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Thursday, January 13, 2011

"Listening to Film Sound" Mark Berger @ Stanford University

photo copyright © El WRay

I was at Stanford the other night, listening to Mark Berger talking about the sound in movies.
Berger has an impressive list of credits including:
Capote (2005 / re-recording sound mixer)

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001 / sound re-recording mixer)

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999 / sound re-recording mixer)

Playing by Heart (1998 / sound re-recording mixer)

The English Patient (1996 / sound re-recording mixer)

The Scarlet Letter (1995 / supervising re-recording mixer)
Catch Me If You Can ( 1989 / supervising re-recording mixer)
Blue Velvet (1986 / re-recording mixer)

Amadeus (1984 / supervising rerecording mixer)

The Right Stuff (1983 / supervising re-recording mixer)

Apocalypse Now (1979 / sound re-recordist)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978 / supervising re-recording mixer)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975 / post-production sound director)

The Godfather: Part II (1974 / sound montage associate)
Wheels of Fire (documentary) (1973 / supervising re-recording mixer)

He teaches at Berkeley.

He presented some scenes from "The Talented Mr Ripley", "Playing by Heart" and "Apocalypse Now" and talked about the dialogues, the music and the effects.
We saw each scene with the complete sound, and then with only the music, the dialogues, the effects or the Foley. Very interesting!

It took three years to make the soundtrack of Apocalypse Now. With the creation of a complete library of sounds of all the weapons used in the Vietnam war, which meant spending lots of time "embedded" with the U.S. army to record all the different sounds in different bases in the U.S. Because the latest sounds of the war "available" before "Apocalypse Now" dated from WWII.

In a certain scene where one wooden bridge explodes, he and his team came up with a sound "embedded" inside the sound of the explosion: they added the sound of a bowling ball rolling into a set of pins and then changed the pace and the frequency of the sound. In the scene, it gives a great sound of wooden planks "exploding". There are plenty of "embedded" sound in the "normal sound" - like the sound of a roaring lion mixed with the sound of the twister in "Twister".

In another scene, when Berger made us hear the dialogue alone, one can hear that young guy saying "I'm not going, I'm not going, I'm not going" as the helicopter he is in lands. In the full version, with all the sounds (dialogues, music and effects), one cannot hear what he says, one can only see the horror in his eyes while he is screaming in direction to the camera. Berger talked about the fact that this detail alone was really important in the movie, the young recruit, drafted, who does not want to be there, who does not want to die.

And as someone in the audience was asking why so many things are not "audible" in the full audio version, Berger was saying that one could tell something was wrong if all the sound were not there, but when they are and you don't seem to hear them, in fact you do, it is there, underneath.

Berger talked about subtlety in a context where you least expect it: a movie about a war. But the demonstration was brilliant and his work, indeed subtle.
He was saying that Coppola was very demanding in term of depth for the action: the most important action surrounded by all sorts of things going on at the same time. And you have to have sounds for all of that too. Even if in the end you do not hear much, it is there. The action is layered, so is the sound.

Berger asked "What did the digital era fundamentally change?" to the audience (students for the most part). Many responses but not the one he was looking for. So he said "what fundamentally changed is the possibility to postpone making decisions." he explained that before the digital era the changes were "physical", you actually had to cut the track and glue it/re-glue it. Now with the digital process, you can keep pretty much everything until almost the end of the process, which means the people who take care of the final mixing have more and more decisions to make. You can have hundreds of soundtracks still there.

It was really intriguing and fascinating to see the different scenes Berger analyzed for us, each time with one different component and in the end with all the components together.
He said we would never experience a movie the same way after the talk/screening. And I think it is true. He gave me some keys to "listen" to a movie more carefully, at least when I am enjoying a good sound system in a theater.

I recorded the first 45 minutes of the talk / screening.
Here are the three clips:

Mark Berger - audio clip #1 (14 minutes)

Mark Berger - audio clip #2 (14 minutes)

Mark Berger - audio clip #3 (14 minutes)

Listening to Film Sound: Screening, Lecture, and Q&A with Mark Berger
Tuesday, January 11, 2011. 7:00pm.
Approximate duration of 2.5 hours.
Stanford University / Cubberley Auditorium (Map)
Contact 650-723-3404
Admission: Free /open to the public

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