The Subtle Craft Behind Movie Audio

Tommy Fleischman’s designer office chair sweeps back and forth across the length of a 12-foot console arrayed with faders, knobs, counters, gauges, meters and computer screens. Behind the console are other pieces of hardware, smaller, with wires pigeonholed below; above that, on an elevated platform, is a row of theatre seats, and above the seats, the glass window of a control room. On the opposite wall is a movie screen. Fleischman pauses an image of flaming trees from the upcoming feature Perestroika, which throws a yellow glow across the dimly lit workspace. The stillness of the “sound-isolated” studio is magnified, the sudden quiet more profound than the crackling of the burning wood a moment before.

Fleischman is a re-recording mixer, the sound department professional who “mixes” all the elements of a soundtrack. The title is a holdover from the days before digitization, when the sound recorded during production required re-recording onto another medium in order to be combined with the film’s score. A four-time Oscar nominee, who works frequently with Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme, Fleischman is one of only a handful of prominent re-recording mixers on the East Coast. Unlike many of his Hollywood colleagues, he works alone, often on this “mixing stage” at Soundtrack, a sound post-production house on Manhattan’s West Side. Fleischman’s mix of the sequence which begins with the blazing trees is emblematic of what a good soundtrack can do for a movie.

Fleischman advances and reverses the film six or seven times, from the trees to the next shot of black, smoking hills. He increases the volume of the fire, which requires “EQing,” altering the tonal quality of the sound effect and balancing it with other elements of the soundtrack—in this case, narration and music. Then he replays the two shots with the crackling noise of the fire spread over to the shot of the smoking hills. Now it’s apparent that those hills are composed of ash, the result of conflagrations, involving the flaming trees, taking place in the city where the film is set. In the next shot, the movie’s protagonist walks through a smoky courtyard. Fleischman fades the volume of the crackling and extends it to the beginning of this shot, adds “reverb” to the protagonist’s footsteps, and changes the music cue. Now, the entire sequence has an integrity it didn’t possess before the mix. The leitmotif of smoke, which links all three shots, is heightened, as is the symbolic role of the fire and smoke. Fleischman’s fade of the crackling sound to the ellipsis of the shot of the protagonist establishes an aural connection between the protagonist and the destructive fire: We now perceive the smoke in the courtyard as a metaphor for the disturbing thoughts swirling around in the protagonist’s mind. What at first glance is an example of the conventional role of sound in movies—to support the picture—becomes in Fleischman’s hands a device that intensifies the audience’s experience of the story.

Fleischman is meticulous in his work, and uncomfortable with hyperbole. He says of mixing: “It’s all about supporting the story.” That sensibility is echoed by Scott Millan, this year’s Oscar winner for Sound Mixing on The Bourne Ultimatum, and a friend of Fleischman’s. “Sound grounds a film,” he explains. Millan illustrates by describing a conversation with director Sam Mendes during the “pre-dub,” the initial mix, of Road to Perdition: “Early in the film, it is raining. We included many detailed textures of rain and Foley water movement, the slapping of the windshield wipers, and inside and outside perspectives of the car in the rainstorm. Sam didn’t like it and he asked us to simplify it. We did another mix, and Sam said: ‘You have mirrored the image perfectly, but that’s not what I want.’” Millan asked Mendes if he could be more specific. “Sam said: ‘The sequence is from the boy’s memory. Everyone else is dead, so it doesn’t have to be literal.’ That clarified it,” Millan recalls. “We used sounds the boy might remember—not all the sounds that were natural to the setting.”

Every element in the final mix of a soundtrack is edited first, by the Sound Editing team. Karen-Baker Landers, a supervising sound editor and this year’s Oscar winner for Sound Editing on The Bourne Ultimatum (with longtime partner Per Hallberg), describes her role with characteristic modesty: “In a film like Bourne, which is so quickly paced and where there are so many cuts, even I need a sonic compass; sound is there to help the storytelling.” Two-time Oscar winner Randy Thom, known for his work in the entirely fabricated universe of animated films, explains that sound can also be a restorative: “Regardless of the kind of film, the trick, if there is a single trick to doing sound for movies, is to figure out moment-to-moment what is important to focus on, and what sound or set of sounds will give the audience the emotional information they need to figure out what’s going on, and to stimulate their own imaginations.”

Directors and sound professionals celebrated for expanding on the notion of sound’s supporting role do so with a healthy regard for that Golden Rule. Leslie Shatz, a sound designer and re-recording mixer who works often with Gus Van Sant, explains how the sound department shapes the soundtrack to express the director’s vision. “In The Bourne Ultimatum, sound helps you with geography,” Shatz says, “because the cuts are marked by sound and there are so many cuts and there are so many different perspectives that sound locates you. But Gus often wants to dislocate, or to create a dreamlike quality. So, for instance, we spread the dialogue out to the left and right speakers instead of having it just come from the middle speaker.” The middle speaker in Dolby 5.1 is usually reserved for dialogue, while the other four and the sub-woofer are for effects and music. “On Elephant,” Shatz says, “Gus and I began with the idea of no extraneous sound, nothing literal. Then it’s easier to get to something ethereal.”

Reilly Steele, a re-recording mixer at Sound One, a sound post-production facility in the famed Brill Building in Manhattan, jokes about the invisible nature of his work. “If the mix is good,” he says, “the audience doesn’t notice it, although I wish the critics would.” Steele ruminates that sound is so much the stepchild of picture that the sound department appears sometime after the caterer when the credits roll. (Actually, it’s after the art department.) That view of sound as an inconspicuous aspect of moviemaking may prevail in part because the production sound team, even on big-budget films, often consists of two sound recordists. The remainder of the sound department—editors, mixers and designers—are hired in post-production. Fleischman remembers a sound crew of over 50 people on Reds, but with digitization, sound departments now have about a dozen professionals.

In addition to re-recording mixers and a supervising sound editor, the post-production team consists of editors for dialogue; ADR or looping; hard effects (gunshots, car and airplane noises, etc.); Foley; and music. Re-recording mixers generally work in teams, with the gaffing mixer (the senior mixer) responsible for dialogue and music, and the second mixer working on effects. Some re-recording mixers do sound design, but that is viewed by sound professionals as a separate discipline. The sound post-production process may take several months, and it begins with the “spotting session.”

After a film is digitized and picture editing is complete, the supervising sound editor and members of the sound editing team screen it with the director and the picture editor. At this spotting session, the movie’s soundtrack consists of the production tracks and often a temporary music track. (The film’s actual score is recorded just before the final mix on a specially designed scoring stage.) The overall design of the soundtrack is discussed, and the sound editors, under the guidance of the supervising sound editor, begin separating the production tracks and cleaning them up. “It’s a tremendously collaborative process,” says Baker-Landers. “I aim for a think-tank environment.” Sound editors organize the various tracks for the re-recording mixers, and make creative decisions with regard to choosing the best tracks, bearing in mind the approach decided upon at the spotting session.

It is during the editing stage that the dialogue editor may, for instance, flag phrases or whole sentences in which the sound quality isn’t up to standard. The editor will listen to other takes, or to that phrase from a microphone other than the one used in the take—generally dialogue is recorded on boom mikes, as well as lavelier or body mikes—and replace it, matching it as closely as possible to the rest of the sentence. When none of the existing tracks is sufficient, the actor will be asked to do a looping session on an automatic dialogue replacement (ADR) stage. There, they re-record the phrase, lip-synching their lines to picture. Meantime, the effects editors are recreating the production track, adding “ambiance,” or appropriate ambient sounds. They may also request a sound designer to create the hard effects which were not recorded during production, or that the director feels require special treatment.

Skip Lievsay, the Oscar-nominated re-recording mixer on No Country for Old Men, and a frequent Coen Brothers collaborator, sometimes takes credit as a sound designer, but he explains in a telephone interview that sound design is a specialized skill. “What differentiates sound design from sound editing,” Lievsay says, “is that some sounds cannot simply be recorded in our real world. They must be created by interpreting the filmmaker’s wish through a combination of abstract sounds, sounds that are not literal.” About the much-discussed gunshots in No Country, Lievsay gives all the credit to sound designer Craig Berkey. “Basically, the idea was to have a sharp, percussive sound and a concussion,” Lievsay explains. The “concussion” comes from the subwoofer, the .1 in Dolby 5.1. “Then there were a bunch of little things that Craig added, some of the more literal things on which we spread the timing out to make the overall sound more pleasurable, like the action of the firing. The click was opened up so that it could be enjoyed.”

Oscar nominee Ren Klyce, who did sound design and re-recording mixing on Zodiac, gives an excellent example of how sound design can be used in place of music. At first, director David Fincher told Klyce he preferred not to have any original music. Although that changed—David Shire wrote a wonderful score for Zodiac—in the factory scene with Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), the suspected serial murderer, music presented a problem. “Music leads the witness,” Klyce says, “and Fincher didn’t want that in this scene. The detectives thought Leigh was guilty. Music would have been too much. So, first we established the location with a very loud, throbbing pulse. Actually, we were trying to do two things at once with that sound. One was to identify the place as an oil refinery—in the sense of what is real—but the other idea was to express the pulse of this character. That’s what sound design can sometimes do. What we’re feeling is nerves, the rhythm of this place. It’s making you feel uneasy, but you’re not being told what to feel, as music might do.”

Effects editing includes Foley, which all films need, but most productions budget for a Foley editor. Foley is named for Jack Foley, who invented the techniques used to recreate sounds that originate with any movement of the body. A story, which may or may not be apocryphal, is told about Foley, who worked in the sound department at Universal Studios the year Stanley Kubrick filmed Spartacus. When viewing the rushes, Kubrick realized the clinking of metal in a scene with hundreds of extras dressed in armor never made it onto the production track. The studio was loath to re-stage the complicated and expensive scene, so Foley recorded himself jangling a set of keys. The trick worked, and the sound was used in the mix.

Foley is now recorded on a digital medium, but Foley artists and Foley stages have not changed much over the last 40 years. It is the one aspect of sound editing that elicits a chuckle from the most experienced sound professionals. The methods are undeniably quaint. Foley artists, often called “Foley walkers” because a lot of what they do is footsteps, expertly match their movements to the picture, but they also invent ingenious ways to recreate sounds. Their stages, like the one at Sound One, where Jay Peck is the Foley artist, look like Grandma’s attic. Brimming with furniture, clothing, shoes, and the odd car door, the Foley stage is also equipped with many floor surfaces, and a theatre-size screen so that the picture can be projected for the Foley artist. Foley is generally accomplished with a three-person team, the Foley artist, a Foley recording engineer and a supervising Foley editor.

On a recent winter day, independent supervising Foley editor Stuart Stanley, Peck and recording engineer Brian Collison—the team did Foley on The Darjeeling Limited—were on day one of an eight-day Foley session for a feature film. It’s a task that usually requires twice that number of days or more. “The language of Foley is universal,” Stanley says, “but it helps to work with Jay. He feels the actor’s emotions in the sounds he creates. He’s very good at picking the props that have the right sounds for what you’re seeing in the picture, and he has good body control to manipulate the object in his hand.” Peck, a drummer, is compact and wiry, and quite a sight in the high heels he’s wearing for the scene. “As a drummer,” Peck says, “you end up following behind the music. It’s similar to Foley, locking to image. You’re embellishing and getting behind the actions.”

The recordings created during Foley and looping sessions, as well as the numerous tracks of ambiance and hard effects, are all assembled by the editing team. These materials are reviewed by the supervising sound editor and sent to the re-recording mixers who, as part of their final mix, decide through which speakers the various elements of the soundtrack will be heard in the theatre. The film’s score is handled by the music editor, who works with the composer and, later, the gaffing re-recording mixer. It’s worth remembering that editing and re-recording mixing, including Foley, are not the exclusive preserve of live-action movies. So, what is the sound of hundreds of rats scurrying across the floor of a Paris restaurant? “Oh, a different kind of Foley,” Thom says of Oscar nominee Ratatouille, “like lots of little fingers and fingernails skittering across various surfaces.”

Although the phases of sound post-production may appear linear, technology has made it possible for sound editors and re-recording mixers to work simultaneously, and while a film is still in production. The Bourne Ultimatum is a case in point. “They were shooting up until two and a half weeks before we were finishing the film,” Baker-Landers explains. “It’s not always unusual, but the challenge is to remain creative while telling the story and keeping up with the logistics.”

Technology has also allowed sound to overwhelm image. Millan says on action movies, it’s important to strike a balance. “On Bourne, the cars could have been hyped, for instance,” he explains, “and there is a certain audience that enjoys that, but to support the filmmaker’s vision and to be true to the trilogy, we never went there.” Expressing the sentiment of most sound professionals, he adds: “I rarely want to.”

Many of the prominent sound professionals working today have screen credits that reach back to the 1960s and 1970s. Leslie Shatz, whose first credit was sound re-recordist on Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 documentary Directed by John Ford, jokes that these are “the elders of the tribe.” “We’re the preservers of the lore of how things were done,” he says. In 2005, Shatz won the Technical Grand Prize at Cannes for Gus Van Sant’s Last Days. Like all the professionals interviewed for this article, he works in ProTools, the de facto industry-standard editing software, but that doesn’t prevent him from expressing some nostalgia for the days of Steenbeck editing and analog sound. “In my own work,” he explains. “I constantly try to refer to the way I did things before there was digital technology. That keeps my focus on the result and not on the technique.”

It is Thom of Skywalker Sound, mentored by the iconic Walter Murch who, in the charming cadence of Louisiana which still lingers in his speech, best sums up the effects of technology: “One thing that’s lost in digital film editing is the interesting soup-cooking that happens on the back burner of the brain when you are not actively doing something. In the old days, when an editor got an idea and they had to stand up from the machine they were working on and walk down the hallway to an archive of shots or sounds and search through it and find something, very often not only would they find what turned out to be more useful to them than the one that had immediately occurred to them to look for—which often happens—but sometimes the idea soup would be cooking in such a way on the walk down the hallway, that they would come up with an entirely new and different and better idea in that process, away from the bearing down of their conscious attention on whatever it is that they were supposed to be doing.”


Karen Baker-Landers, supervising sound editor
Oscar: Sound Editing, The Bourne Ultimatum; Golden Reel: Black Hawk Down (awarded by Motion Picture Sound Editors); supervising sound editor on American Gangster, the Bourne trilogy

Tommy Fleischman, re-recording mixer
Oscar nominations for Sound Mixing: The Aviator, Gangs of New York, The Silence of the Lambs, Reds; other credits: The Departed, Margot at the Wedding

Ren Klyce, sound designer, re-recording mixer (among other credits)
Oscar nomination for Sound Effects Editing: Fight Club; nominated for Golden Reels for Fight Club and Panic Room; other credits: Zodiac, Being John Malkovich

Skip Lievsay, supervising sound editor, re-recording mixer (among other credits)
Oscar nominations: No Country for Old Men (editing and mixing); re-recording mixer on I Am Legend, U2 3D

Scott Millan, Re-recording mixer
Oscars: Ray, The Bourne Ultimatum; other credits: Gladiator, World Trade Center, Road to Perdition

Randy Thom, re-recording mixer, sound designer (among other credits)
Oscars: The Right Stuff, The Incredibles; Golden Reels for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Incredibles; other credits: Beowulf, Over the Hedge

Leslie Shatz, sound designer, re-recording mixer (among other credits)
Oscar nomination: The Mummy; other credits: I’m Not There, Paranoid Park, Far from Heaven