Interview with Sound Mixer Tony Dawe (Return of the Jedi, Alice in Wonderland, Troy)

tony_daweTony Dawe has definitely witnessed a lot of things on set working sound, working on over 120 productions in the last 40 years. It was an honor to interview him after the craft of sound mixing on set and preparing the post-production sound department.

Matthew Toffolo: How would you describe what a sound mixer does in one sentence?

Tony Dawe: I don’t think you can describe it in one sentence, as the job encompasses so many different variables. To get the best sound really starts with reading the script, and then going on the recces to look at all potential problems on set, background noises, can we do anything about it, where the sparks want to put their generators, are we under a flight path etc. Talk to the director to see if they have any special things they want done with the sound. Go and see the costume department and find out if there are any potential problems with the artists costumes, as every artist now has to wear a radio mic on films and TV. Inspect the sets when they are built, and with all the props in, to look for squeaky floors and other minefields. Liase with the DOP, to see what he is trying to achieve, and how we can work with him on set without interfering with his lighting. There are many other things I could mention!

OK, in one sentence: Get the best possible sound under any circumstances that will enable the audience to follow the plot without saying “What did he say?”

MT: Is there a difference in your job description when you work on a drama like “The Hours (2002)” in comparison to working on a genre action like “Indiana Jones” or “Alice in wonderland”?

TD: If you mean, do I work in exactly the same way on both types of production, the answer is yes. Weirdly though in TV, my job credit is Sound Recordist, and in Feature films it is Production Sound Mixer; however its still the same job. Do I feel there is more kudos working on a large film rather than a TV film just because of the job description, no I don’t.

MT: You’ve worked on many Tim Burton productions. How is your working experience with him. How is he different than other directors?

TD: I have worked with Tim since “Batman” in 1987. I love working with him as there is always a great creative atmosphere on set, and I have learned more about film making from him than any other director just by watching my monitor. For instance, watching how a shot develops through several takes until the timing and the acting and everything else comes together in that magic moment, and then the reaction from Tim when he knows that is the best take. Incidentally, with all the directors I have worked with, Tim is the one I talk to the least. I just don’t like to interrupt his creative processes by talking about trivial sound matters. We both trust each other completely job wise.

MT: You’ve been nominated for an Oscar in the “Best Sound” category 4 times. How has the Oscar experience been like? Were you surprised that you didn’t win?

TD: I was delighted to be nominated each time and someone has to win, but that doesn’t make the others into losers. Every year there a lot of amazing sound tracks that never even get mentioned in dispatches. Validation comes from within, and having honesty about your own work. You have to ask yourself if you did do a good job; the best you could in fact, if so, there is the validation.

MT: You were nominated for “Return of the Jedi”. What was that working experience like? How involved was George Lucas?

TD: George Lucas was very involved in the making of “Revenge of the Jedi”, and spent a lot of time on the sets. I got on very well with George, and we had many discussions about the use of computers in film making and where that was going to go. Looking back, of course he was absolutely right. He is a most incredible person and visionary and I really loved working with him.

However, working on “Revenge of the Jedi” (which was its original title), was very intense and not one of my favourite experiences.

MT: You’ve been working in the industry for 50 years on over 100+ productions. Is there a film or two that you’re most proud of?

TD: I’ve been a sound engineer for 58 years, starting at Abbey Road (before the Beatles!), and ABC television (405 line B&W!) before I even got to work in film in 1967 at Shepperton Studios sound department, so there are a lot of projects to think about.

There are two productions that I’m most proud about, the first is “The Sweeney” TV series in the seventies, where all of us on the crew were pioneers in using small lightweight 16mm cameras and the Nagra tape recorders for the first time in drama’s and making it work. The rule was, there would be no ADR, so the sound had to be usable all the time. I did not use any radio mics on that show, but I always had the final word on what we could do or not do as the sound department. That concentrated a few people’s minds on the set! I learned so much from that experience over the 53 episodes.

The second project was very similar, and was series 4-7 of “Inspector Morse” in the 1980’s. Again, although the company would budget for small amounts of ADR, it was expected that all sound would be usable, so I was very proud when they did use it all, and the sound received an award from Bafta.

I’m not overly proud of any of my feature film work, as all of the budgets included a large amount for ADR, (the money for which always has to be used), and most of the time they would prefer to ADR something instead of spending time doing another take. This does not apply to the wonderful Directors who fully understand the role of sound in film, and will always go again when asked by the sound department. As the blending of my recordings and other peoples is usually very good, who knows then what has been recorded by whom?

By the way, one of my most favourite films to work on was “Dean Spanley” (As a movie it is an underrated masterpiece, well worth finding the DVD and watching it).

MT: Is there a type of film you haven’t worked on yet that you would love to work on?

TD: Yes, I’ve never worked on a cowboy film (and never likely to in the UK!). Also I’ve only worked on one film that had war scenes in it, and I would like to do another one sometime.

MT: How has sound mixing changed from a technology and creative point of view from the year you started to today?

TD: It has changed absolutely, but mostly in the last 20 years. When I started in 1967, we were still using 35mm full coat magnetic film to record on at Shepperton studios. They did not even have a Nagra recorder to do sound effects on, only very large Leevers-Rich reel to reel recorders which were not portable. When I recorded my first film in 1969 as a sound mixer I used a Nagra 4 with a small Nagra mixer, and that worked well. Microphones were all Sennheiser 805’s, with no radio mics. This type of equipment continued well into the 1990’s, except I had added radio mics (to be used mostly for wide shots!) Then came DAT, and the early machines which were not reliable, and ran very hot (and I didn’t adopt until later). Eventually the DAT machines became as portable as the Nagra’s, and they worked very well, except on cold mornings when the rotating heads stuck to the tape and had to be warmed up with a hair dryer.

In the last 12 years or so, we have had hard drive recorders, which again improved immensely very quickly. I started with an 8 track recorder which proved to be rather quirky and difficult to use, and for 7 years I had a Deva 16 as my main recorder, which was very good, but I now have a Fusion10, and Fusion 12 which have no moving parts, except the mixing knobs on the front and work wonderfully well. I hope to acquire a Deva 24 in the future. Just think of that, 24 tracks in a machine not much bigger than a Nagra!

I adore digital recording immensely as it is so flexible and totally transparent. On my sound trolley I still have a wonderful Coopersound analog mixer at the front end which makes it sound a bit like a Nagra.

Editing sound with Pro Tools is a dream, and I wish it been around when I was editing sound at ABC TV in the sixties.

Some of the magic from the early days has gone however, such as being able to do impossible mixes with only one or two channels. Today we just record everything in the hope that there is enough there to satisfy the sound editor. I still use open boom mics for most things, with the radio mics there as a backup. Basically what I am saying is that there is now very little creativity left in my job. What I used to produce as a finished track that would find its way into a film or TV drama rarely happens any more, as the tracks are dismembered and remade in post production. I have been asked quite a few times how I mixed a particular editors track on a feature film, so that post could undo it and re-assemble the track. What is the point in that? Because what I do is so instinctive, that I can’t usually tell them.

As for the profusion of radio mics on set, don’t even get me started on that one. Most other people on the set think that it solves all the problems with sound that can arise, but in practice it gives many more problems than it solves, and sometimes it involves fiddling about with the actors and costumes, which they hate, and so do I. Unfortunately we are not in control any more as we are beholden to other departments.

MT: What makes a great sound mixer? What skills does he/she need?

TD: Firstly I think that you need a great deal of patience, no arrogance, or the “look at me” concept that some mixers have. Know your place in the hierarchy, be very confident with your own ability, and sometimes exceed the boundaries to see if you can do it, and own up if you can’t!

Never argue with a Director, but reasonably discuss possible ways of getting round a sound problem with them. Always be as pleasant as possible, as it gets you much further than aggression.

Oh… and it helps if you know what you are listening for!

****

Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Fesival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to http://www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

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