Recording

Lee Dichter

After 40 years in film sound — half of those working at Manhattan's premier post-production house, Sound One — Lee Dichter has earned his reputation as the Dean of New York Re-Recording M 9/01/2003 8:00 AM Eastern

After 40 years in film sound — half of those working at Manhattan's premier post-production house, Sound One — Lee Dichter has earned his reputation as the Dean of New York Re-Recording Mixers. Dichter has seen the business go from mono to stereo to 5.1; from small, hardwired custom consoles to the impressive Neve DFC he works on today; and from optical film to Pro Tools. Along the way, he's amassed a staggering list of credits in television, documentaries, and both independent and big-budget feature films — more than 130 in all. He is known far and wide for his expert attention to film dialog, which is why he has been tapped so often to work with directors who care deeply about such matters: He's done 17 films with Woody Allen (every film since Hannah and Her Sisters, except for Curse of the Jade Scorpion), three with the Coen Brothers (Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy), a pair with Robert Altman (Short Cuts, Pret-a-Porter), a few with Barry Sonnenfeld (Get Shorty, Men in Black, Big Trouble), and countless others with such talented directors as Robert Benton, Mike Nichols, Nora Ephron, Lasse Halstrom, Bob Fosse, Francis Coppola, Brian De Palma, M. Night Shyamalan, Frank Oz and Tim Burton, to name just a few. He's just as comfortable working on big films like Signs and Sleepy Hollow as he is with subtle, character-driven shows like HBO's powerful Wit. And Dichter has never stopped working on documentaries: He's plied his craft on such acclaimed films as Harlan County USA, The Times of Harvey Milk, The Atomic Café, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Wild Man Blues and a host of Ken Burns' films and series, including Baseball, The Civil War, Jazz and Mark Twain. When we spoke in late June, Dichter had recently completed Woody Allen's latest, Anything Else, and was busy working on Angels in America, directed by Mike Nichols for HBO.

A New Yorker through and through, Dichter was born into the business. His maternal grandfather, Joseph Seiden, had been involved in the theater in his native Hungary and then, after immigrating to New York, became a producer of silent Yiddish films in the '20s. Dichter's father, Murray, was an electrical engineer. He eventually went into the family business, doing sound for Yiddish films in the '30s and '40s (including a Yiddish King Lear!). “Then they started realizing that, to get a wider audience, they had to go to English,” Lee says, “so the films switched over to English with a Yiddish accent.” Eventually, Murray Dichter broke away and, in the late '40s, started his own company, Dichter Sound Studios. The business was focused on commercials for that upstart medium known as television. “I used to hang out there on weekends,” Lee remembers, “and I found it very interesting and exciting.” Murray Dichter also did sound work on a documentary series for CBS called Eye on New York.

Lee spent a year in college at Case Tech (now Case Western Reserve), but “I didn't really connect with it,” he says; instead, beginning in 1963 when he was 19, he went to work with his father in the sound business. Our interview picks up the story here.

I notice that in the IMDB [Internet Movie Database — imdb.com] entry under your name, they don't list any credits for you until 1972. What kind of work did you do between 1964 and 1972?

I did a variety of different things for the company. He was a wonderful artist and a great technician. Eventually, in 1964, my father joined John Arvonio in a company called Photomag, which, like my father's, also specialized in commercials and short films. When I joined up, I was doing one-to-one transfers, which led to equalized copies. Slowly, they let me start mixing some easy commercials — three or four tracks: narration, music, a couple of effects. And from that, I started getting into some documentaries. The independent film community was always looking for younger mixers, rather than people in their 40s or 50s.

Or who would charge a lot of money.

Well, that too. But my reputation started growing from that.

Here's the key. I learned how to mix on TV commercials, where every word and every syllable was so important, because they only had 30 seconds or a minute to get their message across, and if you couldn't hear or understand a single word, you were gone. I found out early on that the producer would say, “Lower the music, I can't hear that word.” And sometimes I'd say, “Well, let me work on the word. Let me equalize that word differently so it rises in the mix, and then we don't have to lower the music.” So working with different techniques with equalization and compression, I learned how to handle dialog very well, and I learned techniques that I could use later on with documentaries to really enhance what was on the track.

I'm familiar with tools that big recording studios were using for that during that era: 1176s and LA-2As…

I don't even know what those are. I never really got that much into the technical end. All of this equipment would come in, and I'd just say, “What can I do with this? How can I use this to improve the sound?”

What would you use for equalization?

I don't think it even had a name. It was built into the console, which was custom-made. It was the coolest thing, though. It had nine little toggle switches sticking up in a row, and you could just slip-slide them so you'd actually get a sort of graphic readout by seeing which way the toggle switches moved to what kind of equalization you were putting in the track. I had compression, too, but it wasn't sophisticated the way it is today. My father also built a combination compressor and de-esser, which was very cool.

You say you're not technical, yet all of this work involves minute work: to go in and EQ certain words, and de-ess others…

Well, when I say “technical,” I mean I don't know the names and the numbers. For years, a friend of mine was talking always about “Cat 43.” I didn't know what the hell that meant. Then I found out it meant “catalog number 43 Dolby noise suppressor.” I could never remember all of the numbers. I just wanted to know what the piece of gear could do for me.

So much of what you do as a re-recording mixer is dependent on the quality of the work of the original location recordist. What has your relationship with those engineers been like?

Unfortunately, there's always been something of a disconnect with location recordists through the chain of mixing. Once their work is done, we rarely hear from them. Occasionally, the location recordists might try to get some input from us in advance, but it's unusual when that happens.

When you work on a documentary, is it significantly different from working on a feature film in terms of the actual requirements of the job?

Not really. The main thing is the budget. You don't want to make compromises, of course, but you have to go as fast as you can. With documentaries, you're usually limited to the production track; you're not going to do any looping. But you use the tools you have as best you can.

At the same time, though, there's usually a lot less material to mix in a documentary. There aren't going to be seven dialog tracks; it's more like three or four. Most of those early documentaries I did in a day or a day-and-a-half. Harlan County was the first one where it went more than two or three days. It was a five-day mix, and we even had overtime in there. These documentaries are always a labor of love for the filmmakers and for me. They're working on them two or three years, so you want to make it as good as you can without breaking their budgets.

When you started doing bigger feature films in the early '80s — The Verdict, Sophie's Choice, Star 80 — did the requirements of the job change or the time you were given?

Definitely the time expanded, since they were more complicated.

So all those were done in New York?

Well, finished here. They might be shot all over. Usually what dictates whether it's finished here is where the director lives.

Where did you do most of your work back then?

Back in 1983, I joined Sound One. The first feature I mixed there was Star 80. From then on, I was basically mixing features and documentaries.

What sort of equipment did they have at Sound One in that era?

They had a new mixing studio with a Neve console, and then they had an older console in another room, which doubled as a Foley stage. I'm not sure of the model number, but I think it was a music Neve with 48 ins and six outs. Up until then, I hadn't mixed a film in stereo. Photomag had only mono equipment. In fact, Star 80 was mono. My first stereo film was Beat Street, which was a break-dance film.

You also did Cotton Club with Coppola around that time.

On Cotton Club, we didn't do the finish. We did about six or eight weeks of premixing, and then they took it out to San Francisco where Coppola lived. But the editing crew and the picture editor lived here.

It seems that the way the profession has evolved over the past several years is that, more and more, there are sound design teams that are out there recording every type of civil war musket ever invented, or 10 kinds of rainstorms, or 20 different makes of cars crashing. There's this obsessive hunt for verisimilitude in sound. At the same time, there's been a closer alliance between sound designers and re-recording mixers. When did that trend really start to kick in?

Of course, there have always been people who wanted to get the most realistic sound for the films they were working on. But I think that for what you're talking about, the real beginning was Apocalypse Now [1979]. Certainly, there were big sound jobs before that, but that was the film where they really let the sound crew loose. I have friends who worked on that film. The post-production was something like nine months or a year, which was unheard of. And the reason it went that long is Coppola was constantly recutting. But he could do that because it was his movie; he was the producer. If the director is working for the studio, you're not going to get that.

When I started mixing features, it was usually a two- to four-week mixing schedule. Sometimes, an extra week was added for more complicated films. I remember when I worked on Star 80: After six-and-a-half or seven weeks, we still weren't finished. I was very upset about it. My father had died the previous month. I went over to [director] Bob Fosse, and I said, “Bob, I've been upset about my father, and I really feel that part of the reason why we're not finished is because I'm going too slow.” And he said to me, “Lee, you know the film Sweet Charity? We mixed 17 weeks…and it's still not right. [Laughs] So don't worry. We'll get some extra time and finish the picture.” And we did. But like Coppola, he had the power to make it go longer.

Getting back to Apocalypse, what happened was he gave his guys the green light to really go investigate all of the different sound techniques and let them experiment. And they mixed it in 6-track, magnetic 70 millimeter. So that was the beginning of this new era of sound design.

Now there are a lot of California mixers who have created their own niche and do a lot of recording themselves, too. And that's great, because they can follow the picture from beginning to end. But the way I've always worked is I come on pretty near the end. I'm not recording effects.

You started working with Woody Allen on Hannah and Her Sisters in 1986. What was he looking for sonically? Obviously, his films are always dialog-driven. I would imagine he wants to hear every word clearly, unless it's for some effect.

That's right. Well, he's the writer, too, so, obviously, the words are very important to him, as they are to me. With his films, you know that the soundtrack is going to consist basically of the production track and not much else. He lets us use very little added sound; only when necessary, only when we have to. And then there's the music.

And you know what that's going to be like, most likely some mono jazz or pop track from the '30s or '40s.

Pretty much. And if you look at his films, you'll see that sometimes he'll do a montage that's all music and he'll drop the location sound altogether.

Is he very hands-on with the sound?

No. He's not in the studio that often. A lot of directors love the process of film mixing, and some directors would rather you just mixed it yourself with the sound crew and the picture editor, and then he'll come in for playback and make some corrections and then come back three days later for another reel. Woody is that way. He usually wants us to copy the scratch mix. So we usually don't try anything too new [in the final]. And since he doesn't use sound effects, it's very easy to follow that format because, basically, I'm working on maximizing the dialog and constantly choosing filters and equalization to accomplish that.

He likes the dialog in the forefront at all times and wants nothing competing with it. And he doesn't use ADR.

A lot of actors and directors hate looping.

That's right. It happens all of the time that the line that's looped is not looped well. Usually, it's the performance: The voice pitch might be different, the timbre, the volume. The actor might be in the wrong key with the wrong emotion. It's a tough situation. The actors usually don't want to be there. Often, it's months after they shot the scene, there's the anxiety of getting the performance correct, and then the second anxiety of getting it in sync. Some actors have a wonderful ear and a good attitude and they're very good at it.

All we want, as mixers, is a fighting chance. Now, of course, we have more tools to match things. Now we can get into pitch change. We can't change the push, but we can change the pitch.

Obviously, you become intimately involved with every film you work on. Can you tell if a film is bad?

Sometimes. But what I learned to do way back, in my early years, is separate my feelings about what's on the screen and my work. If I'm not really into the film, I never let it affect my work. I still have to do the best job that I can. I focus on the process and make sure that my input into the film is helpful and makes it better. The process of mixing gives me so much joy. I get great satisfaction being emotionally involved with the film, trying to bring it all together and making the director happy.

Do you find that there's great variety in how involved directors are with sound?

Oh yeah. It runs the gamut: Sound is very important to some and less important to others. Either way, I still have to do what I do as well as I can. It's just a question of how much input you get back from them.

Where do the Coen Brothers fall in that regard? I know you did Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink…

The Coen Brothers are the rare writer/directors who actually write sound montages into the screenplay.

So you'll look at the script of Barton Fink and it will actually read, “We hear the sound of the wallpaper peeling of the wall”?

Yes. With Barton Fink, the sound was so important to the overall feeling of the film. The footsteps and the buzzing and the wallpaper coming off of the wall, all that was written in and then they shoot it with that in mind. More typical in a screenplay is it'll just say something general like, “You hear the sound of the birds in the morning.” But the Coens get into some very specific things; it's part of their overall cinema vocabulary. It's fantastic.

There's a part near the end of Star 80 where there are all of these camera clicks. They're taking still shots of Dorothy Stratten, and the sound of the camera shutter was composed of four different elements, and then Fosse had us move the elements around to different positions — we're talking a half-frame, quarter-frame — to get just the right sound he wanted. He was one of the few directors I know who was involved in every aspect of the soundtrack.

Have Pro Tools and other digital systems made your job easier?

Yes. There's more accessibility to different sounds, and that opens up the palette. You can access many things more quickly, almost as you can think. It opens up more avenues of experimentation and creativity. I remember before computerized mixing, the director might say, “That sounded great: that whole sequence you did with the sirens and the water and the car-by. I just want a little more on that line of dialog.” So I'd have to try to re-create it step by step. You'd try to remember exactly how you did each element, and then you'd raise the dialog 2 dB. And usually some stuff wouldn't come back. You'd get it close. Now, it truly is repeatable. So by having more control, the sound track is better.

The double-edged sword, though, is that because there are so many possibilities, there's a tendency to futz with things a little longer, maybe go overboard trying different things. You have to exercise some self-control to not work on it endlessly, because now you can.

That's absolutely true. Like I said earlier, when I worked on documentaries, you would have serious time constraints. Now, the time has expanded, although, obviously, there are still constraints. And the sound is so much more complex that it takes you six or eight weeks now. A big movie — a sound-driven movie — can go 10 or 12 weeks, and you might be running two stages sometimes. It's mind-boggling what's going on, because of the amount of information coming in, the choices, the different levels and layers, and now, by having the 5.1, it's that much more complicated. It's exponential.

Are you enjoying 5.1?

I love it. It really has opened up the soundstage, and you can really heighten the impact of certain scenes by having so much dynamic range and having speakers that totally envelop you.

Somehow, I can't see Woody Allen embracing 5.1.

[Laughs] No. Here's a Woody Allen story. Up until some time in the '80s, Woody's films were always released in mono. By the time I began working with him, we were starting to find out that playing a mono optical on a Dolby pickup head in the theaters was degrading the sound even more than it would normally, so we finally convinced him to start mixing his films in the Dolby format so we could match the industry standard, as far as the release was concerned. I think it was [the film] September in 1987. We were pushing for years to try to change him over, but he had his screening room set up for mono. So we had to get Dolby involved to help push this along and help to entice him to switch over. He finally agreed.

So there we were. We were sitting there knowing we were going to release September in the Dolby format: left, center, right and mono surround. The opening-credit music came on and it was in stereo, and I had the pan pot wide open, and he says, “You know what, Lee, that sounds interesting, but it's a little too wide. Can you pull it in a little?” So we went back and brought it in a little. “Can you pull it in a little more?” And this went on and on until it was finally dead center and he said, “I like that. Do that for the whole movie.” I said “Woody, that's mono.” He said, “No wonder it sounds so good!” [Laughs]


Lee Dichter Selected Credits

Blair Jackson is the senior editor of Mix.

A Bronx Tale (1993)
Carlito's Way (1993)
Celebrity (1998)
Changing Lanes (2002)
Cradle Will Rock (1999)
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
The Devil's Own (1997)
Far and Away (1992)
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
The Hours (2002)
“Jazz” (2001)
Just Cause (1995)
Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997)
The Mambo Kings (1992)
Michael (1996)
Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
Primary Colors (1998)
The Score (2001)
The Shipping News (2001)
Small Time Crooks (2000)
Snake Eyes (1998)
The Birdcage (1996)
What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)