Sound and Fury

(Ethan Gates)– Part 3 in my Get to Know an Unloved Film Craftsman series. So far we’ve done cinematographers and costume designers; today, sound!

When film reels are simplified in cartoons, they always look something like this, right?

The problem with that image is, what you are looking at is actually a silent film reel. Any film that features synchronized sound (yes, even “The Artist,” which still had a soundtrack even if it mostly cut out dialogue and sound effects) actually looks something more like this:

The key difference (besides those numbers) is that funny little strip on the right that looks like something out of GarageBand. That’s the film’s soundtrack, expressed in analog waveform. All film projectors have an optical track that reads those waves, then recreates the sound just as it was originally recorded. Norman McLaren visualized this process in a pretty neat fashion in his short film “Synchromy” – McLaren photographed strips of paper with visual illustrations of sound waves on them (in this case, digitized sound, hence the blocky look rather than a pure wave), then used the photographs to make both the soundtrack AND the visual track: what you hear is what you see.

I’m getting this technical because I think visualizing how a reel of film works makes it much easier to understand the difference between your two basic kind of sound craftsmen: sound editors and sound mixers.

Sound editors (sound designers) are basically anyone responsible for recording, inventing, or generally cobbling together the film’s various sound tracks, including speech (dialogue), ambience (atmospheric noise), sound effects, and music. It’s a really pretty general term that can range anywhere from those dorky-looking boom operators:

To the infinitely cooler foley artists, who use warehouses full of random objects to create specialized individual sound effects (a set of keys rolled around on a piece of plywood, for instance, can become the sound of tank treads in a finished film):

They record shit on set, they make up sounds in the studio months later, they use music and ambient sound from other films, they even employ stock sounds originally recorded decades ago.

Sound mixers, on the other hand, are responsible for combining the various individual sound tracks made by the sound editors into one, combined track containing all of the film’s sound. So they pretty much exclusively work on equipment like this:

This could also be a sound editor, too. It's pretty impossible to tell sometimes.

Big-budget war films like “Saving Private Ryan” and action blockbusters like the “Transformers” franchise usually draw the most praise in the business when it comes to sound quality. While I’m sure it’s a challenging job to create and properly mix the tracks for such films, I still have a nagging feeling that the only exceptional thing these movies do is crank the volume dial to 11. Sound is obviously the most notable when it’s loud, but it can be just as critical in a film like “No Country for Old Men,” where entire scenes can hinge on the tiniest squeak of sound amongst the silence.

Like the other crafts, sound mixing and editing is pretty much a boy’s club, though not quite as atrociously so as with the cinematographers. The two sound craft guilds, the Cinema Audio Society and the Motion Picture Sound Editors’ Association, have something around 5% female membership; there are three women on the board of directors of the Cinema Audio Society and they’ve had two female presidents in the past (out of 22).

The movies have always been all about sound. Even before the advent of synchronized soundtracks and dialogue, so-called “silent” films were usually accompanied by music of some sort, even if it was just some poor guy wildly improvising on a piano in a corner of the movie theater. Films are meant to be an audio-visual experience, and we have these guys to thank for half of that.

Five to Think About: Sound Editing/Mixing Supervisors You Already Love:

  1. Walter Murch – “Apocalypse Now,” “The Godfather: Part II,” “American Graffiti,” “Ghost,” “The English Patient,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Cold Mountain” the 1998 “Touch of Evil” restoration
  2. Ben Burtt – all six “Star Wars” films, all four “Indiana Jones” films, “WALL-E”
  3. Mark Berger – “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Amadeus,” “Blue Velvet,” “Mermaids” (yes, “Mermaids”), “Fly Away Home,” (yes, “Fly Away Home”), ‘The Apostle,” “Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums”
  4. Randy Thom – “Ratatouille,” “The Right Stuff,” “The Polar Express,” “Cast Away,” “The Incredibles,” “Contact,” “Forrest Gump”
  5. Kevin O’Connell – “Gremlins,” “Dune,” “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” “Top Gun,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Broadcast News,” “Beetlejuice,” “Field of Dreams,” “City Slickers,” “Armageddon,” “Godzilla,” “Gone in Sixty Seconds,” “Con Air,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Spider-Man,” “National Treasure,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “The Da Vinci Code,” “Transformers,” Unstoppable,” “The Muppets”

-Kevin O’Connell holds the record for Academy Award futility, with a whopping 20 nominations for Best Sound Mixing and not a single win.