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Sound Mixers and Editors Stretch Their Skills to Create Believable Worlds

Ford v Ferrari 20th Century Fox
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

With giant interstellar battles, historic car races and intimate moments with iconic performers on the line, the sound teams behind many of the year’s best films stretched to design next-level soundscapes.

Live performances just about always prove tricky, but Adrian Bell, production sound mixer for “Judy,” was able to find things in them that became essential to telling the story of fading icon Judy Garland.

“The aim is to make the performance look completely believable, that the music and vocals are being performed right there in the location,” Bell says. “Some of the challenges here included mixing some of our work with the pre-recorded music and vocals that had been laid down before we started filming. There are also various nuances within a performance, which makes the song come alive, such as breaths, footsteps, pauses in the song, microphone-handling noise and crying. These are all added on to the final mix in very subtle ways to help the belief that the performance is genuine.”

Songs and singers were crucial for “Rocketman,” a modern musical that follows the life and often hard times of Elton John. “The words and music and songs are doing a lot of the narrative work and those words are sewn into the movie, so you’ll go from singing a song back into dialogue and then back into singing again,” says Mike Prestwood Smith, re-recording mixer on “Rocketman.” “All the time, these things have to feel coherent and they belong in one space.”

Stuart Wilson, production mixer on “1917,” also found himself looking for ways to preserve essential sounds that often only happen on set.

“It’s complicated mixing dialogue, along with the sounds of them moving along and breathing, so that you know what they’re saying,” Wilson says. “The sounds of the breathing became very important because it conveyed the state of being terrified with what they were going through. It’s not really something you can get later, because the actors are running in character on the set, and if we did it later you’d have someone in a small booth trying to recreate that feeling, which would be very difficult.”

“Ford v Ferrari” had the sound of car engines competing with dialogue. Sound mixers Paul Massey and David Giammarco wanted the emotion that only these cars could bring to the story.

“The key was getting realistic sound from period correct vehicles,” says Giammarco. “The sounds of that low end power and those exhaust systems at the time, there’s just nothing like it.”

Massey, who won an Academy Award for sound mixing on “Bohemian Rhapsody,” agrees: “For us, it’s more about what you’re taking out than adding into the mix in order to highlight those emotional moments.”

Similar to every part of the production, sound must serve the story. And sound designers think through the sounds they add, take away or create in terms of their role in the narrative.

“We try to design things around the emotions of the characters,” says Shannon Mills, supervising sound editor for “Avengers: Endgame.” “When Ant-Man — Paul Rudd — first meets his daughter, we tried to lead up to that in the post-snap world with how quiet and ominous and sad that was. In contrast to that, we have the final battle, where there’s so much going on that our job is to try to focus your attention on who and what needs your attention at that moment because there are literally hundreds of people onscreen doing stuff.”