Michael Semanick: Re-recording Mixer at Skywalker Sound

The Oscar-winning re-recording mixer for The Lord of the Rings series, The Social Network, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo discusses establishing the aural tone for films.

 

Re-recording on films isn’t where you start; it’s a job you earn after years of doing every other sound gig. In charge of ensuring that the dialogue, music, and sound effects for motion pictures blend together seamlessly, re-recorders spend years building up experience and trust with directors. For nine-time Academy Award-nominated re-recording mixer Michael Semanick, landing his dream job meant spending years recording albums, voiceovers, sound effects, Foley, and dialogue before finally getting a crack ay mixing a movie of his own.

It was just very slow going because nobody wants to put you on the [sound] board of their multi-million dollar film because you don’t have any credits and you can’t get any credits because nobody wants to put you on,” Semanick says. “I was working in a recording studio and every now and then a young director or a new director would go, ‘Yeah, put him on. What harm can it do?’”

One of those directors was Paul Thomas Anderson [Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love], who Semanick credits with teaching him how to understand what the director’s intention for each scene is and how the right sound can enhance it.

He taught me a lot about analyzing a scene,” Semanick says. “[Anderson would say] ‘I want tension. I don’t want the people to understand the dialogue so much. I want it to be kind of chaotic.’ I always thought, ‘Well the audience is frustrated.’ He goes, ‘Exactly. I want them to be frustrated in this scene. I want them to be kind of uncomfortable.’ He taught me a lot about how you make them uncomfortable.”

Semanick has since worked on more than 120 films, including Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, and swept up Oscars for work on King Kong and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. He received nominations for the rest of the Rings series, Ratatouille, WALL-E, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. He returned to work with director Peter Jackson for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Get In Media: What is the scope of your job as a re-recording mixer?

Michael Semanick: There’s a sound effects team and a Foley editing team and they put together all the sound effects for a film. There’s the dialogue team that cuts all the dialogue from different takes and takes the ADR that’s been recorded in the studio, preps that into sync … there’s a whole music department. There’s a music editor. A lot of times they score a scene and then the scene gets chopped up. Picture editing cuts it all up and then the music editor has to make the original intention of the composer fit again into a shorter scene or a longer scene. There’s the composition that the composer has done and then there’s source tracks usually, something on the radio, there’s a montage with a rock song, or end-credit music. A music editor has to cut all that together and put it in sync [with] how the director wants it to land.

I take all these tracks, I usually work with a partner or a few people on a console, and we mix that. We blend all that together, the dialogue, sound effects, and the music. We blend it together to hopefully make the movie seamless for the audience and we do it in the director’s direction. What is the intention of the scene? Is it going to be a highly tense scene and how do we achieve that? Is it going to be pushing more music? What’s the music like here? Or is it taking the music out and just leaving it starkly naked with some strange sound? It’s my job to EQ [equalization], filter, reverb, make things good, put things in their place and then balance all that against the music and the dialogue and the sound effects. It’s a balancing act. It’s like mixing an album. You’re taking drums, guitar, first bass, keyboards, vocals, background vocals, and you’re balancing it and you’re balancing it to the artist’s taste. That’s what I do. I sit there and work with a director and we balance each scene how we think it should sound.

GIM: How does working on a live-action project stack up to working on an animated project where you are building the sound from nothing?

MS: Whether it’s animated or a live-action film, the sound work that goes into it is about the same, in my opinion. The sound teams prep [a live-action film] as if all the sounds are being thrown out. They have to prep everything because at some point the director [will say], “I hated those clips, do we have new ones? Do we have ADR for those lines, because I don’t really understand them?” Once you pull production out, you better have all your backgrounds done. You better have everything. Once you pull the production sound out, it’s literally an animated film, pretty much.

A lot of times digital effects come in late and you’re putting sound in sync to unfinished shots. You’re kind of waiting for finished shots to come in and those take you down to the last second, and then you go, “Oh, that’s not right.” Animated films tend to be more completed by the time they come to the dubbing stage, maybe because they have more time. The sound teams have to prepare either way, whether it’s animated or live action. All the music has to be there. All the sound, whether you’re using stuff from production or not, you’re kind of back to an animated film, whether it’s a live actor or a drawn actor.

GIM: With sound, a lot of attention gets directed to films that are heavy in sound effects. What are the challenges of doing re-recording for a dialogue-driven project?

MS: For a dialogue-driven project … you want to capture the [lines as] best you can and you want to use that sound. You don’t want to ADR it, because I think some actors are very good at ADR and getting back into character in a recording studio, but the other actor is not there. The ensemble’s not there and you’ve got to say your lines and get back into your character maybe six months or eight months after you’ve done that scene. I think it’s important on a dialogue-heavy film that you have a really good production mixer who really wants to capture [the original dialogue].

Production mixers are probably guys that are a pain in the ass on the set because they’re saying, “Can you raise that lighting up? Can we move that generator over? We’re not shooting the feet. Can we not wear shoes? Can they wear booties so we don’t get people clomping around? We’ll replace those feet later. That way I pick up the dialogue so there’s not a footstep on it or a word that people have a hard time understanding.” You have to start with the production mixer and then my job, when you’re mixing dialogue in a dialogue-[heavy] show, you’re repairing problems. There are great devices that are made for noise suppression and trying to make the dialogue as clear as you can, but what happens a lot of times, I think it gets over-processed. For me, it’s always trying to maintain the spirit of the voice … so over-processing can damage that and then under-processing, people can’t understand it. There’s a fine line. You’re always checking yourself. Does it sound natural? Does it damage the actor’s performance at all? I gotta say dialogue-heavy films are harder to mix in a sense.

Heavy action movies have intimate scenes and you’ve really got to handle them with care. Sometimes those are harder to mix because you’re just trying to make sure things are clear for the audience to hear. You want to bring them in. You don’t want to push them away. You want to pull them into the movie and into the characters. Quiet, intimate scenes are time to give your ears a rest. I don’t mind making an the audience lean in, because that means that they’re into the film. A lot of times it’s easy to do because the actors do it on their own, just the power of their acting. Daniel Day Lewis is a genius at it and it makes it easy to mix his voice because he’s such a powerful actor. He’s already pulled the audience and you’re just trying to support him. It’s like working with a great vocalist on a record. They make the job so easy. They can sing and it makes it a joy. It makes it so much fun.

GIM: What was your biggest challenge on the Lord of the Rings film?

MS: Oh boy. Just getting done … and getting it to the theater. The biggest challenge on Rings is those are epic movies and they’re filled with intimate moments and big action scenes. I think it was a culmination of just balancing those to flow from one to another. Thankfully, in those movies, you have a great director at the helm of that thing. Peter Jackson had an incredible vision to help guide us through some really difficult scenes. Capturing those moments and Peter’s intentions for the movies, I think those are the biggest challenges. Do we want more music here? Do we want more sound effects? The huge action scenes are building up to this, what’s making the buildup? Is it the music? Is it the tension? Again, having him at the helm of it was so genius.

GIM: You’ve spoken in the past about how a project like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo sounds sparse, but it’s actually just more subtle sounds. Is that typical for a thriller? Does your work differ depending on the genre of the film?

MS: Dragon Tattoo sounds sparse, but it’s very dense. If [scenes are] intense or a thriller or an action scene, a lot of times those scenes can be very dense and you just have to clean them out a little bit so the audience can follow the action. If there’s just too much noise in there, ears tend to shut down, and I think audience members shut down like, “Yeah, the action scene was good. I didn’t really know what was going on, but I got the gist of it.”

I do think in the situation of Dragon Tattoo, with the Trent Reznor score and how the sound design was integrated into it, was just part of the plan that David Fincher had all along. It was just a matter of achieving that. Again, it comes down to personality. You sit with the director and find out, what’s the intention of this scene? What do you want to accomplish here?

GIM: What do you recommend for someone who wants to move into sound re-recording for films?

MS: If you want to get into sound, you’ve got to start knocking on doors, is my opinion, after you get out of school and say, “This is what I want to do.” Have a passion for it … and I think the breaks will just come. You’ve just got to put yourself in those positions to take advantage of them, because I can tell you right now that I can count more on my hands the amount of breaks I didn’t get than the amount of breaks I did get. I never got discouraged. People say, “You got lucky,” and you know what? You’re right. I did.  But you know why? I put myself in those positions again and again. There were times when I thought, “This is not working out for me. Maybe I picked the wrong career. Maybe I picked the wrong path.” I would think it now and then and get a call the next day. Unfortunately, you do put aside a lot of personal stuff. It does bite into your social life, because you don’t get much of one working in this industry. Those types of dedications over time show up and you’ll keep getting called back at some point.

SoundWorks Collection: Michael Semanick Re-Recording Mixer Presentation from Michael Coleman on Vimeo.

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