It is said that sound is 50% of cinema- and frankly, that’s a conservative figure.
The invisible art, sound provides an indescribable service for any film you watch. Sound greases the wheels of narrative, smooths the edges of juxtaposition, and adds that gut-felt final gloss and sheen to the cinematic experience. Having made a few shorts myself, and seen an incalculable number of work-prints, I can say from experience that a film doesn’t ever feel like a film until there is a nice coat of sound design. If you want to experience this for yourself, you need only find a DVD with deleted scenes that haven’t been polished up. Sound, especially sound effects and foley (sound effects that are specifically performed for a film- footsteps, cloth passes, props, etc), lead our eye through a frame as much as depth of field, and through a narrative as much as picture editing.
As the Academy Awards draw close and people discuss nominations, conversations concerning the technical awards often include confusion or misconceptions about the differences between the two Sound awards- Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. To help clear up and elaborate on the differences between these two very distinct areas of expertise, I spoke with David Stone- an Academy Award-winning Sound Designer. David has not only worked on dozens of movies you’ve heard of, he’s worked on many that you love. Starting out in the 70s on cartoon shows, he moved into features and has since worked on everything from Predator to Top Gun, Halloween II to Speed, Weird Science to Training Day. He won his Best Sound Editing Oscar for his work on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
These days, David Stone acts as chair of the Sound Department at the Savannah College or Art & Design (where I’m currently wrapping up a Film Major/Sound Minor degree). I asked him to spend a few minutes with me discussing sound and what it is the two sound Oscars are really celebrating. I’ve weaved his answer in with some explanation of terms. Also, I’ve embedded some wonderful featurettes from Soundworks Collection throughout the piece. Soundworks, a spin-off from Mix Magazine, is a website that profiles sound designers and excellent sound work, and produced these brief looks at the sound work of 2009.
David’s thoughts are in green, and my occasional chatter is the italicized stuff. This is a fairly epic conversation, but any film enthusiast worth their salt should be interested in learning more about sound….
So to begin, the basic distinction between editing and mixing is this; editing is the creation and assembly of sound effects, ADR (rerecorded dialogue), and foley into soundtracks, and mixing is the orchestration of these multiple tracks into the final soundtrack, with the arrangement, relative amplitudes, and overall polishing of the track finalized. Editors put it together, Mixers polish and present it.
In our conversation, David waxed poetic on the nuances of each position, and drew comparisons with the other elements of filmmaking. He began with editing.
“Let’s start with the idea that editing is about building and organizing pieces. Laypeople, as you probably know, misunderstand what film editing is. They think that it’s throwing away the bad bits because they see outtakes and stuff. They don’t have a clue that editing is the very heart of what cinema is. It is montage. It is the building of pieces of still or moving imagery to tell a story. There is no film without editing. Without editing, it is a security camera on a parking lot. it is not a movie.”
“So, if film editing is organizing a story with visual pieces… making a narrative story out of visual pieces… building something from nothing… something that doesn’t exist… Building inference because I cut to a picture of a cow being slaughter and then I cut to a picture of your face, five years later in another place and time, and you don’t even know there’s a cow being slaughtered. Those together tell a story that is more than the sum of its parts.”
“The Kuleshov effect…“
“Exactly, the Kuleshov Effect. So if that’s what film editing is, sound editing is a similar process- organizing pieces of sound to tell an audible story, to support or contradict the story being told by the visuals. To make them seem real, or to move away from them, or to comment on them in a contradictory way. To support them with music, to make a toy gun sound like a real gun. To tell a story.”
“So editing is always the deliberate decision to montage pieces together- in this case they are pieces of audio and not pieces of visual. So that’s what sound editing is. Nowhere have we talked about cutting things, which is what [laughing] “Muggles” out there must think “Wizards” must do in the editing. it’s never about cutting things out- although choosing what not to show is an editorial decision. But its never about cutting things out any more than editing a magazine article for The New Yorker magazine is about throwing the bad pieces out. It’s about editing to make it beautiful, to make it play. So that’s what editing is.”
We moved on to Sound Mixing which actually breaks down into Mixing, and Rerecording. This also covers the important detail of production sound, which is what you’re actually capturing on set (which is itself typically focused on dialogue).
“Mixing, sound mixing, means different things according to context. A sound mixer in the movie industry may be a recording mixer, or a rerecording mixer. A recording mixer -in the film industry parlance- is roughly the equivalent of what’s called an engineer in the old… there used to be a thing called the music industry… where recording artists were recorded in studios, and obviously an engineer on a recording session was more important than someone who just plugged in the mics and turned up the faders. He or she knew how to make every situation of every instrument, and every vocal going to a particular microphone, to a particular fader track -how to make them sound their best, and how to make them interplay with the other instruments being recorded. To play well together. A kind of orchestration of multiplicity of technical recordings- of recordings of live sound. So in the music industry that’s an engineer. In the film industry, thats a recording mixer. Now that mixer may be recording foley on the foley stage, ADR on the ADR stage, or music on a scoring stage. That person is a mixer, a recording mixer. We call them mixers not engineers. I think the term engineer… I prefer our term to the music industry’s, because engineer just simply sounds 100% technical, as if it’s all about knowing the right button to push, and that disassociates it from artisan-ship and craftsmanship. The nuances that make a great professional recording better than a simple amateur [recording]. The difference between a great professional recoding and one that just works. That’s recording mixers.”
“Now in the film industry, since somewhere in the early or middle or late 1930s, we started having rerecording mixers, In the motion picture industry, rerecording is a term that refers to the deliberate and careful blending of a multiplicity of soundtracks into one finished soundtrack, to support the movie. So rerecording mixers work together on a dub stage -a rerecording stage- to achieve the best possible effect with the tracks that they’re given. Those tracks are prepared by sound editors. The sound editors- the best accomplishment of their craft is to organize the pieces of those soundtracks in such a way that they’ll make the best possible mix, in the hands of a great mixer. Organizers. Organizing in terms of where they are and where they are supposed to fall together in a premix -or “pre dub”- and where they are not. So that’s about organizing those bits of sound, and a rerecording mixer has to work to make those premixes, to winnow down from an uncomfortably large number of tracks to a manageably smaller number of tracks, and finally in the final mix, run the film and record multiple tracks down to the six speakers in the final movie. Usually under the direction or misdirection of the film’s director.”
“So it’s kind of hard to find a 1:1 comparison but again, trying to lay it out for someone not familiar with these things… an editor is kind of responsible for assembling, cutting, editing, organizing, laying out pieces, and a mixer sort of orchestrates them in terms of getting them into a final mix.”
Looking for more ways to express the distinction between Editor and Mixer, David moved into a description of film sound in general and it’s place within the context of cinema proper.
“It’s almost like -again, not a 1:1 comparison- almost similar to the relationship between a director and cinematographer, in that a director has assembled a vision, and the pieces, and knows what they’re trying to achieve, and sort of put those things in front of the camera that need to be there -the mise en scene- and the cinematographer makes it look how it’s supposed to look.”
“…and the production design and the lighting and the placement of the camera and lens all are meant to realize the directors vision, vision in the non-visual sense, vision in the artistic sense. So likewise and very poorly understood, is that sound people are doing the same thing. Poorly understood, and usually poorly taught. Sound people are doing the same thing by organizing these tracks and then the mixer mixes these tracks moment to moment, flowing through time such that in a fine movie mix, the audience isn’t consciously aware of the change from music to dialogue, dialogue to sound effects, sound effects to production sound, production sound to foley, and back to music again. This stuff has to flow to serve the film or you’ve lost the game. The process should not show.”
“All we’re trying to do with all of this technology and artisanship is create a dream factory. All we’re trying to do is program a dream for somebody’s ten bucks, and that dream may be a lovely fantasy- it may be full of laughs, it may be romantic- and it may be a nightmare with fangs and blood, but in any case it’s a dream. So everything in show business is meant to transport people out of their everyday lives in some way, even if it’s a deep, high literature sort of movie, your’e still escaping the fact that your knee hurts or that the car payment is late. You’re watching it, even if it’s some existential, French, deep, multi-layered experience for the audience. It doesn’t matter if it’s that, or some dumb Three Stooges thing- it’s meant to entertain. I think what people don’t understand about the role of sound is that it’s supposed to be a seamlessly blended part of the entertainment, and it stands to create a reality that isn’t there, any more than the painted backdrop isn’t a reality.”
“Sometimes I see background sound effects as analogous to lighting on a stage. They make the environment that the story takes place in. But the biggest point I think that people don’t know about -and nor should they- is how much they think -as I like to tell students, making the dreaded air quotes with my fingers- is what people think the camera “hears” is what we talk about in foley. It’s that the microphone aimed in the best possible place to pick up dialogue is not concerned with feet or the props on the table. That’s our job in post. So, on a well-budgeted movie, every single thing that moves has been recreated sonically such that it can be controlled in the mix.”
And there you have it! From a man who would certainly know. Our conversation broached other topics that didn’t strictly adhere to the question at hand, but I couldn’t not include some of his great answers, so I’ve divvied them up below.
On the fidelity of film sound to reality…
“There is such a thing as documentary sound, and there’s such a thing as doing a documentary without trying to clean up the dialogue. You may sweeten the sound effects, you may smooth the cuts, but not as much. Certainly with animal documentaries, nature films, there’s a long tradition of sound effects editing to make it seem like what the camera should have heard. But the guy with the long telephoto lens is shooting the bird at a distance, and the guy in the cutting room making the soundtrack is using a recording that someone else shot under the direction of an naturalist or an ornithologist with a parabolic mic five years earlier. You know… that’s been in their library. Then it’s up to the scientific consultants to make sure that that’s the right sound for the bird you heard. For the picture. But it’s never the same sound as the bird you see. That’s the tradition. Technology is so much better now, it’s not impossible to get a long-lensed, HD video with a parabolic mic audio in live time, with some critter in the woods. It’s wonderful that we can do that, but until very recent years, the lion’s share of nature films were carefully knit together in the audio room. So yeah, there’s a lot more artifice than people realize, and they shouldn’t.”
“And yet its in effect to achieve an even more natural reality than what your seeing. When you put things though a camera, it’s the things that are there…”
“But they’re not there! By the simple act of framing an image, you’ve eliminated the whole rest of the universe. And by showing something in the frame, you’re drawing the audiences attention to focus on that thing that remains in the frame and you’re asking them, for that small moment, to ignore the rest of the universe”
“As soon as you click the shutter, It’s a lie. It’s not reality. That’s the beautiful thing about it. It’s a way to tell a story without words. Thats what cinema is. It’s a different language than verbal language. Now I likes me a perfect move with a great script, and great acting, and invisible directing, and a fully constructed soundtrack, and a fully composed orchestral score… so many layers of artifice and lying, to become an artificial reality. That is the place that you’re gonna take the audience for their escape. That’s a wonderful thing, and of course it’s all meant to work the way Greek theater was meant to work. To put people through an artificial experience so they can heal their hurts and grow a little. And I think that’s the movies intent. “
On the nature of Film and Sound restoration…
“Certainly not the first thing businessmen think of when their corporation buys another corporation that happens to own a movie archive. They don’t suddenly have a pang of conscience… “I guess we better make sure they’re restoring classic films.”…”
“The expertise to work with that stuff before something is digitized, in its last analogue generation, that is some serious expertise that we need to be teaching more. We need to be cranking out more people with masters degrees in film restoration- there aren’t many, it’s just begun.”
“I had the opportunity to watch art restorers, that call themselves “restaurateurs,” -I don’t know why. It’s art restoration, but they’re “restaurateurs.” But these are people with combined Ph.Ds in Art History and Chemistry often, because they have to understand the chemical structure of the pigments, and then the processes of layering pigments and glazes on canvasses- thats just the painting part. [They also must understand] the chemistry of paper that’s deteriorating under classic drawings. In a similar fashion, people dealing with film restoration have to deal with that chemistry, and the photo chemistry, as well as the art history part of film restoration. Before it’s all gone we’re gonna need more experts…”
“There’s an outfit called the Association Of Moving Image Archivists. AMIA. They happened to have their annual conference in Savannah last year. I don’t know much about the field but I happened to stop in, to enjoy some lectures about all that. I thought maybe there’d be some discussion about sound archiving as well as image [archiving], and in fact there was- though it minimal compared to picture stuff. They all deal with essentially the same issues, and the biggest controversy that’s come to all those people is… Just because it’s digitized now, is that good enough? Will these file formats remain valid? What happens if 100 years from now there’s no machine that can read this file format?”
“Is it at a high enough resolution to last?“
“Exactly. What i took away from that, from all of the lectures- the 3 or 4 I went to- and the casual schmoozing; What i took away from those conversations is that we ought to realize that restoring and archiving material like this will always be an ongoing effort. There’s never going to be a conclusion. It’s almost impossible. We’ll always be recopying to another format and worrying how long that’s going to last.”
Thanks for reading folks!