How's it all done? In this new A Sound Effect interview, Oscar-winning supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Skip Lievsay discusses the sound team's approach to editing the effects, putting the music in the scenes, and then showcasing all those sonic details in the mix:
Written by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of Netflix
If you’re a fan of the Coen brothers — makers of Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Inside Llewyn Davis, and much more! — then you have to see their Western called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, available on Netflix. It’s everything you love about Coen brothers’ films. It’s quirky, well-written, and populated by captivating characters. And since it’s a Western, they have fun with genre tropes, like cowboy shootouts and bar brawls, wagon trains, and traveling shows.
But my favorite part of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the sound! Each section of this six-part anthology features rich Foley details, rhythmic sound elements, and sound effects-driven sequences that really shine in the mix.
Oscar-winning supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Skip Lievsay at Warner Bros. Sound handled the dialogue, ADR, and music while co-supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Craig Berkey tackled the effects. They were joined by Oscar-winning re-recording mixer Greg Orloff at Sony Studios in Los Angeles for the final mix.
Here, Lievsay discusses their approach to editing the effects, putting the music in the scenes, and then showcasing (not burying!) all those sonic details in the mix.
Skip Lievsay (SL): Joel and Ethan [Coen] really like sound effects. They like things to sound big and bold and realistic. In particular, in the Western format, they’re into the big ‘horse opera,’ as we call it. That direction comes from them from the very beginning.
What were the directors’ goals for sound on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs? How did they want to use sound to help tell this story?
SL: They were interested in the classic Western movie sound. We’ve done a few together before, like No Country for Old Men, True Grit, and also a little bit in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. It’s the same for all their movies really; they like bold sound effects. They don’t want to fool around. We all basically have the same philosophy of “let’s play it and if it’s not helping then let’s take it out.” We don’t have many subtle or non-assertive sound effects and Foley. That’s something that we’ve been doing for all 18 movies.
Some of these skits have a comedic element to them. How did that factor into your approach to the sound?
We have a number of running jokes that are in every movie and they’re sort of for us. If other people get them, that’s great but it’s a bit of a secret.
SL: We tried to do some funny gags. We always have some jokes. For instance, in Barton Fink (1991), there’s a door whooshing sound that started as a joke but we ended up putting it throughout the film. It started off as a gag that Barton Fink’s hotel room was hermetically sealed and so when he opened the door you could hear the air rush in. We put the sound in there when we first started working on the film just as a joke and then when it wasn’t there we missed it. So we eventually put it on the door anytime someone went in or out of Barton Fink’s hotel room. It was a joke but it also worked as a sound effect component to reinforce the idea that the hotel room was very isolated. We became very attached to it. That joke stayed in the movie. We have a number of running jokes that are in every movie and they’re sort of for us. If other people get them, that’s great but it’s a bit of a secret.
The Coen brothers enjoy the process of creating a soundtrack and they enjoy hanging around with us, making fun of stuff. None of that is meant to be front and center for the audience. Some people get it and some have commented on blogs about it. But it’s not meant to be distracting or overt.
One thing I’ve noticed about the Coen brothers’ films is the timing of the effects, whether they’re in rhythm with music or just played on their own. For instance, in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” story, the shootout sequences inside the saloon and out on the street have great timing. How are these rhythmic elements crafted?
SL: Joel and Ethan are very musically inclined, as you can see from their movies and from their collaboration with composer Carter Burwell. Joel and Ethan are also editors and so they create those rhythms in editorial as well. Then, we all dip from the same well where we feel the musical aspect of the edit — whether there’s music playing or just playing in our heads. All of that comes from Joel and Ethan of course. When we get the movie to work on, we’re following their lead. In most cases, those rhythms are already established in the edit.
Outside the bank you hear a creaking rope sound that’s revealed to be a bucket hanging above a well. That is later reprised for the hangman’s noose at the end of the story.
One of the rhythmic elements in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an homage to Sergio Leone. In the “Near Algodones” story, outside the bank you hear a creaking rope sound that’s revealed to be a bucket hanging above a well. That is later reprised for the hangman’s noose at the end of the story. Those are all elaborate, rhythmic, quasi-musical sequences.
That was an homage to Once Upon a Time in the West, I believe, to the opening sequence in the train station while they are waiting for Charles Bronson’s character to arrive. It has a fantastic polyrhythmic sound effect sequence without music. I know music was written for that scene by composer Ennio Morricone but they decided during the mix to just use the sound effects.
Also in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, in the “All Gold Canyon” story, there is a lot of rhythmic editing and sound effects work that we did, like the shoveling and digging, and the sifting of dirt in the prospector’s pan. That was all done with Joel’s guidance, to make a somewhat musical sequence as well.
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It’s crucial to have someone who is intimately involved in the sound effects and then another doing dialogue and music. It’s helpful to have that separation, to have two minds working together.
SL: Craig Berkey does the majority of the heavy lifting on sound effects. We divide up the movie so that I mainly work with the dialogue, production sound, and music. Craig does all the sound effects and atmospheric work and Foley. We discovered way long ago that when you divide it up, it’s so much easier to sort the work out. And the Coen brothers like being able to talk to two people simultaneously on a project. On most films, it’s crucial to have someone who is intimately involved in the sound effects and then another doing dialogue and music. It’s helpful to have that separation, to have two minds working together. In my opinion, that works better than just having one mind. So, Craig was the mastermind of the sound effects track.
I go to the spotting sessions when Craig can’t make it. I’ve been to all the sessions on this film and Craig has been to some of them. A lot of times we’ll just have him on the phone when he can’t make it to New York. I’ll take notes and Craig does too, this way we can cross-check what the Coen brothers asked for.
In terms of the vocal processing, it sounds like you had some fun there. In “The Ballad of Buster Scrugg” story, Buster is riding through a canyon singing the song “Cool Water.” His voice bounces and echoes around the canyon, and we hear the music from a perspective of inside the guitar. Can you talk about your approach to that scene?
We really tried to incorporate the music into the scenes and make them feel like they are happening in situ.
SL: That song was recorded in a recording studio but we needed it to be realistic and to seem like it was coming from Tim Blake Nelson on horseback. We also had to match the production dialogue, to make it sound like it was all coming from the same person. We had some nice tracks that were prepared and recorded in the studio by T Bone Burnett. Joel and Ethan are keen on having the vocals and singing sound like it’s really coming from the actor on-screen. That sequence was all about that — all about making the singing feel as lifelike as possible rather than just added on. That’s how the old musicals felt many times, like they were part movie and part record where the singing and dialogue didn’t match up very well. Joel and Ethan are very sensitive to that idea, as am I. So we really tried to incorporate the music into the scenes and make them feel like they are happening in situ.
We had separate tracks of all the vocals and instruments, which was mainly just Tim Blake Nelson singing and a guitar track. But then in the saloon we had additional tracks of violin and piano. There were also tracks of harmonica, and a musical saw that was added in very subtly at the beginning of “Cool Water.”
In terms of reverb, I like to use one reverb — in this case Audio Ease’s Altiverb — that I print onto copies of the source sound, so that I have it in my session next to the source, so I can adjust panning and whatever independently of the source track. Then I have a live reverb, send and return, and for that I use Avid’s ReVibe, to get that live reverb sound. I may use a few others depending on the complexity of the reverb requests.
Then, I use the Pro Tools EQ. Over the years I found that it’s more important to be able to adjust things on demand above anything else. The Pro Tools EQ automation is very accurate and that is why I use it.
Where did you do the final mix on the film?
SL: We do a two-stage mix, and we’ve been doing this for quite a few years now, going back to O Brother, Where Art Thou?. First, we mixed in New York at Warner Bros. facility on 55th Street. We mixed there for about two weeks. (Craig and I had been pre-mixing in our own editing suites before we went into the studio.) Then after our two-week ‘semi-final’ mix, Craig and I moved to Sony Studios in Los Angeles, into the Burt Lancaster Theater where we joined up with our longtime collaborator re-recording mixer Greg Orloff. Our final pass at Sony is when we added in the score.
In terms of your responsibilities on the mix, what would you say your biggest challenge was?
SL: Joel and Ethan like to have everything pretty-thoroughly sorted out by the time we actually start final mixing. So we spent a lot of time trying to keep things organized so that nothing gets lost, both in terms of elements and in terms of the mix. A lot of things we had already decided during screenings and discussions with them. So when we get to the final mix, we are basically adding in Foley, a little bit of ADR, and the final music. Mostly everything else had been sorted out and previewed with Joel and Ethan.
We like to make the final mix more of a quality control pass. We make sure that everything is perfect and it’s the way we want it. We do have a lot of discussions and experiments during the final mix but it’s not like the old days where you’re hearing everything together for the first time during the final mix. The only new element we have during the final mix is the score.
The Foley in this film is tremendous. And it looks like there was more than one crew on this film?
SL: We had three Foley crews actually. That was mostly a timing issue. We tried to put the Foley together at the very last minute and so we had one crew doing footsteps, and another doing props. This way we could get it all recorded in a week’s time and the material could be passed on to Craig and sorted out quickly at the very end.
I love all the Foley details. For example, during the bank robbery, the teller triggers a set of shotguns that blast through the wooden counter and as James Franco’s character hops over it you hear all the dust and debris crumble onto the floor. The film is filled with those little details…
They appreciate that we do it; they encourage us to do it; they become enamored with the details.
SL: That’s a tribute to Joel and Ethan’s appreciation of fine sound details. They appreciate that we do it; they encourage us to do it; they become enamored with the details, so much so that they become a bit whiney when we don’t have enough. If we add those details into one part and then don’t do it in another they say, “Hey wait, where’s all of that fun stuff?” And I say, “Oh okay, we have that right here.”
What are you most proud of in terms of sound on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs?
SL: I would have to say the singing and music component. It’s all through the movie and I believe that’s a bit of an homage to a movie we all enjoyed when we were kids, called Cat Ballou (1965). I’ve teased Joel and Ethan about that movie over the years and I think this movie kind of settles that score, so to speak. It’s always exciting and fun to work with the Coen brothers. They’re great filmmakers and really good friends as well.
A big thanks to Skip Lievsay for giving us a look at the creative sound of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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