Sound mixing and editing are categories that are overlooked too often by the media, critics, and moviegoers alike. After all, the sounds of a film are half of what engages the audience. When the job is done well, a film’s sound editing and mix will seamlessly go unnoticed. The ultimate goal is for the audience to be so enraptured by the story unfolding, that they actually believe the audio was recorded on location. One of this year’s most carefully sound designed and mixed films raised questions and brought mixing into the spotlight.
During the opening week of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, there were complaints from viewers that important moments of the film were nearly inaudible. This issue didn’t seem to translate over to the Imax viewing experience, but some ticket buyers in Rochester, NY found themselves briefly warned by a Cinemark Tinseltown, "Please note that all of our sound equipment is functioning properly. Christopher Nolan mixed the soundtrack with an emphasis on the music. This is how it is intended to sound." The signs were taken down and Interstellar is now nominated for both Academy Award categories of Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing, as well as for Hans Zimmer’s original score.
It should come as no surprise that Nolan, whose Inception took home the 2011 Oscars for both sound editing and sound mixing, strongly believes “sound is as important as picture.” He was very pleased with the way theaters screened Interstellar. In response to the early criticism, Nolan told The Hollywood Reporter, “Broadly speaking, there is no question when you mix a film in an unconventional way as this, you’re bound to catch some people off guard, but hopefully people can appreciate the experience for what it’s intended to be.”
Nolan also described the mix as “adventurous and creative” and said he wanted the audience to be as engaged with the audio as the characters on screen were. The team listened to NASA recordings for accuracy and every detail was discussed. The whole mix took approximately six months.
There is often confusion around the differences between sound mixing and sound editing, and the amount of collaboration that goes into sound design and mixing helps to blur some of the boundaries. Erik Aadahl, who was nominated for his sound editing work on Argo (2012), explains, “We’re more the composers on the editing side. The mixers are the conductors, and they find those perfect balances to tell the story.”
Sound editors gather and create all sound elements and present them in sync with the visuals. This includes Foley, ADR and sound effects but not scored music. When creating sounds, they have to feel true to the visuals -- Martin Lopez created Spider Man’s web-shooting sound design by stepping on a half-empty bottle of ketchup. Next, sound mixing involves taking these elements and the film’s score, adjusting levels, and creating a feel that matches the story’s needs.
Interstellar’s sound re-recording mixer, Gary Rizzo, has already won an academy award for his work on Inception, but this year Interstellar faced some tight competition. There’s no doubt all of this year’s nominees in Best Sound Editing and Sound Mixing were all well-deserved. To see the case each sound mixing nominee has made for their film and explain the rationale by some of their decisions, see The Hollywood Reporter’s recent article.
It’s no coincidence that one of the greatest film editors of all time, Walter Murch, is also one of the greatest sound designers. To make sure sound isn’t overlooked, Glenn Kiser, the director of the Dolby Institute, encourages filmmakers to hire their sound editors at the same time they hire picture editors. If done right, sound contributes to a film as much as the images.