Sound Panel: Mark Mangini, Larry Blake, Michael Minkler and Myron Nettinga Pt. 2

by Stephanie Argy

The development of digital tools has made it easier for people to move between crafts, blurring some distinctions between professions. In the second part of their conversation, sound editor and mixer Larry Blake (Full Frontal, Ocean’s Eleven, Traffic, Erin Brockovich), supervising sound editor Mark Mangini (The Time Machine, The Green Mile, Lethal Weapon 4, City of Angels) and re-recording mixers Michael Minkler (Black Hawk Down, JFK, Born on the Fourth of July, Star Wars) and Myron Nettinga (Black Hawk Down, Insomnia, Double Jeopardy, Runaway Bride) talk frankly about this trend, as well as budgets, sound quality in today’s theaters and the distinction between the Academy Awards for sound and sound editing.

Michael Minkler: Mark, over the years, you and I have talked many times about the different disciplines of editing and mixing. They meld together, but they need to be separate, because it’s different mindsets. One person cannot do mixing and editorial at the same time. There’s so much skilled work that needs to be done that one brain can’t do it all.

Larry Blake: But it is done. Gary Rydstrom does it. Randy Thom does it.

Minkler: Sure, but they don’t work alone. They’ve got lots of help.

Blake: I’m not saying that I do all of my movies by myself, because I don’t, or that they do all of their movies by themselves, because they don’t. But I would say that Gary’s involvement with Jurassic Park or Saving Private Ryan as the person supervising the sound track was no less than Mark’s is on one of his sound jobs, and no less than the mixers on Mark’s shows.

 Mark Mangini: I agree with Mike that irrespective of how you want to work, sound editing is a very specific discipline and mixing is, too. I prefer to keep those disciplines separate. Some people are multi-talented and can do many things well, but I think that’s the exception, not the rule. Where budgets are the issue, it can help the bottom line. But I’m a purest. It’s the Italian, old world craftsman in me. You learn your craft inside and out, study and practice it religiously. I think it’s most creative when everyone does one thing very well.

Myron Nettinga: You risk being a “jack of all trades, master of none.” You can be very good at those trades, but there is something to be said for people who specialize in their fields. We like to work that way because all these talented people focusing on what they do best really produces a product we can be very proud of. It’s a real team effort. There are certainly other ways to do it, but I don’t think we’d be very effective as a business if we couldn’t offer individual attention to each of the disciplines.

“Somebody has told them you can do things faster and cheaper these days. So they ask us to do it for a half of what it’s supposed to be done for. They know that they’ll always find somebody who will do it for less money” – Michael Minkler

Blake: Michael, years ago I was visiting you and Mark when you were doing Die Hard 3 together, and the issue of reel lengths came up. I remember you saying, “Hey, give me a reel that’s two hours long.” And I thought you were completely out of your mind. But now I’m getting to the point where on projects that allow it (and not every one does, because of picture changes), I’m trying to mix shows that are three reels long, because of the additional flow that it gives. Assuming a show is not crazy with picture changes, would you work that way?

Minkler: In fact, the other day, I said to Myron, “Gee, I wish this was all one reel.” But because there is so much editorial work done during the mix because of changes, the film needs to be divided into reels so that the workflow can continue.

Blake: I’m curious if other people have tried this. I find it really liberating.

Nettinga: At the same time, AB reels do lend themselves to the segmenting of the movie. When picture changes happen, having a big section that has to be changed could work against you.

Blake: No doubt about it. The more picture changes, the less viable this is as a way of working. For that and other reasons, I would never want to work on a show as one reel.

Mangini: There are the psychological implications, too — the sense of satisfaction that comes from finishing off reels. Also, I’ve been on films where we’ve pushed right up to release date, and the studio needs a reel for the lab. If you’re built on just two reels, how do you do that?

Blake: When we record the stems as hour-long parts, we load into the same session a guide track that says, “This is the head pop on 1AB, tail pop of 1AB, the head pop of 2AB,” and so on, so we can carve them out with great precision. But by working with longer reels, I’m able to focus better, because the time to change reels is divided by a third.

“With digital workstations, editors no longer found themselves working within a limited number of tracks, which led to excessive track count at times.” – Myron Nettinga

Mangini: At Warner Bros., they were trying to implement a technique where they would release on one-hour reels.

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Blake: I asked them about that on Ocean’s Eleven, and they said it doesn’t work, partly because of the training of people who are plattering in the theaters. Knocking the core out of a 6,000 foot reel is not fun.

Nettinga: All this time, we’ve been talking about the levels of sophistication our equipment has, and the quality soundtracks that we create for film, and yet it’s still hard to find a theater that will play a movie back the way it was intended to be heard.

Mangini: What’s really great about our industry now is that the technology and all the tools make our job a lot more fun so we can be more creative. But the frustrating thing is the theaters. You still can’t trust what’s going to be heard in the theater because of the lack of standardization.

Minkler: We put in all this work, and it comes out on the other end sounding like crap.

Blake: The only thing we can control are trailers, which are getting better but still need improvement. On a lot of Steven’s movies, we have our own little home-brewed TAP system [the Lucasfilm THX Theatre Alignment Program], where I personally call theaters and talk to the technicians who align them. On Ocean’s Eleven, we sent these theater technicians T-shirts that said, “I projected Ocean’s Eleven at 85*,” then in small type, “*and nobody complained.” But I walked into the Ziegfeld, which is the most prominent single-screen house in New York, and the guy had the SDDS processor down 7 dB from 85. I said, “Have you walked out in the theater and listened to it?” He said, “If we turn it up, people are gonna complain.” And I replied, “Don’t worry, I’ll stand right here and protect you.” How do you feel about formats that go beyond 5.1, like five behind the screen [7.1] or three surrounds?

 Minkler: I like the 7.1. I would like to have an 8.1 with three surrounds. But I think 6.1 would be good — three front, three surround and a boom. But I wouldn’t put the surround in the back wall, I’d put it on the ceiling, towards the back — better place for your ear to pick up something flying overhead or behind you.

Mangini: Is there an HD spec yet? People are talking about 12 channels or 16 channels, and that’s something we’re going to have to address.

“Irrespective of how you want to work, sound editing is a very specific discipline and mixing is, too.” – Mark Mangini

Blake: There is a SMPTE working group, DC 28.6, developing the audio standard for digital cinema. Anybody who is interested can log on and see what they’re up to or attend the meetings. I think people should get involved, because we want to make sure that the standard that evolves is something we can live with.

Mangini: It’s like the tail wagging the dog. Movies, generally speaking, have been the top of the pyramid in terms of presentation. But now, with the HD spec for DVDs or high-definition television, we may define a multi-speaker sound environment that will go far beyond what most motion picture theaters present.

Nettinga: I think DVD sales have been strong because home theater set-ups have been doable and reasonable. Now, if all of a sudden we confuse it with 12-speaker set-ups and things like that, will people get so turned off that they won’t be interested anymore?

Mangini: It’ll be like the theater owners. Every time a new sound format comes out, they think, “I’ve got to buy another decoder, another speaker.” But we need to make ourselves familiar with the HD spec. When my movie comes out on DVD, I want it to play right.

Blake: The spec that’s being worked out now is for digital cinema. It doesn’t relate to the home.

Mangini: The 5.1 spec was originally for theaters, too, but now we have home systems that play it.

Blake: God help us if we have to have 12 channels at home.

Mangini: It’s gonna happen. We better get involved and start mixing for it. I don’t know about you, but I can remember making agonizing decisions with clients, 15 to 20 years ago, about whether they should go to six channels. And they thought, no, those prints are only going to show for a couple of weeks. Now they wish they had mixed those movies that way, because they’d be ready for DVD.

Blake: What do you think of the quality of the ADR that you’ve been getting in recent years?

“To me, it’s all about presenting the client with creative options in any one moment.” – Larry Blake

Minkler: At the good stages, they work so hard at matching. There are three or four in town where you just know you’re going to get good sound, because they go out and get the same microphones, and they try to work with you on mike placement. And the ADR supervisors work so hard at getting performances. A good performance and a good recording make all the difference in the world.

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 Blake: What do we think about the loudness of movies these days? We hit a low point or, if you will, a loud point in the mid to late ’90s. But, I think the industry collectively has been more attentive. Can you or do you rope directors in, when they want more and more and more?

Minkler: I always try to convince them by showing them alternatives. It’s worked for every director except for one. No matter how bad it was, he didn’t care, as long as he got it his way.

Blake: Bad, you mean, as in painfully loud?

Minkler: The sub-woofer was just completely maxed out.

Blake: Little bits of speaker cone flying past people’s heads.

Minkler: Yeah. And, of course, it was never reproduced that way in any theater. Myron and I think that you can make things louder by making other things lower. It’s how you use your loudness and when you use it. But I think guys are getting smarter. People are learning more about compression.

“There are the psychological implications, too — the sense of satisfaction that comes from finishing off reels.” – Mark Mangini

Blake: Do you use compression to emulate tape compression on your bus?

Minkler: Yes. Not specifically to emulate it, but if that’s the effect I get, then fine. But I do like to round off the higher levels.

Blake: It’s eventually going to play in people’s homes, and even if they have a good home theater, that type of sharpness coming through speakers five feet from you is just unbearable.

Mangini: Hey, Myron and Mike, how do you deal with sound editors bringing too many tracks?

Minkler: I think sound editors today are much more responsible than in the old days. I think they bring us what they know can work, as opposed to bringing five or ten guesses.

Nettinga: With digital workstations, editors no longer found themselves working within a limited number of tracks, which led to excessive track count at times. I think a lot of that has gone away. When good decisions are made in the editing room, we don’t have to spend stage-time auditioning a lot of tracks and deciding how to bring them together. We can concentrate on the big picture.

Blake: That’s certainly the potential offered by workstations, but when I mix shows that I haven’t supervised, I still find that people can carpet bomb.

Minkler: They need to compose good sound. That’s the beauty of the workstation and the ProControl: composition of good fundamental sounds.

“One hour reels don’t work, partly because of the training of people who are plattering in the theaters. Knocking the core out of a 6,000 foot reel is not fun.” – Larry Blake

Mangini: What about the Academy Awards? One sound award? Two sound awards? [The Motion Picture Academy currently offers two awards: Best Sound and Best Sound Editing.]

Minkler: I don’t want to cause any dissension between mixers and editors, but the fact that there is this line drawn and there has been 20 years of animosity between these two groups — I think they ought to just drop it. We work side-by-side to make a beautiful track. That’s the way it should be. This distinction is really bad.

Blake: This distinction, as far as the award is concerned?

Minkler: Yes, that sound editing is so different from sound mixing and should be given its own Oscar. In the older days, it was true — they were very different. But not these days. We should have one award, and it should be called Best Sound. The difficult part is how many people get that award. I understood that last year, there was a bargain on the table: The Board of Governors offered five statues for the one award. It was declined. I think that was a mistake.

Blake: None of us were there, but if that indeed was true, I completely agree with you. One of the problems I have with the current situation is that there can only be three films worth of sound editors nominated every year, which is absurd. [The nominations for Best Sound Editing are chosen after a “bake-off” screening of selected scenes, and a maximum of only three films can be nominated.] Number two, more often than not, when a show wins for best sound, you guys could not have done your work without the contributions of the sound editors. And third, if you have a musical, the music recording mixer, who could work for six months recording the music and doing elaborate pre-mixes, is nowhere to be found in a nomination for a movie.

Minkler: I think that that’s the responsibility of the executive committee of the sound branch. They need to recognize in the rules that every year there will be one or two or three movies that have particular cases and should be handled differently. They need to do a very thorough investigation, ask a lot of questions, get some documentation and come to a conclusive decision. They shouldn’t be afraid to do that.

“I think sound editors today are much more responsible than in the old days. I think they bring us what they know can work, as opposed to bringing five or ten guesses.” – Michael Minkler

Blake: Everybody knows everybody in this industry, and it would be very easy to have oversight over seven or ten films.

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Mangini: I’m on one of the rules committees, and I can tell you, it’s a logistical problem. In the amount of time that you’re allotted to do that research, it’s almost impossible. They already have a committee that does pre-research, and they narrow it down to 15 or 20 films in December, even before the nominations are known.

Blake: You could hand each film to two people. And those two people, on their own, could make phone calls to the re-recording mixers, supervising sound editors and directors of these movies and ask who’s responsible for the track. In an industry such as small as ours, I think it would be impossible to not come up with the right decisions. And this is before the ballots have even been handed out, to narrow things down for the bake-off. Regardless of what happens with the merger of the sound editing and the sound awards, I think it is essential that sound also have a bake-off.

Minkler: They used to do that 20 years ago. We used to show 10 consecutive minutes — you couldn’t just pick your scenes.

Blake: I didn’t know that. That’s fantastic. Because there’s no way you can judge otherwise, unless you have enough time on your hands to see all the films at the Academy.

Minkler: I think the ideal thing would be to send out a ballot to all 450 members of the sound branch. Then everyone shows up on a Saturday and watches 10 or 15 consecutive minutes of the top 10 to 15 vote-getters, in the same room and the same conditions. Then you really know what’s right. It gives you a much better picture of what a mix is all about.

“When good decisions are made in the editing room, we don’t have to spend stage-time auditioning a lot of tracks and deciding how to bring them together. We can concentrate on the big picture.” – Myron Nettinga

Blake: What about budgets? Do you see any trends?

Minkler: Somehow the perception has gotten out there that the equipment we work on is cheap. It’s expensive to keep the mix stages equipped to do it right.

Mangini: But the fact is, we are the cheap part of the business. We’re three percent of the budget. We’re a bargain.

Minkler: Budgets are still going down, and it really upsets me. People keep laboring under the false assumption that we can do it quicker and faster because we have Pro Tools and ProControl.

Blake: Who says that?

Minkler: Every director and producer.

Blake: But you’re not using ProControl — how could they possibly say that to you?

 “It’s like the tail wagging the dog. Movies, generally speaking, have been the top of the pyramid in terms of presentation. But now, with the HD spec for DVDs or high-definition television, we may define a multi-speaker sound environment that will go far beyond what most motion picture theaters present.” – Mark Mangini

Minkler: Somebody has told them you can do things faster and cheaper these days. So they ask us to do it for a half of what it’s supposed to be done for. They know that they’ll always find somebody who will do it for less money, somebody who has a ProControl in his garage. And, can that person get the job done? Yes. Are they gonna like it? Nope. Are they ever gonna do it again? Probably not.

Blake: But has a director with whom you have a relationship or their producer come to you and said, “No we’re not going to avail ourselves of your experience and taste, because Manny, Moe and Jack in Azusa can do it.” Please tell me you haven’t had that, Michael.

Minkler: No, the clients that come to our room come for our quality, efficiency, flexibility, artistry and level of sophistication.

Blake: To me, it’s all about presenting the client with creative options in any one moment. And I think that as long as all of us are trying to think of the final result, when people see the movie at home on DVD or in a good theater, they’ll look at the creative decisions that went into it and see that we all did good jobs.

Editor’s note: To see the preceding comments, read part 1 

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