Oscar Winner: Sound Mixing A Subjective Art

Academy award-winner Russell Williams, a former sound mixer, says sound mixing, like everything else about the movies, is a subjective art. Williams won Oscars for his sound work on Glory and Dances with Wolves.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. On Sunday night, Academy Awards will be given for lots of categories, some obvious. We know what a supporting actor does or a screenwriter. But what does a sound mixer do?

In a moment, we'll talk to a mixer who has won two Oscars himself, but first a definition in two parts.

On a movie set, the sound mixer records the actors and important ambient sound. Say they're shooting on a busy New York street corner; it's the sound mixer's job to make sure the cars driving by don't drown out the dialogue.

Then a different mixer or a team of mixers comes in at the very end of the process. After the film and its sound have been edited, the mixer blends the sound, making sure the explosions and music aren't too loud or the dialogue too soft.

Russell Williams is a former sound mixer. He won Academy Awards for his work on the movies "Glory" and "Dances with Wolves." Williams says that sound mixing, like everything else about the movies, is a subjective art.

Mr. RUSSELL WILLIAMS (Artist in Residence, American University's School of Communications): I'm a person that believes in camera perspective. So if something is closer to the camera, it should sound closer, and as it gets further away, it should get further away. But some movies don't do that.

BLOCK: They want it all right up in your face.

Mr. WILLIAMS: They want it in your face and in your ears. So, good examples would be, say this year, something like "Transformers" or "Star Trek." Since they are basically aimed at 12-year-old boys, the mixes are generally very loud, and they're mixed in what we would call a hyper-real type of state. In other words, everything is very present.

BLOCK: Well, you mentioned "Transformers" for one, and let's take a listen to a clip from that movie right now.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Okay.

(Soundbite of film, "Transformers")

BLOCK: Kind of a symphony of sound effects going on there, Russell. What's going on in that scene?

Mr. WILLIAMS: In this scene, you have something like a mechanical robot tiger that drops what looks like a thousand ball bearings down a pipe and then these ball bearings end up on a hard cement floor and they start rolling, but then they turn into these other very tiny mechanical robots, spiders, and they go off looking for trouble.

BLOCK: You mentioned how you're a fan of camera perspective, matching sound. And let's take a listen now to a clip from the movie "The Hurt Locker," also nominated for sound mixing.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Okay. Very different movie.

(Soundbite of film, "The Hurt Locker")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) (Unintelligible) on you?

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Oh, I don't know. Specialist, what have we got?

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) Oh, God. Well, no one's counting today.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Mr. WILLIAMS: If you want to compare the two, say, "Transformers" to "Hurt Locker," "Hurt Locker" is more like a singer that's singing a capella. "Transformers" is a singer that's singing in front of the bassy band or a big rock band. You've got a lot of energy going on. So there's a lot more subtlety there.

In "The Hurt Locker," you hear the wind. The scene was several military men out in the desert, and they think that they're safe and by themselves, and then all of a sudden, one of the gentlemen is hit by a rifle round, and the thing that I liked about how this was mixed is that rifle rounds travel faster than sound. So he was hit and on the ground before the sound of the rifle actually got to the people. Then the rest of the men go into action and they pull their weapons out and they try to find the snipers.

But for many years, the Hollywood convention was to sell you this lie, actually, that you saw a gun, you heard the gun, and that's only true at close distances. The further away you get, there's a delay between the sound and the actual shot of the gun.

BLOCK: So it helps to know some physics if you're going to be a sound mixer.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Right, it does, and of course, it's ultimately the director's choice. If the director wants to ignore the rules of physics, it's fine if it keeps the story from breaking up and falling apart.

Outer space movies are very - are known for this. In other words, "2001: A Space Odyssey," you heard no sound in the vacuum of space. The "Star Wars" movies, you always hear sound in the vacuum of space. Now, does that ruin the movie for you? It's up to you. In "Star Trek," one of the nominees for this year, they actually straddle the fence. There's portions of it where you don't hear sound in the vacuum and portions where you do.

(Soundbite of film, "Star Trek")

(Soundbite of people talking)

Mr. WILLIAMS: It's really a creative choice.

BLOCK: Well, we've talked about three of the nominees for sound mixing. Another nominee in this category is "Avatar."

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes.

BLOCK: As in most of the other categories this year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: What do you think about the mixing on "Avatar"?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I thought "Avatar" was very skillfully done. Just from reading about some of the work they did, it was an 80-day final mix, but looking at the fact that it took them years to do all the special effects and shoot the film, it doesn't surprise me. But there's a lot of subtlety in "Avatar."

Yes, there are very big scenes and big battles, but because you go to a world that none of us have actually been to, it really gives the sound designers, the editors and all of their teams an opportunity to create something unique, and it sounds kind of like movies we've heard that were supposed to be in the jungle, like the Amazon, but then there's some elements that we haven't heard before because no one's been to Pandora.

BLOCK: Right. You can imagine what they're like.

(Soundbite of film, "Avatar")

(Soundbite of alien creatures)

BLOCK: What about "Inglourious Basterds" and the director Quentin Tarantino here, how he's using sound in imagining this sound landscape?

(Soundbite of film "Inglourious Basterds")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As character) Papa.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Quentin Tarantino is very creative. Not only does he use music as a separate character, in my opinion, he uses a lot of Morricone and other sound cues that kind of make you feel it's a Western.

BLOCK: You're talking about Ennio Morricone from the spaghetti Westerns.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Right, right. One of my favorites of his was "Once Upon a Time in the West." But Tarantino skillfully overlays that sound but with a World War II movie. One of the other key elements in the film is that language is very important. I mean, you hear German quite a bit in the film. You hear French quite a bit. You hear a little bit of Italian, and of course, we hear English.

So they pay close attention to how each voice of each character is recorded, and there's a nice scene in the cafe where one of the undercover military men is found out, so he switches from German...

(Soundbite of film, "Inglourious Basterds")

Unidentified Man #5 (Actor): (As character) (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. WILLIAMS: ...to English, and then the scene just collapses in a big gun fight.

(Soundbite of film, "Inglourious Basterds")

Michael Fassbender (Actor): (As Lt. Archie Hicox) About this pickle we find ourselves in. It would appear there's only one thing left for you to do.

August Diehl (Actor): (As Major Hellstrom) And what would that be?

Michael Fassbender: (As Lt. Archie Hicox) Stiglitz.

Til Schweiger (Actor): (As Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz) Say auf wiedersehen to your Nazi balls.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Mr. WILLIAMS: Just from listening to it, I believe that a lot of the production dialogue, meaning the sound that was recorded on location, survived, where a lot of films, say, I'm just guessing, but say "Star Trek," even though a lot of it was done on set, there are a lot of things that create the visuals that you see that ruin the production track. So, in a lot of cases, those films end up using the production sound as what we call a guide track so they can be re-recorded later. But that's not always the case but just something your listeners should be aware of.

BLOCK: Doing it after the fact, in post-production?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Absolutely.

BLOCK: Russell Williams, enjoy the Oscars on Sunday.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Will do. Thank you for the invite.

BLOCK: Russell Williams is a former sound mixer, now an artist in residence at American University's School of Communications. He won Oscars for mixing "Dances with Wolves" and "Glory."

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.