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HomeCraftsPostproductionPP-Supervisor Series: Scott Millan

PP-Supervisor Series: Scott Millan

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Posting Ray:Scott MillanBy Sam Molineaux“The sort of film Ray is, it’s not an action film or a loud film or a film where sound is used aggressively, it’s about subtlety and an organic sense of storytelling,” says Scott Millan, whose elegant mix on the Jamie Foxx–starring biopic recently earned him an Oscar and a BAFTA award for Best Sound. He shares the awards with his mixing team of Bob Beemer, Greg Orloff and production sound mixer Steve Cantamessa, with whom he worked at Sony Pictures Studios post production facility.Millan, now senior VP of operations at Ascent Media’s Todd A/O West where he’s currently mixing the upcoming Walter Salles movie Dark Water, talks about the craft of mixing, and why Ray was such an artistic and critical success.Below the Line: On winning the Oscar for sound editing, Randy Thom made a comment in his acceptance speech that these are artistic jobs, not simply technical. What are some of the artistic decisions you make when you mix?Scott Millan: I didn’t know Randy had made that statement as his award was straight after ours. I heard about it later. But it was so great, it’s right on the money. In the press room, we were asked if there was a message we wanted to be heard. And I also said that it’s an artistic process. You could give the same material to 20 different mixing crews and you would get 20 different outcomes. It’s an interpretation. All the way through there are choices made on how to focus the audience, and that’s something we can do with sound. We are the ones who interpret what the director means when he says I want this to be scarier, I want this to move quicker, I want this to be blue. It’s about being able to read what the filmmakers are looking to accomplish.BTL: Ray was a film where the main character’s perception of sound is greatly heightened. Were there ways in which that affected the way you mixed the film?Millan: Yes absolutely. Even from the very first scene where we see Jamie Foxx playing Ray and he’s standing alone when the bus pulls in. His perception of how he hears the bus driver some distance away from him immediately demonstrates his sensitivity, how he knows how to survive. And the hummingbird scene, where he’s trying to teach his wife-to-be how acute his hearing is. It tells how he’s become independent, not using a cane and using the reflections of sound. His footsteps are very important in the sound of the movie. And the big scene when he’s with his mother, his realization that he can navigate and get through things by hearing the tea kettle, or a wagon outside, or hearing the smallest cricket chirp. They’re all very particular sounds from his point of view and from his mother’s point of view, and the mix highlighted those two things.BTL: How did having such an emphasis on music affect the way you mixed?Millan: We had around 60 or 70 pieces of Ray Charles’ music in the film. The majority of it was material he had recorded in his youth, and a lot of the original masters don’t exist or were not available. We had to go back and steal bits and pieces of recordings that were released on records or off CDs. All the sources had to be manipulated seamlessly to make them sound like they were in the environment that was on screen. Curt Sobel, the music editor, did a spectacular job of putting the music together and finding the pieces. He arranged for musicians to come in and supplement or sweeten instruments, such as for close-ups, and we had to combine those things while making sure we didn’t sacrifice or compromise the artistic integrity of the music that Mr Charles created.BTL: Are there certain unique challenges to mixing a biopic?Millan: One of the things that was critical was to make sure the audience believed it was Jamie performing. Every environment that music was playing or performed in we had to make it seem as if it was generated from that, not from a recording. I think that’s crucial when you’re doing a biopic because as an audience we want to critique it in a way, to see if this person is pulling off a magic act. With Ray we were able to suspend the reality, and, of course, Jamie Foxx’s performance is superb. Jamie did a great job, and Paul Hirsch, the picture editor, did an unbelievable job. He’s very attuned to music. From a sound point of view he understands and he’s sensitive in making transitions and respecting the rhythm of it.BTL: What are the primary tools of your trade? And how does today’s technology help you streamline your work?Millan: On that project I was working on a Harrison MPC digital console, a Lexicon 960 reverb with automation, also Lexicon 480s, the Behringer Denoiser for some denoising of old recordings. All the material was being played back from Pro Tools.Primarily these tools allow us to have more material at one time. Our consoles now have more inputs in them than five or so years ago, so you don’t have to combine or mix down so much material, you can keep them separate so as not to tie your hands in a mix. The consoles having total automation now allows you to finesse further; with each pass you can refine and refine and not compromise or worry that you might lose something that you perfected previously. The workstations, working off of Pro Tools, Curt Sobel was able to do it in such a fashion that 8 or 10 years ago, if it was on Mag, would have been very difficult. Each song was very deliberately and specifically prepared so as not only to match a performance and be in sync, but to be relevant to what was happening in the story as well. Like the “Hit the Road Jack” moment, which was so wonderfully created.That for me was one of the most rewarding aspects of mixing Ray, that sound was allowed to be part of the storytelling process. Often as mixers we mirror what’s going on on the screen, this time sound was telling the story and was an integral part of the picture. The filmmakers did a great job in utilizing the music to tell a story—it gave us the opportunity to feature the music and not have to hide it.

Written by Sam Molineaux

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