Leading up to Sunday’s Oscars, EW.com will take a closer look at four categories that moviegoers may mistakenly think of as “technical.” After tackling Film Editing and Sound Editing, we now turn to Sound Mixing, with insights from nominees from Les Misérables, Skyfall, and Argo. Lincoln and Life of Pi complete the category. (Update: Cinematography completes this series.)
“The biggest misconception about what we do is that most people think it’s technical in nature because there’s intimidating mixing consoles involved. In reality, we are extremely creative in the use of sound to help tell the story,” says Argo sound re-recording mixer Gregg Rudloff, a five-time Oscar nominee with wins for his work on Glory and The Matrix. “But it goes back to what do you want people to notice and not notice? We want them to be watching the film and experiencing it and enjoying it. We don’t want them to be sitting there going, ‘Oh wow, that was a really cool sound thing that guy just did there.’ We don’t want to put them back in their seats. We want them to be totally immersed in the film. So in a way, we’re our own worst enemies. If we do a bad job, people notice what we do, and that’s not what we want. If we do it really well, people don’t notice it so much, but then they don’t understand the depths we’re working at.”
To fix that problem, we asked some of this year’s sound mixing nominees to walk us through key scenes to explain their roles and show us the kind of decisions their making. But first, the difference between sound mixing and sound editing, a separate Oscar category.
Essentially, the sound editorial team is responsible for assembling every sound you hear in the movie except the music and the dialogue that was recorded on set.
It’s the job of the production sound mixer to capture that dialogue as cleanly as possible to preserve the actor’s original performances, so sound editorial doesn’t have to have them do ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement). Post-production, the sound mixing team takes all the material that has been prepared by sound editorial — dialogue, atmospheric sounds like the wind and ocean; hard effects, which are synched sounds for things like cars, gunshots, explosions, and helicopters; and Foley, or nuance sounds such as footsteps and people touching things with their hands — plus the score, and affixes them to the screen and positions them in the theater while also setting their volume levels relative to each other. “We get tens of thousands of pieces of sound in a film. It’s like a big chemistry set: How much of this do you put in to that? And how much of this do you put in to that, and how will that affect this?” says Skyfall re-recording mixer Scott Millan, whose nine Oscar nominations include four wins for his work on Apollo 13, Gladiator, Ray, and The Bourne Ultimatum. “All of us who do this work have a sensitivity and a touch that’s pretty unique. If you gave the same content to 10 individuals and said go ahead and mix this movie, you’d get 10 different perspectives. They wouldn’t be the same. And that’s what’s so much fun about it. It’s almost like handing sheet music to a bunch of musicians: How they touch it, and how they touch it collectively together as an ensemble, is unique. If you change any of those players, it would be different yet again. “
Since it all starts with the dialogue captured on set, let’s begin there.
NEXT: The art of production sound mixing