“The Strangers” introduced itself to theaters May 30th. Supervising sound editor Scott Hecker makes sure you notice the film’s sound. Hecker is continuing a horror roll with this falls retelling of “The Tale of Two Sisters” with, “The Uninvited”. “The Strangers” mixed in Burbank at “the dub stage” with Marti D. Humphrey and Chris M. Jacobson on dialog/music and effects, respectively. Humphrey and Jacobson continue mixing together with this August’s “The Horsemen”. Jeffree Bloomer, who is mixing on David O. Russell’s current film, handled production sound on the film “Nailed”. Composer Tom Hajdu, teaming up with the Slovakian based Bratislava Symphony Orchestra provided score for the film. Hajdu, also known as Tomandandy is heading up the film adaptation of the video game, “Return to Castle Wolfenstien”
COMPOSER: Tom Hajdu
It’s been almost a year since I posted about my last bad (and I mean bad) experience in a theater. When I saw the latest “Harry Potter”, the theater sounded crappy. When I went to see “The Strangers” this past weekend it was godawful. A 60Hz hum plagued the center channel, all but pooping on the hard work done on the mix stage. Of course I complained multiple times to the management – they assured me it was the speaker not the print(glory) and “there was nothing they could do about it, would you like a refund?” Man, did I want to storm out of there, cash in hand but alas, I had a job to do. It was a task using the notch filter in my head to tune out that terrible buzz and listen to the work re-recording mixer Marti D. Humphrey and the rest of the sound crew did. Luckily Marti took some time to talk about mixing “The Strangers” before I wasted your time just now complaining about my attempt to enjoy it!
Designing Sound: First time director Bryan Bertino seemed quite clued in to the horror sound formula, i.e.: jolting effects and score to mislead and terrify the audience, (the smoke detector for example). What was it like working with someone who understands sounds role in story telling?
Marti D. Humphrey: Well, Director Bryan Bertino had a solid idea of what he wanted. He worked very well with the Picture Editor Kevin Greutert, whose experience on a dub stage helped create an atmosphere of collaboration. Being fortunate to start working with them beginning with the first temp dub gave the mixing crew a chance to work together and understand what the client was looking for in terms of telling his story through a sonic landscape. It was also an excellent opportunity for Chris Jacobson, my mixing partner who mixes Sound Effects at The Dub Stage, and me to work with Sound Supervisor Scott Hecker. I have been a fan of Hecker’s work on such features as “Road to Perdition”. After meeting Hecker about four years ago, I mentioned to Hecker how much I would like to mix a feature with him in the future. This film gave me that opportunity. Hecker worked exceptionally well with both Bertino and Greutert. Hecker brings a very calming personality to The Dub Stage. It was a new experience for Hecker mixing with Jacobson and me, since this was one of the first times Scott had mixed a feature exclusively “in the box” with Pro Tools from start through Print Master. The temp was mixed over several days and then was screened before an audience to get their feedback. The first temp was considerably longer and much more graphic than what made up the Final. After the first audience screening, Director Bertino and Picture Editor Greutert went back and tightened up the story. We then had an opportunity for a second temp mix. That went very well for both the mix and audience screening. The second temp was very close to what is seen in the final.
DS: One of the best scenes in the film is the reveal of the hooded man. How did the decision to play it so deathly quiet come about? Was rolling into a cacophonous next scene factored in?
MH: One of the things that I, as a Re-Recording Mixer, enjoy doing with this type of film is to build suspense by utilizing dynamics. In this film we used quiet sound as a subliminal part of the storytelling process. It was Chris Jacobson’s and my goal to provide a sufficient sonic bed with just enough presence to maintain a person’s focus on the picture on screen, yet not enough to tip the viewer off as to the impending horror.
As for the next scene being polar opposite in regards to sound, this calm before the storm helps to elevate a viewer’s senses to the true horror that is to follow. It is an enjoyable experience to be able to sit in the theater knowing what is about to happen, and watch the audience become terror-stricken as they begin screaming, gasping and covering their eyes unsure as to what to expect.
DS: Bertino seemed to love using that record player in the film. There are scenes where the music sways from score to source and vise versa. What notes were given in those scenes about the music emitted from the player and did they change moving into the final?
MH: Bryan Bertino and Kevin Greutert really knew what they wanted. They gave me a lot of creative rope to run with. They let me try different approaches and gave me enough time to be creative. The record player and the great score from Tomandandy blended extremely well. I really enjoyed the score. The composers know the art of writing around dialog, and the music stems they provided gave me maximum flexibility. This is one of the benefits of being involved from the first temp. It allows a mixer to create communication with the Composers and the Music Editor about what works or what needs to be adjusted for when the sound team gets to the final. The Music Editor for the film, Sheri Ozeki, was a pleasure to work with. She was cutting on the dub stage, doing updates for the Director, Picture Editor or Producer using her Pro Tools system. This allowed Ozeki to send us the files via our gigabit ethernet connection on the stage, and we laid the updates right into our Pro Tools session. At The Dub Stage, we mix Virtual with Pro Tools so we never have to commit to anything until Print Master. This gives us a tremendous amount of flexibility to try subtle changes, or even large ones, without having to unravel any predubs. We were able to keep presets and templates from the second temp that ended up being used in the final.
DS: So much tension is built up in a film like “The Strangers” with scenes quiet enough to hear the characters breathing (i.e., the hooded man wheezes). On average, how much of that can actually be saved from production? What other examples of this kind of creative ADR helped improve the mood?
MH: I had some challenging Production Sound on the interiors of the house because it was shot in a very large warehouse. When there was any screaming, it rang for two plus seconds! Jeff Rosen the Dialog Editor was seated to my left during the mix. With his nearby system, he was able to fix little things that arose, and quickly shipped them over to me via ethernet into my Pro Tools system. He did a great job of cutting the dialog and ADR. I used Production when possible, but when it was not possible because of noise or performance issues, Rosen worked closely with Jeff Gomillion, the ADR Mixer at Universal. Rosen brought his experience to the mix and did his best to get the performances out of the talent when ADR was required. Another example of creative ADR is Liv Tyler’s breathing in the kitchen pantry with the hooded man across the room.
DS: A trait I have noticed in re-recording mixers is their ability to focus on film-sound when the dub stage is full of other kinds of noises, for example, a noisy backfield. How long did it take to adapt when mixing with so much commotion and conversation behind you?
MH: I am glad you bring up this question. Being focused is the one thing I am regularly complimented on in regards to my mixing skill set. As a mixer, it is essential to listen deeply into the mix. A trait of a good Re-Recording Mixer is being able to listen not only to what is happening on the screen at the front of the room, but also what is being said in the back of the room. One must be able to deeply focus on what is coming out of the speakers, yet keep an ear open to the clients’ needs and comments. It is a talent that one perfects with experience. Furthermore, The Dub Stage has all the computers, hard drives, fans, etc. located remotely in a back machine room outside of the stage to reduce unnecessary noise. I cannot tell you how many times I have visited other mix stages and seen four or more Pro Tools workstations with their computers, drives and fans making excessive noise just a few feet away from the Mixers. Unnecessary noise can be very distracting.
As for conversations, I have learned to tune them out when needed. If it becomes a problem, I try to tactfully let the ‘backfield’ know that everyone needs to keep noise down for a couple of minutes, or provide them with an adjacent lounge for group meetings or discussions. The lounge being located close enough to round up the clients and bring them back into the room to listen to an area in question for their opinion has helped considerably.
DS: Speaking of noise, I went to see the film In Santa Monica at a theater whose center channel had a 60hz hum accompanying your sound for the duration. How many times have you gone and seen your work pooped on like this? Is there anything we can do (I did complain) to raise standards for sound in theaters?
MH: Didn’t you know I put that in the mix to drive other mixers crazy! Just joking!
Now, give me the name of that theater with the hum and I will go over there and complain. I’ll tell them my name is…… from filmsounddaily. (Ha!)
I saw “Pulp Fiction” when it first came out in theaters. The dialog was coming out of the right speaker only and the left had the right soundtrack coming out of it. To make matters worse, there was no sound coming out of the center speaker! I think I was the only person in the theater who got up to complain. I have a terrible fear that when we get fully into Digital Cinema and we no longer do a Dolby Print Master for film, that it will take out a third party, such as the Dolby technician, that helps to uphold standards. When anyone can mix a film in a room that is not calibrated, and it ends up being projected in a theater with a hundred or more seats on a large sound system, people will complain. That means we will end up mixing theatrically through some sort of box such as a LM100 that will ultimately change the way we mix. With limited dynamics, movies such as “The Strangers”, would not have the same sonic impact.
DS: What was your first gig like?
MH: It was in 1980. I was lucky enough to be working for a great Mixer, Ed Greene. He brought me on as an assistant on “The Big Show”, a two-hour weekly variety show. There was a huge group of very talented sound people attached to the show. We worked 110 hours a week doing both the Production Sound and then the Post Sound. We were located at the Sunset Gower Studios on Stages 8 and 9. One stage had seating for about 125 audience members. The other stage had a swimming pool and an ice skating rink! There were great bands, stars and comics. While we waited for the next act to appear or for lighting etc, I was able to pick the brains of all the sound people around me. I did not make much money in the beginning, but what I learned has helped put me down the path to where I am at now. I have nothing but respect for people who do Production Sound, but it is too much hurry up and wait for me. It feels very natural for me to be sitting on The Dub Stage. My wife and I met and began dating during that show. She understands the commitment that I make to my job. She also knows how much I love it! We have been married for over 26 years and have two kids and now a grandson. Maybe I can get him involved in sound one day.
Before I close, I would like to mention all those who helped on the mix:
We had a great group of people working here at The Dub Stage on the film. There was Scott Hecker Sound Supervisor, Jeff Rosen Dialog Editor, Rick Hromadka Sound Effects/Sound Design, Roy Seeger First Assistant Sound Editor, Sheri Ozeki Music Editor, Brad Semenoff Dub Stage Assistant and Chris Jacobson Mixing Sound Effects and Foley.