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Transforming Blockbuster Sound


When it comes to mixing sound for blockbusters, the indisputable kings of Hollywood are Kevin O’Connell and Greg Russell. Their track record is staggering: Since the duo first worked together in the late ’80s, they have received 11 Oscar nominations for a range of projects including Black Rain, Armageddon, The Mask of Zorro, Pearl Harbor, Spider-Man 1 and 2 and, most recently, Apocalypto. O’Connell, meanwhile, has eight other nominations, from the quiet of Terms of Endearment to the power of Top Gun and Twister. Any way you look at it, that’s a very impressive list, not just because the collective grosses of those films could probably subsidize a handful of Third World nations for a decade, but for the incredible variety of projects — everything from effects-filled spectacles to historical dramas to comic- book fantasies.

And it just scratches the surface of the amazing careers in film sound the two have enjoyed, both together and separately, and the wide variety of films they tackle. Many would no doubt be surprised to learn that within the same time period they were completing high-profile sound jobs like the three Spider-Man films, Terminator 3, Men in Black II and Apocalypto, they also worked on the comedies RV, Guess Who, Bewitched and Talladega Nights; the crowd-pleasing adventures National Treasure and The Da Vinci Code; and the sports movie Glory Road, among many others. When we spoke in late May, they were hard at work on the final mix of Michael Bay’s latest popcorn extravaganza, Transformers, in their usual lair: the Cary Grant Theatre on the Sony lot in L.A.

Kevin O’Connell (left) and Greg Russell

O’Connell was born in Long Island, N.Y., but raised in L.A., where his parents were sort of in show business: His father worked as an accountant for numerous television shows, including Batman, Daniel Boone and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; his mother got a job at 20th Century Fox as a secretary in the sound department. Growing up, O’Connell had only one career goal, however: to be a fireman. At 19, he passed the test to be an L.A. County firefighter and landed a job battling brush fires. But with the persistent encouragement of his mother, who frankly did not like seeing her son come home charred and dirty, he abruptly switched career paths. His attempt at becoming a film projectionist didn’t pan out, but he landed a job as an apprentice in the sound department at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios, cleaning film and working as a machine room operator and recording technician for the mixers there, including Bill Varney and Gregg Landaker. By 1981, sound department head Don Rogers had elevated O’Connell to the mix chair. His first film was Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.

“That was the scariest moment of my life,” he recalls, “because I’d never sat and mixed in front of clients before, and though I only had 10 or 12 tracks in those days, it was a non-automated console, and I didn’t really have any idea what I was doing. I asked Bill Varney what to do, and he said, ‘Put all the faders at 10,’ so I did that, we hit ‘go’ and it was horrifying! The movie starts out with a lightning bolt and rain and a car driving in the mud, and it was all way too loud. No one could hear any of the music or the dialog! It was awful. I was perspiring so heavily I went into the bathroom and wadded up paper towels and stuck them under my armpits. Eventually, of course, I figured out what I needed to do, and I learned so much from the people around me — Gregg Landaker was always gracious and helped me a lot in my early years as an effects mixer — but I have to say that nervousness lasted for several years before I settled into a comfortable groove.”

After working as an effects mixer for a number of years, often with Don Mitchell as his mixing partner, he branched out to dialog mixing. In the early ’90s, “I went to work for Skywalker South in Santa Monica [Calif.] and my partner at the time, Rick Kline, was a music mixer, so since I’d been a sound effects mixer first, I did dialog and sound effects. I mixed several films that way, but after a while it seemed like too much work. You’re literally working from the first day of the mix to the last day of the foreign — 100 percent of the time you are at the console, so it just became too much. That’s when I got into mixing music and dialog and working with someone who could mix effects.” After working with a variety of other re-recording mixers, from Mitchell to Kline to Steve Maslow, O’Connell settled into his fruitful — but always non-exclusive — relationship with Russell in the mid-’90s.

Russell was also exposed to the entertainment world at a young age: His father, Sheldon Russell, was the lead alto saxophonist on The Merv Griffin Show (first in New York, then, beginning in 1970, in L.A.) and an in-demand session reeds player who worked on numerous albums by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Barbra Streisand. Russell sometimes got to sit on the Griffin Show bandstand between his father and sax great Plas Johnson (of “Pink Panther Theme” fame), “and I always gravitated toward the musicians,” he says. “At the same time, I was always interested in what the engineer was doing; I liked studios.” By his mid-teens, Russell had learned how to set up a band in a studio, put slap delays and reverbs on vocals, and the rudiments of live sound engineering.

Both O’Connell and Russell received nominations for their work on The Mask of Zorro.

At 18, he took a job as a runner at TTG Recording in Hollywood, which specialized in recording music scores for television. “They did all the Spelling-Goldberg shows — Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat, Hart to Hart,” he recalls. “After about six months, I was given the opportunity to run mag — the 35mm recorder — and that was my first real job. From there, I became Ami Hadami’s second engineer on these television shows and eventually the engineer recording the music.”

In 1981, he moved over to another studio that specialized in scoring and jingle work — Evergreen Recording in Burbank — then in 1983 migrated to a small post-production facility called B&B Sound, where he branched into dialog recording for animated shows. On the side, however, Russell and Jeff Haboush had partnered to become a mixing team, working on a wide variety of mostly lower-budget films (the original Hairspray, Pumpkinhead, “lots of slasher films,” Russell says with a chuckle) and some TV (such as the hit series Moonlighting). “I was doing both music and effects; Jeff did the dialog and some effects, too. We did 55 features together from 1983 to 1988. They were small so you could do them in three or four days. We worked day and night together: TV by day and small feature films at night. It was crazy.”

In 1988, Russell received a fateful call from Warner Hollywood’s Don Rogers offering him a job. “Getting a call from him was like getting a call from the president of the club,” Russell says, “and going to work there was amazing because the studios were filled with all these people I’d looked up to, like Bob Litt, Elliot Tyson, Don Mitchell, Rick Kline, Gregg Landaker, Steve Maslow and, of course, Kevin O’Connell, who was still an effects mixer. It was almost like a ball player working in the minor leagues getting that call to come up to the majors and play with the big boys.

“I was thrilled and honored to be given the opportunity. I was able to really absorb and be a sponge and learn a lot.” In his early days at Warner Hollywood, Russell primarily mixed music, but by 1991 had moved back to effects, “which I found I’d really missed. It’s such a creative job. I love those spaceships going over your head,” he says with a laugh.

I mention that it’s somewhat ironic that O’Connell started out as an effects mixer and moved into music and dialog, whereas Russell had been mixing music and moved back to effects. “I think that’s one reason we work so well together,” Russell offers. “When he started working as a music mixer, he had someone on the stage who had 75 films under his belt as a music guy. And even though I had however many effects shows I’d done, I had a guy who spent many years and was a really excellent effects mixer in Kevin. So it’s really served both of us well. We can give each other suggestions and figure out together what can we do to make something sound great.”

It was in the mid- to late ’90s that Hollywood started to really take notice of the Russell/O’Connell mixing team, thanks to a string of really loud action movies, including Con Air, The Rock and Armageddon, the latter two directed by Bay. Although these garnered the duo Oscar nominations, these films were also criticized in some circles for contributing to the trend toward deafening volume in film mixing. Today, both acknowledge that things did get out of hand there for a while, but they’ve worked hard to pull in the reins. It’s no coincidence, they say, that the shift occurred with the widespread introduction of digital technology on the stage.

“Anybody who is given a new toy is going to push it to its limits,” O’Connell notes. “As soon as we got into the digital era and the fact that most films were going out not stereo optical anymore but in 6-track, it opened up the door for that stuff to happen.”

The Rock was big,” Russell says. “Armageddon was even bigger, and too big. In the case of Armageddon, we were definitely asked to make things bigger and louder. I’ll give you an example: In our shuttle take-off sequence, Michael [Bay] came in, and said, ‘Guys, it’s wimpy.’ And by no means was it wimpy, but he was looking for more snap out of the metal, more power. So you go where you need to go to get the thumbs up from the director. That’s not to say we don’t take responsibility for that particular film. But we were also mixing around the clock, completely exhausted, and from ear fatigue you’re not listening to things as well as you could be if you were fresh. We did that entire movie from start to finish in five weeks and two days and that was unheard of.

“But in that same year, we mixed The Mask of Zorro, which I thought was very tasty,” Russell continues, “with great dynamics and detail and definition, and we were nominated for that, as well, along with Armageddon. So it wasn’t that everything suddenly became too loud.”

The Mask of Zorro was a gas,” O’Connell agrees. “It was more organic sound, and for me maybe it was even more exciting to work on than a film like Arm ageddon because there’s more subtlety. In Arm ageddon, you’ve got a rocket ship going by that’s on fire that’s then going to explode into an asteroid, which then blows into pieces and starts tearing apart another planet, then another space shuttle comes by…” [Laughs]

And you’re thinking, “Where’s my dialog?”

“Not just that,” O’Connell continues, “the filmmakers put so much on the screen at one time and I think they don’t always realize that, yes, it looks cool, but when you try to hear it all, it becomes a bit of a mess. So what I’ve been trying to do in the latter stages of my career is figure out what on the screen do we need to listen to? What can we get rid of and how can we make it all better? That comes with experience.

“One reason movies are too loud is sometimes they’re presented to the director too loud the first time they see it. The director says, ‘I like it, but I can’t hear the dialog,’ so they raise the dialog, and then the music guy says, ‘Well, now I don’t hear the music,’ so they raise the music. It’s rare that once they hear the jets and the explosions loud that they pull them back; it generally works the other way, to keep turning it up. So that’s something Greg and I work at — to present it to the director at a reasonable level that gives us some room to work with.”

But that doesn’t always get them off the hook. As Russell explains, “Sometimes we’re still asked to go really loud. On Terminator 3 with Jonathan Mostow, he wanted huge, and his statement when we tried to talk to him about dynamic range — not playing everything up at ‘10’ — was, ‘I want the audience, at the end of the movie, to be exhausted.’ And I said, ‘Well, I think we’re going to accomplish that!’ Sometimes you have to do things to make a director happy, but there are things within a mixer’s control to say, ‘We’re where we need to be.’”

These days, of course, everything arrives on the mixing stage in Pro Tools sessions: dialog, FX, Foley, music. “Certainly, it’s a lot easier than when we had things coming in all sorts of different [formats],” O’Connell comments. “Pro Tools has got its little ticks and glitches and whatever, but just like anything else, when you have a technological change you work your way through it. There are major advantages to it, obviously. I can reach up and move tracks and edit tracks and I volume-graph tracks. There’s a lot I still don’t know about, but I’m learning. At this point, I believe Pro Tools is great for recording and playing back on, and I believe the Harrison [MPC] board I work on gives me the best mixing surface on the planet, so I have the best of both worlds.”

Adds Russell, “Pro Tools has made it so much easier for everyone to present their material, and it’s given all of us much more flexibility when it comes to making changes. Editorially speaking, now that everything is living in Pro Tools, if they have picture conforms and edits to be made, it’s not like they have 25 drives that have the audio media on them and individually edit each one. They can put them in a ‘super-session,’ which is how we do things now, and they can make a conform and give it back to us in the speed of light, compared to the way it used to be. And because there’s more flexibility, you find yourself experimenting more now than before, which I think is a good thing in the creative process.”

Ultimately, it is that tremendous creativity, coupled with the variety inherent in working on different projects under different directors with different editors and supervisors, that makes being a re-recording mixer’s life so rewarding. Jumping from The Pursuit of Happyness to Spider-Man 3 to Transformers is like entering three completely different worlds. “It’s what makes this job fantastic!” Russell enthuses. “It’s absolutely extraordinary. It’s like telling a painter, ‘Here’s a palette of colors to play with and create with. Now, here’s a completely different set of colors to create something very different.’ That’s what every film is like. A film like Apocalypto was completely organic, nothing high-tech industrial — it was just nature at its best, from all the rock elements and bamboo and weeds and gravel. Fire elements. Thunder. It was all the elements of the earth vs. the opposite of what we’re doing now with Transformers, which is the highest-tech movie you can possibly imagine. It’s literally 180 degrees, and the idea that we can be a part of all these various genres of film makes it very special.”

Back on the stage at the Cary Grant Theatre as Memorial Day approaches, though, there is light at the end of the tunnel. “We’ve mixed the entire film, and it went really well,” O’Connell says. “We only took about 12 days to mix the movie, with Michael Bay coming in and looking at playbacks and making a few comments. Then we screened the movie for him and he was really excited about it. Actually we all were, because when you’re working on a movie in sections, sometimes you forget a bit about the overall picture, but we’re all happy with the way it came out.”

Russell adds, “Now we’re going back through it and there are new music cues that have been revised that Michael had notes on that we’re putting into the movie. We’re doing final effects notes, final dialog notes and basically going through and dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t.’”

“Michael’s been really great on this film,” O’Connell says. “Over the years he’s really become a proponent of how much sound helps his movies because they’re so visual effectsoriented. He’s matured into a fantastic filmmaker.

“But really, everyone who worked on this film has done a good job. We had yet another new sound editorial team, with [supervisors] Ethan Van der Ryn and Mike Hopkins [the Oscar-winning team behind The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong], and the film is really a collaboration between the dialog editors, the sound editors, the music editors and the mixers to where the playing field is completely leveled. Everyone is working toward the same goal; there’s no ego. Everyone’s doing what’s right for the picture. I’ve never felt the sort of camaraderie that I have with this group of people; it’s amazing.”

Blair Jackson is senior editor of Mix.

Academy Award Nominations for Kevin O’Connell and Greg Russell:

  • Black Rain (1989)
  • The Rock (1996)
  • Con Air (1997)
  • The Mask of Zorro (1998)
  • Armageddon (1998)
  • The Patriot (2000)
  • Pearl Harbor (2001)
  • Spider-Man (2002)
  • Spider-Man 2 (2004)
  • Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
  • Apocalypto (2006)

Additional Oscar Nominations for O’Connell:

  • Terms of Endearment (1983)
  • Dune (1984)
  • Silverado (1985)
  • Top Gun (1986)
  • Days of Thunder (1990)
  • A Few Good Men (1992)
  • Crimson Tide (1995)
  • Twister (1996)

Film mixers Greg Russell (FX) and Kevin O’Connell (dialog and music) offer more thoughts about their work.

On Transformers:
It’s really well-made, and different from anything else out there right now. It’s all live action, so you have an F-14 flying into a scene with a bunch of other jets and all of sudden one of them turns into a robot and starts punching out the other ones! Or an army tank comes down the street and all of a sudden it turns into a robot and starts fighting with the helicopter that just flew at it. The visuals in the movie look incredible.

Russell: I’m so thrilled to have been on this film. I’ve done just about every action-adventure kind of movie. I’ve done the space adventures, from the Star Trek to the Stargates. And I’ve done a ton that have standard guns and explosions and car chases and whatnot. But where else [but this film] do you have a car transform into a robot at 80 miles an hour on the freeway? It’s something so absolutely out of the ordinary and it opens the doors for endless opportunities with regards to sounds, and the sound editors and designers have gone out and recorded a ton of great material. This was the first time Michael [Bay, director] had worked with supervising sound editors Ethan Van der Ryn and Michael Hopkins, and it was the first time we’d worked with them as supervisors, too, though Ethan’s been a designer on many shows that George Watters and Chris Boyes have done [with us], from Pearl Harbor to Armageddon: Ethan was [a sound] editor on those. He’s a very creative guy and he’s got a good crew. One of his sound designers I want to mention who I worked with quite a bit on the sound effects is Erik Aadahl, who’s a very clever young man; very quick. He was pretty much responsible for the sound of the robots, and there’s so much detail work for themnot just big, clumpy feet, but very intricate sounds from the littlest servo to the big, weighty metal ronking. Every eyelid that closes, you hear; the detail is phenomenal.

O’Connell: These guys are really creative. Michael would present an idea and these guys would work all night and come in with it the next day, and every time they improved it to Michael’s satisfaction. As co-supervising sound editor, Michael Hopkins heads up the dialog and ADR, and on Michael Bay films it’s like walking on land minesyou’ve got to be really careful because if you put a dialog track in that’s not in his work track, or that he hasn’t approved already, that can be trouble. But Mike Hopkins has done that dance very well.

Did lots of material come in really late, as is usually the case with CGI-heavy films?
Actually, one of the blessings was this show wasn’t one of those where tons of stuff came in with really late. We were looking at pretty decent visuals early on, which was different from doing all the Spider-Man movies, and shows of that nature where you’re looking at animatix until very late in the process. That isn’t to say we’re not getting new shots even to this very day [in late May during the final mix]: “Oh, see that beam of light that’s coming out of his eye right there?” So we have to continually be updating and sweetening our effects stem to accommodate these last visuals. But they’re just little highlights. We had the basic finished shot earlier, whereas in a lot of movies you’re looking at cartoon until the very end. So that was very helpful to me with regards to predubbing FX.

On the issue of high-volume movies:
In my career, in terms of level, I’ve had films I’m not proud of, and even now I think some movies are too loud. I think movies should be lower. What happens is they lower them when they go into the theater, so normally what people see in the theater isn’t the movie we mixed anyway; it’s always turned down a few dB. But I believe it’s still a little out of hand, to be honest with you.

So Kevin, since you’re in the dialog world, do you actually prefer to work on a film like A Few Good Mensomething that is dialog driven? You guys have become known for doing the big summer blockbusters.
Yeah, the action-adventure guys. To be honest with you, I’ve been doing this for 28 years and for the first 20 years, you come tome with a Rambo or a Top Gun or an Armageddon or a Rock and it was, “Yeah, yeah, yeah! Let’s go, go, go!’ [Laughs] And lately I’m leaning more towards the Memoirs of a Geisha and Pursuit of Happyness-type films, the more dialog-driven films. The action-adventure movies are a lot of fun, but they’re really hard to work on. The levels are intense and the schedules are usually intense and at this point I prefer the dialog-driven films. But I still enjoy both, and comedies, too.

From your perspective how different is it working Talladega Nights than Spider-Man 3?
O’Connell: Talladaga Nights was a much different experience. In that movie, we’re not selling the NASCARs and saying, “This is what it’s like,” and focusing on that. We’re really focusing on the comedy in those movies, so when the cars are doing their thing, it’s less like, “Oh, a NASCAR wouldn’t sound like that,” whereas if you’re doing Days of Thunder [a racing drama] with Tony Scott, that matters. With Talladaga Nights it was more about the comedy and playing the fun songs over the races and hearing the dialog, of course. On a film like that it’s let’s hear the comedy and the jokes and not crush it with the sound.

On mixing in surround:
There was a point in my career where everything had to be in the surrounds, but now I’ve matured and I realize that what I really want to do is tell the story and I don’t want to distract the audience with dialog and music coming from behind them. Surround is just another tool.

I think about the future: What is the theater of tomorrow? You have to have something that is new. Everybody is getting their 5.1 room together at home, and now people are getting into these backyard 5.1 setups that are almost like a drive-in theater thing. So what the exhibitors need to do in the future is offer something you’re not going to get in the home. One of the things that could be of some use is having surround speakers be full-range speakers around the back of the theater, so we’re not just dealing with a smaller [satellite] speaker. Maybe they could also have the sub-woofers surround the theater a little more. A few years ago on the movie Godzilla, the guys from Sounde Delux came up with a thing called “the seat-shaker,” which was some speaker screwed to the bottom of the seat, so when Godzilla took a step, I took a tone and put it into the track and it would make the seat vibrate. It sounds silly, but at the end of the day, we’re talking about entertaining people and if that’s what we have to do to take it up a notch, then some of that stuff may not be so crazy.

Another thing we could do is maybe have speakers overhead, like the IMAX formatmore of a voice-of-God speaker. I still think the going-to-the movies experience will never go away because everyone wants to go out on a date and it’s still a lot of fun to go see a comedy or some action film with an audience.

Greg, I’m guessing that in a film like Transformers, you get to go nuts with FX in the surrounds.
That’s right, I’m goin’ nuts. There are some incredible battle sequences. There’s a big Scorpinox [robot] sequence in the desert that has so many incoming missiles, and [the Scorpinox] is firing back at them, so we have these cool incoming missile sounds coming from the back all around you and then exploding onscreen. There’s a great sense of movement throughout that scene with the military weaponry of our soldiers and with the robots too. There are a lot of opportunities throughout the film to use the surrounds.

Kevin O’Connell on trends in music and dialog recording:
To be a production mixer is a really challenging thing. I have a lot of respect for them because they deal with all the forces of nature out there that I don’t have to think about. The fact that I can get a track with good dialog on it is very impressive. These days they’re giving us many more options than they used to because they have more channels and radio mics and boom mics. I guess it makes the [dialog] editors’ jobs a little harder, because they have to go through all the tracks and figure out which is the best one to hear, and then sometimes I have to deal with multiple mics, but it’s made the process better. The technology is a good thing there.

With mixing music, one things that’s changed in the last few years is we’re working on a reel and all of a sudden the director may say, “This part of the music isn’t working for me. I’m not feeling the emotion where I want to hear it. I’m not hearing the percussion where I want to hear it,” and within an hour a track gets sent via cyberspace over to us and it’s brought into the session and if it works it’s in the movie, that fast. That never would have happened a few years ago.

Is it easier to work with music that you like?
Well, it’s easier to work with music that works well for the film.

Sometimes, as audience member, you’re sitting there thinking, “Gee, I don’t know if that music really works there,” or, as likely, the song choice…
For the first 20 years I was mixing, you’d work on a film and it was a composer working on the movie and that was it. Now, on Transformers, I think there are seven composers. On Spider-Man there were three or four composers working on it. What they do now is they say, “Okay, let me listen to this guy’s cue,” or “let me listen to this other guy’s cue,” and everyone in the room is saying, “Well, which one works better?” That part’s getting a little crazy, but they like having options and I can understand that.