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Sound Is 50% of the Movie, but Hollywood is Often Tone-Deaf

People in the industry vaguely understand the job of an editor, cinematographer or production designer. But even sophisticated showbiz veterans are flummoxed by the work of sound people.

It’s ironic because the movies of 2017 created some indelible sounds: the tinkle of a stirred teacup in “Get Out”; the hollow singing of the holograms in “Blade Runner 2049”; the exaggerated loudness of Alma scraping her toast in “Phantom Thread”; the noises of warfare heard by the soldiers huddled below deck in “Dunkirk”; and even the dramatic silence at a key moment “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

Yet movie critics rarely single out the work of sound people; adding insult to injury, if they do mention sound, they often credit it to Dolby, i.e., the equipment rather than the artisans.

The industry also seems to turn a deaf ear to sound. Other key below-the-line artists get single cards in the main credits of a film. Sound people don’t.

George Lucas has said that sound is 50% of the moviegoing experience. But often a layman ignores the contributions because it isn’t clear who’s responsible for a sound choice.

The credits for “Blade Runner 2049,” for example, list one cinematographer (Roger Deakins) and one editor (Joe Walker). But there are 33 individuals listed in the sound department. That group includes people who are Oscar-nominated for sound editing: Mark Mangini (supervising sound editor) and Theo Green (sound designer). The film’s sound-mixing Oscar nominees are Ron Bartlett and Doug Hemphill (both re-recording mixers) and Mac Ruth (production sound mixer).

That’s a lot of titles.

Julian Slater is a double Oscar nominee for “Baby Driver,” as the film’s sound editor, and as part of the sound mixing team (with Tim Cavagin and Mary H. Ellis). However, IMDb lists him as the film’s re-recording mixer, sound designer and supervising sound editor. So what is he, exactly?

Generally, sound editors gather sound. Nothing that you hear in a film is accidental: The distant sound of a train, the murmur of people at other tables in the restaurant — all are carefully placed there for a reason.

Mangini says they created 2,850 unique sounds for “Blade Runner.” Some were for things that don’t exist yet: spinners (the vehicles), the sounds of a replicant birth, etc. They also needed to create unique variations of things that seem familiar, such as the constant rain that is heard in several scenes, K and Joi on the rooftop and the wind chimes heard faintly in Wallace’s office/lair.

Under “Blade Runner” director Denis Villeneuve, “We got opportunities you don’t normally get,” says Mangini. “Denis said to Theo and me ‘compose with sound,’ and the movie has so much atmosphere.” Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, the walk through the desert, the casino — “all are replete with musical textures,” says Mangini. “Normally, sound needs are like a coloring book: You have to stay within the lines. But with this film, we could create sound atmospheres, moods and textures, and we painted WAY outside the lines.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences might want to rethink its category labels. One Oscar category is “sound mixing,” but that phrase actually incorporates several distinct jobs: production sound mixing (i.e., capturing the performances on-camera and mixing accordingly) and post-production sound mixing (the work of specialists, such as ADR mixer, Foley mixer, etc.).

An individual or team finally assembles all the sound mixes, including music. The Academy has listed these people in the category of sound mixer, but the Cinema Audio Society more precisely labels the person as the re-recording mixer, since there is a vast community of mixers.

The 1926 “Don Juan” and 1927 “The Jazz Singer” pioneered sync sound in movies. Hollywood’s uneasy adjustment to talkies was spoofed in the 1952 classic “Singin’ in the Rain,” which depicted a movie’s sound coming from one microphone on the set. That image over the years has turned into a compliment (filmmakers want audiences to think they’re listening to the actual noises) but it’s also a slight. It discounts the complexity involved in creating sound for any scene.

It also leads to an ongoing sore point: In the early days, sound people were technicians, trying to wrangle new machinery; but to call current behind-the-camera folks “technicians” or to call these “tech categories” is to overlook their enormous creativity.

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