Remember when the silent film era ended and talkies started being made? (Just humor us for a sec and pretend you’re 100 years old.) That was when the Production Sound Mixer was born. (And, if we’re being honest, about 70 years before you were born.)
In Hollywood, the talent gets most of the love. That is, actors, and to a much lesser extent, writers and directors. From a producer’s perspective, to get the big fat studio to write you a big fat check so you can make the movie you’ve dreamt of making, it’s all about what superstars you can get to sign on to your picture, and what big shot director you can have attached to the project. However, aside from the major studio films where name talent reigns supreme, just about anyone in the industry will tell you that sound is one of the most critical elements of a successful product. If the color is a bit off, that can be a wee bit distracting. If the acting is poor, it may get slammed by the critics, but that’s never stopped Michael Bay from turning a profit. However, if the sound is bad, it’s over. Nothing is more noticeable to your everyday moviegoer than quiet or muffled audio, unsynched or unrealistic effects, etc. Without sound editors and mixers, the noisiest thing in the theater would be the crickets.
Production sound mixers, or sound recordists, are the guys who are responsible for recording on set all audio and effects that are to be used in a film or television program. They have to check levels while sound is being recorded, alert the director if there is any interference, keep track of and take care of all of the sound equipment, and dole out responsibilities to everyone else on the production sound team. He determines what types of microphones to use in any given scenario and where they should ideally be positioned.
These are different than sound editors (the distinction of which often causes big problems for people who are filling out their Oscar ballots), whose job it is to create on a digital audio workstation the supplementary effects and music that need to be added to the final product. It is up to them to determine which audio tracks (recorded by the production sound mixer) are clearest and feature the strongest acting (along with some input from the director), piece together new sounds that need to be added from an audio library, and insert music throughout to provoke certain emotions or to set a scene.
Once all of the sound that is to be used is assembled, it is often passed along to a post-production house (to someone sometimes also referred to as a sound mixer – how’s that for confusing?) that finalizes and mixes everything together by adjusting levels and otherwise manipulating all of the collected sound on an audio mixer or soundboard. The music is drowning out the dialogue in this scene? The mixer brings those levels down. Too much white noise in between two characters’ lines? They make this adjustment as well. The mixer also encodes the sound to different channels, which allows a movie theater to have varying parts of the soundtrack emitted from different speakers. This can create the illusion that there is a plane flying right over your head, or a monster letting out a blood-curdling scream just off to your left, or a teacher running his fingernails down a chalkboard. Hopefully this one is as far away from you as possible. You’ll take your chances with the monster.
None of these should be confused with a cement mixer, which is there long before the studio is even built. Unfortunately, even though it is responsible for the very foundation of the film, it rarely gets a credit.
You may love the idea of hanging out on a film set all day, but many sound mixers are over it pretty quickly. The hours are long and unpredictable, the work can be grueling, and the personalities you have to deal with may tempt you to smite someone down with a boom mic. But you can’t do it. Because that’s some expensive equipment.
Because production sound mixers jump around from project to project, there is a union (Local 695) that provides protection and security for Production Sound Technicians, as well as Video, Projection and Television Broadcast Engineers. The union will help you negotiate the wages you deserve, and keep you from being exploited by any shady producers. They’ll also hook you up with a pension and health plan. They’ll even pick you up from work when your car has broken down, but only if you ask very nicely.
Hmm… how safe could it have been, really?
As a freelancer, you’ll have to do plenty of networking and self-marketing to make people in the industry aware of you. Once you’ve been trusted to work on a couple of projects (you may have to start with smaller films, or work your way up from mic operator), your connections will help you find new (and hopefully better) opportunities as your career progresses. You will usually be hired by the producer of a film, who will then coordinate with you to assemble the rest of your sound team. And you can’t just pick up a conch shell and yell into it, “Sound team… assemble!” That only works in the movies.
If you’re a technical, electronic genius type, you’ve got the patience of a saint and the work ethic of a pack mule, and you’ve got a sense of hearing that is so well-developed you can hear a pin drop (in a bowling alley), then your life could have production sound mixer written all over it. Don’t worry – somebody should be by in a minute to wipe that down.