This is a very interesting title for a particular reason. I have written enough articles on how a film mix is done, and all the way to the extent of documenting it from the start to the end. This time, I want to talk about I approach a mix. Many times over the workshops on mixing I have done, the primary question has been what is my approach to a mix and how I look at it. The reason I call this a demystification is because it is very revealing of what happens and how this is done from my point of view.
Magic and the Mix
One of my hobbies for the past 17 years has been magic. Not the grand stage illusions, but closeup magic. The reason I was so intrigued by this is because of the pure joy I would get at seeing an amazement in the eyes of the audience. Likewise, there is so much similarity between the two artforms.
Its not the Technique but the Result
This is something that is close to my heart. I would spend days, sometimes months learning a single sleight so that I can execute it in the least possible moves and also in such a way that it appears as part of something that is not part of the trick. This is a very important thing I carry to the world of the film mix. My mix is not about the technique it is about the resulting impact. Is it subtle or is it dramatic? All of this comes from there. My moves are something that should not be noticed. At the same time they are practised. When I started off as a second assistant, I used to spend hours getting a shortcut practised and fine so that they are part of something that is muscle memory. I also used to spend a lot of time getting to understand the fader. That is the most important part of a film mix and it is quite important to understand how it reacts and what dropping or raising it while looking at the screen, does to the level of the sound. At tis point, my aim was to get used to and understand the emotion of the sound when level is changed. So, my technique has to be flawless if I need to be able to execute something that would give a result that is close to being invisible.
Simple Moves are the most Stunning
In the world of card magic, there is a move called the pass. This is a difficult move to learn initially but is a very simple one, once you get the hang of it. And once you master this, this is also one of the most invisible card handling methods there is. (Of course I am not getting into other sleights in dealing here but you get the idea!) The idea here is that getting to learn the simple techniques produces stunning results by different ways of applying it. Similarly, getting dialogue to sit in the mix with intense music can be done in more than one way. Ofcourse you can ride the levels of the music or eq out the mids. But a bit more thinking will get you to the idea that you can also move the positioning of the score using spanner or do a radical move to achieve the same emotional result by using Nugen Seq-S and riding the depth parameter using invert EQ. (I have spoken about this in this note.) The idea here is that you attain something in an unconventional yet simple way. This is important so that you are constantly evolving in your approach and the style of the mix changes dramatically.
Imagine, then reverse engineer
This is also one very important philosophy that I follow. I try and imagine what it is I want to create and then find a way to do it. It may sound simple and cliched but here is the issue in this. Usually, we are limited in ideas by the plugins we have. I know I was. This hampered me as I was looking at the plugins and thinking of what I could do with that. I wanted to reverse that trend in my head. The only way I figured I could do this was to conceive ideas first. My ideas will be different from what the Sound Editor or designer does as they create something out of nothing. Mine will be executing moves or emotional styles. One Example for this, is the idea of evolving the mix in Bombay Velvet from Mono, to LCR, then 5.1, 7.1 and finally atmos. This was an idea that came to me once when watching a very old film on TV and realising that it must be very difficult to mix mono. Then we decided to try it and Bombay Velvet was the perfect opportunity to execute it. Once that was done, I had to find ways of doing this, and creating the transition points etc. Yet another was the Climax song in Gangs of Wasseypur where the Synth Bass was panned throughout the theater to mimic the aggression and anger that was happening at that point in the film.
The Art of Misdirection
This is one of the central Principles in Magic. The reason is that I want the audience to look and observe something while I make my move or the sleight. This is also a principle I use in my mixes. The ways I achieve this are also quite simple. One of the underlying basis for this is to establish a pattern so that the audience expects that and looks for that. For example, if I were to do a coin vanish using a palm, I wouldn’t look or be conscious of the hand which hides the coin. This takes effort. The idea of looking somewhere else consciously, yet making my moves silently needs practise and observation. In a mix, I establish a pattern and where I want to create an emotional spike or change, I break that pattern. Two very good examples from my mix that I can give are the Gun shootout in Gangs of Wasseypur. What I did till then was to make a very straight mix with the conventional dropping of music for dialogue and keeping everything more subtle. When the gun fires happen, that was the first time the Back Surround speakers were used. Till then for the past 3 hours, (yes that was a long movie!), the back surrounds were left empty. So the audience is not aware of that space till now. This scene just opens up that and so it seems like an extended dimension without much effort on my side of the mix. Another one was in Bombay Velvet where the pattern of mix stays constant till an action scene or a song comes up. This means that after a few moves, the audience is prepped for this.
Time Versus Interest
This is another thing that I keep in mind although I must admit, I sometimes don’t remember this and have to consciously get myself back to this. As with every trick, the longer it is, the more the climax will have to match that. And that is a very difficult feat to achieve. So most of the time, what seasoned performers will do is to infuse jokes or mini tricks within the frame. This is what I learnt to do over time. Within my mix, if it stays the same for a long time, I tend to change pans or spacial positions of the score or ambience, remove elements and re introduce them, guide the focus on screen. The reason is that if it stays, it will mask our perception of what happens and we tend to be put off very fast. This is also the reason why mixes get louder in order to hide some insecurities or mistakes in the story.
If YOU don’t believe, the audience won’t
One of the mistakes I used to make when I began practising magic sleights was to show off that and not the magic. This meant that there was no awe in the eyes of the audience. But then once I mastered the sleight, I wanted to make it as natural and believable for me, else I wont be able to misdirect or convince. This principle stuck with me and went on to the mix. If I wasn’t convinced of a scene and the way it transpires the emotion, then there is no way the audience will be too. But there is a fine line of danger in this. The possibility of getting caught up with the technique and slight or over convincing oneself and losing perception is very high. The way I found that I could resolve this is to constantly give a breather, and ask around to find the result. I rely on my associate mix engineers for this. When in doubt, there is no harm to ask, because not every mix has a GPS!
My mix is based and built on these philosophies. This is why I am unable to answer if there is a signature sound or technique I use. I don’t! Because these philosophies mean I should evolve constantly and cater to the audience. A trick shown to a child is different in presentation to a teenager, and an older person. The same will reflect in the mix. But the whole point is to be inspired. Keep looking around and observe. I cannot stress how you will find the idea of what brings awe to a person differs and can be learnt quite fast. So, Observe, Imagine and Follow. This will get all the magic into your mixes! Until Next time, enjoy!
Ah Kei said:
Your blog is good! Nice to meet. I am film mixer from Hong Kong, a small studio. We always deal with poor production sound and tight schedule. I am always upset that we can’t do a good mix.
Thank you Ah Kei for your kind words. Yeah sometimes I too face that issue with right schedules. Most of the ways I found to deal with a lot of those were to do the broader strokes first and then the finer tweaks later. But yeah when it comes to schedules and you can’t meet it, a perfect mix is impossible and I do let the team know that.
Ah Kei said:
You are right. I have spent a whole month working at night-shift for mixing a action film. Due to tight schedule, it resulted in SHIT!!!
I’m very interested to your blog about dialogue premix, about the invert EQ, pitch, would you please explain it more?