Chris Munro is one of the world’s leading soundmen. His CV features films such as Black Hawk Down, The American, Quantum of Solace, Casino Royale, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Sherlock Holmes, Chocolat . So it’s no surprise that he is the ‘go to’ man when it comes to getting the sound on film right.
Grant: Do you think sound is something that you feel as well as hear?
Chris: It should be. Perhaps when people say that the sound on a film is good, it is actually not good, because you should feel it rather than hear it. I think this can also be said of film music. It should create an intended mood without the audience being distracted by it. Over the years there have been many schools of thought on the role of sound in movies. I’ve even heard some people say that they don’t want the dialogue too loud because they want the audience to really concentrate on the film. For me, I want the dialogue to sound natural and in perspective with the picture, yet still be completely intelligible and the sound effects exciting and atmospheric. We sometimes talk about film being a visual medium, but it’s interesting how quickly an audience loses interest when the sound fails.
Grant: Do you have to be a technical perfectionist, or is there space for interpretation when capturing sound for films?
Chris: Sound people are often technical perfectionists, but I think it’s important not to be too geeky. I like to think of myself as a filmmaker that specialises in sound, rather than a soundman specialising in sound for films. One of the things that makes a good sound mixer is knowing what you can get away with; or in other words, how you can make things work. It’s no good having great sound to the detriment of the performance or the visuals.
Grant: We know you work with some directors who do not like to overdub their sound capture. What added pressure does this create and how do you overcome the problem of locations filled with complex and varied sound sources?
Chris: Most directors these days want original sound. It helps that the director wants what you want, and it’s even better if he helps to fight for good sound. I use various methods to get clean sound on location, but on the whole it’s just a matter of common sense and an accumulation of issues that make the sound unusable. It can be just looking for every noise that adversely affects the recording. Every noise you can eliminate improves the quality just a little, but accumulatively the quality improvement can be significant. We are forever challenged by equipment that should be quiet but contains noisy cooling fans. This includes lighting equipment, dimmers and even hard disk video recorders and cameras which have been designed for film use. You sometimes wonder if the designers have ever been on a film set. On occasions, where it is impossible to get good, clean sound, we usually try to record the sound wild using the same mics and in the same location, and may even sync this to a playback of the picture if possible.
Grant: You work on a lot of major motion pictures, but are you aware of the growth of filmmaking with HDSLRs?
Chris: I’m aware and I own one myself that I have experimented with. There are lots of advantages, but also many disadvantages; particularly focus difficulties. I have to say though, I’m always impressed with the quality, but making movies isn’t just about the camera, or even the lenses. The things that can be just as important are having a dolly and track, a tripod or Steadicam – rather than always being handheld – as well as a usable follow focus system, lighting and, of course, then there’s the sound.
Grant: One of the steepest learning curves for photographers beginning to shoot moving images is the complexity and importance of sound capture. Do you think that it is an art which can be easily understood?
Chris: I’m not actually sure that sound is the biggest challenge for a photographer when starting to shoot movies. The big difference between still photography and movies is that with stills you will search for a shot; you need to feel what is right then take multiple shots to get the best result. Actually, the most important part of shooting a film is having a final script before you start shooting and knowing exactly how you are going to tell the story. You are unlikely to be able to edit together a good film just by hosing off a lot of different unrelated shots. Making films is all about planning and knowing as much as possible to enable you to tell the story. But yes, I agree that the complexities and importance of good sound are often underestimated.
Grant: What are the most important elements needed to contribute to successful sound capture?
Chris: Being prepared and having control over any extraneous noises that will affect getting good sound or will make your sound uneditable. Just like shooting pictures, it’s not just about the camera; capturing sound is not just about the microphones either. It is important to have all the accessories that go with them, like windshields and suspensions. Although it’s helpful to have a camera-mounted microphone, you can’t beat having someone holding a boom close to the actor on the top edge of frame. Radio mics can also prove valuable tools, as you can either have someone mix correctly during shooting or, better still, keep them all as separate elements so that they can be mixed in post-production.
Grant: How closely do you work with the director and the DoP on each project you are asked to work on, and what are you keeping them aware of on set and location?
Chris: The best films always result from when everyone works together as a team. It’s not just about working with the director and DoP, which is a given. It’s just as important to work with the actors, costume people, props, art department, electricians and grips. However, a good working relationship with the director is vital. You need to keep him or her informed about the quality of the sound – whether the actors are speaking loudly enough to be recorded intelligibly, for instance – and inform them of any issues which will unduly affect the final sound of the film. Similarly, you have to work with the DoP to be sure that you can get good microphone positions and avoid boom shadows. This is where having a good boom operator is vital. It is one of the most underrated jobs on set, as the boom operator has to have knowledge of lenses, lighting and sound and, of course, has to learn the dialogue.
Grant: You’ve worked on five of the most recent James Bond films, as well as on Black Hawk Down and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, with Robert Downey, Jr; all of which are films filled with dynamic soundscapes. What is your role in creating those?
Chris: Obtaining the original recording of all of the sound that will be in the finished film. My priority is to get good dialogue from the actors as well as good original sound effects. I am responsible for all sound during shooting. One of the most important aspects of this is making sure that the sound I record matches what the camera is shooting and hopefully reducing the need to record post-production sound as much as possible; not only in respect of the actors’ dialogue, but also any sound effects that will be needed.
Grant: Loud films or quiet? Which films which are the most complex for you to work on and how can you avoid potential problems on both?
Chris: Every film is different, but the most important issue for me is ensuring that the dialogue is intelligible, yet still sounds natural and believable. I hate it in films when you see people in nightclubs shouting over non-existent music. Similarly, however, it doesn’t feel real if they are speaking so quietly that they couldn’t possibly hear each other in a particular environment. It’s impossible to generalise as every film is different and I suppose this is where experience can really pay a premium. The chances are that you will have encountered a situation in the past. The key is to be really familiar with the script, to work out in advance exactly what your aims are and to scout every location to avoid any unforeseen issues – well as much as possible.
Grant: How does your role differ when you are working in on sound in post-production, rather than when you are working on location or on a set?
Chris: Well, on Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, for example, at the conclusion of shooting I spent a couple of weeks before sound editing started going through all of the multitracks to find the best ones, and working on noise reduction and equalisation to improve the quality of the sound where possible. This is something that I expect to do on future films. Although I have worked in post-production, I tend to specialise in production recording. In some countries it is common for the sound mixer to work on both production and post-production. This can be very difficult to actually manage; mainly because there is often a break between the end of shooting and sound post starting, where the editors are working with the director to finalise the picture edit. It is generally only when this is complete that sound editing starts, and the chances are that by then I’m involved in another project. So this kind of ‘pre-post-production’ is a good compromise.
Grant: You also worked on one of my favourite films of recent years, The American, which was directed by the Dutch photographer-turned-filmmaker, Anton Corbijn and starred George Clooney. How was he to work with and did you find working with someone with his photographic background and strong visual aesthetic a particular challenge?
Chris: I really liked working with Anton and I am hoping to do another film with him next year. I loved his first film, Control, and thought that it had a very different and interesting look, which made me want to work with him on The American. I also like working with George Clooney, who I have worked with again recently on Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Anton and I are a similar age and share similar interests in film. He is also very knowledgeable about music and has a real interest in the sound of his films; which is possibly not what you would expect of someone that is best known for the remarkable images that he has captured as a photographer.
Grant: That film had a very European aesthetic. Do you think that there is such a thing as a European approach to sound?
Chris: There is certainly a different mix for the USA and European audiences, who sometimes have different preferences. However, each needs to be approached and mixed in whatever way works best for the film. European films often have different themes or styles to Hollywood movies, and the sound needs to fully complement those differences.
Grant: What do you think are the most common mistakes made by filmmakers when they start to record sound?
Chris: Most filmmakers wouldn’t contemplate putting a camera on a static tripod, turning it on and leaving it to look after itself. But this is often what they do with the sound. As I said earlier, the most undervalued person on set is the boom operator, who always positions the microphone in exactly the right place at the right time. Don’t ever underestimate the importance of this.
Grant: Is there an approach that you would always recommend?
Chris: Yes, always give someone the responsibility for sound. Don’t think that you can just record on auto-pilot. Make sure you have the right accessories for your microphones, such as windshields and suspensions. I would always advocate trying to record the sound separately in addition to on-camera. It is rare that camera-mounted mics will give you the best quality, and the closer you get the mic to the actor the better the quality will be. There are really good accessories made by a company called Rycote that all sound professionals use. Consider having a radio mic on your actor. These are much less expensive now and even companies like Sennheiser make low-cost versions that are very reliable. You may even decide to use this as a camera link by recording to a small field recorder, but transmitting sound to camera for ease of editing. During post-production you will be able to replace this with the original sound from your field recorder.
Grant: Is it possible to save bad sound in the post-production suite?
Chris: Yes of course, it’s always possible to create something in post – but at what cost? And you will find it even harder to recreate a performance with believable realism.
Grant: With the convergence between photography and filmmaking now and new people entering the world of filmmaking from other disciplines, are you aware of a new respect for the importance of sound and audio?
Chris: No. I think people only notice sound when it’s bad.
Grant: Where do you think audio capture is going?
Chris: I think that question would probably take longer to answer than we have time for. However, good-quality sound in a convenient package is a really useful tool. For example, I recently acquired an Olympus LS-20M to use for field recording of sound effects and when I need to capture something in high quality but don’t have a lot of kit with me. I thought that the fact that it could also record images, in addition to high-quality sound, may be useful; especially when you need to identify what makes a particular noise in a sound effect. The picture quality is full HD and for the size it’s amazing, even though you are restricted to a fixed lens; although I think that these products are probably going to be of prime interest to journalists and reporters who can send full HD visuals with their reports. I think many sound people will buy them and that they will become part of most sound mixers’ standard kit, just as the audio-only versions are now.
Grant: And what’s the future for Chris Munro?
Chris: I’ve just started on Snow White and the Huntsman, and that will keep me busy. After that? A holiday!