Usually, the re-recording mixers (one typically handles the dialogue and music, and the other sound effects) will do a broadstroke first pass on the director’s first cut of the film independently of the director. “It’s what we think things will play like and what content we need in the film. Yet, we keep it all very separate, so that the choices can be changed when the filmmaker arrives,” says Skyfall’s Millan, who shares his nomination with re-recording mixer Greg P. Russell, a 16-time Oscar nominee, and twice nominated production sound mixer Stuart Wilson.
Once it’s time for the final mix, it’s a serious group effort. “When we get to the final, we have the director with us on stage, the sound editorial supervisor — the person who is responsible for assembling, finding, and creating all the sounds that we would ultimately be dealing with in the mixing process — almost always the picture editor, and often the sound editors as well. We’ll have the dialogue editor and the sound effects editor there,” Millan says. “Because of the parallel process of finishing films now — meaning the schedule’s so compressed and the picture is changing as we are in the process of making our final mix — things have to be more virtual than ever before. Even though we’ve created material that we thought was appropriate, the filmmaker may have another choice, or a visual effect may have changed or have been added that we didn’t know about. So there’s this constant evolution during the final mix of creating and integrating new content into the pre-dubbed material. “
Millan has worked on every one of director Sam Mendes’ films, so he understands and appreciates the director’s sensibilities when it comes to using sound to help tell the story. “The slightest nuance of the tone of a voice or the subtlety of a performance and how it might be dynamically supported is important to him,” Millan says. He points to the memorable scene in which Bond (Daniel Craig) and Silva (Javier Bardem) first come face-to-face.
Millan: One of the simplest scenes we did in the movie that took us one of the longest periods of time to get the right emotional tone was Javier Bardem’s entrance to the movie. It’s a very simple scene, but in a Bond movie, very gutsy. You have a five or six-minute scene between two principles, toe to toe, no music, no sound effects, no gunshots, nothing driving the sequence. The ambience of that room had to suck you in to what was going on between them. The vast space put on the voice is giving you the cavernous, cold, removed sensibility, yet everything had to be really intimate. Traditionally, a filmmaker might say, “Look at the room, there’s 1,000 computers in that room, and I don’t hear any. I need to hear tones and beeps and boops.” But Sam kept going in the opposite direction and pairing it back and pairing it back, looking for something that just sucked you in and engaged you in a way that wasn’t telegraphing anything. It was really allowing these two men to carry it. Again, that takes a lot of guts in a Bond movie, where usually the audience is looking for action and they’re looking for maybe quicker cutting. But to stay on certain shots and to allow this just to be performed, Sam spent a lot of time on that.
And to contrast with that, take the opening of the film, which is almost pop to pop action. That was one of the last reels we mixed with Sam. Our first take and mix of the reel before he was there was not far off what ultimately ended up being in the movie, but when he first looked at it, he wanted to start paring things back and getting it simpler and simpler and allowing music to drive it even more so. You go from all-out action to the quietest scene and he gives it equal amount of attention. But it’s really about emotionally telling the story and supporting the story. He has said at different times, “You’ve given me everything but nothing is important to this sequence.” It wasn’t a criticism. But he’s that focused on what’s on the soundtrack, and I love it. It makes me have a different sensibility that allows me to look and think about what’s on the screen multi-layers down, not the obvious. Just because there’s a car in the sequence or a gun, or someone in the background walking by, something might think, “Well, it’s there in the image, there should be sound for it,” but that’s not what’s important. What’s really important in storytelling and film is that you envelop the audience and they don’t think about that. They don’t think about the fact that it’s not there, but they don’t think about the fact that it is there.
Another example is one of Millan’s favorite moments from Mendes’ second movie, Road to Perdition.
Millan: One of the scenes that people have told me is their favorite, and one that I also enjoy tremendously, is when Paul Newman and Tom Hanks have the showdown near the end of the film, where Tom actually kills Paul Newman’s character, who is pretty much his adoptive father. Throughout the dubbing process, Sam was trying all sorts of different concepts about how to deal with that moment: Should it be stylized? Should it be literal? You see things in the long perspective, you see gun flashes, but you don’t see the image of who’s shooting. And then you see people in the foreground dying, and they shoot. We had all these different sounds, and rain was going on at the same time, and I kept trying to get less sound in that sequence. And it was really the 11th hour, and Sam hadn’t felt confident that he’d got the exact right emotional impact of the whole sequence, and we were talking about it, and I finally said, “Sam, why don’t we take everything out and just use the score? I think up to this point, everybody knows what’s going to happen. There’s a showdown coming — Tom Hanks in the scene before says, “There’s one last thing I have to do, and then it’ll be over,” and you know what that is. And he shot it like it was an opera — people dying in the foreground, people shooting in the distance. This kind of ominous sensibility. So he agreed, let’s try it. Tom Newman had created this beautiful piece of music, and we did it. It’s not what you see, it’s not what you would anticipate. That scene became so much more powerful by the absence of sound, so that when Tom Hanks walks down that street and ends up face to face with Paul Newman, and they do have a short dialogue scene and Paul Newman says, “I’m glad it’s you,” and then Tom slowly raises that Tommy gun and pulls the trigger at close range — the sound and impact of what happened was far more enhanced than if it was just loud and the things before that were there. Emotionally it brought it full circle.
NEXT: The art of Argo‘s tension