By Jedd Jong
Filmmakers strive to create an immersive experience, to give viewers a chance to step into carefully crafted realities that they can get lost in. Whether it’s an alien world, a distant period in history or a dizzying musical fantasy-scape, sound is an element that is often overlooked in creating this immersion. Every film crew includes sound recordists, designers, mixers, composers and editors who ensure that the audience hears exactly what they should.
Andy Nelson is a re-recording mixer with over four decades of experience under his belt. Growing up in London, Nelson’s career in the industry began at age 16, when he was a projectionist at a local cinema. He then moved into sound mixing for TV and movies, working on films like Schindler’s List, The Thin Red Line, X-Men, Moulin Rouge!, Star Trek (2009), Les Misérables and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Nelson has garnered a staggering 21 Oscar nominations, and won for Saving Private Ryan and Les Misérables. At the 88th Academy Awards, Nelson was nominated for two separate films in the same year, Bridge of Spies and The Force Awakens. He has mixed for directors including Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Stanley Kubrick, J.J. Abrams and Terence Malick.
Nelson was in Singapore as one of the invited guests of the Disney Storytelling+ Bootcamp, joining others who have worked behind-the-scenes in film and television to share their expertise with a new generation of filmmakers and storytellers. Nelson spoke about an emotional moment he experienced working on Schindler’s List, how different musicals require varying approaches to sound mixing, the differences between John Williams and Hans Zimmer’s methods of film scoring and his work on Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story.
JEDD: You have an illustrious list of credits. To the average moviegoer, they think of “sound” as just one element, but there are so many categories within that. There’s music, Foley, sound design, re-recording, sound mixing, ADR. Can you break it down for us and take us through what your job entails?
ANDY NELSON: I normally work with a partner. I handled all the music and the dialogue myself, and the other mixer handles the sound effects, but between us, we have to craft the tracks. I usually start with the dialogue and I try and make sure everything is perfectly clear and clean and the best it can be from the performance point of view, then I usually craft the music into that. When the composer’s written all the score, you assume you’re going to need all the music that’s been written, then we put the sound effects into that.
Then, once all the components are in, a little bit like a recipe, then we start to blend it and mix it together and pick our moments through each scene. Is this a strong sound effects moment? Is this a strong music moment? Should there be any sound at all? Silence is pretty powerful as well. We work in tandem, obviously with the director all the time, to design the track the way he or she wants it to be.
Many elements of filmmaking require a balance of creativity and technical mastery. How do you achieve that balance with regards to sound mixing?
NELSON: The way I approach it is I have to know what I’m doing from a technical standpoint, but I never want to let that get in the way of telling the story. Sometimes you just do something that maybe technically isn’t the right thing to do, but if it works, it works. One of the things you have to do as the mixer when you create the final soundtrack is you have to create a trust between you and the director, because they’re putting their baby into your hands, essentially. One of the things I’ve never wanted to do is let the technology get in the way, or make them feel that I would say “no, we can’t do that because…” I treat it much more as a creative process for that reason.
Over the years, you’ve worked with directors including Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, JJ Abrams, Terence Malick and Stanley Kubrick. How much are directors typically involved in the process of sound design, mixing and re-recording?
NELSON: Oh, heavily, very heavily. Somebody like Jim Cameron on Avatar, he would allow us to do our pass and get us into shape, but then when he came in and sat down and wanted to start, then we would roll our sleeves up and get to work. He would be very pinpoint precision, laser-sharp about what should happen at this moment, how that sound should be at that moment. With Steven, I’ve done 18 films with Steven so we have shorthand between us that’s pretty good nowadays. I get a first pass at the entire movie and then he’ll come and sit with me and we’ll work through it together.
As a fanboy, I have to ask, do you have any memorable Steven Spielberg stories?
NELSON: Gosh. I’ll tell you a story about when I was working on a scene on Schindler’s List, a very complicated scene we were doing. I played it to him and I finished playing and I put the lights up. He was sitting right next to me. He had tears rolling down his face and he said “I don’t know what I would do to change this, so let’s move on.” It was a very important moment for me because it told me so much about him as a director. It wasn’t that I had done an incredible sound mix or anything, it was just that the scene was working and as a director, that’s all he wants, for the scene to work the way he imagines. For me, that’s a master storyteller at work. As a director, he could’ve said “let’s go through it again ten more times or 50 more times,” but he was so precise in what he wanted and it achieved what he wanted on an emotional level. I’ll never forget it. It was only my second film with him. I’m going to be doing West Side Story with him next year; that will be my 19th film. I hope it continues.
I think it was Marco Beltrami who said “befriend the sound mixer so music gets placed louder in the mix than sound effects.” What is it like determining what gets priority in the mix; who decides that?
NELSON: We all kind of chip in, really. I’m handling the music physically myself, I happen to love music, it’s one of the reasons I got into it in the first place, was falling in love with what music does to visuals, it just took me to places in my mind and it still does today. I’m a defender of music, but I feel that music is overused in movies nowadays. I think that sometimes there’s too much score – I’m the first to put my hand up and suggest “Do we need it here? Is it coming in at the right point emotionally? Does it connect with the story correctly?” I’m definitely always trying to advocate to make the music work, but I’d be the first to say if it’s not working, we shouldn’t be using it.
Leading on from that, I wanted to talk specifically about musicals. You worked on Moulin Rouge!, Les Misérables, La La Land and you’re going to be working on West Side Story. Each of those movies is quite different from the others, even though they’re all musicals. What was the approach to the sound of Moulin Rouge!, Les Misérables and La La Land?
NELSON: They were all completely different. First of all, Moulin Rouge!, you’re dealing with Baz Luhrmann. Baz Luhrmann is the most incredible creative director you could imagine. He spins with ideas constantly. His films are so richly layered that it took us weeks just to dig through and find all the little moments that worked in the way he wanted to tell that story. It was an incredibly complicated soundtrack to mix.
Jump forward to Les Misérables, that was a completely revolutionary film in the sense that they recorded everything live. That took a tremendous amount of organisation. Tom Hooper started talking to me months before they started shooting about the approach and how we’d have to paint microphones out digitally and how the set had to be much quieter than normal because you had to protect the vocal. All we were relying on was the best vocal we could get.
La La Land was a mixture of the two, oddly enough. There were some live moments in La La Land, particularly the Audition piece at the end, which was all live, little bits of the duet on the hill were live. There were also big playback moments – you can’t really do live recording if there’s a lot of instance, for instance. With Les Misérables there was no dancing, so it could be live. La La Land was a little bit of both, and I thought it worked really well for that reason.
With West Side Story, there has been an earlier film adaptation of that musical. How much will your approach to the sound be influenced by that?
NELSON: I think Steven wants a different sort of style and a different take. It’s obviously the classic music with Leonard Bernstein’s score, it’s exactly the same songs, but he’s going to approach it in a different sort of style altogether. I can’t really speak to it because they’re right in the middle of shooting, I haven’t really seen anything of it yet. There may be some live recording; we’ll see.
There are hundreds, sometimes thousands of people who work on a given movie. To a certain extent, your contributions to a film might be considered less “visible” than say that of an actor or a director, but you are doing crucial work and you have been recognized for it. What are your thoughts on the concept of recognition within the industry, and what do you feel gives you validation and satisfaction in your work?
NELSON: Look, anything that you get an accolade for is always a real treat; I don’t take it for granted in the slightest. I think what I’ve always tried to do is value the relationship I’ve created over the years with directors and composers, because I’m very close with people like John Williams and Hans Zimmer, I’ve worked on many, many different films with them all. Those relationships to me are the most satisfying thing. If a film happens to get some accolades on top of that, then we all celebrate, but the work is the most important thing. The sense of accomplishment when we seem to pull something off, that’s the satisfaction for me, not the awards.
Speaking of composers like John Williams and Hans Zimmer, what is the process of working with them like, and what are some of the differences that you’ve seen between the way different composers work? How do you accommodate that in your mixing?
NELSON: Well, if you take John Williams, John Williams has a very classic style of writing and he is much more about the performance of the orchestra and tends to want the orchestra to play together, because that’s where he feels the cohesion happen between the players.
Does he still mostly conduct himself?
NELSON: He does whenever possible, yes, absolutely – and the orchestra loves it, you can tell.
It’s a thrill.
NELSON: It’s a thrill. With somebody like Hans, he’ll approach it differently where he’ll record the strings, then record the brass, then we blend them together afterwards. There’s good and bad in both of those [approaches]. The good part is I have more control, but the bad part is they’re not playing as cohesively as if they were all playing in one go, so you win some and you lose some. It’s just different approaches. With someone like Hans of course, he wants to layer in his synthetic sounds with it, the Hans Zimmer sound, which is often string samples that go with the real strings, whereas someone like John would rely more on the real strings only.
Was there a particular film (or films) that you watched as a kid that make you first sit up and take notice of that film’s use of sound?
NELSON: Funnily enough, the first film I was ever taken to as a kid was West Side Story.
NELSON: Very much full circle. I can’t say I sat up and took notice of it at the time, but I think I was aware of it more and more. When I started working at a cinema at the age of 16, the first film I learned to throw on the projector was actually Midnight Cowboy, and I remember thinking how great the sound was in that, how great John Barry’s score was. I became very aware, and I started collecting soundtrack albums at that age just to take home and listen to because I just fell in love with cinema music, without even knowing I’d be handling any of it to come, because at that point I didn’t know what my career was going to be like at all. Easy Rider was playing at the same time as Midnight Cowboy; another fantastic soundtrack.
What a moment that was!
NELSON: It was a great moment. The James Bond movies, you know. Music in film has always transported me, as a kid right up to today. When the lights go down and the music plays, I’m in another land. I’m in heaven. [Chuckles]
With Jerry Goldsmith, I’ve never seen a single episode of Star Trek Voyager, I heard the Voyager theme and started crying. He has that power.
NELSON: Jerry is great. I worked with him once on L.A. Confidential, which was a terrific film Curtis Hanson made. I loved Jerry, yeah, never got to work on any of the big shows with him before he passed away, sadly, but what a talent.
What are some of the most cherished memories in your professional life that you find yourself revisiting?
NELSON: I honestly can’t tell you that there’s one; I tend to categorise them in different ways. To this day, the smile on my face when I first ran The Force Awakens with J.J., just because I felt he’d gone back to…tapped into the real magic of what Star Wars was, I’ll never forget that moment. I had a smile on my face through the whole time we worked on that movie. Can’t wait to see the new one.
Did you work on the new one?
NELSON: I haven’t started it yet, but I am going to do the new one. Probably in about a week’s time I’ll be starting.
NELSON: Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.
Avatar was obviously fantastic, very challenging for me. A lot of Steven’s films, just because he’s such a master filmmaker, obviously. Terry Malick, Thin Red Line, another good one. I could go on and on. They’re like favourite kids, what’s your favourite child? You can’t say. [Chuckles]
Finally, you have won and been nominated for many awards and have attended awards shows including the Oscars and the BAFTAs. Do you have an awards show story you’d like to tell?
NELSON: I mean, getting up on stage and having to accept the award for Les Mis, I’d never wanted to stand up on that stage and speak because I was terrified at the thought of that. We’d made an agreement that if win [the BAFTA], one person would speak in London, and if we were lucky enough to go to the Oscars, I would speak for that. I said “we’ll never be there”.
You thought you were safe.
NELSON: I agreed to it and I wasn’t safe. I had to stand up. That was in itself extraordinarily terrifying because there’s nothing quite like that moment. Then we celebrated a lot afterwards, so that’s good [chuckles].