“Rush Hour 3” hits theaters August 10th. Sound Supervisor Tim Chau man-handled editorial and design as well as mixing the FX. Chau has been with this series since the first case of gridlock and is currently helping Vince Vaughn rekindle his relationship with his estranged brother in “Fred Claus”. Andy D’Addario rounded out the other half of the mix crew, which dubbed at Warner Bros on their Digidesign ICON driven stage 6. Also versed in TV sound re-recording, D’Addario has been mixing “CSI: NY”, “Alias”, and “Brothers and Sisters” for the last few years. Mixer Jeff Wexler headed up the production sound dept. A 35-year veteran of the craft, Wexler has worked on almost all of Cameron Crowe’s films as well as mixing blockbusters like “Independence Day”. Lalo Schifrin composed for the film and has also been with Ratner through all three films. One of my favorite composers, his work in the early seventies on “Dirty Harry” and the like, influenced scores in many a film, most recently with the “Ocean’s” trilogy. Turning 75 this year, there is a great little feature over at Soundtrack.Net on the scoring session.
My first interview with a production mixer, I am happy to finally start to include some of the craftsmen who I, as a part of post-production sound, reap what they sew. Though I only dabble in production sound mixing at an admittedly armature level, I am humbled by the shear amount of obstacles these men and women have to overcome on the job. Noise on set is ever increasing and devices like the wind machine in the photo to the right add to the sound dept.’s woes. Production mixer Jeff Wexler laughs at the challenge as he got his photo taken with not only Jackie Chan but in front of one of his biggest fans!
In your 2005 Mix Magazine interview, Maureen Droney asked you if “…You like to be involved in pre-production. Is that common for production sound people?” Now, two years later, what has changed with the production’s mixers involvement early on?
JW: I think the situation in regards to pre-production involvement is much the same, possibly with the trend continuing to still be towards less and less involvement before shooting actually begins. I had about 8 days of location scouting on Rush Hour 3 in and around our Los Angeles locations, and this was very helpful. I did get the chance for a little bit of pre-production scouting in Paris but it was minimal. I still feel that it is very helpful for everyone on the production to be included in these tech scouts and the smart directors and producers usually demand it (even in the face of some of the production supervisors and production managers feeling it is a waste of money).
Although your presence may differ on set to that of a greener mixer’s, how is the sound dept. treated during production?
JW: For me and my crew, at this point in our careers we are treated with a good deal of respect and the respect and attention that the guardians of the soundtrack deserve. Again, those who have had the experience, particularly in those instances where they have had the experience of working with me, there is a clear understanding of the value, to the project, of holding the production sound team in high regard. There are times when someone on the set says something like “this place sound awful, Jeff’s not going to like this!” and I have to say, as nicely as possible, that if I don’t like it you have to be sure there are others far more important than me who also are not going to like it (the actors who may have to needlessly ADR a scene, the director who is going to have to get a good performance TWICE and probably 4 months apart, and of course the producer who is going to have to pay for it all).
It is a wonderful thing when the production sound department is treated properly and with respect, and this is something that can happen even with less experienced crews including the sound crew. I might add that even the weight of 35 years of experience, really outstanding work and several awards and nominations, does not insure decent treatment of the sound department.
As an assistant sound editor, production mixers are sometimes scapegoats in the post world. I feel that a lack of communication between prod. sound and post is the root of this evil.
JW: I think it goes much deeper than this. It is true that there is less and less communication between the production sound crew and the post sound crew in today’s world, but this is also true to a certain extent of ALL production crews, not just sound. For many reasons (and I won’t take the time to give an extensive analysis) there has been a trend towards a disconnect between those working in production and those working in post. This is in some ways even a conceptual disconnect. As we have moved more and more into the digital age, the old adage “we’ll mix it in the mix” is being applied to more and more departments, most notably the camera department. Not to denigrate the tremendous advancements that have been made with the tools that are available, not only to “fix” things but to actually create things never seen before (e.g. “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy), the byproduct of this has seen a big change in the work that is done in production. Along with this there is the increasing departmentalization of the whole process. In the past when there actually was a lot of good communication amongst the production sound crews, picture and sound editorial and so forth, this communication was not as important as it is now. Today, with so many variables, real world problems on the set, technical issues with multiple ways to record sound, the lack of communication can have serious consequences. There is also the fact that with so many new people coming into our industry there are fewer and fewer people who have been doing the job long enough to know “how we used to do it”. They get caught up in the current trends of practices and procedures without a fundamental knowledge of how we got here. You would be very surprised the number of people in sound editorial whose only connection with production sound recording is that they have heard a lot of production sound tracks. This fact also applies to the production sound crews, many of whom have almost no idea what happens with their tracks after they turn them in at the end of the day.
This disconnect has not always been the case. When I was starting out, production sound mixers would often meet regularly with post people, usually picture editors first and then sound editors, and after a few years of working with the same people you had a definite sense of community and no one would grandstand (or backstab) anyone who was part of the team (and the team was ALL of us, the production sound crew, the director, the picture editor, the sound editor and the re-recording mixers).
How much do you keep in touch with post?
JW: I am usually the first person who is calling for a meeting in PRE-production so we can talk early about what we think we’re all going to be doing. It has been vital for me, certainly at specific times during the last 20 years, to have these meetings because I embarked on doing things differently in production and needed the support of those in post. I was one of the first to use a stereo 2-track Nagra and so I had to go into the transfer facility and help them gear up for making transfers off 2 track 1/4″ tape with center track sync, something almost no one else was doing. I was the first to introduce DAT to production sound recording when it was a format that few had any familiarity with. Both of those things were fairly simple but the last one was a biggie: file based multitrack recording (I was the first to do this also on the west coast with the first Deva I). Now that non-linear file based production recording is firmly established, there are many issues with post that require extensive communication (with so many variables on both sides, production and post) at a time when this vital communication is going away.
What can we do as a community to insure that the two depts. (prod. and post) work together to insure the integrity of the production sound?
JW: I don’t know the answer to this. I do know that the power resides more within the post crews — if picture
editors and sound editors could be more involved in the beginning, some of the disasters that are common in production could be avoided. Sadly, often the picture editor, and usually the sound editor, are not on the movie before we start shooting.
I have heard you comment once on how the role of a production mixer is getting more and more diverse; while on set, you as mixers have less time to focus on the track. Is there anything that can remedy this?
JW: Well, I don’t remember exactly what context I made that statement. I do know that as many of the other departments, starting with Locations, do less and less of the things that help the sound crew have a fighting chance at success, we have had to be very diligent in many areas that are NOT sitting behind the sound cart. These efforts are, however, fundamental in our primary “focus on the track” — without these efforts there will be no track worth recording.
Who dictates microphone set-ups on set?
JW: The SHOT and the SCENE dictate the microphone set up. With Don and me this is almost always quite obvious. Don Coufal (my boom operator) and I have been working together for 30 years and we have done about 60 movies — there is little discussion of how to approach a scene and we rarely, if ever have a disagreement on how to do a scene. The two of us together have obviously made a lot of the right decisions, many, many times on lots of movies, so neither of us is about to change our process.
What motivates you as mixers to use lavs or booms or multiple mic set-ups? (I know this is a very broad question, so just let me know if it is too much to answer)
JW: It is a broad subject but it does bring up the primary and fundamental decision we have to make when approaching how to do a scene. The choice, microphones on the actors, boom mic, multi-track or not, will be different, even for the same scene, amongst different sound mixers — there is a lot of variability amongst us even with regards to what constitutes good sound. Much of the technique these days will be dictated by the project and the overall style of shooting. The best example of this is what episodic television has become: put a mic on anyone that might talk and put them on their own track. Most sound mixers who have settled in to the television world, even if they may have different ideas personally, will be required to work this way. I might add that the byproduct of this approach, at least for me personally, is that almost ALL television shows sound horrible these days. Maybe it’s just me.
“Rush Hour 3” marks your first gig with Brett Ratner. How is he to work with?
JW: Brett has a reputation for being difficult to work with and little patience for technical problems — he just wants it to be good and doesn’t want to wait for anything. Brett was surprisingly (at least I was surprised) good to the sound crew — I think he fundamentally understands the value of production sound, on the day, particularly for a comedy. Even when I thought he might not be paying attention to some of the things on the set that he should be paying attention to, he was always very aware of what we were doing and what it sounded like. I also think he was pleased with the way our crew works — we never came to him with a problem without also having a clear and workable solution in hand, even if sometimes the solution was something he did not want to implement. Overall, Brett was really good to work with and I think we did a reasonably good job on the movie.
Who has been your favorite director to work for?
JW: Hal Ashby, hands down, number one. Cameron Crowe is a very, very close second (and Hal is no longer with us as you know, so maybe Cameron is number one). Interesting side note: I think Brett Ratner hired me in part because I had worked so much with Hal Ashby — Brett has stated publicly that Hal was one of his favorite directors.
What was your first gig like?
JW: My first gig in the Sound Department? Well, that would be “Cool Breeze” a non-union low budget black exploitation film in 1970. I had never done sound before. I showed up for the job interview (with the producer, Gene Corman — Roger’s brother) and said I was a Sound Mixer. I guess on the strength of my last name, Wexler, Gene thought I was telling the truth and probably knew what I was doing. Also, in those days, producers like Corman were pleased to just get someone who was willing to show up with some equipment and work unlimited hours for 3 weeks for $400.00/week. “Cool Breeze” was also the first movie for Andy Davi s (who was a cameraman at the time, later to direct “The Fugitive”, “Under Siege”, etc.) and Tak Fujimoto (who went on to shoot many movies for Jonathan Demme and others).
I knew that I didn’t know what I was doing but having been on the set all my life, I knew what I was supposed to LOOK like I was doing (and of course, the movie set was very familiar territory for me). At Andy’s suggestion I hired a very old friend of his from Chicago to come out to L.A. and work as my boom operator. This was Tom Holman (Tomlinson Holman who later worked for George Lucas developing the THX specification for theaters) who was a schoolteacher at the University of Illinois. So, we started the job and although Tom was not a terribly good boom operator he was a terrific teacher — everyday of shooting I would learn a little more about how to record sound (“Hey, Tom, on the Nagra what does this switch do?”). We got through the movie okay, they were pleased with what we did (and it was truly awful) and Tom went back to teaching and I went on to mix another movie, and another, and another.