What we’re trying to do is demystify certain elements of the films. The sound design is obviously very important for the atmosphere. That’s absolutely everything. Is there a defining moment for you when you start planning your sound design? A movie you saw, or an experience where you thought, wow, this is just a great use of this kind of technology, and it completely changed your perception of movies …..
Yeah, it’s actually funny because I’m a teacher, so I always have to demystify sound design. The movie that really got me going was Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. When I saw this movie, I was in college, I remembered seeing it and I thought: What for? You know what I mean? They went a little crazy with everything; they built this world and you can’t tell what the music is, what the sound effects are, what the dialogue is in this movie. They fit so nicely together. That’s why I got out of music to make sound effects and into the music business.
When I decided to do it, I looked into a company called Dane Tracks and met a guy named Dane Davis who became my mentor and is now a good friend. He was working on The Matrix at the time. I learned a lot about sound for the film I worked on, The Matrix, and I loved the demystification of how we make sound. I mean, Dane’s brain, how can we just do Bullet Time? All right, let’s take it easy. Let’s start again. How do you get a helicopter to crash into a glass building? Let’s blow up a bunch of old TVs on the Foley stage at Warner Bros with John Rush. Let’s go. It was a great moment for me, this job is an opportunity and it’s just a pleasure and a good time.
So you really got started in the music business?
Yeah, I make music. A teenager who wanted to be a rock god. (laughs) Then I went to college and studied audio; and while I was there, I thought: Okay, I’m not really a great musician, I was very good at picking up sounds and doing crazy things on the radio. And I am: Okay, maybe I’ll go on the radio and do all those snacks and stuff. Then I saw The Fifth Element and I thought: Wait a minute, that’s cool. That’s what I want to do.
The way sound and music, especially in modern cinema, are merged. You think of someone like Hans Zimmer and wonder if it’s music or just a sound. It’s more a matter of mood than anything else.
It’s also interesting because it’s not just about musicality. This is where I think a lot of people get confused when it comes to sound design. We audio lovers are all naturally musical, as it were; our ears are used to hearing the world differently. We did it to ourselves. We are attracted to music because it is a universal language. It’s such a universal experience for everyone. That’s why I think a lot of people equate it with music, and there are composers who do sound design. Really, every part of the sound experience you have in the production process is sound design, right? Even the score is part of the sound design.
When I started my career, I had a mentor, Ken Han, who, when I started, asked me: So what do you want to be? What is your ultimate goal? I am: I want to be a sound designer. Says he: Okay, who do you think I am? I am: You pick up the blender again and it says: He’s a sound designer. It’s him: At the end of the day, I can say what will be heard. I learned to appreciate it that way. Each room has a different design, and each room has a different design. People always ask what a sound designer is. And my answer is always that someone is trying to evoke an emotion with a sound that enhances the visual experience. The same could be done with non-visuals.
I mean, there are so many podcasts out there now that do that, that work almost like the old radio shows, but now they’re podcasts, and they add elements that try to evoke emotion, and they try to focus the listener on something; if it’s a documentary, like I just did MLK/FBI, and in this case we used sound effects to focus on how dangerous this situation was in the film, how dangerous this FBI J was. Edgar Hoover was after Martin Luther King.
So with this documentary, with all the sound, there will be an edginess. As you say, there is a tension. Are there certain methods you use over and over again?
It’s not necessarily a particular sound for me, but rather a feeling and what triggered that feeling. I did a lot of refining with MLK. I was trying to keep things clear. I tried to keep the tone clear. There are all those times when they had the photocopier and they had microfiche. I almost tried to use them as knives. You cut the microfiche as it rewinds, and then you stop and try to save it, because to me it’s almost dangerous when we go through it and try to focus the sound; I think it adds to the immediacy. It’s like you’re scared and you’re concentrating on every sound in the house. You sit in the dark and concentrate on everything in your house.
Other feelings are amplified.
Yeah, that’s right. That’s what I’m trying to do with these daily office machines.
Make everyday things scary.
Yeah, that’s right. They add a few things, like. B. if you want to add some of that almost creepy sound. I’m going to add a little more bass. I modified the top part a bit to give you that, like the hair on the neck, the standing thing, and based on human psychology and what’s natural in a person to trigger those reactions.
When I make a documentary, I have a sound library, I mean, I have four terabytes of sound effects. I have a few that I visit often and I keep discovering new ones.
The BBC library is excellent for documentaries. There’s an old library, the International Sound Effects Library, that has all these old sounds that just belong to the stuff that’s stored, they belong to this archival material. But I also find things like, if you look at soundsnap.com or prosoundeffects.com, they have such great libraries online now that you can just search, oh, I don’t have that in my library. Let me go and find something else. I do that, and it’s funny because if you’re a musician, oh, I always use the compressor when I record.
I, for one, learn something from reading Randy Tom’s blog where he is: Sometimes I randomly browse through my sound effects library and choose a sound. I started doing this a few years ago. I always find sounds. I think, oh, I forgot the sound or I didn’t know I had that sound. So I’m not trying to go back to those goths. Because I find a lot of sounds I’ve heard in other productions.
It’s like listening to it over and over again, and finding that sound. ….
Really? It’s like, oh, I know that dog barking in the background. So I try to avoid them these days and I don’t resort to anything in particular.
For example, if you’re working on a series rather than a film and you have recurring themes, recurring characters or locations, that’s an example of thinking every time: I’m going to have something that contributes to that atmosphere.
Like a pattern?
I’m currently working on Showtime City on the Hill. I did the first season, and now we’re doing the second. Actually, the premiere is on Sunday, which is pretty cool. I’ve worked with the showrunner of this series, Tom Fontana, for 20 years. I’ve worked with him since Oz. I know a little bit about how Tom thinks about how he wants to improve things. I came up with something like City on a Hill, I came up with something like Procedure.
Do you know Saint Falcon of the UWI?
So I use that sample as a trigger and take sound effects I made, like a gong or a boom or something. I put them in layers on this sampler. And I use this, you know, an important point just made, and I’m going to provoke you, you know, I have this one that I call a courageous punch.
He has that hit in the delay factor, and I’m adding the UVI delays. Technically I have a keyboard at the moment, I’m actually in my studio. If I take the keyboard here (laughs), but I have the keyboard next to me, and I’m like, oh, Kevin Bacon’s character just said the worst thing to this guy, and I hit a dum-dum-dum rhythm and it reverberates, and I know Tom likes very percussive, natural sounds, so I avoid making it sound too electronic.
The interesting difference is that once you get to know a creative partner, like a director or showrunner who has invested time, you understand what they like or don’t like.
Some people don’t always have that luxury because sometimes they like working with us, another producer on the show might do it differently, or they just want to try something new because they do it from time to time.
Even a filmmaker, sometimes a director, oh, I want to try something new for my next film.
But it’s true. You figure out a shortcut, and that’s something that was really fun with Tom. I’ve done all six seasons of Americans, and Joe and Joel, the two creators of the show, we have a very good relationship. In season six, it’s like we look at ourselves and we know what we need to change, you know?
When I think of a sound engineer, I always think of David Lynch, and that’s just because to me it’s part of his aesthetic as well. He always thinks about the big picture. It’s the image, it’s the atmosphere, it’s the sound. One of the things he always has in almost everything he does is a little sub, all the time they just create this nastiness, you know? Are there directors who say: No, I have a very clear idea of what I want, and this is how it should be?
I always try to make suggestions, because especially with directors who are directing for the first time, or even directors who have been around for a while and haven’t really delved into the world of sound yet, I sometimes find that I have an idea that they’ve never thought of. I’ve always made suggestions, but at the end of the day I’m there as a sound designer to carry out their project. I’m trying to improve his project. So it’s a very collaborative effort. Usually when I get involved in a project where I get to develop sounds along with the editing, I find that it’s a much more collaborative project and they don’t have what’s called temporary love, meaning they don’t fall in love with the sounds they cut. I understand that, because I get it from my sounds too.
You’ll find the same with insects. They’re so used to hearing a mistake that it’s like something is missing if you adjust it there. They say: Yes, it was the man with the camera. You didn’t mean it, believe me. I think it can be a very collaborative thing, sometimes it depends on a temporary crisis. Sometimes you just don’t have time to work on a TV show.
In all the TV shows I’ve been on, I’ve worked with the same people, not just racers. I’ll even talk to City on the Hill.
Tony Pipitone was my co-recording engineer for all the other Fontana Tom’s we worked on. It’s a spectacle because of the way the timings and everything worked. Tony does the mixing himself, but I do all the sound effects editing, and when I do the sound effects editing, I pre-mix everything for him so he knows that if he has it for me, all he has to do is add my sound effects and he’s good to go. It helps with the timeline.
If you have a team of people you’ve known for a long time – everyone working on City on a Hill has been working together for twenty years. Our dialogue editor Jay Fisher – I know what he’s capable of when it comes to removing noise and such. I know what to put back. He knows what I’m going to cover, and our sound guy, Neil Seder, knows we have a new, OK, you’re going to cover X, Y and Z, and I’m going to do it with sounds. Finally, there is no overlap, and we don’t need any additional sound. The mixture is more fluid. That’s why it’s great that we have these. Even when I work with a new team, we try to come up with a new plan. We try to recognize each other’s patterns. The first few episodes are how do you do it differently? Then you get the hang of it and it works well. When I make a movie, I have a lot more work to do, whereas for TV shows I usually have seven days to do an audio rotation. When I edit or mix sound effects, we usually have three days to mix a one-hour set. But when I’m editing an episode, I usually have five to seven days per episode, whereas with a film, although it makes sense in principle, a film could be two episodes of a TV show, I have seven weeks, and then you dive deeper. The first films I made after being in television for a long time, sometimes it was like, what do you think? I get seven weeks. It’s beautiful…
Have you noticed you’re experimenting a bit more?
Yeah, that’s what I mean, you can go further than that. You get even more details. You can play some more. I find that I like the style of painting with my sound effects. I do the big moves first. I try to shape the whole background or fill the scenes in a certain way, then I start using fine brushes and say: OK, I’m going to shift this year and even back to the background and cut things out or shift them to the background and then put in the spot effects I want to put in . Then, I airbrush and do more detail with a little fluff on the sides so it blends. It’s great if you have the time. But I don’t know if you’ve seen my IMDB, but I have a strange collection of credits.
Yes! It’s everywhere. It’s like Queen’s Gambit, and then there’s Search Party, and that’s kind of a dark comedy with a very different sensibility.
What’s even crazier is that I have the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and What Not to Wear. I have all these reality shows. I have all these documentaries. I have drama. That’s why I love to play and experiment. Then when they put me in the script, it’s like an episode of 30 Rock where they do some sort of zombie apocalypse, but it’s a comedy.
I’m a big fan of 30 Rock.
Oh, 30 Rock was so much fun, the whole group.
Every line is a killer. It’s so fast. Yes, the letter was so good.
It was excellently written. The actors were perfect. I mean, it just worked. It was such a good clique of people. If you know the series well, do you remember, for example, the episode about the flu shot, where they try not to get the flu?
So they recorded it as a B horror film. We added sounds that resembled a B horror movie, but with a twist. It was supposed to be fun, but also scary.
That’s my career in a nutshell. Now I have a big collection of tools, because I’ve done comedy, horror and drama. So what do you want from me in this scene? Even my reality, as I know many healthy people love, oh, reality. It’s just a joke as far as sound goes. No, it’s the best way to learn how to clean up the dialogue.
It’s like working on a documentary about the truth. Every other day. So I learned to clean up and get into the dialogues faster. Having this tool is cool because it’s like, okay, what do we need here? Even in City on a Hill, where we play a drama, there’s a scene where the kids are watching a cartoon on TV. Okay, I’ve been working on some cartoons. I can make a cartoon for TV. You know, it’s like. Sure, whatever you need.
Yeah, was there a point where you thought, I have no idea what we’re going to do here in terms of challenging it, in terms of rewriting it, maybe you didn’t have access to the original actors or something that you needed to do, so is there some kind of repair that needed to be done that we can bring here to magically fix it?
Um, that’s an obvious question (laughs) because what usually happens to me in these kinds of scenarios is that I usually ask if I can have another day because I have to retire. If I’m in that area, I can’t get out. Either I need a long coffee break, or if I have another day, we can work something out. The next day I was working with Frank Karachi on Hot Air, and I remember they came to me because there was a lot of noise on their production notes. At one point, they were filming all over New York, and they were filming in the park, and the garbage trucks were jamming everywhere. What are those things? You can’t shut the city down enough. I remember that was one of the things when Frank came to me, he was like: I don’t know what we’re gonna do. That’s too much ADR, and I can clean up plenty of it. Then the ADR we use, I have my methods, how do I match the ADR? I use Isotope and a few other equalizers to make things work. As far as I know, I don’t know what to do, I always find a way to fix it.
Any situation where, let’s say, one of the main characters dies between shots or something, where you have to clean up, but you can’t really get to that guy anymore.
Fortunately, I wasn’t in that scenario, but I’ll tell you what I would do right now. Respicher. Did you hear about this job?
Yes. In fact, I’ve looked into the issue of replicas. I’ve been studying deep fake’s site, and it’s amazing what they can do.
They’ve done it in a few scenarios where it’s like, holy cow, that’s pretty cool. Before the advent of technologies like artificial intelligence, there were scenarios I didn’t necessarily participate in, but I know people who used look-alikes or are very good at imitations. Fortunately, all the projects I’ve been involved in have been healthy and have endured (laughs).
There are a few American episodes where Matthew Rhys or Keri Russell might have a cold and when they come in for their ADR, you try to influence them in some way. But luckily, yes, I did do a lot of ADR once and ran an online ADR game via the iPhone, but that was probably the most dangerous scenario I’ve had to experience.
It’s funny, because my photo editors and I find the same with my students, they didn’t even realize how close we were. With Pro Tools, you can record a sample. Image editors are so used to precise framing that we can take an example and seriously, syllable by syllable, put those things in, and now it’s even better. I mean, between Isotope and the vocals and some of the other instruments, it’s really great because you get the vocal inflection much better and it makes that part easier. But it’s like, oh, we can’t get this person – in a reality show, it happens all the time. Documentaries happen all the time. They don’t do ADR, but they have introduced what we call Frankenbytes. They cut out five different interview segments and tried to make a sentence out of them because, oh, the way we cut out the image, we need it to finish this thought here. Okay, now let’s see if we can jump a little further. It feels much more natural. Oh, yeah. It works, and occasionally it’s like, hey, you can go back and back off so you’re out of their way sooner so I can mess up the timing a little bit.
I haven’t found many scenarios where I wouldn’t be able to fix it, but I’m sure there are, and I’m pushing them out of my mind because it’s a session that won’t go away (laughs).
You mentioned the pedagogical aspect of things, how did you get there?
Well, because it happened in an interesting way. I had a client who was a professor at New York University. He was teaching a master class in sound mixing there, and he was a re-recording mixer, but he came and rented a stage, which I was working on at the time. It was about 15 years ago, he came and rented a stage, then we mixed and he said: Oh, you know, that’s great. Is there any way to get my class on your stage? I was pretty sure. It’s him: You can talk to them, and of course I’ll get Fletcher. So he brought his class and I gave a lecture. We showed their student films on the big screen and everyone had a great time. A few years ago, probably about five years ago, he said: I’m ready. I’m moving out. I don’t want to be in New York anymore. I said: Oh, well done. Good luck! What are you doing with your class at NYU? It’s him: I don’t know, it’s none of my business. I asked if he could write my name down? I just started freelancing, and as a freelancer, you have to wonder how I’m going to support my family. I bought a house a few years ago and had to pay a mortgage.
The rest of the time I was just making noise, so now I have to make money too. And it is: Yeah, I’ll put your name on NYU. Fortunately, the director of the New York Soundzone was also someone I worked with professionally. She asked me if I wanted to teach. It’s like I’m… I’m going to give him a chance. If I crash terribly, you can fire me after the semester. So they hired me to teach in Dominic’s studio, as an assistant teacher, one night a week for two and a half hours. In fact, having worked in the industry, I found it really refreshing and enjoyable. Sometimes you just feel down. Your ideas aren’t working. It’s not that people don’t like what you’ve done, it’s that you just keep going and going.
You’ve found validation for all the work you’ve done, in the sense of : Oh, yes, it’s new to them, but I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s second nature to me, so the technique is just ingrained and I have that experience.
That’s right. And that’s one of the things I have to keep pointing out, how much they don’t know. In fact, this semester, because of the pandemic, when everything was closed, I’m teaching my first year. Usually my class is made up of seniors, but I teach a first grade class, and I, oh, wow, these kids don’t even understand.
It’s one of those things, like high school students, when they go to a sound mixing workshop, they all look like nerds. They want to know the sound. They signed up for my class because they looked at my credit list and thought, this guy knows what he’s talking about, let’s do it. Freshmen don’t even know that what I do for a living can be a profession. They all came to film school to become screenwriters and directors. I want them to understand how to revise their projects to remember the sound. While they write their scripts. Remember, sound can help you do that while you’re making your list of plans, and that’s something that we talk about a lot in this course, when you’re making your list of plans, you’re making a set-up plan, and then you go to a quiet place, and sound can make everyone feel like you’re still in the place that you made the set-up plan for.
Sound is an intangible thing. We take it for granted. We take what we hear for granted. My dad went to the movies once. It’s like hearing a Space Shuttle launch and all the dirt gets into the rocker arms of the main controller. It’s because there was a noisemaker sitting there throwing dirt against the window and we picked it up, but they take it for granted that these things just happen and that we should be invisible that way. That’s fine, but when you get to know our company, when you get to work with us, you should know what we can do and how we can help give you space. As much as I love a good score, I love a good score by Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Nathan Barr of the Americans, whatever. I love their scores, but leave room for other sounds. This way everyone fits in somehow. I find that I now teach a lot of freshmen because they don’t know it exists. I try to open their eyes to their existence and remind them of that when they are working on their projects, because while they are working on their projects, we can leave that room and their project goes to the next level. That’s what I always say. Whether it’s student or professional films, one of the biggest differences is the sound. Because with student films, it’s like I care about the picture and the sound is horribly shot and there are no sound effects edited and there’s no life. Well, no, if you get them thinking early enough, it’s like in the professional world, if you start painting early enough, if you start giving them clay, you can develop it a lot more.
Getting back to the difference with TV movies, you can’t do that on TV. We’ll send them sound samples when we’re ready to rumble. Okay, here’s the kicker. But we can’t be like that: What thunder? (laughs). In the film world, it’s like this: Okay, we need the thunder, but we need to expand, and you have time to send it to the film department and bring it back. I know we do with Queen Gambit. It’s nothing. Here’s an excerpt. Okay, we’re gonna do this by… Oh, now we’re going to change the section a bit based on what you gave us. Then we can stretch it out a bit. Let’s stretch it out a bit. But now we have you to help us.
So there’s a back and forth.
Yes. They come and go, and anyone can say, oh, I like that. I don’t like it. Oh, I hadn’t thought of that, etc.
So it’s always nice to be able to develop that material, and that’s what I try to teach young filmmakers today: remember, we can do that for you. It’s a partnership, right? Sound for Picture is a collaboration where I try not to stand out. It’s funny, because I want people to know who I am, but I don’t want people to know who I am.
It was fun to see students from my classes speak the first few times: I love this series and the way you did it is great.
I don’t even think about the credits, I just thought, oh yeah, that was really good, we did a good job. I did a movie called Brigsby Bear, and it was a fun movie, and then I worked on 20 other things. And then one of my students said: I loved Brigsby Bear! And I was good as Brigsby Bear! (laughs).
I have a fun exercise for my mixing class where I take a session that I mixed, and NYU actually has 5 mixing rooms of one, and I bring them in and have them sit down and they get 15 minutes each. And I took out all the automation and mixed it up.
I can sit there and say you feel it, and then when they press play, you know, first they get mad because it’s loud, and then they say, oh, that’s what you mean when you feel the music. Yeah, it feels like the music should flow. You will become familiar with the operation of the faders. That’s why I can’t get on the touch screen, because I like having the physical ability to push and drive. The first time I took this course, I had such a terrible day I had one of those sessions you talk about: If I had her, I’d take it off. Then, at the end of the day, my class came in and we were sitting there and one of my students said: I don’t know what you mean by feelings. I stood up, pointed to my chair and said: I sit down, and he says, (laughs) Okay. And I said: I’m gonna play baseball. Take a fader and see what you’re doing, and they had so much fun with it, and I feel like they’ve figured it out now. It’s great, and it’s changed my whole day. It’s really cool when you teach.
Thanks James for taking the time to talk to us today, and good luck with your future projects.