Mank sound design Asbjoern Andersen


For Director David Fincher's latest film Mank — now available on Netflix — he's teamed up once again with his long-time collaborator, supervising sound editor Ren Klyce. Here, Klyce shares details on creating an 'old Hollywood' feel by working in mono, adding patina layers of analog equipment hiss and natural 'theater' reverb, and creating a special filter modeled after the original Citizen Kane .
Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of Netflix
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Fight Club, Se7en, The Game, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo , Zodiac, Mindhunter, House of Cards , Panic Room, and the list goes on — these are just some of the amazing projects that Director David Fincher and supervising sound editor Ren Klyce have worked on together.

One of the hallmarks of Fincher’s films is the attention to detail, and Klyce is an apposite candidate to fill that bill sonically. The seven-time Oscar-nominated sound supervisor/sound designer is never short of creative ideas and solutions, as he demonstrates most recently on Mank.

Mank is a biographical drama on how Citizen Kane came to be, who the writers were (Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles), and what the extent of their collaboration was on the film.

Fincher wanted Mank to have an ‘old Hollywood’ feel, so Klyce comes up with a multi-step sonic patina process that includes running the mix through a filter modeled after the sonic shape of the original Citizen Kane film, adding layers of analog film equipment noise and hiss, and adding in natural reverb created by playing the final mix back on a scoring stage and capturing the room bounce.

Here, Klyce shares enlightening and amusing details on how they achieved that patina, the important role of Foley, orchestrating sound effects and music, and so much more!



MANK | Official Trailer | Netflix


MANK | Official Trailer | Netflix

 

You’re back with longtime collaborator director David Fincher, with whom you’ve done a ton of stuff. What was the collaboration like on Mank? Did you have specific goals for sound or did Dir. Fincher just let you have at it?

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Ren Klyce (RK): David had very specific goals for Mank. And in a way, his goals for this film were the most specific that he’s actually ever had, given what it was he was trying to achieve — with the effect of the film as a whole feeling like it came from a different time period. So, yes, David was very much coming into the project with specific thoughts. In fact, the project has been around for so long that we had talked about it on and off over the years. But when it finally came back, he already had a very clear idea in his mind about what the soundtrack should be like.

 

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Obviously, there’s that whole “old Hollywood” look. Did you talk about some sonic tropes to help reaffirm that old film feel?

RK: We sure did. It was interesting because when he was describing what it was he wanted, he was very specific about the emotion that he wanted the audience to have when they were watching this film.

Obviously, the original thought was for him to make a black and white movie and his goal was to have it look and sound and feel like it was actually made in the 30s. He really had this strong desire to have this experience for the audience, and so in addition to the look of a black-and-white film (with the costumes and the period vehicles and the way that everything looks), Fincher wanted it to feel like had actually been made in that same time period with the technology that was available at the time — which is totally different from the technology that we have now with sound.

Fincher wanted to have the sound feel old.

What’s interesting is that the visual quality of film, even in the 30s, was incredible. If you look at any black and white films like Citizen Kane or even color films like Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz, the fidelity of the image is stunning. But unfortunately, the fidelity of the sound was not. The technology was further advanced visually than it was sonically.

Fincher wanted to have the sound feel old. He wanted it to be mono. He wanted it to sound crackly and noisy, and he wanted it to be an experience.

And not only that, but once we arrived at the old-fashioned sound, he also wanted to have another layer added, which was to have the audience have the experience as if they’re sitting in a large theater with an echo of a large theater.

So there were two interesting concepts piled into the direction that he gave us for the sound design.

 

Mank_sound-14.

Interesting! I noticed that about the reverbs, especially on the dialogue. It feels like, even though a scene is happening outside, you can still hear that soundstage bounce, like it’s shot indoors on a stage…

RK: Right! I’m really glad you heard that and registered it because that’s exactly the feeling that David wanted.

You know, when you go to a modern theater it’s smaller, but it’s also soft; there’s carpeting on the floor and the walls are soft, the ceiling is soft, and it’s kind of dead. That’s how it’s designed so that the acoustics of the film, the soundtrack, can speak without being disrupted by room acoustics.

David really wanted to have that feeling of what it was like to go to an old theater and sit there and hear the movie echo against the walls.

But the older theaters were designed with a different aesthetic. They wanted to have this lively echo and bounce because somebody might be in this theater singing. It was the taste of the architecture of the period that created this large echo. And also those theaters were huge. They had balconies and they could hold over two thousand people at a time.

David really wanted to have that feeling of what it was like to go to an old theater and sit there and hear the movie echo against the walls. And we said, ‘Yes, of course. Let’s do it.’

So that was a really interesting task and directive to put on the sound.

 

Mank_sound-11

And for those reverbs, were you able to capture impulse responses from some of the still surviving great old theaters out there? Or, did you choose more analog reverbs that would reflect that certain tone of the sound from that period?

RK: Yeah, we started with impulse responses and digital reverbs and we were originally going to go that route. As we were working on the film, we had to do a lot of tests because David wanted to hear what it was going to sound like earlier on in the project.

As you can imagine, David was doing lighting tests and looking at costume designs he wanted. In every department, there’s a period when you’re testing and making sure that it’s going to be what you want. Similarly, to that end, he wanted to hear some tests, both of this old-timey sound and also of the reverb.

…he wanted to hear some tests, both of this old-timey sound and also of the reverb.

So I started sending him different impulse responses, and then he said to me, ‘What if we actually went into a real movie theater and played back our mix? Once we’re finished with the mix, if we played our final mix back in the real movie theater and recorded the echo, then we could put that echo into the rear surround speakers.’

Fincher even had a specific movie theater in mind. He had mentioned, of course, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre L.A., but since he is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, he mentioned the Northpoint Theatre in San Francisco and he also mentioned the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland. And as we were working on the project, he kind of kept pushing like, ‘Let’s go to the Grand Lake Theater and play back the movie.’

When you’re dealing with a filmmaker who has these desires, of course, you want to execute those asks but inside, I was terrified of this idea of going to the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland and playing the film back because it’s in downtown Oakland. We have played back other films that we’ve worked on in that theater, and it’s a beast of a theater to try to control. The idea of trying to get a pristine recording inside of that theater was a little scary, but we ended up with a better idea, which was to use the Scoring Stage here at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch.

…we ended up with a better idea, which was to use the Scoring Stage here at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch.

It’s a big room and it’s designed to record orchestras, so it has a very high ceiling, hardwood floors, hard walls, hard ceilings. It’s kind of like the acoustic signature of what a professional theater would sound like.

It also has an actual screen on the wall with speakers for playback, so that during a scoring session the orchestra can actually see the film on a large screen.

It ended up being a very lucky situation that we could use that room because it’s also a recording studio so it’s quiet and it allowed us to be very meticulous in setting up the microphones.

We set up a dozen microphones and we started spacing the microphones with some close to the screen, some a little further back, and some even further back — all the way until we got to the rear end of the room.

It was really fun because David was so excited and so was producer Cean Chaffin. They wondered, ‘Are we really going to do this? Or are you going to do it digitally?’ But I told them, ‘No, we’re going to really do it!’

…seeing this film playing in this echoey room, it was like, wow, this thing’s alive! It’s bouncing across the room!

And so at the end of our final mix, we went down to the Scoring Stage after we had set up the microphones and it was so exciting to watch the movie come to life in the way that they wanted. If you can imagine seeing this film playing in this echoey room, it was like, wow, this thing’s alive! It’s bouncing across the room!

We sat on the scoring stage for a while and just sort of soaked it up but then we went into the control room where we could hear the microphones and we started blending the reverb against the dry sound to arrive at what you heard in the final mix.

 

Mank_sound-2

L-R: Jeremy Molod (Supervising Sound Editor), Malcolm Fife (Sound Effects Editor), Jonathon Stevens (Sound Effects Editor), and Ren Klyce (Sound Designer Re-recording mixer)

For the mics capturing this room, did you choose scientific mics, like B&Ks? Or were you picking mics that would color the sound a little bit to make it more mellow?

RK: We used B&K 4011s. We used a variety of microphones: the Royers ribbon mics, the Coles 4038 — which I love; it’s the old Beatles drum microphone. We had a Neumann U47 and a few others. We ended up with a blend of the microphones.

It’s incredible to hear the real sound of that scoring stage. And for our own curiosity, we then listened to the digital reverb. It sounded great, but there was something about hearing the sound actually in the room and capturing that. We really noticed that it was different. It was a great experiment. It was a great opportunity to do that and to be allowed the time to do it. It was a real luxury to be able to do that.

 

That’s awesome that you were able to deliver on this big request…

RK: I know! I was just glad that we didn’t have to go to the Grand Theater in Oakland and have it become a complete disaster with trucks driving by and people slamming doors. I was just happy we didn’t have to go with that.


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Going back to the sounds themselves having that old film feel, did you ‘dirty up’ your modern-day recordings? Did you run them through an analog tape machine first or use a tape emulator?

RK: We did. And it was a really interesting process because one of the first things I thought was let’s go to analog tape. So we fired up the old mag SONDOR recorder and it sounded too good, if you know what I mean.

So we thought, well, let’s go down several generations. Let’s record it. Then re-record it again. And we went down three generations. And it started to get that warm analog quality, but it still wasn’t dramatic enough. I showed Fincher some of those tests and he was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not getting it. I’m not getting that emotion from this.’

So we fired up the old mag SONDOR recorder and it sounded too good, if you know what I mean.

So I said, ‘Let’s try turning off the noise reduction.’ And when we tried that it was actually very eye-opening because we were able to hear the hiss, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is cool. I haven’t heard this in a long time!’

It was still too clean, however, so then we did the three generations like before but without the noise reduction. And I played that for David and he said, ‘Yeah, it still doesn’t have that quality I’m looking for.’

But the one takeaway was that we now have a nice library of hiss, as you can imagine. So even though that was a bust, we did get the hiss as a sound and that hiss from the analog mag recorder was one of the elements that we actually added back into the mix. So that was kind of a bonus.

Actually, that hiss prompted a thought, which was what if we just fire up some old 35mm film and listen to the dead spaces between a movie soundtrack, and also listen to the motor of the K-E-M we used for playback of the 35mm film. So we captured that sound. It’s like a whirring sound of the motor and also another type of noise that came off of the optical track.

We have some films that had big silent sections and we could hear the hiss, crackle, and warble sounds. So that was another sound that we added.

But those are just noises, which are great and they’re actually the finishing touch, but the main body of the sound was largely a filter that was modeled after the frequency response of Citizen Kane.

We ran the soundtrack of ‘Citizen Kane’ through a spectrum analyzer…

We ran the soundtrack of Citizen Kane through a spectrum analyzer and started to realize that there was nothing below 110 Hz with all these strange bumps in the mid-range at 2 kHz and 4 kHz and all these little dips here and there, and then a dramatic drop off at around 5 kHz, but that didn’t go all the way out. There would be frequencies at a very low level, out to maybe 12 kHz.

So we then took that shape of Citizen Kane and then made an inverse filter of it. We started to play with the high-end cut offs and the low-pass and high-pass filter. We tweaked that, and it was very interesting because we’d get a setting that was great on dialog but wasn’t good on music. Or, we’d get a setting that was great on sound effects but wasn’t great on Foley. We realized that each food group in terms of our stems had to have their own slightly similar, but slightly different filter and process that was added to them.

So we then took that shape of ‘Citizen Kane’ and then made an inverse filter of it.

And then lastly, getting back to wanting to have a little bit of distortion, we found an analog tape emulation plug-in. We had tried a bunch of different ones and we ended up one that we really liked, where you could simulate running the tape at 7 1/2 inches per second and then changing the bias would create a little bit of distortion, particularly in the dialog. So that was kind of a nice little sound that was never quite the same. But depending on who would speak, it would over-modulate or sound crunchy. So that was sort of the other sound that we arrived at.

We added to that sound the tape hiss I mentioned earlier and the 35mm crackle and motor noise. That was sort of the combination that we ended up with for the final mix patina.

 

[tweet_box]Making Mank’s Vintage Hollywood-Magic Sound – with Ren Klyce[/tweet_box]

That’s awesome! What was the tape emulator plug-in that you ended up going with?

RK: Well, for the equalization curve to emulate the sonic shape of Citizen Kane, we used a FabFilter EQ.

Then we used this plug-in from Waves called Kramer Master Tape. It took awhile to actually find this one. We went through all sorts of different tape emulation programs, and there’s one that Waves makes that’s modeled from Abbey Road, the J37 Tape Saturation plug-in, but it was a little too sharp sounding. And the Kramer had a softer sound. The J37 was a little too pristine. Also, with the Kramer you could dial-in a little bit more distortion, and that was (for our ears) a little more pleasing.

 

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Old Hollywood films were typically dialog and music-driven, with a few effects and Foley here and there. But I noticed that on Mank you took some design liberties and didn’t strictly follow that ‘old Hollywood’ convention because you used a lot of Foley in Mank

RK: We sure did. It was so funny because when we were budgeting the film. Our producer, Peter Mavromates — whom we’ve worked with for years — knows what our sound team goes through in all the departments with ambience, hard effects and Foley. And David Fincher is very specific about all of those, and most notably Foley. He gets very tuned-in to Foley in a way that’s great, but we get a lot of notes from David, as you can imagine — as everything else does.

Peter [Mavromates] said, ‘…this movie won’t have any Foley in it, because David wants it to sound like an old fashioned movie.’

But it was so funny because Peter [Mavromates] said, ‘Well, this will be great because this movie won’t have any Foley in it, because David wants it to sound like an old fashioned movie.’ And I said, ‘You think that’s going to happen? Because we know David and he’s going to want a lot of Foley!’

John Roesch, Shelley Roden are the Foley artists and Scott Curtis was the Foley mixer; we’ve been working with them for years. They really got into it, and it was great to see their work in the forefront because oftentimes Foley is the forgotten element or the element that doesn’t get appreciated. but it’s such an important element in the soundtrack. So it was great to have so much focus, from Fincher himself, put on the Foley.

We wanted to create the…difference between the wealthy world of William Randolph Hearst’s environment and the dried-up, deserted, lonely atmosphere of Victorville…

We wanted to create the dynamic range and sonic difference between the wealthy world of William Randolph Hearst’s environment and the dried-up, deserted, lonely atmosphere of Victorville, where Mank’s character is writing a screenplay — just emphasizing the differences of those two worlds in terms of Foley and, of course, sound effects. We started to realize we could push on the sound of opulence and extravagance, with beautiful stone floors and cutlery and the finest crystal champagne glasses being handled versus Victorville’s very decayed screen door and creaky wooden floors.

The creaky wooden floors became a big issue and they ended up being Foley and effects. John and Shelley, of course, have their own method of making creaky floors, which is fabulous, but then David wanted to push that more. So that ended up being a combination of sound effects and Foley. Sound effects had to overlay Foley and we built a very specific library of floor creaks for Victorville.

That was a lot of work because every time there was someone walking, David would want a creak. Rita’s character is walking down the hallway or John Houseman’s character comes in and we know it’s going to be a creak fest.

 

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There’s a scene near the beginning of the film where we visit Paramount Studios. The pace of the music there has this fun, jaunty, 30s feel — a bit jazz and a bit swing. I loved the way that the effects also mirror that jaunty feel. Can you tell me about how you used the music score there to orchestrate the pace of the sound effects?

RK: Sure. Charlie Lederer’s character gets a telegram and he holds it up and reads it and when he puts it down, you see Hollywood hills and you’re on the backlot. The music that’s playing is a really fun piece that composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross came up with early on — It had been living in the off-line edit for a while.

The music that’s playing is a really fun piece that composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross came up with early on…

When they were writing and showing David different possible pieces of music, they came up with this really great big band sound with the horns and drums and the high hats and this walking bass that was really the playful energy underneath all the sound effects that we had.

But what ended up happening was David got so excited about the set piece that he wanted everything to be playing. He wanted to hear this bunch of actors walking by and women laughing. There’s a guy cleaning a tiger cage and you can hear the tiger growl. You can hear this giant backdrop rolling by on its casters and wheels. People are walking and walla. There are stage bells ringing close and far and motors of trucks backing up. All of that adds to a really exciting soundscape, but the unfortunate part of it was that it was very much competing with the music.

David came up with this idea to have a typewriter in the music.

It was hard because while you’re mixing a film where you have the full frequency spectrum, all of the high-frequency sounds, like musical sounds, really speak much more clearly in the mix. But when you filter off all the high frequencies and you filter out all the low frequencies, you’re left with a very narrow window that all the sounds and the sound effects and all the musical sounds have to fit into. So it’s a very narrow pipe, if you will.

And so, David came up with this idea to have a typewriter in the music. He sent an email to Trent and Atticus and he referenced a piece of music by composer Leroy Anderson that had a typewriter playing on top of an orchestra and it was really fun.

We were excited about this idea, and Trent came up with the perfect typewriter sound. In the end you hear a typewriter playing in perfect rhythm with the music.

The one casualty of that sequence was the high hat in the music. I remember sending Atticus some rough mixes and Atticus was upset that he couldn’t hear the high hat anymore. So we took the liberty to equalize and brighten the high hat so it speaks more. There are moments where we cheat a bit — expanding beyond the Citizen Kane filter ‘rule.’ We made the choice in a few places to widen the frequency range for the sake of clarity.

 

Mank_sound-18

The effects just worked so well with the music at that point. It was almost like the sound effects were the lyrics of the track…

RK: That’s a nice thought! The shot continues into the bathroom and Fincher wanted a ridiculous echo on the dialog, and on the toilet flushing and hands washing. He wanted more and more reverb and we were worried we were not going to be able to understand what the actors were saying. But David didn’t care because it was more about the excitement for him. Then we come out of the bathroom and go into the steno-pool, and that’s where the Reznor / Ross typewriter crossfades into the sound effects typewriters. You see all the women in the steno-pool, typing away before we go into the writer’s room. Thanks for calling out that sequence.

 

It was beautifully orchestrated. You did such a great job on the sound!

RK: Well I’m glad you like it!

 

Mank_sound-4

There is another scene shortly after that, where Mank wakes up one Saturday morning and he strolls outside onto the set of Hearst’s ‘home movie’ with Marion Davies. I love the way you made Hearst’s backyard feel like this active, lively movie set of the 30s. One thing, in particular, caught my ear. The horses on-set are trotting past and they just have this classic Western sound — with really dusty, dirty hooves on loose gravel/sand and the horse neigh. It was quintessential, old Western horses….

RK: It’s so funny because there was so much going on in that sequence. I’m glad you noticed that sound and there’s this other one too, this sort of politically incorrect sound of Indians yelling that, of course, was perfectly acceptable back then and often heard in cowboy films. So, that sound is in there too.

Mank_sound-19

You also hear the AD yelling, ‘OK, next set up!’ You hear the arc lights. David got obsessed with the arc lights. He wanted to hear the buzz of a lot of amps going through those massive lights.

That was an interesting sequence, and what was fun for us, by the way, just as an aside, was that, in addition to all the sound effects, David is actually painting with his visual effects team all sorts of beautiful details in the picture, like all the clouds, all the lens flares, all the smoke that’s happening on set — he and his visual effects team added that.

It was great for us because we responded to that with the sound effects. For instance, the camera car in which William Randolph Hearst’s character is sitting and directing, David wanted to make it sound like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with this really funky, one-cylinder motor. And so, it was a lot of fun detail.

Mank_sound-21

In the beginning, when Mank comes out and has no clue as to where he is, he meets L.B. Mayer. Where they’re sitting, there’s an old Victrola playing. And that’s original music that’s playing, that Atticus and Trent composed. David wanted it to sound warbly. He said the music sounded too perfect. He wanted it to sound like it’s going up and down and making him seasick. So we added a little effect on the music, and that was fun to create as well.

Then, of course, you hear Marion Davies screaming…

 

And what a great scream that was! Was that actually her scream? Was it from set? Or did you record ADR?

RK: That’s her. And that’s a really good question. You just reminded me of another obsession that Fincher had, which was that he wanted that scream to be distorted.

It was a little science project.

He wanted it to be distorted…to the point where it was just so unpleasant.

He wanted it to be distorted and we started to overdrive this sound file and it wasn’t enough and so we ended up having to run that sound through some old analog equipment and just distort it to the point where it was just so unpleasant. And David wanted us to make it more unpleasant, and more unpleasant…

David Parker (who was mixing dialog and is our guru of sound) is always the conscience of the team. He’s like, ‘You know, this is really lousy-sounding. Are you sure you want it to sound like this?’ And it was really very sweet to see him being so concerned. He was like, ‘You sure you want it to be this distorted?’

And Fincher replied, ‘Absolutely. In fact, now that you said that, let’s make it even more distorted.’ Which is Fincher’s way of saying, ‘Don’t tell me what I don’t like.’

And of course, David Parker was like, ‘Why did I even open my mouth?’

But it was all in good fun!

 

Mank_sound-1

Ren, I can only guess at some of the things you’ve done in this film. Tell me, what was unique about this experience for you? What stood out for you in terms of sound?

RK: What was great about this project was that our whole team really was super excited about being on another Fincher project. Having this challenge of creating a mono soundtrack, and having it sound old-fashioned was exciting. It was a great opportunity to revisit some of the sounds that we love to record, like old-fashioned vehicles. We had an opportunity to record the cars, the old-fashioned typewriters, the telephones, and, of course, distorting the dialog was all a lot of fun.

One thing that was very interesting for us was that, at the very end of the film, the Oscar gets announced at the Biltmore and instead of showing the image of Orson Welles in Brazil — which David filmed, and there’s footage of that sequence — he decided to have this interesting concept of a radio broadcast. Since Orson Welles came from radio and since the end of the film is not about Welles, David made a very bold decision to go completely black on the screen and just have this broadcast.

David made a very bold decision to go completely black on the screen and just have this broadcast.

That was scary because it had to lean completely on the sound and David wanted that sequence to feel like it was sort of captured at some press conference in Brazil, at a hotel, and everybody sick and coughing. You can hear people who didn’t arrive on time coming in and also Welles sitting in the chair, leaning forward and speaking into the microphone as he’s delivering his snarky line, ‘You can kiss my half.’ There are people laughing and cameras snapping photos. So that sequence actually ended up being a really difficult sequence.

The challenge was to make it feel as if it was a vintage recording. And the crazy part was we finally got it and I had done a pass for David when we were doing a temp mix. It took a while to get to the point where he was like, ‘OK, this is good.’

So we thought, great, we’ve got all the pieces and we’ve got our processing (how we’re going to futz everything). So we finished it and then somehow David found an actual transcript of that recording in Brazil, where Orson Welles said all these lines, and when we compared it to what Kirk Baxter (picture editor) had cut, the order of the dialog was not quite correct for some of the lines and David wanted the words exactly right.

So imagine getting something finished that was really difficult, and then someone saying we’re going to have to completely redo it.

David, being the purist that he is, said, ‘Oh, no, we have to redo all of this because it’s not exactly what’s in the transcript.’

So imagine getting something finished that was really difficult, and then someone saying we’re going to have to completely redo it. Of course, you have to have a really good attitude of ‘let’s do it!’ but inside, I was dying a little bit.

It was interesting for us to work on because when the picture goes away, it’s all sound. And David said, ‘OK, I want to hear more men coughing, OK, more women talking. I want to hear Orson Welles walk away and I want to hear this attitude and this step,’ and so on and so forth. And so it became this piece of sound that we worked on for quite some time.

 

Mank_sound-12

Meanwhile, the mics of that day would have probably just picked up his voice and not everything else in the room…

RK: Yeah. And also, we wanted it to sound sort of spontaneous. If you revisit that sequence, there’s a reporter that goes, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Welles, Mr. Welles! Even though Citizen Kane got nine nominations, you only won one.’

…we can’t make it sound perfect so how should we make it sound kind of sloppy and messy?

And so we had to record this actor saying those lines but we also had to figure out a way to make it sound like it wasn’t perfectly recorded, to make it seem like the microphone was pointed in the wrong direction and then as this guy starts to speak, somebody realizes, ‘Oh, shoot! We have to get that guy speaking.’ And then they turn the microphone in the guy’s direction. And then they realize, ‘Oh, it’s not loud enough! I have to turn up the gain!’

So all of that was a lot of fun to think about — we can’t make it sound perfect so how should we make it sound kind of sloppy and messy? Often, when you’re doing sound, you always want to make things sound as good as we can. But what made this piece sound so good was that it was sloppy and messy. That was the fun part.

 

Let’s talk about the mixing again. You had mentioned building a mono soundtrack, but then putting the room bounce from the Scoring Stage in the rear speakers. So tell me about the final mix. How did you bring it all together?

RK: There’s a little bit of history of how we arrived at this process.

Early on, when David was filming every day and sitting with Kirk on the weekends, cutting the film, David wanted to get the experience of the sound really early on. And that presented a little bit of a problem because David at first said, ‘Well, what if we have our production sound mixer Drew Kunin make a shitty mix and record the sound that way so that when it goes into the Avid it’ll already have that sound to it.’

 

Mank_sound-15

And you talked him out of that, right? Because shitty production sound is never a good place to start…

RK: That’s never a good place to start.

But we knew that we needed to satisfy David’s wish to hear it that way, none the less. So we came up with a way of bolting this filter that was modeled after Citizen Kane onto the output of Kirk’s Adobe Premiere, but it wasn’t quite finessed. It was a little too extreme, but it gave David what it was that he needed to hear.

…we came up with a way of bolting this filter that was modeled after ‘Citizen Kane’ onto the output of Kirk’s Adobe Premiere…

So as they were cutting the picture, they ran everything through this filter but they were using Drew’s mix track. (Ultimately, we wanted to pull all the microphones from Drew’s multitrack and then massage each actor’s lines and balance them and EQ each one. But the mixed track is a perfectly great way to cut for Kirk, particularly because it’s a mono track. He can cut quickly and then our dialog department can fix the problems later.) So, in all of this, what happened was that some characters were clear, but other characters were not clear — specifically, Gary Oldman playing Mank because Gary was one of the few characters that was speaking softly. He was mumbling at times. He was drunk and slurring his words. So, running that through a muddled filter just made it really difficult to hear what he was saying.

David hears everything because he knows the dialog. But every once in a while he would call and say, ‘I’m really worried that we’re going to have to loop everything because people are coming in here during our friends and family screenings and they’re having trouble hearing what Gary is saying and I’m really concerned about it.’

I said, ‘Yes, sure, I understand and we’ve got to fix this.’

So when it came down to doing the temp mix, we decided that it was most important to know what we had so let’s turn off this filter and let’s mix the film to the best fidelity possible and let’s see if people can understand the dialog or let’s see if people who are watching the film with David are still having the same issue, because if they are, then we do need to do ADR. David was reluctant to do that because he didn’t want to have the film sound pristine. But he understood the logic to that approach.

Now we knew where we’d have to be careful. And that educated us on how to dodge and burn each character’s EQ when we were doing it later.

What was good about doing this is that we got a sense of, oh, wow, that’s what he’s saying right there. Now we knew where we’d have to be careful. And that educated us on how to dodge and burn each character’s EQ when we were doing it later.

But we then realized that we needed to mix the entire movie without the patina first. And David was not happy about that at first. He asked, ‘Why are we mixing it with full quality audio, with full-spectrum sound, because we’re not going to be doing that in the end. And this seems like an unnecessary step.’

I said to him, ‘Well, the only problem is that we still need to know what it is that we’re listening to, David, because if we were listening to this muffled sound for nine and 10 hours a day, day after day, week after week, well it’s going to be fatiguing for our ears and it’s also going to be confusing for us. I think it’s better for us to mix the film as cleanly as possible and then get all the levels right, then all the music to a place you like, the sound effects, the Foley, and make it sound great. Then we can patina that.’

Once he was on board with that, we came up with the idea of creating more stems than what we would typically create. We ended up creating nine stems: two music stems, dialog stem, loop group stem, ambience stem, hard effects stem, Foley footsteps, props, and then a track of the noise itself (the optical noise). That way we could have individual control, but we had gone through the task of making the creative decisions of making those stems. In that way, it would help David focus on the patina rather than swapping a line or changing this music cue. So that process took a while.

…it would help David focus on the patina rather than swapping a line or changing this music cue.

Because we introduced that, we’d added several more weeks to our mixing schedule. Once we had these nine stems then we applied the various patina effects to each stem and arrived at a coloring. David was present at every moment for that.

What was interesting is that some of the dialog was really hard to understand. Mank was hard. Also, the character of L.B. Meyer, for whatever reason, his voice sounded terrible going through the patina, and we just don’t know why.

Marion Davies sounded great. And then L.B. Meyer just sounded muffled and terrible. That’s why we started to craft every line and we had to make these decisions like: that line needs to be more distorted, but that line is too distorted. So that took some time to go through.

Marion Davies sounded great. And then L.B. Meyer just sounded muffled and terrible. That’s why we started to craft every line…

Once we arrived at that, we made an LCR mix, ( although it’s largely mono) but David wanted to give Trent and Atticus their own sonic spread on the screen, so the music is spread left and right. And we say it’s mono because the body of the film is mono but, in truth, the music spreads out into the left and right.

That LCR recording is what we then played back in the Scoring Stage for the echo that I mentioned earlier.

So, as you can imagine, it was a process. We were afraid of getting so far down the road and then David wanting to unravel the sweater, and not being able to do it. We were making decisions as we went, and at a certain point, we’re done making those types of decisions. But no filmmaker wants to be told that they are done making a decision. They want to be able to be creative the whole way through. So we arrived at the idea of making more stems. And that’s why we ended up with nine stems. And, of course, I said to David, ‘If there’s something that you really need to unravel, we’ll unravel it. We’ll go back to the final mix and we’ll fix it and then go back to the patina at the end.’

Mank_sound-6

We ended up doing that on a few instances, with Foley, if you can imagine! There’s a moment where Mank is he’s giving his drunken speech at Hearst’s dinner party/costume party and everybody is feeling uncomfortable. And Mank says, ‘It’s a modern-day version of Quixote!’ And he yells ‘Quixote!’ so loud that his voice fills San Simeon. The echo of San Simeon and Mank’s voice goes all the way to the end of the building and then comes back, and then Mank goes, ‘Whoa, I can hear my echo.’

And because he can hear his echo, he turns his whole body around to look. And that foot turn, for David, wasn’t right. He wanted to rework that. And Nathan Nance, who was mixing sound effects, looked at me like, ‘Oh, no, we’re going to start unraveling this sweater.’

And that happened on a few other instances and we’re like, ‘Oh, please, please, let’s not unravel this sweater.’ But, of course, we did in a few places, and in the end, it was fine.

So we had a lot of moments where we would stop and go back to doing Foley or sound effects and dialog — a lot of dialog pitching. David got very into the pitch shifting capability and how that would make him feel, emotionally, for some of the characters — most notably for Orson Welles character. There was some concern from David that his voice wasn’t rich and deep enough and so we got into the weeds with pitch-shifting specific words for Orson Welles so that his voice would sound more authoritative, like, ‘It’s a shootout at the OK Corral.’ Welles needed to sound like that on ‘Do you have something you want to get off your chest, Mank?’ and ‘So here’s what the studio is willing to do,’ for instance.

Mank_sound-9

So on all those little words, David really wanted to give Orson Welles’ character some punch. He’s only 24 but David wanted the audience to feel that Orson could still command Mank even though Mank was more than 20 years his senior.

There were a lot of subtle details like that and so our dialog editor Kim Foscato was in pitch shifting Serato mode on every line. Which is great! David would ask, ‘Can we pitch that one line down?’ And so there are a lot of moments like that too. We were in the weeds…just as we’re in the weeds with this conversation!

 

I’ve enjoyed all the wonderful details. Thank you so much for sharing your time and your story with me!

RK: Thanks for the detailed questions!

A big thanks to Ren Klyce for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the sound of Mank and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!

 

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