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Posted by on Nov 15, 2007 | 3 comments

“No Country for Old Men” – Exclusive Interview with Sound Designer/Re-recording Mixer Craig Berkey

“No Country for Old Men” found its way into theaters November 9th. Sound supervisor and re-recording mixer Skip Lievsay handled editorial, dialog, and music mixing on the Coen Bros film. A Coen mainstay, Lievsay was one of the first sound craftsmen I ever saw with an opening title credit on a movie as a supervisor. He is currently helping Will Smith figure out how to cope with being the last human on earth in “I Am Legend”. Sound designer and re-recording mixer Craig Berkey conjured up the effects on the show. Having worked with Skip on films from “Sleepy Hallow” to “The New World”, this marked Berkey’s first Coen Bros. film. The film finaled on the Burt Landcaster theater on the sony lot and rounding out the Mix crew was re-recording mixer Greg Orloff. Orloff who dubbed the foley on the “No Country”, is currently finishing work on “The Great Debaters”. Production sound on “No Country” was wrangled by Peter F. Kurland. Another Coen cohort, Kurland is currently shooting sound on their next film, “Burn After Reading”. Score was in Carter Burwell’s jurisdiction, tracked at Clinton recording studio in NYC. Finishing off the list of loyal Coen collaborators, Burwell also composed for Sidney Lumet’s current release, “Before the Devil Know Your Dead”. Burwell recently reflected upon the score in “No Country” on his BLOG.

“In one scene a man sits in a dark hotel room as his pursuer walks down the corridor outside. You hear the creak of floorboards and the beeping of a transponder, and see the shadows of the hunter’s feet in the sliver of light under the door. The footsteps move away, and the next sound is the faint squeak of the light bulb in the hall being unscrewed. The silence and the slowness awaken your senses and quiet your breathing, as by the simplest cinematic means — Look! Listen! Hush! — your attention is completely and ecstatically absorbed. You won’t believe what happens next, even though you know it’s coming.”-A.O. Scott: NY Times

“…the leading character in this reverberating movie is silence, save for the sights and sounds of air and breath…

…Silence accompanies the mournful sheriff as he drives his Texas highways, and silence is what hangs in the air after Chigurh raises his grotesque, sound-muffling weapon to snuff out one life and then another, cold as hell.”-Lisa Schwarzbaum: Entertainment Weekly

Attention like this from critics is a great validation of sound’s influence in storytelling. Do yourself a favor and go the film when it releases in your town! I wanted to thank Sound Designer/Re-recording Mixer Craig Berkey for taking some time to do this Q and A!

DS: One of the first movie sound myths busted for me was the sound of a silenced gun, that almost musical “pewwwww”. With my laymen knowledge of how suppressed weapons actually sound, how did you guys approach design for the report from the antagonist’s silenced shotgun?

CB: We were not looking to create something realistic-It needed to be menacing. I believe in the novel, the silencer is described as “homemade.”

“Chigurh shot him three times so fast it sounded like one long gunshot and left most of the upper part of him spread across the headboard and the wall behind it. The shotgun made a strange deep chugging sound. Like someone coughing into a barrel.”-No Country For Old Men: Cormac McCarthy

We were interested in what other sounds the gun created in its environment. For example, when the gun is shot in the motel room in Del Rio, there are resonating metal ringing sounds that occur. We also wanted the gun to have a very low thump sound to it. When Skip was listening to some production tracks he came across a playback take of the TV show that is playing in one of the scenes. At the beginning of the take, before the program material started, were these strange “thwump-pop” type sounds. I took those and effected them and that became a good low-end base for the sound. I then experimented with several elements to work with the base sound that were short and rose in tone like a pitched up reversed female scream or a pitched up servo. I made several versions of the sound and sent them to the Coen brothers for their feedback. They picked the one you hear in the film and they also picked a different version for the silenced handgun that Chigurh uses to shoot at the crow and also uses at the Eagle hotel.

DS: There are very few music cues in the film. Was there an emphasis early on that the film would play without music? If so, did that change the way you approached the work?

CB: There are about six music cues in the film, including the song the Mariachi band plays. When we did our first pass, there wasn’t any music yet cut into the guide tracks so Skip and I did what we thought was best to help make the film work. We did a Temp early on that contained only the Mariachi cue. I kept waiting for someone to walk in the door with the music and say, “Back to reel one, let’s put in the music”! That didn’t happen, so we knew early on that there wouldn’t be much music in the film. I would have to say that not having much music didn’t change how we approached the work; we started out that way, as we do most films, and would have had to change what we were doing if there was a traditional score in the film.

DS: The minimalist score helped add a level of dynamics to the Mix; the aural subtleties encouraged the audience to listen intently and as a result, pulled us further into the film. Were there any specific spots in the film where you guys played with the fact that the audience would be in the opportune state to cause startle, alarm, or anxiety?

CG: There are many spots in the film like that. When Chigurh is approaching Moss’s motel room in Del Rio we underplayed everything: BG’s, footsteps, etc., to help create tension. We all know a loud startling confrontation is imminent but are still shocked by it. My favorite spot is at the Eagle hotel when Chigurgh is approaching Moss from down the hall. There are several things that happen off screen early in the sequence that force you to focus on the smallest of sounds. A silenced gunshot with a chair scrape, an unanswered phone ring, a strange sound like putting your ear up to a seashell from under the door; these all lead up to Chigurh’s footsteps and floor creaks and the receiver beeping as he approaches Moss’ room. Again, we know what is going to happen but are still alarmed by it when it does. The car crash is another spot that the audience is in the opportune state to startle. We helped out by slowly, (hopefully imperceptibly) lowering the onboard car sounds throughout the scene, trying to focus the attention on Chigurh as he is driving. This one didn’t need a lot of help to startle.

DS: I loved the background changes in route to Moss’s “discovery” early in the film; I can only describe them almost like sound jump cuts. Were those concepts that were established in picture editorial?

CB: That was one of the sections that I started on early as I knew it would take a while to do. It was pretty much an empty canvas to start with. I was trying to make each area sound different but also realistic. I sure listened to a whole hockey sock full of winds! I learned a thing or two about working with winds while doing “The New World”. It’s not enough just to find the right wind and cut it in from the beginning to the end of a scene. For some scenes everything in the background changes from the start to the end, such as when Moss first approaches the crime scene and other different winds come and go but the overall remains the same. This was a great spot to use multi-channel recordings of winds as there was nothing else to dilute their effect. After I had found the winds I wanted for a section, I would go back and put them on some faders and mix them. This is where I
would really work them throughout and maybe cause some “jump cuts” as I would push them near the end of a section and start a different set of winds lower for the next section. To me the winds were the score throughout this part of the film. The only sound “jump cut” that picture editorial established is when Moss is sitting and looking at his watch. We needed this to show time passing as Moss waits.

DS: You’ve worked with sound soup Skip Lievsay for some time now, but by my count this was your first Coen Bros. film. What were Ethan and Joel like to work with? Is their long history and trust in Skip change the post-sound process?

CB: Yes, this is my first Coen Brothers film. I love working with Skip and want to thank him for getting me involved in this film. For me, working with Ethan and Joel was like a sound person’s dream. They understand what we do and they trust Skip enough to let us do our thing. I’ve had many conversations with sound people about “wouldn’t it be great if we could do a sound job like this…”. Well, this was one of those. We did a fairly full Temp early on and kept improving it and sending it to Joel and Ethan for their input. When we got to the Final we had already been mixing for three or four months. It was a living breathing mix that everyone was familiar with and made the Final go very smoothly.

DS: What was your first gig like?

CB: My first post production gig was on a TV show called “Mom P.I.” I was working as a recording engineer at a studio in Vancouver and we got this series to do. Actually, Paul Sharpe and Jacqueline Cristianini had the show and as they were just building a studio in Vancouver they needed a place to do the show until their studio was finished. I knew how to use the N.E.D. Synclavier but no idea about post production. As this was a time when computers were just entering our business, Jacqueline didn’t know how to use the gear. We sat together and she would say, “We need to build a fill here to bridge these two lines” and I would go, “Okay, just select this tool, highlight and copy this section then paste it over here”. I was fortunate that I had someone helping me who had a lot of experience as that is something that is hard to get from reading a manual.

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Posted by on Nov 12, 2007 | 0 comments

Exclusive Interview with William Sarokin, Production Sound Mixer on “American Gangster”

“American Gangster” crossed 110th street into a theater near you November 2nd. All sound editorial trafficking was handled by co-supervising sound editors Per Hallberg and Karen M. Baker. Coming off a strong summer with “The Bourne Ultimatum”“Gangster” marks over the 40th collaboration between the two. Mixing posted up at Todd-AO West in Santa Monica with re-recording mixers Bob Beemer and Mike Minkler. The pair is winding down a busy ’07 with “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” and have separately worked on films ranging from “Into the Wild”(Minkler) to the aforementioned “The Bourne Ultimatum” (Beemer). The production sound pusher on “Gangster” was William Sarokin who can currently be seen ogling expensive footwear with the girls from “Sex in the City: The Movie”Marc Streitenfeld handled the score on “Gangster”. A protégé of Hanz Zimmer, this marks the second film Steitenfield composed for director Ridely Scottsince 2006’s “A Good Year”. Once again, has a great little photo essay on the tracking that took place at Sony, HERE. Mix Magazine also has a great piece touching upon the editorial and mixing of the Film, HERE.

I just wanted to thank Production Sound Mixer William Sarokin for taking time for this Q and A.

DS: I read recently that Ridley Scott really shot from the hip on this one: fast moving, quick set ups, etc. How does this type of shoot effect the sound department, especially on a show that is set in such an aural jungle like NYC?

WS: Ridley is a master at capturing every bit of energy there is in a scene. Nothing (well… except for thousands of feet of unused film…) goes to waste. As much as possible he would use multiple cameras in a scene. Often cameras would be hidden in the shot. He’d have set dressing find a piece of furniture or a car (or even a potted plant) to hide a camera and crew. And just in case, he’d often dress the camera operators in period wardrobe. Ridley is always thinking and looking for opportunities, so if he sets up a shot with 3 cameras looking in one direction, just before we’re about to shoot he might set up a 4th (or 5th or more) looking in the opposite direction. Every department had to be on their toes. At first I thought sound was the only dept that was out of the loop. I assumed the Director of Photography had planned all the alternative shots in advance with his gaffer and key grip, but eventually I realized we were all in the same boat.

One example: In the script there was an 1/8th page scene where Russell Crowe and his fellow officers race up the stairs of a housing project. Ridley turned that into a scene where 2 teams of cops barge into the lobby of a building, subdue tenants and drug dealers in the lobby, race up 2 sets stairs for 6 flights (speaking quietly into walkies at key points) and then plan how to take out 2 guards at the drug dealers door. There was dialog throughout, from the lobby, up the stairs, down the hall and at the drug dealer’s door. If I remember correctly, 5 cameras were hidden en-route. I had to figure out how to record everything for every camera. Oh, and by the way, did I mention the entire sequence was shot simultaneously?

Every crew member, from sound and camera to props, wardrobe, lighting and grip, etc., had to be at the top of their game. The result is a dynamic scene with a live performance feel because it is in effect, a live performance. Instead of shooting the same scene numerous times from different camera perspectives, (and in the process draining every bit of life out of it) Ridley shoots his scenes in relatively few setups and few takes.

In one of the rare quiet moments on set he told me he got his start doing live television. Then it all made sense.

NOTE: the below photo of a typical shot. That’s Ridley on the camera facing up. Both cameras, facing in opposite directions were both working for this shot.

DS: In my limited experience shooting production sound, overcoming obstacles on set that hinder a good sounding scene are the most rewarding experiences on a gig. What are some of the biggest hurdles you leapt over?

WS: Radio Range. How do you cover 2 camera crews 3 blocks apart shooting the same scene simultaneously? Or how do you cover an entire apartment building from lobby to the 6th floor and from one end to the other? It was a given that the majority of the film was recorded on wireless body mics, but even my boom mics are wireless. Fortunately I had help, I’m using the newest generation of Zaxcom radio mics that include built in recorders, so even
when I did lose range, I could take the SD cards out of the transmitters after the scene and re-record them. To my great benefit, Ridley had a world class post production team who would edit the re-recordings into the dailies track to make me look like an absolute genius at the daily screenings.

Hmmmm… creaky floors. Everyone thinks my toughest days are when we are in noisy environments like a factory or near an airport. NOT! It’s when we are in quiet environments and ‘friendly fire’ (noise created by the filming process) rears its ugly head. Nothing like a slow dolly shot across a creaky floor to make me pull my hair out! Specifically to ‘Gangster’, my main obstacles were:

1) Finding a place to hide me and my sound cart and yet stay in radio range of all the action. Considering the number of multi-camera shots covering huge areas, this was not easy.

2) Once finding a place to hide my next problem is getting the gear there. The narrow, 1/2 mile elephant trail in northern Thailand, all uphill and dotted with elephant droppings comes to mind, especially when the multiple cameras saw North, south, East AND West simultaneously.

3) Once hidden, my next trick is to get microphones near the people who speak (or may speak…often non-scripted characters would break into dialog with Ridley’s eager prodding). While I use many wireless mics on the actors I also love to plant mics when the situation allows it. I have a few Audio Ltd analog FM wireless mics that accept Schoeps microphone heads. I’ll often plant them in car visors or on desks, or behind trees (or elephant pies). They are my favorite ‘secret weapon’

DS: What factors determine the level of sound perspective achievable in a scene? How important is that perspective at all during the shoot?

WS: I think proper perspective is very important. I almost always try to make the recording match the camera shot. Of course, there is always ‘movie magic’ that allows you to hear characters walking a block away having a quiet conversation as if you were right next to them. So, there are times when you surrender that perspective, but mostly, my goal is to:

1) make sure the dialog is audible.

2) while keeping it audible, try to make it sound natural.

I am very tolerant of noises caused by something you see in a shot or would expect to hear in that shot. I’ll often allow background noises to continue (even if the film crew has control) because it can affect the actors’ performance. For instance, in the film “North Country” we had a big scene in the machinery room at a pit mine in New Mexico. The noise was deafening, but I had the characters mic’d in their hardhats and I knew they would be audible. Out first shot was on Charlize Theron and the camera was facing away from the machinery so the assistant director had it turned off. I asked for it to be turned back on because I knew if we filmed the first shot with the machines off the actors would speak fairly quietly while when we turned around and filmed with the machines on they would be screaming. Nothing would have matched, so I asked for the machines to be left on for the entire sequence. The assistant director and location person were not used to a sound person asking for noise makers to be turned on, but the scene worked perfectly (sound-wise) if I do say so myself :-)

I am very intolerant of friendly fire – floor creaks caused by a slow moving dolly and crew, background chatter, walkie talkies, etc., or inappropriate locations (ie, trying to do a bucolic country scene near a major interstate, etc).

DS: We all know that getting in early is important for any film craft. In sound, if you’re lucky you get hired before location scouting commences. How often have you been involved in that process? Why doesn’t this happen more often?

WS: I’m never hired before the location scouting begins. I usually have 4-5 days prep on most films while the location manager starts months before production begins. My prep consists of 2-3 days of tech scouting, a day for the production meeting and a day for the equipment load in so often the best I can do is damage control. Often the UPM will call me weeks in advance if there is a question about a location they want to use but are concerned
about sound issues, but that is pretty rare.

DS: Are you ever in a theater watching a film you worked on and wonder “what happened to my mix?”

WS: The sound systems in many theaters are so bad that usually I’m concerned more with the presentation than the mix! Usually post teams on the films I have worked on do a terrific job, though every now and then something will sneak in that will make me cringe. Often it’s the result of someone in post using the wrong track for a scene and somehow it sneaks through the cracks. There was a short scene in “Inside Man” where I blew the mix. A character ad-libbed a line and I had the other actor’s mic opened and it phased terribly (made the actor sound for a word or 2 like someone was holding his nose). I had recorded the scene multi-track so each mic was soloed (pre-fader) on their own channel, so it was extremely easy to re-mix it in post to correct the mistake, but I guess it slipped on through. Makes me cringe every time!

DS: What was your first gig like?

WS: Oh my gosh, it was for Austrian TV news a million years ago and the journalist was doing a standup in front of a Con Ed power plant on the east side of Manhattan. In my limited German it sounded like he was saying ‘Here I am in front of a nuclear power plant right in the middle of Manhattan’. So I asked the producer if that is what he was saying. He said ‘yes’ and I said it wasn’t a nuclear power plant. They said “…Of course it is.” Vienna told them. And I was never hired by Austrian TV again :-)

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Posted by on Nov 6, 2007 | 0 comments

MPSE Sound Show ’07 (Updated)

UPDATE: The Editors Guild has posted a article on the night HERE.

I just wanted to take a sec to thank Scott Haller, Bobbi Banks, and the rest of the MPSE for putting on such a great show tonight at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. I saw a few cameras taping the event so if and when it is available online, I will be sure to link it here. Sound editorial members Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn from this summer’s “Transformers” conveyed the enthusiasm and passion for the craft that I makes me proud to be a part our community. Thanks again to everyone involved, it was a lot of fun!

On a side note, it was fitting the MSPE got the “Transformers” folk to come out and talk about their work on the Michael Bay film because, the MPSE has named the director the recipient of their annual “filmmaker award”. Beyond anything else, he demands a lot from his sound crew who always deliver sonically.

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