In June, 2008 I was fortune enough to sit in and observe a couple of day’s mixing at Skywalker Ranch with Randy Thom and Tom Myers. I recently found these notes and thought it would be good to post them here.
Theatrical Mix in Dolby EX (6.1) for re-released print of the film. (Now Available as a Blu-Ray)
FX Mixer, Randy Thom
Music and Foley, Tom Myers
Dialogue Mix (already done by clients) usually is given to the more experienced mixer as the best chops are needed to make production dialogue sound its best. Less of an issue on animated features.
Each section, dialogue, music, foley and fx runs on a separate computer (back in the machine room) all slaved via timecode to the reel. Prior to getting to the mix, an editor, whether dialogue editor, sound editor, foley editor etc, will build the ‘pre’s’ or ‘pre-dubs’ as protocols sessions. They are then all brought onto the mix stage for the final mix.
The mixers work through the feature a reel at a time. First listening through the whole reel, then going back and mixing what needs addressing. Each mixer takes turns, while the other breaks. This is because otherwise they would step on each other’s toes and end up missing something the other wanted to write. It was a mix of just setting levels for tracks and automation for more involved ducking etc. All done at desk. The assistants assign sounds to channels for the mixers and the mixer then watches the scene and rides the faders. Every sound is on a separate track.
The mixers bounce ideas off one another, and the editors also chip-in with suggestions. This makes the whole mix process quite democratic and conversational. It makes good sense to ‘test’ mix ideas and suggestions by bouncing them off the other people in the room. Which is why one person alone doing a mix does not make much sense. Although this does happen.
The mixers make notes on timecode areas (measured in feet) that they wish to revisit, and they punch in and roll back to these spots themselves. They then record the automation to a master. Notes are also received from the client about particular areas that they wish to revisit, and these were also addresses in the mix.
A surprising amount of sound effects design and sound replacement also happens all the way through the mix. Sections are extended, under the direction of the mixer, by the editors, new or replacement sounds are also found and dropped in. While I was there, several scenes had sounds added to them. From additional tire squeals to subtle background additions, like ship horns and distant car horns in scenes where there was a suitable gap in the dialogue. The editors either go offline to find the sounds in soundminer, or copy sounds from elsewhere in the session. When a client is present, a lot more of this kind of thing happens.
Randy talked about the rule of 100%, whereby everyone who works on the soundtrack of the film, assumes in is 100% of their job to provide the content for the feature. So the composer will go for all the spots they can, as will the dialogue, and the same with the sound editors. When it comes to the mix, this often means that there is little room for any one particular element to shine. Which means more mixing decisions have to be made, and often this sounds like, music for example, have just been turned down. In more aesthetically successful movies, collaboration is present earlier, composers decide that it is fine to just drop certain cues etc. When Randy is mixing, he wears the mixers hat, and is at the service of the story and the film, and he often makes decisions to get rid of sounds that he has personally worked hard on.
Sometimes ideas about particular key scenes and mix ideas are talked about early with the director, at the script stage. Randy works this way with Robert Zemickis. However, not enough directors consider sound in pre-production and often end up with the 100% situation and a lot more things to ‘fix’ in the final mix, lots of messy and chaotic sound to figure out.
In Ghost in the Shell, there is very little music. And because of this, where it is used, it has a very powerful/meaningful effect on the story / audience. This meant a lot of great opportunities and space for sound design, some very musical sound design, such as the ambient ship horns were able to occur without offending the composer (adding musical sounds, i.e. sounds of a particular pitch, could be perceived by the audience as part of the music, particularly if they are in ‘tune’ with the underscore). A lot of the backgrounds are also very musical in the feature. Foley is very soft, clean and rich. Randy made a point about foley that they tend to not use shoes that are very clicky as they sound too much like ‘foley’, so they tend to use trainers, soft shoes, even moccasins and slippers, so this way the foley stays out of the way and doesn’t jump out as obviously foley. Randy also said that pink noise can be used for foley, just have a track with pink noise on it and ride and eq the fader so that it matches the movement! A little film trick!
Dialogue in the movie, and sounds, were panned very originally for a feature film. Dialogue remained positional to the characters, even when they were off screen, often meaning that the sound would jump to a rear speaker with a visual cut. Quite original and brave I thought, although these mix decisions were made by the clients in Japan. The music soundtrack had been re-mastered in surround. The film was mixed in Dolby EX for a theatrical re-release. So if a theatre has the rear speakers turned off for whatever reason, the audience may miss some dialogue.
Randy discussed mixing as being a series of choices about what to hear at any particular moment. And it is the graceful blending from one mix moment to the next that constitutes the actual mix. These decisions come from the story, what is important at any particular moment, what the audience needs to hear and focus on. He mentioned that cinema with deep focus photography often made things easier to ‘focus’ on with sound. In actions scenes, particularly longer action scenes, it becomes difficult to go from one thing to another constantly, especially if in the script there is no brief let-up of action to allow the sound to take a break. We talked about the extended chase scene in The Bourne Ultimatum as being a good example of handling this well. Having a scene with no music, dropping out various things at various times. The scene is well written for sound and well mixed. He also cites Spielberg movies as being good for examples of how to use sound and mixes well. Often the arrival of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park is mentioned to him as an effect that a director wants to emulate, yet there is no music in this scene. However directors often go to music first to try and achieve the emotional effect. Saving Private Ryan is also cited a lot as an effect that directors want to achieve, again, no music in the opening scene. Knowing when not to use music seems to be a decision to take at the writing stage of development, however deciding to drop cues also can work at a final mix.