Mix Master: The Sound of Skyfall
Spin a few of sound re-recording mixer Greg P. Russell’s movies on a proper 5.1 or 7.1 system, and you’ll soon realize that this guy loves home theater. Having worked on more than 200 movies, including every Michael Bay opus since The Rock (although he freely admits “Armageddon was over the top”), Russell has crafted some of the most thrilling soundtracks of our generation. But behind even the most bombastic scenes are a lot of consideration, artistry, and know-how. At press time, he has received a total of 16 Academy Award nominations, including one for Sound Mixing for his most recent accomplishment, a masterful mulitchannel mix of the latest James Bond outing, Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes.
Russell works at the renowned Technicolor Sound facility on the Paramount Studios lot, where he and his mixing partner, four-time Oscar winner Scott Millan, create some of Hollywood’s most memorable movie soundtracks. He was kind enough to share with Home Theater his experiences working alongside Mendes on Skyfall, which at this writing also has Oscar bids for Sound Editing, Cinematography, Score, and Original Song. He also shares some of the wisdom gained over his more than 30 years in the film industry, with a refreshing candor and a contagious enthusiasm.
Editor’s Note: Spoilers ahead: You might prefer to read this after you’ve watched Skyfall.
For our readers who don’t know, what does a sound re-recording mixer do?
When a film is shot, the production mixer on set is responsible for recording the dialogue. We have a scoring mixer who is responsible for recording the music. We have a Foley mixer who records all of the footsteps and glass clinks and bottle crashes and things. And all of these elements are then prepared by editors. And then a sound effects editing team is cutting the dialogue. There’s an ADR mixer; they replace lines for whatever reasons, whether there was a noise that obscured the line during the shoot and they need it to be re-recorded cleanly. The sound editorial team then also sits with the director, and they go through the movie and talk about backgrounds and ambiences and different things that they need: all of the city sounds, the winds, the airs, the wind through trees, the birds, the bugs. So then all of the backgrounds, all of the Foley, all of the hard effects—which would be the guns, the bullet impacts, the explosions, the helicopters, all the cars, the motors, the skids, the car crashes, the glass crashes—all of these elements come to the re-recording mixer on a mixing stage.
And you handle everything at that point?
On Skyfall, the dialogue mixer was Scott Millan, my new partner who I’ve been teamed up with at our new facility. He handled all the dialogue elements and all the music. I go through and prepare and balance all of the sound effects. So, for example, if a car pans left to right, and all of the balances, how much and how little of all these sounds. I have big crowds, and Scott has individual voices that were recorded to supplement and to give a little more specific definition. And then I have some miscellaneous backgrounds. And I had all the guns. The guns can be the gunshot, but then there’s the hammer of the gun I try to keep separate, and then the bullet whiz-by I keep separate from the impact. Scott goes through and levels all the dialogue, and he balances and gets all of his elements in order and organized and sounding good. I do all that as well to all of the backgrounds, Foley, and hard effects. And then we have all of our pre-dubs that are all panned, the helicopter’s flying around the way that I want it to, all of the panning and equalization of each sound is done, and then we go into the final mix.
But there’s more than just one final mix, right? Considering the different formats?
Well, it’s a good question. This particular film, we just did the five-one [5.1-channel mix] due to the schedule and Sony’s requirements for the timeline that we had. Normally we do a seven-one, and then we’ll do a fold-down to the five-one. I always request that we do the home theater mastering so that we are listening to it on near-field monitors instead of our big mix stage that duplicates a theater. We did the five-one and the two-track print master for home theater. We also did the IMAX, which is a five-0 system, full-range surrounds, point-source, big speakers in the back. I have to say, I did enjoy listening to Skyfall in the IMAX version. Now, mind you, all of the balances are the same. We’re not raising or lowering elements because they have been signed off by Sam Mendes, our director. All of those balances—dialogue, music, and effects—and the relationships throughout the film are very specific to his taste. It truly is “A Sam Mendes Film.” We are looking to facilitate his vision sonically. We just want the movie to translate correctly for each and every format, whether it’s IMAX, home theater, et cetera.
The formats never seem to stop evolving, do they?
There are new things out there in the field. Dolby Atmos is one, and the Barco system, 11.1 is another. I’ve yet to do a movie in Atmos. I believe my first will be this coming year, a movie called Need for Speed.
Skyfall is the first Bond movie you’ve worked on. Are you a fan?
Huge. My dad and I would watch many Bond films together, and so it was a real honor knowing that it’s an iconic franchise. It’s the largest in movie history, this run, this family, this character. And so to have the opportunity to be a part of one was truly an honor.
This was also the first time you’ve worked with Sam Mendes.
My experience with Sam was awesome. Skyfall came to me through Scott Millan, who has mixed all of Sam’s films starting with American Beauty, to Skyfall. Scott approached me several years ago and said, “Sam is doing the new Bond movie and it looks like we’re going to be a part of that.” I couldn’t have been more excited. He’s a brilliant filmmaker, and all of his films have real distinct signature sound to them. He’s a very clever, very bright director and utilizes sound uniquely within a film. Scott had mentioned Sam as probably one of if not his favorite director to work for, for many reasons. He requires you to bring your A game, and he will push you. And I welcome that.
Is working with so many major directors one of the more rewarding parts of your job?
It is. They all bring something unique to the table, and the personalities: They’re big! [laughs] And there’s egos, they run the gamut. But Sam was a true gentleman and respectful of what everyone was doing on his behalf. Yet, he really had a clear picture. But I’m as good of a mixer as these filmmakers have pushed me to be. I’m a better mixer because of Michael Bay, and having to figure out how to manage all of that sound so you can follow it all. You learn so much each time that you just add to your repertoire.
Going over the list of movies you’ve worked on—and what a résumé!—from the biggest of the mega-budget action thrillers, but all the way to girl-friendly romantic comedies, would you say that you have a specialty?
Well, I know how to orchestrate a lot of sounds. So you can have a singular focus throughout and really follow the story and the narrative of a film, even though there’s all this action going on. It’s really creating a film that has an amazing dynamic range that is filled with definition and detail so that it’s not just a wall of mush. I find it to be one of the most gratifying jobs because a filmmaker might be on a film two years, until the point when we are sitting there on that final mix stage. And that movie isn’t alive until the sound is put into that film.