Alex Moreland talks to Doug Hemphill and Ron Bartlett about Blade Runner 2049, sound mixing and more…
Now, I know you both worked on the original Blade Runner – how did you come to be involved with this one?
Doug H: Well we worked on Ridley’s final version eight years ago – it was called The Director’s Final Cut. And on this film, we were very excited that Denis was making it. I had followed his work closely, going back to Incendies, and he found us. We did not pursue him or try to get the job, he found us.
When you were working on this one, did you draw a lot on the work you had done for previously with Ridley?
Doug H: I would say this to answer that question a little bit. When we work on a film, and Ron can speak on this, we’re always responding to the audience in the moment, as you do when you watch a movie as audiences do. We were marinated, so to speak, in the original Blade Runner but each thing was new. We approached each day, each scene, as a new thing. Ron may speak on that better.
Ron B: That was very good. For me it had a strong sense of wanting to connect the two as the same, like you’re creating a thread. It’s a true sequel, it’s not a different movie all of a sudden. So, I think one of the reasons he reached out to us is that we had done that with Ridley and really understood what he was going after in the first one. So, it helped us carry those ideas across, the mood and the tones – and of course you’re making a different movie, so you update it. You take it to another place. But it definitely has a connecting thread.
How would you guys describe your process of working on the movie – where did you begin, and how did you approach it?
Doug H: I think that’s an interesting question because we started out with what’s called the temp mix for the film – that was 10 days where you sort of put all the pieces together, and you mix it and see what you have – and one of the interesting things about mixing Blade Runner 2049 was that we did that temp mix and thought this is great. This is really wonderful. But just when we came back to it to do the final mix, we kept seeing things we wanted to make better, and one of the salient things about this crew was that every time we touched it, it kept getting better. It just kept getting better. There was one three-day set of pictures, we do that where we spin it for the studio, where the track got 40% better. Ultimately, it was just pencilled down and we had to walk away, but both of us, all of us on that crew, still had things we’d like to do.
But, I would say what brought us to that point was that attempt of really gave us a chance to understand what Denis was after, and how he … He had Joe. Joe had a lot to say ’cause he’s the picture of Jo Walker. He is very musical, a composer so the music played a big part in it for him as well. So, the thing that’s changed from the temp tape to the final was the score. Because we had set up a very good framework of what we wanted to do with dialogue and effects that we were pretty much in the pocket. Obviously, there were things that we would like to make better and that we had experimented with. But the big difference was adding the actual score, instead of a temp track.
Are there any particular scenes in the movie that stand out, when you reflect back on it?
Doug H: I guess the underlining theme… One word would be humanics. That was a thread to the entire film, going through K’s eyes, being with him, understanding his struggle of wanting to be human. What is it to be human? What do you have to do? How does that define yourself? And, ultimately he gave himself as a sacrifice to that thought or that goal. So that, to me, that’s what really brought me through the whole film. It’s a tough challenge to create a soundtrack in a dystopian world that’s not too oppressive. And that’s where we come in as audience members, because we – Ron and myself – ultimately, we are audience just like everybody else out there.
We sit down, we work on a film. We say how would we like this to sound? How would we like to tell the story with sound? And this particular film is a challenge because it’s a dark, gloomy world. And you can go too far with oppressive sound. I think a good example would be a film like K-19 where you’re in a submarine the whole time, and by the time the film is over, you’re just running for the exits for some sunlight. So you have to be aware of that, be careful the way you use sound.
And it was interesting working with Denis, seeing where his vision went. And that was our goal, to really bring out what he was after. But he had a great sense of just letting people play at bringing their A-game to a forefront and saying “Here’s my idea.” And then he would allow that creativity to happen in every department. And then he would obviously steer us in the direction he wanted or maybe let’s try this or…? We would all work together in a very collaborative way.
I mean, as a director, Denis is not somebody who will say “I want you to do this.” He will say to you “This is how I feel about this scene, and this is emotionally what I am trying to do, now you do the sound works and see if you can add to that.” And it’s just a beautiful way to work, so collaborative. It’s amazing. He’s just the best.
On that note: the two of you have worked together quite a few times now, how would you describe your collaborative approach when working together?
Ron B: Telepathic.
Doug H: There’s not a lot of talking, which is funny between us because we’ve known each other since, I think, 84. That’s a long time we’ve been friends. Working directly together, I don’t know, 10 years or more, or something like that. We’ve worked together on other films before that, of course, but that’s a lot of sound under the bridge, if you will. And we have a very, like he said, telepathic kind of vibe. We’ll just look at each other and know what the other guy’s up to and give him space for this. He gives me space for that. We trade off and it really comes down to us paying attention to the story.
Ron B: Exactly, it’s very intuitive. It’s not about words between us. It’s just intuitive work on a track to tell the story. We’re focusing on sound constantly, to determine what the audience should be listening to, where we want you to go story wise.
How do you try and reflect the theme through sound?
Doug H: Well, as Ron was saying earlier, you have the main character, K, played by Ryan Gosling and his life throughout the film has ups and downs, while he’s struggling to figure out what it is to be human. So, the track expands and contracts with his moods. There’s a scene where he goes out on the rooftop, in the rain, and is actually gonna have a romantic moment with a hologram, right? We made the rain sound very romantic and delicate and beautiful because we wanted K to have his moment; that’s what’s inside his heart right there, he really loves this woman, this hologram. And he’s gonna have a romantic moment. When the moment is interrupted by a call from his office, then the rain goes back to the dystopian world that is Blade Runner 2049. It’s a subtle thing. I do not want audiences to be aware of it – but it will definitely have an impact with how you feel about that scene.
Ron B: That’s the key thing that we do: zero in on the emotion, and the emotional content of the scene or the character, and where that story is going. Whose story needs to be told the most? And accentuate that. So, if someone’s really intense or upset, we have sounds that mirror that or accentuate it or there’s like, as Doug said, if there’s a romantic scene, he’ll smooth it out and make it really beautiful. It’s creating those contrasts that really help develop the story.
Doug H: It’s all about feelings, and Ron and I call sound together image, because when you hear sound, it brings up images in your mind and your feelings and your heart. So, we call sound together an image.
Ron B: That’s the one thing that people have trouble with the most is that the sound is untangible art form. How it affects you, you feel it and you don’t see it, but you can look at the picture and go “Oh wow. That’s a dark scene.” Or whatever. But you have to listen to the sound and actually experience that. And that’s what I think is so cool about our job.
When I was talking to Mark Mangini last week he said that he thought it was like the sound equivalent of a cinematographer, or a director of a photography.
Doug H: Yes. Very much so.
Ron B: And like the director of photography, there’s a famous quote, which I have always admired, “It’s not the light you put on the set, it’s the light you take away that matters.” And I’d say the same principle that holds those down, that Denis is certainly not good at that, that it’s removing things that aren’t telling the story. Taking away the sound that don’t matter, the noise, the clutter, and ending up with just the elements that move the story forward.
Doug H: There’s a guy who trust his story and his images and his characters and his actors, because he’ll take things away and you’re like “Oh you shouldn’t, you don’t want all this stuff going on?” And he’s “Nope. I want it down to this, ’cause this is what really makes me feel that way.” And I love that because he’s cold, he’ll take things away and you’re left with one or two things and it just works. That’s the beauty of how he approaches things.
Do you think that’s a rare way to work these days?
Doug H: Well I think he’s a rare talent, Denis is. And I told him the way I’ve seen all his films and I told him that it’s never what I expect but always what I hoped for, with Denis. He’s such an artist, he always surprises me. It’s never what I expected, always what I hoped for as an art. He’s amazing because he’s so talented. I know that sounds obsequious but I mean it.
You sound very enthusiastic! It must have been a very compelling movie to work on.
Doug H: Well, I’ve worked on upwards of several hundred films – about 150, I don’t know, I don’t count. But this one was… it’s like I’ve told other people, when you put a mix crew together and mix a movie, it’s like putting a band together. And you hope it’s gonna be a really good band, like when you were in high school, you hope it’s gonna be The Beatles or The Eagles, or whatever. This was one of the best bands I’ve ever played in. Period.
Ron B: That’s including Brian Wilson on dialogue, Craig Bennet on the music editing and Mark Mangini. That’s a great group of a list players that bring everything to the game.
On that note – you’ve both been nominated for Oscars before. Do you think Blade Runner might see similar success?
Doug H: I never follow that stuff. I can’t, it certainly never motivates me in the work I do, but at the same time, I’m very proud of what we’ve done on this film and I will support it anyway I can, and if I get nominated, I’ll show up. And I’m proud of what I did. And I’m proud of Denis and the movie. I don’t know if Ron-
Ron B: I would definitely echo that, that I’m super proud of the work we’ve done – well, all of us together – as a team. And if it gets recognised, it’ll be a nod to that, that everyone works really hard together and put their heart and soul into it. I have to say I’m not making any predictions, I’m not gonna say anything about winning but I’ve got to say I’ve had way more comments from people on the outside, complementing the work on this film, than any other picture by far. So, if that’s any indication, maybe, but again I never try to predict anything.
Doug H: Ron and I are both academy members, and as academy members it’s considered untoward to talk about Oscars and our potential participation, and I know that sounds really like a high school principal thing but it’s true. That’s how the academy rolls. You’re not supposed to promote yourself or talk about it or anything. I kind of agree with that.
Ron B: It’s not about that. It’s about trying to do a good job, that people like it all the better.
That’s a good outlook to have! On another note, then, speaking more broadly about your career – how did you both get started as sound mixers?
Ron B: I actually got into sound young; I have been a musician since I was about five, and spent my whole life involved in music. At the beginning, of course I was very young and I was playing in this band and I needed a day job, to be honest. So, I learned about sound editing and I’m like “That sounds pretty cool and it would allow me to go back and forth between gigs, recording days or whatever”, and do that film to film. So, I fell into it that way, and then once I got into it and I could afford an assistant I realised editing was cooler and it was more creative. So, I got into that and then turned towards mixing, because I had a lot of experience mixing with bands and all that, both live and in a studio. So, it was a nice fit to move into a mixing chair and combine the two, then use my musical background. It was all the scores and also how you approach sound in a film, I find, is extremely musical.
Doug H: I got lucky. I was at USC film school. I got hired out of school to work on a film, an entry-level position. A little film. And I never looked back. I got very, very lucky.
Touching on something you were saying before about how people understand the role of sound as an art form – over the course of your career, do you think that perception of it has shifted to appreciate that better?
Doug H: Yeah, I think it has with the level of audio quality we have, certainly Atmos, which is one of the premier sound systems that I could ever imagine working with. It’s magnificent. Is wonderful. But, again, I would say Ron and I, in our role, as audience members only makes a movie, it’s the same work on a film as an individual in their life. When you listen to certain types of music, you have sounds that you love, and you want to hear. We’re doing that for you in a film but telling the story at the same time.
Picking up on that idea of sound as a creative medium, who would you both say your chief creative influence is?
Ron B: Wow. There’s been mixers I’ve looked up to that do great mixes but for me, creatively, it’s about… well like Doug said, life quite a bit, your taste in art, any type of art. Music, guitar feed, painting all of that comes into play for me about how you put pieces together, what works together. Like if I’m making a painting – did I use too much of this colour, did I go past the point where it was good? Knowing when to stop. All those sort of disciplines in any art form helps you in the one that you’re tackling. If I’m mixing the score in a film, and I need to look and see how those pieces put together, what goes well together, how do they layer up, how does it sound in general? What does it make me feel? And, to me, all types of art form teaches me that and I try to fly that film mixing.
Doug H: I would be remiss if I didn’t say that Walter Murch, who was probably the biggest influence on me, for sound. Walter was the sound designer on Apocalypse Now, and that was my first experience that I worked for about a year on. His concept of clear density and dividing frequencies and whatnot – it wasn’t like I didn’t understand it, but it was like carrying somebody who had ideas that I recognised and agreed with the intelligence of what he was saying. He has very good ideas on how sound is put together in films. Obviously, Apocalypse Now is probably still one of the best sounding movies ever put together.
Ron B: I’m saying if you’re looking for more old school mixers, then Murray Spivack – Sound of Music, West Side Story, Murray was the guy. What do you say, he would have won 13 Oscars…?
Doug H: He would have won 13 Oscars if [those awards] had gone to mixers.
On a slightly different note, would you have any advice for people who are looking into getting into sound production?
Doug H: Advice. That’s a tough one. The industry has changed quite a bit and schedules are shorter. Money is less. All of those things, it’s been pretty tough on mixers and editors especially. The crews are smaller. It’s a tough business to get into. I would try to explain that to them, and not to discourage, but to just open their eyes about what they’re about to get into. The long hours, all that stuff. I don’t want to make it sound negative but I think it’s important that you let people know what’s up. Creatively, there’s a whole other game. It’s really opening up. It’s got all these sound formats the computers are working on everything, it’s exciting of where it’s going.
Ron B: On the other hand, tattoo removal is a high growth industry.
Doug H: Try not to listen to him.
Hahaha, I thought that was quite funny.
Ron B: Thank you Alex.
Doug H: We’re very serious.
Is there anything you can tell us about projects that you’re working on at the minute, or is that top secret still?
Ron B: No, we’re just, we’re working on away, doing a film about a big shark that eats people. Sort of funny to go from Blade Runner 2049 to this. I mean last year, well before Blade Runner, I think we did seven films in a row? We did Wonder, which is a very good film. Very different from Blade Runner.
Doug H: We did Battle of The Sexes. Again, different from Wonder, and very different from Blade Runner. So yeah, we’re always working on different types of [movie]. The thing that binds it all together and I think the reason people come to us is storytelling in sound. That – no matter what you’re working on – if you’re telling the story with sound, you’re doing it right.
They’re all quite different films – do the different genres present quite different challenges?
Ron B: Absolutely, take Battle of The Sexes. That’s a period piece around what is it 73, or 72? Everything has to be in that realm, from cars to phones, to all the sounds. My biggest challenge to that movie was [reacreating an interview], and the director was totally adamant about using the original and not doing a sound-alike. So, I’m getting a recording off of a TV of 1972, and it was horrible. To really amp it up, there was a marching band playing behind him the whole time, which we couldn’t use because it wasn’t licenced. So, my job was to extract the band behind him, as much as possible, so you couldn’t recognise any of it, and still use [the original] and make it sound good. That’s a huge challenge. I used a lot of isotope RX, to get rid of that, and it was a lot of work.
There’s other films like Wonder was all about the tone, and how you don’t pay the sympathy tone – because it’s tough, you’re talking about a child with a disfigurement, and how he relates to the world and his friends, but you do not want to cross the line where you’re being too sentimental. The director was all over that, and that came down to syllables, literally, and words, and how it affected him. As an audience member, like Doug said, how do I feel when I see this scene? Did we go too far? Did I push the sappy music just a little too much or do I need to back off?
Doug H: Because you want you the audience to end up landing there on their own.
Ron B: Yeah, and there’s challenges in every film we do, whether it’s that kind of movie as in Wonder, or the period piece in Battle of The Sexes, or the future dystopian world of Blade Runner. They all have their character, and so we need to adjust and lean how to accentuate those things.
As a final question then, what would you say is the most important thing you’d like someone to take away from your work – both on Blade Runner and in general?
Ron B: I think of what I do as the invisible fart. So, I don’t want the audience to be thinking about it too much. If they enjoy the movie, and felt the story. In other words, we used to joke with a friend of ours, Andrew Niccol a director, I worked on Gattaca with him with too. We used to joke don’t flag a sound, don’t wave the flag of sound. And Walter would virtually say the same thing – it’s like what we do should be invisible. It has a very powerful effect on the audience but they should not be aware of what we’re doing. It should just be an experience. If that helps out.
Ron B: If, like Doug said, if you listen to a flashy idea, you’re not really paying attention to the story and it kind of takes you out. It might be in a nice way, and it might be amazing but you’re doing the film a disservice, when you’re on top of it like that. You gotta support it, and accentuate it.
Doug H: What I would love people to take away is the emotional content of a film through sound.
Ron B: I’ll give you an example, Alex, I know it’s kind of abstract talk. I was working on X-Men 2, right, and the x jet, rises up from behind a snow-covered knoll to rescue our intrepid mutants. I said to Craig Murphy, who was the sound designer, wouldn’t it be cool if we put just a little cheer under that jet sound of it rising up because it’s a heroic moment. So, we did! We put a crowd cheer in there. And you can’t tell it’s there but now that I told you, if you went back and listened to it you could hear it. But in the moment, when it happens, it just feels like a heroic moment. Because we tuck this little extra thing into there, that crowd cheer that says heroism.
Doug Hemphill and Ron Bartlett, thank you very much!