Oscar-Winning Ears

For Oscar-winning sound re-recorder Michael Semanick '85, the task is to help movie directors tell a story that depicts a story that elicits an emotional reaction.
Michael Semanick '85
Michael Semanick '85

Seated behind the long mixing console in the Akira Kurosawa re-recording room at Skywalker Sound, Michael Semanick and two other remixing engineers balance the dialogue sound effects, and music for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a new film by director David Fincher. They replay a scene many times and make slight changes to ensure that each sound element is in its proper place. Can each of Brad Pitt’s words be understood above the random voices of the extras? Are his footsteps audible as he passes through the crowd on the staircase leading to the hallway? Is there too much reverb on Cate Blanchett’s voice for a scene where the actress speaks in hushed tones to Pitt?

For an hour or more, Semanick and company will toil on just one scene to make sure the underscore swells or fades at the right moment and that every component of the sound environment—the volume, EQ, and reverb—sounds natural and that each element is placed where it belongs in the surround-sound image. Their goal is to convey the emotion the director envisions for the scene.

It’s painstaking work that is crucial to the impact of a film. Remixers like Semanick add the final touches to the audio after the composer, music editors, sound designers, sound editors, and others have done their parts. Semanick says that some directors consider the sound elements to be 50 percent of the film. The fact that Fincher is not seated beside Semanick and company at the board to give input on each change indicates the amount of trust the director has in this remix team. At this session, the atmosphere is light and breezy, but at some sessions, Semanick says there can be major disagreement about whether the mix does all it can for the drama.

Semanick has worked side by side with some of the best directors in the industry, including George Lucas (Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones), David Lynch (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me), Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood), Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings trilogy), and others on nearly 100 films. His recent credits include such titles as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Wall-E, Ratatouille, and The Kite Runner. He has been nominated multiple times for Academy Awards for his sound mixing and has taken home two Oscars for his contribution to King Kong and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Semanick has bloomed pretty much where he was planted. He grew up in Antioch, California, a Bay Area suburb. After finishing his studies in music production and engineering at Berklee, he returned to the area, where he lives with his wife and three kids in nearby Marin County. As an independent remixing engineer, Semanick works on the majority of his projects at Skywalker Sound, nestled in the hills 20 minutes north of his home. And while his work sometimes involves travel to New York, Los Angeles, New Zealand, Europe, and South America, most nights he sleeps in his own bed.

While the work is stimulating and artistically satisfying, the schedule can be grueling. Semanick says that the typical mix can last between eight and 15 weeks. On many of the eight-week schedules, though, he’s liable to work seven days a week, 14 hours a day. As a technical, behind-the-scenes guy, Semanick will never have name recognition among average moviegoers. But what’s more important is that those in the film industry do know his name and number, and continue to call him for new projects.

Semanick’s success may be attributable to his considerable technical skills and ear for sonic detail, but another key factor is his affable, upbeat personality. It’s all about vibe in the studio he says. Semanick also understands well that his work must never call attention to itself, but instead should create a natural feel that supports a director’s artistic vision. In fact, if Semanick does his job well, his work goes completely undetected by the viewers.

What prompted you to study at Berklee?

In high school, I took guitar lessons with a guy who was into jazz and bluegrass. He played me records by Joe Pass, Ella Fitzgerald, and others I’d never heard of. I really got into jazz and bought a lot records. After high school, he pointed me toward Berklee. My parents didn’t have much money, so I took a train across the country to Boston. I got a cab at the train station in Boston and remember being dropped off on Mass. Ave. in front of Berklee with my guitar, a steamer trunk, and a suitcase, wondering what I’d just gotten myself into. Once I started walking around and seeing all of the musicians, it felt pretty phenomenal.

How did you decide to major in MP&E?

I didn’t know when I got there whether to major in performance or writing. I just wanted to be around music and learn to play the guitar better. During my first year, I heard players like pianist Makoto Ozone and guitarist Kevin Eubanks and knew they were leagues ahead of me. Around the same time, I went into a recording studio for the first time and felt really drawn to it. The MP&E major wasn’t established yet, but some audio courses were offered. Don Puluse came to Berklee during my second year and was revamping Berklee’s audio program. I started hanging around in the studios and became fascinated with the art of recording and capturing performances by great musicians. In my third year, the MP&E program was up and running, and I declared that as my major.

There was a test to get into the program, but it wasn’t as hard as I’ve heard it is now. During my first year in MP&E, I had a professor who was telling me he didn’t think I’d make it in this field; he was barely passing me. I thought about it and said to myself, “I’ll show him.” In the end, I got through it and had some great teachers along the way like Wayne Wadhams, who gave me a lot of great information.

After you left Berklee, how did you get your first break?

I came back to the Bay Area and looked up all of the studios in the phonebook, and there were really only about four. I took my résumé to Fantasy Studios, the Record Plant [Studios], Hyde Street Studios, and another smaller studio called Starlight Sound. No one had a job for a kid just out of school. Eventually Hyde Street Studios told me that if I would work for free as a runner, they’d trade me studio time to record my own projects. In addition to making runs for sandwiches, drum heads, or guitar strings and cleaning up the studio after sessions, I got to watch the engineers work and see how they did things. I also got to meet musicians like Marty Balin, Grace Slick, Ronnie Montrose, and others from the Bay Area who had been big in the s

ixties. I did that for about a year and a half in addition to a day job I’d taken to pay my rent.

Every month, I’d make an appointment to see the managers at the two big studios, the Record Plant and Fantasy, to let them know what I’d been workin

g on and that I still wanted to work there. After about a year and a half, I got a call from Fantasy and was told they had two positions open. I got an appointment with Roy Segal, the studio head. He looked at my résumé and said, “This says you went to Berklee. Do you know Don Puluse?” I told him I did. He said they’d known each other working at CBS in New York. He said, “I’m going to call him right now and ask him about you.” He picked up the phone and called Don. After they talked, he offered me a job as the tape copy assistant engineer.

Michael Semanick '85
Michael Semanick '85

Working at Fantasy must have felt like a big step up for you.

It was. They had a big jazz catalog, so I got to listen to all this great music as I made copies of the two-track masters. Eventually, I became a staff member and got to engineer or mix recordings by Freddy Cole, Bobby McFerrin, Mr. Big, George Mraz, Todd Rundgren, Joe Satriani, En Vogue, MC Hammer, and a lot of others.

One of my big opportunities was the chance to work with [movie director] David Lynch. I mixed a song by Michael Jackson for him, and we hit it off really well. The next thing I knew, he wanted me to work with him on Twin Peaks.

Was this the opportunity that led to your work in films?

I did both album work and film remixing for a few years before making the switch. When I worked at Fantasy, they had a film studio upstairs and a music studio downstairs. I mostly did records, but once in a while I would record ADR [automated dialogue replacement] and Foley sound effects. In the early 1990s, I got an offer for a job in Los Angeles recording Foley, and it paid twice as much money as I was making. At that point, the record business had slowed, so I thought I’d take the job at MGM.

I went to give my notice at Fantasy and told Roy that I was going to L.A. Apparently, some sound editorial people had told Roy they thought I’d be good at mixing for films. So he said to me, “Look, I don’t want you to go to L.A. I think you should start learning to mix for films here.” I told him that it was foreign to me, I’d never done it. He told me to think it over. Someone gave me the number of a guy who worked at Disney, and I called him to talk about mixing for films. He told me that if the people at Fantasy were going to teach me how to do that, I should stay there. It would be a lot harder to make the jump to mixing for films if I was living in L.A. I told Roy that I’d try it, and I passed on the offer at MGM.

Was the shift from recording and mixing albums to mixing films a big transition?

The biggest thing was going from doing a two-speaker stereo mix to five speakers and surround sound. I had a lot to learn. The people at Fantasy gave my name to a few young directors who gave me a shot. After a little while, it started to feel more natural to me. I was in over my head, but I was learning. If someone asked me to do something I knew I couldn’t do, I would just tell them I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to jump in and then crash and burn. I’d seen guys take on too much and go down in flames. I felt time was on my side. Little by little, I started learning about speaker placement, sound placement, and how the music, dialogue, and sound effects go together to make a scene. The first film I mixed was in 1991, a Brazilian movie called Exposure.

Who was the director to give you what you’d consider to be the first real break?

It was David Lynch. I was originally called to work on Twin Peaks, but then the people who hire the remixers took me off so that someone more experienced could do it. David told them he wanted me. He took a big chance on me, and it turned out to be a blast. We had to record four or five songs in the studio for a band scene in the film, and I recorded the band for a few days. David came in and said he wanted the crew to have some fun and record a song. We spent a day writing and recording a song with David singing. It never went anywhere, but it was a lot of fun.

After that, did things really open up?

No, it took three or four months, so I continued recording music at Fantasy. Then David Fincher called me to do his film Seven. I did a temp mix and a few predubs for it with Ren Klyce, who is his sound director. Ren and I hit it off. Working with people who were close to the directors is what started to open doors for me. A picture editor I’d met named Dylan Tichenor recommended me to Paul Thomas Anderson, another director. Paul came up to meet me and have lunch. A little while later, he sent a rough cut of his second film, Boogie Nights, for me to look at. We did a temp 

mix on it, and he wanted me to mix it, but that didn’t happen because of my schedule. I wasn’t an independent yet. I was still working for Fantasy and was committed to some projects with jazz producer Todd Barkan. At that time, both sides of the business were percolating for me.

I was building relationships with producers as well as with other mixers and sound designers. I mixed Ed Wood for Tim Burton at Fantasy. Then, sometime in 1996, I got a phone call from Francis Ford Coppola’s office. They wanted me to do a mix for them on the film Jack. They were offering me about three times the hourly rate that I was making on staff at Fantasy. I started thinking about leaving Fantasy and becoming an independent engineer. I had a few things lined up, so I made the break. Some things fell through initially, so I filled the schedule in with records. Eventually, I became friends with some up-and-coming directors and other mixers who were young and starting out like I was. I also got a call from Skywalker Sound, and they began to book things for me.

What do you think made people want to hire you?

It’s all about vibe in the studio. In addition to what I did with a mix, I think the fact that I was quiet, not too vocal about things but would give suggestions when I felt it was appropriate, helped to create a good working atmosphere. Even in the mixing stage, you want to make things comfortable for the director and give them what they need.

Has any particular movie been a high point among all those you’ve done?

It’s hard to single out one. I look back and think the Lord of the Rings trilogy was fun, There Will Be Blood was great, and mixing with Tom Johnson for Sweeney Todd was special. More than the actual movie, it’s really the experience of working together creatively with the director, the other mixers, and sound designers that makes things special. As a team, we figure out what will work best for the audience. It’s like working with a band when things click, because you know where the other players are going. Sometimes it’s not whether you worked on a great film, but that you had a great time doing it that makes the experience stand out. Not everyone loved the movie Magnolia, but working on it with Paul Thomas Anderson was a blast.

Movies are an avenue of escape for people and can take them to a new place.

That’s the main goal. People want an outlet. The beauty of the arts is that you offer someone a little chance for escape. But we all know it’s a business too. The studios have to make money so they can make more movies, and people need to go to the movies so we can keep making them.

At this point in your career as a freelancer, do you still have to hustle for work?

I’ve been lucky in the past years, and I get a lot of calls. Early on, it was me calling everyone. First you have no jobs, then you have a few, then as you hustle, you have too many. Soon people stop calling you because they think you are too busy or too expensive. So you have to start calling them again to tell them that even though you have a couple of Oscars, you’re still available and affordable.

Has success allowed you to be more selective about the projects you take on?

Yes, you can be selective, but then you may miss some opportunities. Some people have said, “You work on good movies all the time.” I can look back and say I’ve made some good choices and some bad ones. The beauty of bad choices is no one really knows! When the offers are coming in, you don’t know if the movie will be successful or not. I worked on a film that I really loved called Stranger Than Fiction, but it didn’t do anything. You never know. I have a pretty good group of directors I work with that are repeat clients. The list includes Marc Forster, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Tim Burton, Clint Eastwood, Peter Jackson, and others.

Most people think of the movie business being primarily in Hollywood, but you get to live and work in Northern California and travel for some projects.

I went to New Zealand to work with Peter Jackson on Lord of the Rings and to London with Tim Burton. I’ve been to New York, Brazil, and Ireland. It is fun. I have a family now, so sometimes that’s difficult. Some directors will bring my family out for a couple of weeks because the mixes are taking longer these days; they’re more complicated.

Why are they taking longer?

With technology everything is supposed to be quicker and easier, but sometimes the mixes take longer because they’re more complex. Movies are getting more sound and special-effect oriented.

What aspect of the work you do would you say you enjoy the most?

In films as in songs, you want people to feel the emotion. A film brings the music and the soundscape together to create an emotional response. You could have an actor crying on the screen, but to give the scene more impact, you need the music and sound effects that support the actor’s performance. All of these elements together are what make movies a powerful experience.

We balance the sound effects and dialogue, and that affects the audience’s experience. It’s best when our work seems invisible. When someone goes to the movie and laughs or cries or is just entertained, it’s not just the sound, the visual effects, or the performance of the actors—it’s the whole package. I’ve enjoyed being in the theater with my kids watching movies I’ve worked on like Wall-E or Ratatouille and hearing all the kids in there laughing and having fun. I feel a movie should get some emotion out of you or provoke you to form an opinion about a subject—whether you agree with the point of view of the film or not. Basically, movies are really like campfire stories. Humans like telling stories to one another.