Andrew Marshall Talks to Acclaimed
Sound Mixer Lou Solakofski
Andrew Marshall talks with sound mixer Lou Solakofski about his work. Solakofski has worked on many large film projects, including IMAX and Omnimax productions. His credits include David Cronenberg’s Crash and M.Butterfly, Into the Deep (IMAX 3D), Yo Yo Ma Inspired by Bach, Cello Suites 1 and 6, Stargate, Fires of Kuwait, The Dream is Alive, and dozens of TV productions. He has been nominated for numerous Emmy, Genie, Gemini and other industry awards.
Lou has also worked on music-related projects with Pink Floyd (he knows which one’s Pink), Allanah Myles, Mel Torme with the Boss Brass, Parachute Club, and other artists. He continues to be a leading part of the post-production team at Toronto’s Casablanca post production facility.
AM: Describe for me exactly what it is you do, in an overall sense.
LS: Well, a re-recording mixer hopefully gets involved in a film project at an early stage, say, just before they start shooting, just so that everyone knows what has to be delivered in the end…whether its a Dolby Digital print, or DTS, or maybe just straight to video, whatever. So, from that initial point of contact you talk about all these final format things, and if it’s a really well organized production, you would interface with the production sound mixer, and make sure they’re working in a format that would suit the dialogue editorial process later on.
Then it kind of goes away until the finished picture editing on the film, and just near the end of the picture edit they start thinking about sound: how it’s going to be edited, and when. So we’re the second last stage of the entire film-making process. Once the picture has been cut and all the reels are locked, we book a room like this, and we first listen to a “conform” of all the dialogue to picture, and do what we call a dialogue evaluation. That’s the first real day of involvement with the mixer, when we start to make calls based on audio quality.
So, the re-recording mixer and the dialogue editors work together and go through each shot, each slate, line by line and decide if the quality is worth keeping. Sometimes the director has notes saying, “I’d like to change the performance of this, even though it sounds good”, and we do a lot of begging, as in, “Please, it sounds so bad, can we get the actors in and replace it?” At some point at the end of that dialogue evaluation you come to an agreement on, say, if a film script has 1200 lines of dialogue, you could go from 100 to anywhere up to 800 lines of replacement.
After that the editorial teams for both sound effects and dialogue go away and start cutting in their editing rooms, and I know you’ve already explored some of that process (Interview with sound designer Steve Munro, Smr 99), so you know what goes on for those weeks.
AM: So that’s where you’d interface with someone like Steve Munro…
LS: Exactly…He would be in here on dialogue evaluation day, and we’d be making those calls on what needed to be recorded and replaced, and what we’re going to keep. At the same time the dialogue crew assistants will be here, filing through all the notes that were taken in production, so when we ask for alternate angles, other coverage, someone keeps track and is able to answer, “yes, there were three other takes. Rather than doing ADR, let’s see if one of the other takes might cover it for better sound”, if an airplane went by, or something like that. At that point, Steve and his crew go to their cutting rooms and start working with the director on what they’re going to do. When they’re done this process, which could be anywhere from three weeks to 10 weeks depending on the budget, then they come back and we start doing the mixing. In a typical film scenario the mixing is broken down into segments. The first thing you would tackle is the dialogue premix. That is where all the dialogue that has been conformed (in sync with the picture), all the dialogue that has been re-recorded (ADR), all the alternative takes that were dug up by the dialogue editors, and fixes they have created through their editing process, all come together here along with tracks of crowd ADR (scenes with large groups of extras). They bring that in for the dialogue mixing process. We sort through all that stuff, hopefully with the director in the room, and the dialogue editor, and I start cleaning up dialogue, making sure each scene has a coherent, continuous sound. So, if they shot something out by the lake and the sound is something we could keep, I have to make sure that when we get to the closeups the wind doesn’t just drop off the face of the earth. The dialogue editors do a lot of extending of angles so when you cut from a two-shot to a closeup…
AM: What’s a two-shot?
LS: A different camera angle. If you want two actors in the same shot, the camera has to be positioned a certain distance away, say twelve feet. The boom would then also be about twelve feet away, and would pick up a lot more ambient sound. When they cut from that two-shot to a closeup of your face, the boom can be 12 inches from your face, so now you don’t get all the ambient sound. To eliminate the difference in sound we try and do EQ and level changes in the dialogue premix that will help match that and make it sound like it’s one continuous conversation.
AM: Are you generally mixing all of your dialogue these days to a centre channel?
LS: In the premixing stage, yes. Except for the crowd elements, which we try and do some panning on if people walk across the screen.
AM: I can remember when I first started going to movies like The Robe in the late 50s when they started doing them in stereo as well as CinemaScope, and it was very effective the way the dialogue moved with the actors, and I find that now that were back to widescreen at home, that sometimes having that dialogue locked in place is very unnatural.
LS: With the advent of 5:1, dialogue is moving around a lot more now.
AM: Yes, I’ve noticed that.
LS: We take every opportunity to move it until it’s weird, you know? It becomes obvious to you. There’s a base of common sense with the team that’s mixing (mixers, editors, director, producer). You’ll try something out: as your camera tracks across the screen, I start a guy talking waaay over on the right, and then as it gets closer to him then I bring him from the right over to the middle speaker. It’s funny because sometimes it sounds totally natural, it feels real. Then other times you do it and everyone on the team will say it sounds funny, or weird.
AM: I thought of it because, when you were talking about one and two-shots, I’ve noticed more and more a tendency in films to, when the sound shifts from a voice front and center to one either behind or extreme left or right, the other voice will come from the rear. This kind of puts the viewer right into film, in a way. It’s very effective.
LS: Whatever is considered tasteful by the director we’re willing to try and explore. It’s funny because [here we are] at this early stage of discrete mixing…when we were locked in with the Dolby matrix you couldn’t put things in the rear unless they were more of an effect type thing. It could be effect-type voices, but it couldn’t be just straight dialogue because the voice would come out of all the speakers in the room simultaneously because it was a mono, band-limited channel in surround. Now when you have a bank of speakers on the left and the right rears and even with [Dolby] EX in the back directly behind you, you can get away with some voice things like that. A good example is A Bug’s Life.
AM: I haven’t seen it.
LS: There is some very creative use of surround dialogue mixing because there are insects flying around you and the voice tracks the movement. It’s really good.
I worked on an IMAX film called Journey to the Planets, an animated film. There were six characters, each one a different kind of animated alien. We tracked their dialogue everywhere in the IMAX theatre, wherever they were. It was hugely enveloping, and really involving. In traditional movie theatres it wouldn’t translate so well because of the poor quality of the surround speakers, either under-powered or band-limited, or just bad quality speakers.
AM: THX de-correlated to death…
LS: Yeah, any of that. But now, these days with sound getting better and better it’s easier to do that kind of stuff.
AM: What other IMAX films have you worked on?
LS: I started out years ago recording sound effects and foley for IMAX films, so I worked on Fires of Kuwait, Blue Planet, although not a lot…those were my early days at Film House. Destiny in Space is one of the first IMAX films I mixed. Then I did another space film for the same director.
AM: And you did Into The Deep, which I saw in Vegas.
LS: Into the Deep was a great one because it’s in [IMAX] 3-D.
AM: It’s a wonderful film.
LS: The cool thing about the sound on Into The Deep was when you put the glasses on, suddenly the big IMAX room is actually a small enclosed space. With those underwater shots when you’re looking into the crag and there’s a moray eel, its actually a space of only three or four feet. We had to try and make it sound more intimate, not huge and spacious like a lot of IMAX movies require.
AM: Of course you’re also mixing to that extra pair of channels in the headphones.
LS: That can make it more intimate. [Into the Deep] was an interesting one because there was no 3-D theatre in Toronto at the time, so every Friday night we flew to Montreal to play our mix, check our panning, and we would talk into a [camcorder] while the screening was going on. We would say, “Oh yeah, the blue fish…pan fifteen degrees further to the left.” Someone would transcribe those notes and the next week we would tackle all those adjustments.
AM: Those kinds of comments would be an interesting extra track on a DVD.
LS: Actually, that’s a great idea.
AM: In fact, there was a sound-mixer- and-director dialogue on the Das Boot DVD version. It’s so fascinating…they talk also about special effects and how they made a wooden submarine seem totally real.
LS: I just got that DVD and I haven’t heard that track yet.
AM: Have a listen to it, it’s great. The other space movie you worked on, with Walter Cronkite, is The Dream is Alive…
LS: That was back when I worked at McClear Place music studios. That was one of the early ones. I was involved more with the scoring of that one than the mixing.
AM: It’s an amazing film, sonically. I used the second rocket launch for showing off my home theatre system for a long time.
LS: There’s a track that Peter Tilley has, who’s done a lot of IMAX movies as a sound supervisor, with the ignition of the fuel cell just as it explodes or maybe it implodes, I can’t remember…we used that in Destiny in Space. And from what I heard, any IMAX theatre that wasn’t calibrated exactly to spec would blow their centre channel when they played that. I remember 20db of headroom on the IMAX CDs were allowed, and they played three CDs simultaneously for all 6 tracks. We took it exactly to all bits on, but not serious clipping because the director just wanted people to feel it in their chest and get pushed back in their chairs. I remember (the director) took it on a tour through a lot of the states, and there were many occurrences where if they didn’t have their system right to spec they would blow their centre speakers.
Those are the movies that give you the opportunity to do that kind of stuff. The shot justifies it. If it’s such a huge shot, you can put in all that big sound and people will totally believe it.
AM: Let’s talk about the nuts and bolts hardware. We’re looking here at a console that has 70, 80 channels?
LS: Yeah, this one has 80 channels of mixing capability and 72 channels of playback capability. In theory you can record 80 channels of sound and play it back on 72 channels of sound. Now thats a little outrageous for most typical mixing, but it’s just kind of a monitoring setup that’s flexible enough to do that.
AM: And you could also double up some or all of the pots if you have more.
LS: Yes. In this console you can do it into two layers. There are some consoles that can do four layers or more, but because of the nature of film, in one scene you might be using 200 tracks, and then in the next scene it’s just a guy in a room and you’re using six tracks, so you can have alternate sounds on those second inputs and switch over to them in subsequent scenes. The goal is to keep it all manageable. Theres no sense in having more and more channels if you don’t have control of them.
AM: And you’re potentially controlling dozens of recording machines to organize and archive all of the sound. I guess the history of that was that they used to all be 35mm magnetic machines with…how many tracks do you get with those?
LS: 6 was the most recent standard. Originally it all started out as mono. They were single track machines, then they went up to 3-track machines. I actually entered the industry when we were still doing our final stem mixing onto 3-track mag, where it was one dialogue channel, one music channel, and one effects channel. I’ve seen the migration from that into 6-track mixing and then multiple 6-track mixing, so it was considered a luxury when you had a 6-track recorder and you could have stereo music and mono dialogue and maybe stereo effects and mono foley. Then we got into locking multiple recorders together, and that’s the true beginning of stem mixing.
AM: And the age of the TASCAM DA-88.
LS: Well that was before. The DA-88 was sort of invented to emulate that modularity that was in film. You would have a 6-track recorder just for dialogue, another six track mag just for music, and they would all lock together via bi-phase. Now, after that there was a stage of 24-track, and people started using 24-track tape machines to get more tracks. What you lose is that sprocket sync and the almost random access of film, as in, you could take a reel down, cut it into pieces, rearrange the film, put it back and you’ve still done your work. Whereas on 24-track, you can’t cut time-coded tape. You would just move it around so you would be into conform situations, with generation loss in dubbing from one 24-track to another. This is how the whole popular DA-88 modular thing came up because once again you ended up where you could just take 8 tracks down and keep working with other tracks. Those 8 tracks could get fixed or new sounds put on them, and you could continue working.
AM: And you might be working with 8 or 12 DA-88s.
AM: Now, you were showing me earlier the next stage. Describe that for me in terms of how film sound is recorded and archived.
LS: Well, once the premix is done you would take anywhere from 16 to 40 tracks of dialogue and blend those down into 8 to 12, maybe 16 on a big film, tracks of premixed dialogue where, if you line up all the faders at zero, with the exception of some options, you could play that with the picture and all the dialogue would sound in place, well integrated, level and EQ matched, and so on.
So that’s the process we would duplicate for sound effects and for foley. The sound effects would be premixed much wider onto many more tracks. I’ve worked on jobs with easily 250 tracks of sound effects. The whole goal is to do them in groups of similar sounds and record them onto premixes or modules, so all of your background sounds end up on background premixes; if it’s an action movie, all your gun sounds end up on gun premixes and so on.
When you load up your premixes for the final mix you can look at your console and say, “Here’s my background sounds, here’s my action sounds, here’s my specialized sounds, and so on.” We try to get those down to anywhere from 24 to 40 sound effects premixed tracks from the original 200, or whatever it was. And then the same with foley.
AM: But you don’t do this all by yourself, do you.
LS: No, in the dialogue premixing stage it tends to be one mixer working with the editor and the director. Then when we go into effects premixing we’ll add another mixer and we work as a team. Usually I’ll handle the backgrounds and let the effects mixer handle the more complicated panning and positioning requirements of the specific effects. The reason for that, and this is only a personal preference, is that we always have the dialogue premix running while we’re effects premixing. So, when I have my hands on the backgrounds, I’m doing things with the backgrounds that I know will help in the dialogue, covering noises, and things like that. And at the same time, the effects mixer is positioning and EQing and balancing all the specifics, so in the final mix if we hear something strange, like “why on earth is that door so loud?”, he’s already done it. He’s touched it once and he knows exactly, instinctively where to reach and pull that fader down. He doesn’t have to look at a cue sheet or anything, so just being familiar with the tracks during the premix process helps the mix go that much better.
AM: And, of course, you can automate all of that.
LS: Right, then we automate. If it’s a very good premix we should be able to line up all the faders at zero and have a really robust, full sounding rough balance, not final balance. And from that point on it’s all options, playing to the screen and to the director’s taste. You haven’t heard music usually by then, so once all the premixing is done we load up the music as well, and all the premixes.
AM: Before we go onto that, describe what foley is, as opposed to effects. We know what effects are, but most people don’t understand what foley actually consists of.
LS: The foley department will cover human movement, that’s probably the best way to describe it. Anything that humans touch or do, or sounds that they make. Footsteps are the most typical example, but it’s beyond footsteps - we put in clothing rustles because when you do dialogue replacement, the actor’s voice is clean, and doesn’t include the clothing rustle. They do things like pulling keys out of a pocket and jingling them before you insert them in a car door, then they’ll do the insert as well. Sliding glass windows, cutlery when people are eating, anything people do in the movie, they cover it.
And the sound effects people, besides building the ambience of the location (whether it’s a stylized or a naturalistic approach), they also get into specifics. If they need a 1972 Porsche, they go record a 1972 Porsche. If there’s a closeup of someone on the gear box doing a radical down shift, they will record that and cut it into the film.
AM: It sounds like you’re recollecting Crash, which you worked on.
LS: Yeah, Crash was a fun movie for car sounds.
AM: I couldn’t get through it myself. A little too gruesome for me.
LS: I noticed it was a love or hate thing for most people. It got a lot of acclaim, but a lot of people didn’t like it.
AM: And you also did Naked Lunch. Do you do most of David Cronenberg’s films?
LS: I’ve been lucky to work on a few, especially the more recent ones. It’s just being in the right studio at the right time. The very first one I worked on was Naked Lunch, where I was an ADR/Foley recordist. Then I got to mix on M.Butterfly, his next film. After that it was Crash.
AM: And you worked on Stargate, which spent a lot of time in Toronto.
LS: Ooohh yeah…also as a foley mixer. That one was your true example of a big Hollywood film. Hundreds and hundreds of tracks…the foley alone was easily 60 tracks. And the picture was being continually changed as we did it. So we would record all kinds of things, then they would change the picture so someone would take our tracks away, conform them to the new picture, and then show us all these new segments that were added that we would go back in and record small sections of. It was a good thing for Toronto, because it gave everyone a feel for the Hollywood machine, you know?
AM: Well, they’re saying the same thing about Bait these days [a new Hollywood film starring Kris Kristofferson and Jamie Foxx, on which AAM was a film editor]. Are you working on it?
LS: No, I’m not sure where they’re going to be doing [the mixing of] that film.
AM: So now in both audio and video, we’re into a non-linear phase which I think is as interesting as the kind of succession beyond the DA-88s and the tape-based recording. Tell me more about that.
LS: Well, in a way, it’s a throwback to the days of working on film. The beauty of film was that you would transfer your sound effects onto pieces of mag[netic tape], then you would lay those pieces of mag in sync with the picture, then fill blank leader in between the sound effects. It’s an interesting analogy that this was something you couldn’t do on linear [digital] tape, but now that you record on hard disc it is exactly that. You have clips, and then spaces in between. The tracks are virtual, so you can slip one track in, a door opening and closing, and leave everything else where it is. So, from a flexibility and convenience point of view, the whole non-linear way of working is very good for the industry.
AM: And faster.
LS: And faster. But what I find is that with every new layer of technology we add, we don’t end up actually mixing faster, but we end up doing more detail. You can see films from the early 70s and there might have been 6 foley tracks and 6 dialogue tracks and 12-18 effects tracks. Now youre getting into 200 effects tracks, or more. So, the schedules kind of stay the same, but the director now gets incredible detail; the smallest little thing on the screen can be heard.
AM: Can we blame James Cameron for all of that?
LS: No, much earlier directors.
AM: I know his sound tracks are quite amazing.
LS: He has one of the best crews in the world working on his soundtracks.
AM: I like the sound of crushed roses in Terminator 2. Remember that?
LS: Yeah, it’s one of my favourite films. I bought it on Laserdisc and DVD.
AM: Me too.
LS: As a sound person, I like to listen to it over and over again and study how they put it together, as opposed to enjoying the film. You learn a lot about the craft by doing that.
AM: You’ve worked on music films as well, including the Bach/Yo Yo Ma project. Tell me a little about that.
LS: Well that was interesting. We actually won a Gemini award for best sound for that one. It was neat because there were six cello suites, and they chose six very good Canadian directors to each do a one hour film on each of the suites, and they worked in tandem with Yo Yo Ma on the concepts. I worked on Patricia Rozema’s Torvill-&-Dean skating film, set to, I believe, the 6th Cello Suite. It was interesting because the sound in that film was really minimalist. The music carries it with the flowing image of the skaters and you can hear the occasional wisp of a skate scraping the ice, with, like, an 8 second reverb tail. It’s more like a ghost than the sound of a skate.
On Cello Suite #1, in the music garden, it was a totally different approach, because that director, [Kevin McMahon] wanted to show this whole garden-blooming thing. He did a lot of stop-photography so that you would actually see the flowers explode.
AM: Have you seen his film, The Falls?
LS: No I haven’t.
AM: It’s wonderful. I’m from there [Niagara], so I really enjoyed it. There’s a lot of the gardens in that film too. It’s wonderfully staged and shot.
LS: The cool thing about those shots is he really wanted to make it sound like this whole nature thing was coming alive and growing, so even though the music is playing and you have this amazing performance of cello, underneath it is this big ambient bed of nature. And then for the slow-motion flowers, a combination of a foley artist manipulating actual flower petals and a sound effects editor putting in a small torch-burning sound, provided the burst. So as the flowers burst you would hear this puff of flame and the foley flower petals on top of it. Each flower had its own character because they went through and did each one. So, it’s like a whole other approach to the skating film, layers and layers of sound. In both cases I thought they each worked well.
AM: There’s an interesting Spielberg film I was looking at the beginning of the other day, called Always. It’s about bush flying and people in planes who put out forest fires. In one scene the hero’s flying through clouds, and the sound of the clouds is a kind of fft-fft-fft-fft as the cloud puffs go by the windows. It was quite a creative piece of sound work.
LS: On the IMAX movie Destiny in Space there were two animated sequences that were rendered by jet propulsion labs for the movie and they’re basically 3-D computer fly-throughs of Mars and Jupiter. As you go down into the surface and you start getting close enough to see the ripples in the ground, Peter Tilley had cut white noise, which sounded basically like snow on a TV, but we put it through a helicopter-type program to make it rat-a-tat-tat. It makes it feel like you’re about to touch ground, and you just fade it out as the fly-by gets higher. It’s funny because that sound has no relation to what is there, in that place, but it helps to make the entire experience more real, even though it’s not real.
AM: Now, when doing that sort of thing, would it be your call, or that of the sound designer?
LS: In that case it was an idea the sound designer had, and we manipulated it to make it a little more dramatic. But they get a lot more time in the preparation and editing of the tracks to think about these things. Sometimes they’ll just give you the raw materials and tell you what to do with them, to get exactly what they’re looking for. That’s what we do in the premixing.
AM: So, you’re almost analogous to a film editor, who’s given the rushes by the director, and he has to put them into a shape.
LS: Yeah, we’re sort of an extension of the sound editor. They are truly putting the takes together and delivering them to the mix theatre. What we’re doing more is the mastering process onto the takes, and the balancing. They actually have the responsibility of choosing the correct sounds and the style of the film. You’ve talked to Steve [Munro]; he might look at a film and say, “Wow, this is a really dark film”, and choose no naturalistic sounds whatsoever. He goes out onto a limb and makes a very brave, stylistic step in doing that. It’s up to us as mixers to take that and weave it into the dialogue and the music and make it an involving experience.
AM: It sounds like a fun job.
LS: It’s great. I wouldn’t do anything else.
AM: What are you working on now?
LS: We’re working on a four-hour mini-series called Nuremberg, starring Alec Baldwin and Brian Cox. It’s based on the transcript of the very first trial at Nuremberg where they tried the original 21 war criminals.
AM: So it’s a dramatic series.
LS: Very dramatic. Some of the stuff they show and talk about is quite disturbing, but they have some stunning performances. Brian Cox plays General Goering, who was the lead Nazi on trial, and he is amazing. He holds you in rapt attention as he testifies. It’s very high-drama, very dialogue-driven. The director is Yves Simoneau, and the score is subtle and sparse. They went to Prague to record the orchestra, so it is a very large orchestra but they don’t play big, long music cues.
AM: Is it Wagnerian?
LS: No, actually it’s not bombastic. It’s subtle. They target moments, hit it for fifteen or twenty seconds, then pull back and let the actors do the rest. It’s an interestingly sparse approach.
AM: And where is this going to turn up?
LS: Two nights on the Turner Network. The film will get a theatrical release in Europe.
AM: And it’s sure to end up on the History channel.
LS: Absolutely. They’ll buy it for sure.
AM: Thanks very much, Lou. It’s been really fascinating.
LS: It was fun to talk to you.