Epic Story Telling – Q&A with Mark Mangini

Mark Mangini is Supervising Sound Editor, Sound Designer, and Re-recording mixer at Formosa Features. He’s also an avid musician and lecturer. He won an Oscar Award for Best Sound Editing for Mad Max: Fury Road and was Oscar-nominated for Best Sound Effects Editing for The Fifth Element and Aladdin. His most recent work featured in the epic sci-fi reboot of Dune.

Hailing from Boston having majored in foreign language, Mark intended on becoming an interpreter at the U.N. However, it was through love of film for which he chose to pursue a career in the industry and moved to Los Angeles. His first job in entertainment was as a cartoon sound editor at Hanna Barbera Studios. He then had a 25 year run as owner and operator of post-production sound company Weddington Productions Inc. Mark continues to make his life’s work creating unimagined aural worlds and fabricated sonic realities for movies. 

“Having grown up a musician guitarist, I am avowed of the idea that all organized sound is “music”. I see my work in movies every bit a composition as those of Beethoven and the Beatles. I just happen to use dissonance, specious melodic content and arrhythmia to its fullest advantage. My works are no less considered, designed, creative or manipulative. They just aren’t hummable.” 

Please tell us about your earlier years and what inspired you to pursue a career in the film industry.

My interest in film-making was piqued by my dad giving me his 8mm home-movie camera and encouraging me to play with it. I was attracted to the possibilities and found joy in making stop-motion animations and recording my life as a teenager and adventures playing in a band. As my interests deepened, I became aware of the Academy Awards (having watched them for the first time on TV) and saw how rewarding this could be. I decided then and there that my career would be in making films. This was in keeping with advice my dad had given me; “If you want to be happy, find something you love to do every day, and make a career out of it”. So I did.

Hanna Barbera is famous for some of the most popular cartoons worldwide. How did you end up working in cartoon sound editing and how did your career evolve into the film industry?

I was living at home in 1976 (I was 19 at the time) and feeling disillusioned and without direction. I had just dropped out of college and was wondering what was next. After seeing the Oscar telecast in 1976 the lightbulb went off and I knew that filmmaking was my destiny. I decided that my path to success would only be achieved by moving to Los Angeles (I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts) to find my fortune where movies were made. I drove to L.A. and stayed in the guest house of a friend of my fathers. After months of laying about and getting nowhere I got a lucky break . My dad had told the owner of the guest house that I liked to do animation. He got me an interview with a friend of his at Hanna Barbera studios that would turn into my first job in film. I was hired in the Sound department as a Track Reader. For what it is worth, at that time, I was so clueless about cinema, I didn’t know that what I do for a living was an actual job. I took the job having no idea what I would be doing.

Please describe a typical day at work or on a project.

There is no typical day other than following a simple directive: tell stories with sound. This could mean any one of a number of things; going out in the field to record new sounds, working in my studio to create sounds never heard before, meeting with the director to discuss what our sonic goals are, hiring and managing a crew of sound editors and mixers to align with the project goals, travelling to an actor’s home to record their voices or experimenting with new equipment. And, of course, sound editing. The process of splicing the sounds that we make and record into a digital workstation to synchronize with the images we are given.

Congratulations on all of your achievements to date. You’ve worked on a variety of movies from different genres. How do you approach this variation and from where do you draw inspiration for each type of project?

The variety really makes my job fun. The inspiration is really simple. I try to use sound to help the director tell their story. My success and satisfaction come from looking inside each film and figuring out what I can do to improve it…with sound. As such, my techniques and contributions are unique and never the same from project to project making my work varietal and different every day. Comedies are by far the most challenging. Finding ways for sound to be funny without using “funny” sound is the key to success. 

Inspiration comes in so many forms. Often, we look to films in the same genre and study what they did successfully and either use that as inspiration or use their approaches to guide us in what not to do i.e. what are the sound tropes used elsewhere and how do we avoid them to have the most original sound possible. Sometimes inspiration just strikes…often when one least expects it. I internalize all the challenges for each project and they percolate in my head. At some point, all that mental processing produces a flash of creativity that presents itself and must be acted upon. I can’t tell you how many times I go to bed wondering how I’m going to solve a problem and wake up with a novel solution or idea to experiment with that day. Where did that inspiration come from? That’s another discussion!

Blade Runner 2049 and Mad Max: Fury Road are both considered to be reference demo Ultra-HD Blu-ray releases. The bass levels in particular are so powerful. Can you talk us through these projects? How much influence did you have in the overall post-production in terms of what the Directors intended?

Talking you through just one of those projects is an entirely separate interview, I think! These were very dense, sound oriented projects, films that rely on sound to tell the story. George Miller once said to me that “Mad Max is a film we see with our ears”. A profound statement about how he uses sound (and not just words and dialogue) to tell his story. Yet this idea that sound is a narrative tool, is foreign to most “civilians” (non-film professionals) In fact, most of the movie going audience never give sound a second thought (if it’s done well) assuming that what they hear on screen was simply captured by the boom mic on set. How that makes any sense in light of science fiction movies like Blade Runner or Mad Max or Dune is mystifying to me (what desert has Sand Worms and what city has Spinners flying in the air?) Yet if we do our jobs, these fabrications feel as seamless and integrated within a scene as if they had been captured live. 

As the Sound Designer and Supervising Sound Editor I have a great deal of influence in all of the post-production as it is my job to see that the sound of a film reflects what the director intended. I am responsible for everything one hears except for the music. That means it is my job to collaborate with the director to implement their sonic vision in dialogue, sound effects, atmospheres, sound design and foley. Just as the Director of Photography is, arguably, the final word in what one sees on screen, so to am I the final word on what one hears onscreen. No sound is recorded, designed, edited or mixed without me having had some influence on its existence.  

Let’s talk about your most work on Dune. The audio mix on this movie was incredible in so many respects. In particular, the bass levels, the musical score mix variation and such amazing sound effects such as the Ornithopter sequences. Can you tell share more detail about your approach in delivering such an extraordinary aural experience for movie enthusiasts?

It all starts with developing a philosophy for the film that is driven by its narrative. I start every project by discussing a film dramatically with the director and trying to get inside the story she or he is trying to tell. I work more like an actor than a technician in that sense. I want to understand the characters motivations and the stories arc. Once I have a clear idea of what the movie is trying to achieve dramatically, everything else is relatively easy. Because when you know why something is happening, it’s not a giant leap to get to how to make that happen with sound. ‘Why’ drives everything I do. When designing sound I ask myself why this sound should be a certain way, and when I have that answer, how to do it becomes a much simpler mechanical process of achieving the solution.

I also like to develop an over-arching sound philosophy on each film that guides everything we do. Think of it as a “lens” through which we see/hear our work. On Blade Runner 2049 we adopted several guiding principles. One of which came from Denis Villeneuve who said “I want you to compose with sound”. This gave sound the permission to work in much longer arcs and play with tonality and melody in ways that traditional composers work. Theo Green and I developed sounds and montages that could easily have been heard of as score as did Hans Zimmer and Ben Wallfisch did with their music, creating ambient compositions that might be considered sound design.

On Dune, Denis asked us to make the sound feel organic and integrated with the reality of the movie. We developed a philosophy we called FDR – Fake Documentary Realism. In other words, we wanted the sound in Dune to feel real and believable…something you might or could or have heard had you dropped onto Arrakis with a documentary film crew. So what does that mean practically when you have to make Worms and Ornithopters? What it doesn’t mean is using synthesizers and electronic equipment, standard go-to sound generators in science fiction, to make sounds we’ve never heard before. What we attempted to do was make sounds you’ve never heard before sound like you had heard them before. I know this doesn’t make a lot of sense but it was our design aesthetic.

Home audio technology has changed significantly during the last few years, especially with immersive audio formats. Has this influenced your work at all and if so, how?  

It has influenced us in a couple of ways. The first is that we now have to create high or higher fidelity master recordings that will be used for the Home Theater assets that studios create: Streaming files, Blu-Rays etc. We now take much more time after a film is finished with its final audio mix to create special masters for these Home Theater releases that are optimized for those formats. The other way that Home Theater has influenced what we do is understanding that audiences are becoming much more critical listeners with high fidelity Home Theater equipment and I think that incentivizes Sound Designers to be on their A-game all the time. 

Can you tell us more about your preferred mixing stages? 

The beauty of film sound (perhaps unlike the music recording industry) is that we have codified sound reproduction/monitoring specifications that are industry standards and are religiously adhered to by almost all professional mixing stages. As such, one can move between various professional mixing facilities around the world and ones product will sound the same in all of them…understanding that the acoustics of each rooms design will create minor variations in the sound reproduction. A big part of this consistency is due to the predominance of three or four-speaker manufacturers that make dedicated lines of speakers for cinema mix rooms. We don’t see this in music recording studios where there is a wide variety of audio monitors used and little adherence to agreed-upon monitoring/level/EQ curves.

For anyone wanting to get into this aspect of the industry, what words of wisdom could you share?  

Simple, make it something you do every day. Even when you’re not being paid. That’s the sign of a professional; someone who pursues an activity because their happiness is tied to doing it. Often these individuals need to express themselves by doing, and that is more important than the compensation. If one follows this philosophy, the money will come, but not necessarily the other way around. The individuals in my community that I admire are out recording new sounds every day, even if they are not engaged on a project. Or they are learning how to use new tools and technology in their spare time. These are dedicated people who love sound. If you want to be a sound designer, start designing sound with whatever equipment you have or can borrow. Go get a $100 digital recorder and start capturing the world and building a library of sound. Start listening to the world…a lot. Develop your aural acuity and learn to separate it from your visual acuity. Most people, even individuals in my sound community, don’t think about how sound influences and informs our every-day lives when they are not in the studio. This should be become a daily observance. Your awareness of what real-life sounds like is the bedrock from which everything else springs.

Can you share how you became involved with the Qatar Film Institute and how you will be collaborating in future?

Two years ago, DFI hired an event coordinator for the Qumra Film Festival, held in early spring each year, to secure speakers and lecturers. I had done a series in Mexico City two years ago that went well and the same coordinator recommended me to the Doha Film Institute search committee. My presentation went well last year and they wanted me back and, this time, in person. I gave another lecture this past November that went well and we are now discussing how I might become a more significant contributor to the DFI’s ongoing goals of education in the arts for filmmakers in the region.

Which of your projects can we look forward to overcoming months?

I am just finishing a great documentary about the Mars Rover Opportunity for Amazon called Good Night Oppy. This is a beautiful look at a NASA project that was supposed to last 90 days and ended up lasting 15 years and delivering valuable scientific discoveries. The Jet Propulsion Labs here in LA provided an immense trove of archival footage showing the development of the Rover and ILM has realized some masterful recreations of the Rover as it explores on the Martian surface. I’m also in the middle of a documentary for Sam Green called 32 Sounds – a unique and profound look at how we listen and relate to sound. It will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2022.

And finally, can you share the titles of some of your favourite music tracks/artists, TV shows and movies?

For movies, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, E.T., Close Encounters, Schindler’s List, Forbidden Planet, War of the Worlds, Sleeper, Annie Hall, Anchorman, Big Night, everything with Wallace and Gromit.

For TV Shows, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Succession, What’s My Line, Ted Lasso.

For Music, Larry Carlton, Jeff Beck, Laurence Juber, Tommy Emmanuel, Muse, Deftones, Jellyfish, Steely Dan. 

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