“The King of Kong” – Exclusive Interview with Sound Editor/Re-recording Mixer Nathan Smith
“The King of Kong: A Fist Full of Quarters” releases limited August 17th and wider on the 24th. I love this documentary, not only for nerdy, nostalgic reasons but because this is a great story, essentially about good verses evil. I never figured I would find myself so emotionally invested in the subject matter of the film but the struggle of the main character is compelling and real. It is fitting then that while one man worked thanklessly to obtain the title of Donkey Kong World Champion, another man fought to make the film sound great. Nathan Smith, owner/operator of NL3audio in Los Angeles handled all the editorial and mixing on the film. Versed in sound design and implementation for video games as well as theatrical releases, he designed sounds for Atari’s “Neverwinter Knights 2”, and Microsoft’s “Psychonauts”. Nathan informed me that to the best of his knowledge there wasn’t a production mixer on the film and moreover, the same was true for a few other doc’s he has mixed. If anyone has any additional info please forward it! Craig Richey composed the original score for the film. An established independent feature composer and professor of music at Cal State Long Beach, Richey contributed his talents to 2006’s “Friend’s With Money” among others in the last few years.
I wish I was going to the premiere tonight because at the location of the after party while the audience is the theater watching the film Steve Wiebe is going to try to beat the world record for Donkey Kong. So best-case scenario when the after party starts, there will be a “kill screen” on the Steve’s machine and new high score for the record books! Thanks to sound editor/re-recording mixer Nathan Smith for doing this Q and A…
Designing Sound: Though documentaries differ from narrative features in terms of sound, a great dialog mix still helps the audience invest in the story. What was the quality of the dialog on this show upon turnover? How was it handled during the mix?
Nathan Smith: On this show, the dialog was in fairly decent shape upon turnover. There were some typical problems, but nothing I couldn’t work with. Most of the dialog was recorded indoors, so there wasn’t much wind distortion, traffic or airplane sounds. Of course, a lot of dialog in “King of Kong” was recorded in arcades, which not only have ambient game noises but also background music. So one of my challenges was to extract the music whenever possible.
I can’t recall if there was a production mixer on the show, since there was 600 hours of footage captured by the director and producers. But overall, they did a good job on the dialog recording which is not always the case with documentaries.
While mixing this film, I spent the bulk of my time ensuring that the dialog was of top quality. There is really no ADR option in documentaries, so you have to work with what you have. At NL3 Audio we have a Cedar Cambridge at our disposal, which is really indispensable when it comes to dialog cleanup and restoration. Sometimes you can cover up the flaws in a dialog track when doing a stereo mix, but for a theater release like this one the dialog track has to be particularly clean since it is destined for that center channel.
DS: How does your mix room translate to the theaters? Do you have to compensate for mixing in a smaller room?
NS: At NL3, we first mix our films in a controlled near field 5.1 environment. This saves time and money, since we only have to do fine-tuning once we finish things up in a bigger mixing stage. Dolby will not certify mixes on near field stages, so you have to go to a bigger mixing stage regardless. On “King of Kong,” my initial mix was so good that I only had to adjust one fader move on the mix stage.
The technology has really come a long way in allowing near field mix rooms to be on par with the big theatre-sized mix stages. Plus, a documentary is ideal for this situation since it does not have explosions, heavy low end, or panning — all of which are better handled on big stages.
DS: Obviously, the doc revolves around video games, with Donkey Kong as its centerpiece. How much of the original sound FX and music from the game did you get to cut into the film?
NS: Unfortunately, for copyright reasons I wasn’t able to use any custom recorded sounds from the actual Donkey Kong game. But I was able to use sound from the footage recorded during production. So in a pinch I would take B-roll footage, clean it up, and incorporate key sounds where necessary. So when you watch the film, be assured that all the Donkey Kong sounds are from the original game.
For strictly research purposes, I spent many hours playing Donkey Kong on the studio’s arcade machine. This really helped me absorb the audio environment and style of the game. Never reached the kill screen, though.
DS: Still frames play such an important role in documentaries with sound effects and music helping the narrative process along. What are your views on the role sound plays in documentaries?
NS: Sound is obviously very important in documentaries, but it has to complement and not overwhelm the picture. I try to avoid the big whooshes and other effects. Instead, I put most of my focus on creating a crisp and coherent dialog track, because it is crucial that the audience understand and enjoy the story.
On King of Kong, you must also put a lot of time into making the simplest effects sound right. The sound of Kong jumping at the start of the game, the sound you hear when your character dies, these are unique and identifiable sounds that cannot be faked. There were squabbles in the mix room to make sure the sounds were right, because a lot of Kong fans are going to be seeing this film and they will know if the game doesn’t sound right.
DS: Do you think sound’s role has changed during the documentary boom in the last decade…?
NS: The use of new tools has definitely made it possible to have a better sounding film. But the real boom in documentaries is that the stories themselves have improved, become more engaging and original, and sound has been an integral part of conveying these great stories to audiences. As filmmakers use bolder techniques in their documentaries, sound designers get more leeway in creating an ambitious aural environment.
DS: What was your first gig like?
NS: When I started NL3 Audio, I was doing the sound for short films and video games to build up credits and develop contacts. My first big gig was “The Incredibles” video game, where I was paid as a subcontractor but basically did all the sound. I learned two things from that experience. First, I would not do subcontract work again. You don’t have a lot of control, you aren’t paid very well, and quality suffers because you aren’t always working directly with the main producers. Second, I learned a lot about creating a total audio environment from scratch, something that has served me well as I’ve moved into feature film work. Whether I’m working on an animated feature like Terra, where I have to create an entire universe of sounds, or a video-game inspired documentary like “King of Kong,” having that gaming experience has been indispensable