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Oscar-Nominated Sound Teams Speak

The Academy Award-nominated sound teams behind Ad Astra, Joker, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood and Ford v Ferrari share how they brought aural magic to the multiplex.

On-hand for the Oscar sound panel were (l-r): (L-R) Glenn Kiser, Director, Dolby Institute; Donald Sylvester, Ford v Ferrari; Michael Minkler, Once upon a Time in…Hollywood; Mark Ulano, Ad Astra, Once upon a Time…in Hollywood; Dean Zupancic, Joker; Tom Ozanich, Joker; Alan Robert Murray, Joker.
The Dolby Oscar Nominee Party at the Saban Media Center at the Television Academy on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, in North Hollywood, Calif. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision for Dolby/AP Images) Danny Moloshok/Invision for Dolby/AP Images

North Hollywood, CA (March 19, 2020)—“We’re here to celebrate some amazing artists,” said Doug Darrow, SVP of Dolby’s cinema business group, introducing a panel of Oscar nominees for sound editing and mixing at the Television Academy’s Saban Media Center a few days before the awards ceremony. Moderated by Dolby Institute director Glenn Kiser, the panel included representatives from the sound teams that worked on nominated films Ad Astra, Joker, Once upon a Time…in Hollywood and Ford v Ferrari, which subsequently delivered the first Academy Award win for supervising sound editor Donald Sylvester.

Sylvester and the team tracked down authentic examples of the cars featured in Ford v Ferrari to replace the engine sounds of the “kit” picture cars that were filmed. “We located the remaining GT40s on the planet and no one wanted to talk to us,” he said, fearing the cars would be damaged. But an owner in Ohio, who had hand-built his car from original parts, acquiesced. “It sounds amazing,” said Sylvester.

Indeed, director James Mangold was so impressed that he wanted the 1966 Le Mans race sequence, some 40 minutes long, to feature no music, just engine sounds. “He came to his senses,” laughed Sylvester, and eventually did include music.

Detailing his use of Dolby Atmos in a scene just prior to Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Arthur Fleck, taking the stage in a comedy club, Joker re-recording mixer Dean Zupanic noted that the immersive format is not just about big, showy movements. For example, the sound of a TV playing pans by as Fleck walks past it, he noted. “The detail that you can get with Atmos of the movement of those things, you can’t get that anywhere else with that level of precision, and that really adds to the feeling of reality.”

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In the centerpiece of the film, an extended scene in the subway, “the sound effects are playing like music,” said Zupanic. The music, by Hildur Guðnadóttir, “came in way later, to let us be the score. You don’t notice the hand-off; it’s seamless between music and effects. It was fun, because we don’t always have the opportunity for effects to play as score would play.”

There was a similar scene in Once Upon a Time, noted Kiser, when Brad Pitt’s character visits the Spahn Ranch. “Sound effects was music,” said re-recording mixer Mike Minkler, “hundreds of little tiny pieces of sound that make this tapestry of weirdness and uncomfortableness. What composers do, using instruments and sounds and orchestrating the feeling of the scene and the motivation, that’s what we did with sound effects.”

Recalling the shooting of the scene in Once Upon a Time where Pitt’s character fights Bruce Lee, production mixer Mark Ulano (also nominated for Ad Astra) described it as “truly a ballet,” with director Quentin Tarantino orchestrating and coordinating the actors, cameras and sound team. “This was a real tour de force of boom operating,” said Ulano. “It was painting with microphones, in synchronization with the actors.”

“Quentin does not ever want to loop a scene or even a word; he gets everything in the camera,” said Minkler. This was the seventh collaboration with Tarantino for Minkler who, like Ulano, has worked with the director for more than two decades.

“So the production track is it,” said Minkler. “The dialog is paramount, and it’s going to sound beautiful at all times, but you can add to it. And as long as [Tarantino] is laughing on the stage, we know we’re doing a good job.”

Kiser took the opportunity to ask the assembled veterans for their perspectives on the ways that film sound has changed over their careers. In the early days, said Minkler, “It was a growing experience. Now it’s matured and we are able to do really extraordinary things with tremendous accuracy; the tools are there.”

Sylvester recalled, “I remember being on crews with 30 editors in a three-story building. Today, I had five people that did Ford v Ferrari—and one guy was part-time. Everybody has a workstation with hundreds of tracks. We’re doing so much more with fewer people.”

In the past, editors often had little idea what all the tracks sounded like together until they were played on the stage. Nowadays, Sylvester said, “We can hear the relationship between the sounds playing in our rooms.”

“In 1986, just before we went digital,” Minkler said, “Alan [Murray, supervising editor on Joker] had 55 editors” on a project they worked on together. “That’s what it took.”

At the front end, said production mixer Ulano, some things have changed. “We can do a lot of simultaneous approaches in real time. I trained on a mono recorder with a limited number of inputs to achieve the same thing.” Yet some things never change. “The right microphone in the right place in the right way for a specific performance still is essential to whether or not we believe that character,” he said.

“With Pro Tools, we can sit there and hear the dialog,” said Dean Zupancic, re-recording mixer for Joker. “In the case of Joker, we also had the music. We can sit in our rooms and blend and level things to work together and go to the stage more prepared. That helps our choices, and we can experiment a little more.”

“Sound effects editors would turn up [on the stage] with 500 tracks, knowing that 200 were going to be thrown away,” agreed Minkler. “Because they just didn’t know” how they would play.

Answering a question from the audience about their respective relationships with the nominated films’ directors, Ulano reported that, for Ad Astra, director James Gray had him play specific pieces of music in only his headphones while shooting the space sequences. “So he had a sense of reference about the pacing of the scenes.”

Sylvester explained that Mangold shoots on location and ships the dailies back. “The picture editor and I have to make a final mix of that scene before he sees it. It’s got to have ADR, music, sound effects; it’s got to be as if it’s a finished film. We have to do this in a day. And it wasn’t unusual that some of the things that I did in an hour made it into the final.”

Dolby •