A Manhattan native who has spent his entire career in New York City’s audio post industry, Tom Fleischman has seen the good times come and go. According to Fleischman, whose credits last year included Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, David Frankel’s The Devil Wears Prada and Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold, these are good times.
“Business is thriving in New York,” says Fleischman. “The tax incentives of the last several years have brought a lot more production here. Filmmakers still want to be based out of New York and the major post companies are in good shape. [This interview was conducted before Ascent Media’s recent closure of the famed Todd-AO stage, though that move should have little real effect on Fleischman’s work, except that there’s one fewer large dub stage. — Eds.] I see that trend continuing. As far as the lingering effects of 9/11, other than providing ideas for material in the future, I don’t think it’s going to have a significant impact on us.”
Today, the lean and smiling Fleischman, long a staple at the venerable Sound One post-production facility, mixes on a Euphonix System 5 console at Soundtrack Film & Television in New York City. He is still a first-call re-recording mixer for A-list directors such as Scorsese, Demme, Spike Lee and Ron Howard, and he’s worked magic on countless low-budget films for first-time directors; he’s just in a different home, which is proof-positive that the jobs follow the talent.
The son of film editor Dede Allen and Stephen Fleischman, a writer, producer and director of television documentaries, Tom Fleischman caught the film bug early on. “I grew up on the Upper West Side, went to school in the area and spent my spring and summer breaks apprenticing for my mother on films like Bonnie and Clyde and Rachel, Rachel. I knew I wanted to go into the film business, but I was initially attracted to editing and directing, not sound.”
After spending a few years at the NYU School of the Arts, Fleischman dropped out to pursue a career. “My early education in the industry was fantastic,” he recalls. “Elisha Birnbaum had just come over from Israel and established a small effects house [Image Sound] in the Brill Building. He had a Nagra, a 2-track Scully and a couple of 16/35 recorders.
“Elisha also had boxes of ¼-inch reels of effects that he’d picked up at an auction in Israel,” he continues. “He had me listen to them all and make lists of their contents. Then he taught me how to cut and splice the tapes so that all the car sounds were on one reel, the birds on another and so forth. When that work was complete, we had a library and I knew where everything was. Sound editors would come to the office and I’d sit down with them and dub the effects they needed onto 35mm mag tape. By this time, Elisha was building a small Foley room in the adjoining office and I did some carpentry work when I wasn’t pulling effects. It was a great education.”
While working for Birnbaum, Fleischman met Dick Vorisek, the most well-known feature film re-recording mixer in New York at the time, whose credits included On the Waterfront, The Hustler and a slew of New York-based films. With Birnbaum’s blessing, he left Image Sound and moved over to Trans/Audio Inc., where Vorisek was based.
“I started out doing transfers for editors, and it was a full-time job,” he explains. “During breaks, I’d sit in the back of his room and watch Dick work. Eventually, I got to assist him and even execute little mixes. Trans/Audio offered a program for film students attending the three film schools in New York: the NYU School of the Arts, the School of Visual Arts and Columbia’s School of Journalism, which had a film program. On weekends, students would come into the studio, and so would I, to help mix their work. It was great training, particularly since I ran into just about every possible problem a sound mixer can encounter!
“Obviously, the technology we used back then was quite rudimentary compared with the tools we have available to us today,” Fleischman continues. “Chris Newman, a production mixer who we worked with, took a liking to me, and one day he asked me to apply some EQ and noise suppression to one of his tracks. It was all very basic; we had some notch filtering and a Magnatech tube expander/gate. I’d pick up tapes from the lab at 7 a.m. and have two hours to work on the studio’s console before the real business rolled in. More great training; between that work and the student mixes, I was starting to get comfortable mixing.”
Fleischman’s first commercial project as a re-recording mixer was Errol Morris’ 1980 documentary, Gates of Heaven. “It was a film about pet cemetery owners. Around this time I also got to work on Barry Brown’s The War at Home. Barry, who now edits Spike Lee’s films, has also done some more directing since this film was released in 1978.”
In 1985, Fleischman, who had by this time established himself as one of the top sound re-recording mixers in the industry, with a credit list that included Melvin and Howard, Reds (for which he received an Academy Award nomination in 1981), Silkwood and After Hours, moved over to Sound One. “Elisha, who had welcomed my exit from his company years earlier, always said that we would work together again. When Image Sound made a deal to merge with Sound One in 1985, the operation became much larger, and I went to work there until joining Soundtrack at the end of 2003.”
Soundtrack, with offices in New York and Boston, has a long history in the television side of the audio post industry. At the time of Fleischman’s hiring, Rob Cavicchio had decided to steer the company into film and was building a small stage on 22nd Street. Bob Chefalas was mixing HBO series Sex and the City on this stage when Fleischman came onboard.
“To be honest, I wasn’t real happy with the corporate setup at Sound One,” Fleischman says, referring to the period following Ascent Media’s purchase of the New York operation, “so the move to Soundtrack came at a good time for me. The room I mix in is small, but it’s the best-sounding room I’ve ever worked out of. Our mixes translate well into all kinds of theaters. Obviously, mixes sound different in different rooms, but the balance is always retained.
“We have two mixing rooms and both use the same Euphonix System 5 console,” he adds. “The larger room has a dual engine, which gives us twice the amount of signal processing. Our work flow starts out with Pro Tools files from the sound editors. As you’d expect, there are generally four Pro Tools workstations used in a session for music, dialog, sound effects and Foley, and they’re all locked together with our Soundmaster SMPTE synchronizer. Master timecode comes from picture. I output my mixes onto the Akai DD8 recorders that we still use as 8-track dubbers.
“Next, we output the Akai data back onto Pro Tools for the editors. These sessions contain all of the original session elements, plus the predub we’ve just created. While this process is going on, another mixer or one of the sound effects editors is preparing the effects and balancing them against dialog.
“Once I’ve finished my predub, which includes EQ’ing and balancing the dialog against all of the other elements, everyone comes back for the final mix. At this point, the predub is placed alongside the music and effects. If I have to make changes to anything I’ve worked on, we generally go into one of the Pro Tools rigs. If necessary, I’ll load my console automation from the predub session, rip the elements I used initially and remix them. Back in the analog days, digging into this earlier work was tedious and time consuming.
“I went out to the recent AES show and the most exciting development for me [was] the new hybrid consoles, probably because they are very much in our future plans here at Soundtrack,” he continues. “We want to make things as easy as possible for our clients. Right now, editors bring in their Pro Tools workstations, generally with either a ProControl or ICON, so that they can reproduce their mixes exactly and make alterations during our mix sessions.
“Hybrid consoles would allow us to use the board as a stand console, as we do today with the System 5, but they offer the prospect of a significant advantage as well, since they have the ability to emulate a ProControl, for example. Then all of the Pro Tools plug-ins would appear on the console whenever I loaded up a Pro Tools session. The same goes for Nuendo and Pyramix sessions. At that point, it would be unnecessary for editors to haul their hardware into our facility. We’re very excited about the development of these hybrids, and they’re definitely in our future.”
Just back from a week in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he traveled with a small group of colleagues who have worked on many of Scorsese’s films to speak with Danish filmmakers, Fleischman is relaxed and ready for the next round of work. “Skip Lievsay, Phil Stockton, Marko Costanzo and I had a great time in Copenhagen,” he smiles. “The weather was great, and so were the people. This weekend I’ll be spending some time at the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side that I know so well. Marty [Scorsese] is shooting a Rolling Stones concert there, and I’ll be working on that project, hopefully by the early summer.”