Interviews with creatives, Sound | 23 November 2021
Gilbert Lake on mixing sound to enhance the cinematic experience.
Re-recording mixer interview.
“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”
John Cage, Silence, Lectures and Writings
We all experience sensory stimuli differently — for some the ticking of a clock is calming and reassuring, for others it can be irritating beyond measure. As John Cage said “there is always something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”
According to neuroscientist Dr. Seth Horowitz of Brown University; true silence is non-existent. In “The Universal Sense,” he says “in truly quiet areas you can even hear the sound of air molecules vibrating inside your ear canals or the fluid in your ears themselves.” He explains that humans are good at choosing what they hear, and we often ignore the sounds around us at a conscious level.
We began to consider silence and the sounds that we ignore or take for granted and asked two creatives who work with sound to talk to us about their work and thoughts on the subject. Our interview with Gilbert Lake is below, the other was with Richard Bentley and can be read at the link in resources below.
Interview with Gilbert Lake
In one of two interviews with sound professionals we spoke to Gilbert Lake about his work incorporating the everyday sounds that we take for granted into movie soundtracks to enhance our cinematic experience.
Gilbert has worked in film sound for over 20 years as a sound re-recording mixer. He spoke to us about the sounds we take for granted and how he incorporates them into movie soundtracks to enhance our cinematic experience.
You can view Gilbert’s extensive film biography here.
How did you get started?
I started my career with Dolby Labs in London. Dolby have been responsible for many of the great technical leaps forward in cinema sound. It was a technical role, but I found myself sat alongside lots of the creatives involved in putting together a film’s soundtrack and I realised that my impulse was to be more involved creatively. I took a gamble and quit Dolby for a small role at Peter Jackson’s sound facility in Wellington, New Zealand. Within a few weeks of starting, I was working on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and over the next 10 years worked my way up to mixing sound on films such as “District 9” and “The Hobbit” trilogy.
I moved back to the UK in 2013 and have since been busy as a freelancer, mixing films and getting to work with directors such as Ron Howard, “In the Heart of the Sea;” Tom Ford, “Nocturnal Animals;” Patty Jenkins, “Wonder Woman” and “WW1984;” and Kenneth Branagh, “Death on the Nile.”
What is a re-recorder mixer?
The amount of sound recorded on a film set is limited to some of the actors’ dialogue (usually very noisy!) and everything else is added as the film takes shape in post production. Hundreds of layers of sound are added during the sound edit. Right at the end of the film making process, I sit in a studio with the Director and any other key creatives and balance the layers of added sound to best serve the project’s narrative. Mixes can vary in length from 3 weeks for a low budget film to 14 weeks for a big blockbuster. With some mixes the process is endlessly creative and nuanced and other mixes come down to wrangling a huge amount of sound in a short amount of time and making something exciting and engaging.
“Mixes can vary in length from 3 weeks for a low budget film to 14 weeks for a big blockbuster.”
What sort of films do you work on and what are you most proud of?
One of the joys of doing what I do is that I’m able to work on a diverse range of projects; from small, low budget shorts or documentaries all the way up to some of the biggest blockbusters. I’m proud of “District 9,” the first complex film I’d mixed. There was a real feeling of collective creativity around that soundtrack. More recently the “Mission Impossible” films, “MI5 Rogue Nation” and “MI6 Fallout” are such massive sounding films, with so many moving parts.
Can you describe your creative process?
I’m usually responsible for the “effects” side of the mix; that’s everything that isn’t dialogue and music. I usually take some time to mix and refine the effects on their own before we put all elements, including dialogue and music up against each other and refine the balance scene by scene. We then run the whole film and refine again…and again…and again! The finished mix is built on thousands of ideas and decisions taken as we work. Some directors like to work in microscopic detail frame by frame, and some like to be presented with a polished version of the soundtrack to react to. As a creative headspace it can vary wildly between delivering what you think is creatively the right choice and being asked to deliver to somebody else’s idea of how a scene or a sequence should sound. Being able to keep your mind open to ideas and your ego in check is useful.
How do you get into the zone or boost your creative energy, does it help to like the film?
There’s always something to love about every film! A lot of what we do feels intuitive and built on experience, but I think it’s useful to try and subvert expectations every now and again. I like to keep in mind that we are often asking a lot of the audiences by bombarding them with visual and aural cues. Sometimes simplification is an underrated pursuit in our industry.
“Sometimes simplification is an underrated pursuit in our industry.”
How does your work overlap with sound design?
In terms of sound design, point of view is something I think about lots during a mix — who is hearing what and what is important about what they are hearing. How we design the soundtrack can convey a lot about whose perspective we are experiencing in a given moment and drive the emotional intent of a scene.
At what point do you get involved in the film making process?
Usually my first “hands on” involvement in a film is a temp mix. This is a quickly mixed, roughly shaped blueprint of how the film is going to sound and gets things to a stage where the film can be viewed by an audience to gauge reaction. Some films can go through a number of temp mixes as the cut progresses and these roughly sketched versions build up a really great impression of the overall creative shape of the project. There’s usually a lot of intuitive and reactive mixing, throwing in lots of new sounds as we mix. It’s quite a dynamic process with a really short and hard deadline and lots of opinions!
“The sound mix can be a pretty joyful experience, it gets emotional!”
Is the approach to sound always fully worked out from the start?
The journey from script to finished film varies massively between projects and the role of sound can change as the picture cut develops, or visual effects are reimagined or a composer presents ideas. A big blockbuster can be 99% shot against a green screen with the final visual effects only arriving in the last few days of the mix. We’ve developed modern workflows that have the flexibility to change any aspect of the mix right up until final delivery. Being at the very end of the overall movie making experience has its challenges with budget concerns and deadlines, but it’s also often the point at which a director feels like their film is finding its final form and years of work and endeavour are coming to a conclusion. The sound mix can be a pretty joyful experience, it gets emotional!
How much do the visuals direct the sound or vice versa?
Usually, the starting point for sound is a rough cut of the film or an important sequence. As the edit progresses, sounds are shared with the picture editor and sometimes influence the cut, but it does tend to be sound for picture rather than vice versa.
How does sound effect and enhance the story telling of a film?
I think sound plays a massive role in our emotional engagement with films. Great sound can create completely believable environments and seamlessly shift into an emotional space that tells us what someone is feeling in an impressionistic way. Sound has the power to shock with force in a way that picture rarely can. The number of times I’ve jumped out of my seat during a scary movie because of sound or felt my stomach tighten because the soundtrack is ratcheting up the tension. We have a set of strong responses to sound that are innate survival reflexes as well as empathetic cues, it’s powerful stuff.
“The number of times I've jumped out of my seat during a scary movie because of sound or felt my stomach tighten because the soundtrack is ratcheting up the tension. We have a set of strong responses to sound that are innate survival reflexes as well as empathetic cues, it's powerful stuff.”
Since the pandemic, more people have been watching movies at home, do you have any tips for improving the experience?
It’s very hard to recreate the impact and immediacy of cinema at home but upgrading from built in TV speakers to decent standalone speakers is a great start. It’s amazing how much more information is conveyed to the listener. I think the environment we listen in is also really important. I love watching movies in cosy living spaces where sound reflection is controlled rather than hard echoey spaces where sound becomes more diffused and less direct. It’s tempting at the moment to turn the lights down low and shut the real world out for a little bit.
What does sound mean to you at home?
Our house is often full of sound — listening to music, playing music, listening to the radio, a movie on in one room, kids playing in another, zoom calls and the dog singing along. It makes me appreciate the quiet moments. Lockdown is so revealing about the amount of environmental noise that is normally a constant in our lives. I feel sad that we don’t get to experience life without the sound of the planes travelling overhead and the traffic in the background more often.
We hope these two interviews provided you with new insights on the impact of sounds in our lives, their influence on our wellbeing and how they can improve our sensory experiences. Thanks to Gilbert for taking the time to answer our questions, we really appreciate it!
Best wishes and listen well,
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