makes a film memorable and they’ll say it is the full effect of the soundtrack coupled with the visual imagery. For example, The Exorcist drew its power from a soundtrack that was both spare and intricately layered. You can thank Buzz Knudson for that.
Knudsen, a sound mixer for more than 40 years with Todd AO, has retired. The Los Angeles native’s life could have taken a different turn had it not been for his father’s advice. Buzz wanted to be a minor-league baseball player, but his father insisted that he join the sound union after leaving the Army. After getting married Knudsen abandoned his baseball hopes, took advantage of his union status, and seized the opportunity to reap the benefits of television’s burgeoning growth. After a stint with RCA, he joined the Todd AO Company in 1960, working as a mixer on analog consoles. Sound was still in its early days and Buzz’s quick reactions—which helped him master the job’s physical demands—served him well. His uncanny talent for creating the mix was unfailing, and gained the attention of the era’s best directors.
Testaments to his work include epochal TV shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, The Addams Family, Green Acres and Petticoat Junction, as well as features like E.T., Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Ghost, Cabaret, A Woman Under the Influence, Into The Night, Scarface, Trading Places, The Blues Brothers, Witness, Flashdance, 1941 and A Star Is Born. Names like Cassavetes, Spielberg, Landis, Streisand, Beatty, Weir, Fosse, Friedkin and Ashby worked with him over and over, trusting their vision to his artistry and unfailing instincts to deliver the sound.
The commentary of Knudsen’s peers is consistent: a laconic man, no pretensions, a man of the fifties, very much black-and-white. With him “there’s no beating around the bush and never throwing a curve, which can at times be tough to hear, but that what’s wonderful about him. He’s unflinchingly honest,” says Marti Lakin, another Todd AO veteran. Buzz rose to president of Todd AO, stayed in that post from 1982 to 1990, then remained as vice chairman and consultant.
Great re-recording mixers are artists as much as they’re technicians, using their consoles like palettes, blending the three core elements of sound—dialog, effects and music—into a finished product. Knudsen was doing this before and after the digital revolution, through the era of console automation, and during the explosion of younger directors whose loud, dense and over-built soundtracks have become the norm. Over his career he garnered 10 Oscar nominations and three wins—for Cabaret, The Exorcist and E.T.—and a career achievement award from the Cinema Audio Society (C.A.S) in 2000. With Knudsen now in retirement, film lovers will miss how he let us hear the movies.