Sound mixers stir perfect blend

Nominees create seamless sound

All of this year’s nominees for the Academy’s sound mixing category can attest to the sonic density of modern movies. Christopher Boyes, nominated along with Paul Massey and Lee Orloff for the audio mix of Buena Vista’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” lost count of the number of audio tracks the team confronted after 200.

“We taxed the console to the limit,” says Boyes. “Premixing allowed us to get a better handle on the huge number of tracks involved,” which still ran to about 20 sound effects tracks and 48 channels of music, plus dialog tracks.

The mix’s main challenge was its relentless pace.

“It’s nonstop sound from beginning to end,” says Boyes, who’s had 10 Academy noms and four wins. “There is no scene in which any department — music, effects or dialogue — gets a free ride.”

Michael Minkler, lead mixer on Paramount’s “Dreamgirls” along with colleagues Bob Beemer and Willie Burton, feels the same way.

” ‘Dreamgirls’ is a film that never stops moving, and neither did the mix,” says the two-time Academy Award winner.

The sheer amount of audio data was massive: Two Pro Tools systems with a total of 12 terabytes of storage were needed for the music tracks alone. Automation on the Euphonix digital console at the Todd-AO West mixing stage was critical to the movie’s mix.

“The film moves between moods that are dramatic, theatrical, cinematic, musical, comical, all in an instant,” says Minkler. “The picture, sound elements and music are all moving targets on musicals. The trick is to fit all the pieces of the sound puzzle together on an emotional level.”

Mel Gibson is a hands-on helmer when it comes to sound. During post-production for “Apocalypto” he looped his own voice to replace that of several actors, including one native actor who died after filming ended.

“Mel does that if he feels the intensity wasn’t captured in the production audio,” says lead mixer Kevin O’Connell, who worked on the pic’s mix with co-noms Greg P. Russell and Fernando Camara at the Wilshire Stages.

Nineteen-time nominee O’Connell says Gibson had other tricks for “Apocalyto’s” dialogue audio.

“He’d have us raise or lower the pitch of words, or even syllables, at the beginning or end of a line. We thought it was a little over-the-top until we heard the entire line played back. The slight inflections make a huge difference in the performance.”

Mixing in the field posed its own challenges for Walt Martin, production sound mixer for “Flags of Our Fathers.”

Before co-nominees John Reitz, Dave Campbell and Gregg Rudloff could mix a word of dialogue on the stage, Martin was battling the elements of summer’s end in Iceland.

“It would be sunny one day, windy and hail the next,” he recalls.

Beach pics are notorious for being difficult to capture dialogue on, with the elements constantly competing with thesps’ dialogue. To overcome that, Martin combined wireless RF microphones with wired boom mics.

“With all the noise of the wind and the landing craft engines, going with a boom alone would never work,” he explains.

Using a Nagra IV-S analog recorder backed up by a Deva 5 hard-disk recorder, “Flags” underscored helmer Clint Eastwood’s preference for organically created location sound.

During the scene in Times Square where the heroes are welcomed by a women’s chorus, Martin recorded the vocals on the set, then played them back during the take.

“Clint likes to have as much of the actual production sound as possible,” he says. “Doing it this way kept the sound clean without having to dub it later.”

Mixers have always worn many hats — engineers, craftspeople, organizers. Now they have one more: traffic cop for film sound, keeping hundreds of sources moving smoothly.

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