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Tom Paul Talks Sound Mixing for Sundance’s Biggest Films

Tom Paul can finally exhale. At the end of each November, for more than 20 years, the New York-based sound designer turns nocturnal. Forgoing sleep means he’ll have just enough time to complete the sound edit and mix for the multitude of films he was hired to work on that are premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, the most recent edition of which wrapped on Sunday.

“What usually happens is that directors find out they’re in Sundance around Thanksgiving,” Paul explains. “And then it’s like, ‘Oh my God! We’re going to picture-lock in two weeks and then we’ll start the sound.’ Six weeks between Thanksgiving and Sundance has to compress into three weeks because that’s all the time we have. I double up on the editorial and I work long days. It’s a mad rush.”

This year, the two-time Emmy winner created a soundscape for four Sundance projects: Karim Amer and Guvenc Ozel’s VR interactive piece “Persuasion Machines”; Nanette Burstein’s “Hillary,” Hulu’s docuseries about Hillary Clinton and the 2016 election; Eli Despres, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s “The Fight” — a doc about the ACLU’s battles against Donald Trump; and Matthew Heineman’s Showtime human trafficking docuseries, “The Trade: Season 2.”

Paul sits in front of a large sound console in a dark room, where he determines what audiences hear and how they hear it using different audio aspects (Foley, ADR, effects, dialogue).

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“My job is to create the sonic experience, the emotional experience and literally the physical experience,” he says. “We’re holding the audiences’ hand and guiding them through the story. Every second of the movie — actually every millisecond of the movie — the sound designer is responsible for the audience’s attention. You have to direct it and you have to be concerned with the textures of [the mix]. It can be edgy. It can be soothing, scary, empty and/or mysterious.”

Paul concedes that one of the hardest aspects of his job is handling vérité dialogue. He describes as “a big adventure” editing a scene in Kriegman and Steinberg’s 2016 documentary “Weiner” that involved the disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner biking in the streets of New York City while simultaneously having a conversation with a pedestrian.

“There are amazing tools these days for surgically manipulating the sound to maybe get rid of the jackhammer between words if you can isolate the frequencies,” Paul explains. “But it’s always an obstacle course to navigate the messy, murky waters of a vérité sound and tease out what you need to tell the story and try to get rid of the distractions.”

Paul, who describes “good sound” as confident and deliberate, also admits that high-quality sound is often subtle and subliminal, making it inconspicuous to the general viewer.

“I’m always trying to make a cohesive presentation that ties together image, sound, music and storytelling,” says Paul. “So none of those things should stand out and separate. It’s a tricky thing. I rarely would want to make a sound that someone is going to notice and say, ‘Oh, that was a cool sound.’ The goal is to make sure that the audience never second-guesses anything in terms of sound. I want their heads to be in the story. Anything that takes them out of that story is something to avoid.”

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