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.
And is Blu-ray a worthy vessel for your work?
It’s extraordinary. Right from the beginning when five-one was capable in the home, and people no longer had to listen to an LT/RT two-track and could listen to a discrete 5.1 mix in the home, that by itself was incredible. A filmmaker puts together a team to create this particular movie, and he goes through such painstaking efforts with the cinematographer and lighting and then color correcting and all of the things picture-wise to make it perfect. And what he wants is that everyone gets to view it and hear it just that way. And that is what I think Blu-ray really does for all the viewing audiences throughout the world.
Skyfall is hitting Blu-ray Disc right now: What are some of the highlights that viewers should be listening out for?
Oh, wow. There’s many, but the opening sequence of the film, it’s a fantastic chase sequence through Istanbul. People have applauded, it’s just that intense. And there’s a sequence in Shanghai. The first sequence is big and bold. Now, we’re in a very “stealth” mode in Shanghai, and so it’s one of the most stunning sequences, on behalf of Roger Deakins, our cinematographer. This particular sequence is very score driven. Music is a big player in the movie. The assassin is cutting this hole in the glass, they’re up like 59 stories in a building, and that particular, singular wind that you heard was not the original. Sam wanted to review several options, and the editorial team gave me I believe like six sounds, different winds, different notes, different whistles. And when I got to that one, he said, “Yep, that’s the one.” Then we had to build the moment when the glass completely breaks and they’re completely exposed. Now that has to fill the theater, fill the room, and there’s wind in the surrounds.
This is Home Theater, so I have to tell you that the explosions were some of the best that I’ve heard in a really long time. They were just so sharp and so big!
[laughs] Thank you! If you look at my résumé, I’ve had my share of experience with explosions. These, though, we wanted these to be really organic and feel a depth. [With the explosion at] the MI6 building, we wanted to surprise you. We could have played the background sounds more realistic to what it should have been, but it would have raised the sound floor up, you know, 5, 6, 8 decibels. Remember: dynamics, definition, and detail. Dynamics, this isn’t the loudest explosion, but the depth and the richness of it—I deliberately manipulated all of the sound prior to the impact of that explosion. I’m pulling everything down. And then the explosion pops, and comes from nothing. One of the things that we certainly did in this movie was to really be dramatic and bold.
It was dark in the theater, but I’m pretty sure my wife gasped at that point.
That was exactly the reaction that we hoped for.
You mentioned Michael Bay. I should tell you—actually, I should be thanking you—I have used so many of your movies to test gear over the years.
Do you have a home theater rig you’re pretty happy with?
I do. I have a brand-new Denon receiver that does seven-one and all of that. I have B&W speakers in my LCR and all my surrounds, 805s everywhere. Love ’em. I’ve got 200-watt Aragon amps on every channel. The thing for me is translation. What I want to do in my home theater is I want to take something I know is the way we made it, to bring it home and sound the same. You know what I mean?
And we’re just getting some new theater seats, five in the back, four in the front, and the theater’s going to have a really nice look to it. We’ve got a 110-inch Stewart screen and the Sony VPL-VW200 projector, 1080p. It looks great, sounds great, and it’s nice to be able to sit with the family. Certainly the high-octane things are fun, but my wife is in the theater right now watching Anna Karenina.
It just dawned on me, you’re one of the few people I know who can take his work home with him and actually enjoy it.
Hey, I’ve had the opportunity to play in the sandbox of sound for a long, long time with some really extraordinary people. I still dig it. I’m a young 53, and I think if I were to teach my daughter any one significant thing, it’s to find something you’re passionate about, that you truly, truly enjoy to do.
Picks of the Mix
A few of Greg P. Russell’s greatest hits, referenced by the man himself.
Pearl Harbor (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment)
“I love the attack scene in Pearl Harbor,” Russell says. We do, too. In fact, when describing the disc and its soundtrack years ago in the pages of HT, I said, “Pearl Harbor’s spectacular battle sequences, presented in first-rate THX-certified DTS/Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, call your home theater to arms.” I love quoting myself.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Paramount, also on Blu-ray 3D)
For this second robots-in-disguise sequel, Russell created a spectacular 7.1-channel complement to a wildly original action sequence. “In Dark of the Moon, the driller coming through the building and toppling it over is a pretty incredible experience. And them sliding at the top of the building and down into the building and almost out of the building, et cetera. Pretty exciting Michael Bay sequence to say the least. I think that particular sequence also utilized the most memory in the history of Industrial Light & Magic because the processing for all those VFX was the most ever done.”
And of course…
In Act III, James Bond’s boyhood home is raided from above. “The end of the movie, and that helicopter pinning him in that house, Sam wanted him to feel trapped. We wanted that helicopter to be huge, and we wanted the barrage that he’s faced with to be an assault, but not sonically. All of these big, dynamic moments, but one of the things I strive for is top-end management. There are many elements in a movie that can be very shrill and very harsh and not aurally soothing. Women are very, very sensitive to high frequencies. So if I’m sitting there playing a lot of glass and equalizing this extreme top end and rounding that and gently caressing those frequencies, as I do with compressors as well as equalization and filters, I can be big and bold and not hurt your ears.” —Chris Chiarella