Re-recording mixer Doug Hemphill has won big awards for his sound mixing and has been at the top of his field for decades.
But he sees his work as not so different from what most people do daily.
“I think everybody out there in the audience creates a soundtrack for their life,” Hemphill says. “The music you listen to, what you want to do during the day. Go to the beach. Listen to some waves, seagulls, whatever. We do the same thing, but we do it for you, for a film.”
These days Hemphill mixes with Ron Bartlett. The duo works out of Formosa Group in Hollywood, and have credits including award contenders and blockbusters.
Their art is intangible but powerful.
“Sound for us is much more of a feel medium than the picture,” Hemphill says. “We deal in emotions a lot.” They aim to summon that emotion without calling attention to their work. For example, Bartlett says, “there’s times when you want to get into someone’s head, see what they’re thinking and understand what they’re feeling. So you take away a lot of (sounds). You’re evoking that emotion, but you strip out a lot of things very stealthily.”
Hemphill notes “A director once told me that the more detail you put into that big sequence, the smaller it sounds. You’re creating an impression. An impression doesn’t necessarily contain detail. It just contains a ball of energy or whatever you want to call it.”
Hemphill and Bartlett both have musical backgrounds, which guides their approach to mixing. Bartlett, a onetime drummer, says he thinks of mixing like a composition. “The dialogue track, for instance, would be like the lead vocal, and everything is wrapped around that,” he says.
As they mix together, Hemphill handles sound effects, Bartlett handles music and dialogue. Each thinks the other’s job is hard.
Bartlett says of Hemphill: “He has thousands of tracks to deal with and layers and layers and layers of things to sort out to really focus in on what’s important.” Hemphill counters: “I travel through a movie through the actors’ voices, so I think Ron has the hardest job. He’s doing dialogue and music, and nowadays that’s the lion’s share of the work.”
One trick of the mixing trade is a “sleeve job,” as in a magic act, or pulling something out of your sleeve. It’s something in the mix that’s almost subliminal. For example in one “X-Men” film, Hemphill says, there was a moment where the X-jet rises from behind a snowy hill for a rescue. “I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we put a crowd cheer under the engine when it rises up?’”
So the roar of the jet has a cheering crowd built in. “You won’t hear it overtly, but it’s there,” Hemphill says. “A cheer is there, which makes you kind of go, ‘Yes!’ when that jet comes up and rescues them. That’s a sleeve job.”