Great moments in sound mixing come when sounds gathered during the sound-editing process are used in a way that somehow make everything else in a movie seem that much more real and vibrant.
Not every film asks a sound mixer to match precisely what’s on the screen or even what can be clearly described in the script. On “Tree of Life,” Terrence Malik gave sound mixer Craig Berkey more abstract direction.
“Sometimes we’d be asked to create a mix that expressed what consciousness is. You’d really have to kind of feel your way through it. We’d try something, let Terry listen to it, get feedback and then alter it again and again as more of the film was available for us to see.”
Berkey describes mixing “The Tree of Life” as “a very organic process that you’d really only use of this kind of film. You’re trying to create a mix that is as much about what the audience thinks as it is about what the director thinks. I don’t think there’s any other director who works this way.”
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Shame” both have a lot of silent moments, and both use dialogue sparingly, opening up the door for sound design. While “Shame” uses the techniques to develop an isolated environment for its troubled protagonist, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” applies similar methods to a creepy, thriller-like effect.
“We wanted all the little hairs on the back of your neck to stand up,” says Coll Anderson, sound mixer for “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” “So we pulled back on using too many sounds which forced the audience to sort of lean in to hear things and then we had sounds that were heard off screen which makes you want to see what’s making that sound.”
“Drive” also follows a main character who’s mostly alone. Despite opening with an intense chase sequence, much of the rest of the story builds tension through carefully chosen and mixed sounds.
“When Ryan Gosling’s character is waiting for another character to emerge from a pawn shop after robbing it, you hear the ticking of a clock becoming louder because we wanted to make the audience feel how long just a few minutes can be when you’re waiting there,” says Dave Patterson, sound mixer for “Drive.”
On “War Horse,” says sound re-recording mixer Gary Rydstrom, the mix of war sounds is not as gritty or realistic as it could have been. Rydstrom and helmer Steven Spielberg, who worked together on the graphic “Saving Private Ryan” battles, were going for a different aesthetic. “Saving Private Ryan” explored battle’s immediate impact, so its scenes were gruesome. “War Horse” focuses on the long term effects of war on those who experience it.
“In so many ways this is a movie with classic movie sensibilities,” says Rydstrom. “So you’re staying with the characters and the sounds of war are very often heard in the distance instead of the foreground of the film.”
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