Meet the Sound Mixer
It can be easy to take the sound in a film or television show for granted. After all, they are a visual medium. Think of the last thing you watched – whether it was a sweeping countryside, a flashy car chase, or a character strolling down a bustling city street, it can seem like more than any other sense, they draw upon our vision. This perception, however, belies the importance of sound and, especially, those who artfully prepare and mix it to sync up with the images on our screens.
What sound mixers and re-recording mixers contribute to a project can be a mystery to the average viewer. Some may not even know that a dedicated department in the production crew exists! But they are an indispensable part of the moviemaking process, and a growing field within the industry, especially for women. With that in mind, we spoke with Oscar-winning re-recording mixer, Lora Hirschberg ('Inception', 'Iron Man', 'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm') about her craft, the path to becoming a sound mixer (especially in a male-driven field), and what it takes to be successful at the job.
What does a re-recording mixer do?
When explaining what a re-recording mixer does, Hirschberg likes to compare it to the culinary world. Those who collect raw sounds on set are the farmers, the sound editors are the sous chefs, the directors are the master chefs, and the mixers are the cooks putting all the ingredients (and instructions) together. “It's my job to take the sounds that have been collected and edited for the film and blend them together and have them come out of the speakers in a meaningful and coherent and storytelling way,” says Hirschberg. This process comes in the later stages of post-production. “In the continuum of making the film, my job is pretty much the last thing that happens before it comes out in the theatre.”
That job primarily involves working at a mixing console in the middle of a movie theater-like room where she blends sounds together with leveling, equalization, and panning, putting them in different speakers in the room, adding reverb, and just balancing everything together so it becomes one soundtrack. It is not, however, a solitary activity, as for example, editing can be.
Hirschberg often works in unison with others, typically in teams of two or more, who may handle dialogue or sound effects. She also works closely with the editor, director, composer, and producers. “At that very end of the process, I'm working with a small key group of people,” she says. “You're right in the heart of the people who've been working on this for a very long time and are really responsible for how the movie is going to be presented.” The significance of that is really important to Hirschberg, and mixers as a whole. “I like the fact that my contribution is very crucial to the success of the movie,” she says.
How do you become a re-recording mixer?
When Hirschberg went to NYU, she had ambitions – as many do – to become a writer or director. Then, however, she discovered post-production. “I had no idea that my job that I have now even existed,” she says. It wasn’t the only discovery she made. Once, watching 'Bonnie & Clyde' in class, Hirschberg was surprised to see that it was edited by a woman, Dede Allen. She didn’t know women could so prominently occupy roles like that in post-production. “I was really struck by the fact that there was a female film editor, but also that there was a whole other world of job opportunities or possibilities for me that I didn't really even consider.”
Because of previous interests in music and engineering, she gravitated towards working in sound. So, she forged ahead, landing a job in New York, working on soundtracks for shows or video pieces created by video and performance artists, as well as dancers. In the process, her experience of sound broadened. “It opened my eyes to all these different ways of thinking about, playing with, and using sound,” Hirschberg says.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Elliott Page in 'Inception' / Warner Brothers Pictures
Eventually, she decided to move to California to work on feature films. Finding success, she started to work on an array of different movies with different directors, picking up more experience along the way. Working with a variety of sound teams was especially fruitful for her. “One thing that I really value is that we get to pair off and work in the same room with one person on site. We move around and get to collaborate with different mixers, different sound designers. So, you sort of learn from each other all the time, which I think is super important and really valuable,” she says. The result? “I had about a five-to-10-year apprenticeship working with other mixers.”
That was critical to her career. “Mixing is really an apprentice job. You only learn it when you're sitting in the room. You can read a book about it, but the actual job is in listening, and getting in your muscle memory and your inner ear memory of what it's supposed to sound like,” she says. “It takes a lot of years of being in the room and listening to where it started and where it ended to kind of feel that you recognize ‘that sound’ and that it's comfortable.”
It’s important to me that other women see me in my job and understand that it's a path for them, and a place where they also belong in this industry.
Hirschberg has seen getting this type of first-hand training time in the room become more challenging in recent years. “It's hard to get a foothold,” she admits. Despite the challenge, she offers aspiring sound mixers some advice: “Listen to films you like and find out who worked on them. See if you can get in touch with them and get near them. If they're good people, they should respond to you and give you some advice or an opinion.”
She also encourages women to pursue a place for themselves in filmmaking. “Unfortunately, what happens is women will self-select out of a job if they feel like they're not 100 percent successful at it on a first attempt,” Hirschberg says. “It’s important to me that other women see me in my job and understand that it's a path for them, and a place where they also belong in this industry.” Leading by example is why she is, among many reasons, so proud of being the first woman – and one of the few out-LGBTQ individuals – to win an Academy Award for sound mixing in 2010 for 'Inception'.
It’s also why mentoring and encouraging women is very important to her, and why she is part of a talented troupe of women sound professionals at Skywalker Sound helping to champion other women pursuing sound mixing. “My mission has been to make sure that the young women that I work with feel like they can have many chances, and they need to get where they want to be,” she says. “It's important to make sure that the women coming up have that opportunity, and that they feel that part of the learning experience is to fail and to try again, and that somebody will be there to let them have that second chance.”
What makes a successful re-recording mixer?
Mixing sound is, of course, a technical process. For a successful mixer, however, technology is only a means to an end. “My job is very technical, but I'm not that interested in the technology,” she says. “What jazzes me is the actual magic of an actor’s performance and the alchemy of putting music on a picture and what happens when it all comes together. That, to me, is much more thrilling than pieces of equipment.”
Part of realizing the magic of sound is facilitating the vision of others. “The job is to participate in the creation of somebody else's piece of art. You add your touches to that, but it's really their product that you're working on,” she says. “Your goal is to make it the best you can for them.”
Sacha Baron Cohen in 'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm' / Amazon Studios
That requires, for one, film knowledge. “Being a successful sound artist, you have to work with directors and people who have studied film history and art history, and their references are going to be movies and pictures and paintings and theater. All these other things that aren't necessarily technical things,” she says. “I want to know what these directors are watching and being influenced by.” It also requires good listening skills. “You're willing to listen to other people and you want to help them achieve what they want to do, and you're not there to do what you want,” she says.
All of that works towards the ultimate, and most rewarding, goal of re-recording mixing for Hirschberg: the impact on an audience. “What happens when you put everything together? How does the audience react to that?” The goal? “Film sound has a unique position where it can either draw you in or it can push you back,” she says. “When it’s done right? You’re engaged in the movie."