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StabdAlone – Sound Mixing

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A film’s sound combines three basic elements: dialogue, sound effects and music. The mixer (often known as the rerecording mixer) is akin to the master chef, taking what the sound effects editor, music editor and sound recordist (the prep chefs) have prepared to create a finished, well blended dish.”You have all the sound elements produced for a film. Dialogue recordings from the production shoot and any dialogue recordings done in post production, all the music elements , like score, songs, etcetera, all sound effects elements, hard effects, backgrounds and foley, and any sound designed elements that were created. Then all are blended together into a cohesive presentation that supports and drives the story telling,” says World Trade Center mixer Scott Millan, who’s notched up Oscar wins for his sound mixing on Ray, Gladiator and Apollo 13 and nominations for Road to Perdition, Braveheart and Schindler’s List.A major consideration in evaluating the success of a film’s sound track is if all three elements are coherent, well balanced and complement the finished film. Furthermore, says Millan, voters “should know that subtle soundtracks, or mixes, are often much more difficult to create than loud, bombastic sound tracks. And that good sound mixing sometimes means the absence of sound.””Many times,” says one Academy sound branch member, “the best sound mixed film has derisively been called ‘the most noise.’ It’s the ones with the most effects that seem to win.””In an action sequence with lot of sounds competing with each other, the trick is to decide from moment to moment what sounds to focus on so you give the audience the impression that they’re hearing everything all the time: the sound effects, the dialogue, and the musical score,” says director of sound design at Skywalker Sound Randy Thom, who often performs double duty on a film as sound designer and rerecording mixer. “But if you’re analytical about it and you listen closely, what you’ll notice in a well mixed sequence is you’re not hearing everything all the time, you’re hearing a gracefully orchestrated shifting of focus from one group of sounds to another.”Most sound mixers agree that voters should not be swayed by how loud a film is. “A good sound mix and a loud sound mix is not often the same thing,” says Millan. Though he concedes that one does not necessarily preclude the other, he says the over-use of the surround speakers in a 5.1 (or greater) listening environment can be “showy and distracting.” He warns that sometimes a great musical score will overwhelm the style of a mix and the audience might confuse the two disciplines.The sound mix of a film is considered by many to be an invisible medium. The best mixes are usually the ones that are the least noticeable. “Any time you’re not making the audience aware of the fact that they’re sitting there watching the film you’re doing a good job,” says The Departed mixer Tom Fleischman, a four-time Oscar nominee for The Aviator, Gangs of New York, The Silence of the Lambs and Reds.The blending of the three elements should help set the mood and complement the emotional effect of the movie, while allowing the sound effects to enhance the realism of the action and presenting the dialogue so it’s smooth, natural and intelligible.”The audience should never feel manipulated or distracted by the sound mix,” insists Millan. “The way music enters and exits a sequence should feel organic and not push the emotional intent of the filmmaker. Also the way dialogue is mixed in a scene can support a performance by an actor or not.”Should the audience feel intimately close to the actor even though the camera is not?” he asks. “Environments and sound effects sequences should make you believe you are there. A good sound mix does not necessarily mirror what we see pictorially in each frame of a film. The sound mix might subtly convey to the audience a different emotional response necessary to move the story. Also the use of sound in transitions throughout a film is always a creative challenge. It can invoke time passage; it can pull the audience into the next scene sooner than picture wants to. There are so many creative opportunities.”Millan hopes that voters will see all films exhibited correctly, “where both picture and sound can play as they were designed to.” He advises that voters realize and appreciate that sound mixers start with a blank slate. “That is to say every single sound is manipulated, chosen and blended with the intent to invoke an emotional involvement in the film.” Those sounds might number as many as 500 separate recordings, all being controlled via the one mixing desk.Sound mixer, sound branch governor and 18-time Oscar nominee Kevin O’Connell points out that with technology where it is today “anyone with a laptop computer can edit and mix a film.” But just because someone can edit and mix doesn’t make them a good editor or mixer, he notes. “Just like knowing how to operate a camera doesn’t make you a cinematographer. Even if I could drive a Ferrari, I could never compete with Mario Andretti. The newer technology only helps the true artists of our crafts do their jobs better and with more precision.”

Written by Sam Molineaux

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