Interview: Sound Mixers Ron Bartlett & Doug Hemphill on ‘Blade Runner 2049’

The differences between sound editing and sound mixing may not seem large to the general audience. However, each is incredibly complex with their own nuances. There are blunt ways in which to differentiate the two. To put it simply, the sound designers (Sound Editing) creates the content of the sound in the film, and what you actually here. The Sound Mixers (often credited as the re-recording mixer) arrange and organize the content. This includes the levels at which you hear a sound (including the effects, dialogue, or score), the directions from where you hear the sound, and finally, how these elements play together to form a cohesive soundtrack.

Luckily, I’ve been able to sit down with both sides of the sound team from “Blade Runner 2049,” including an interview we ran earlier this week with Sound Designer (sound editor) Mark Mangini. I was also able to down with the mixers of “Blade Runner 2049,” Doug Hemphill and Ron Bartlett. Ron and Doug dive into this difference and showcase some of their skills in the process. In conjunction with Mark’s interview, they paint a great picture of the difference between the two similar, yet starkly different categories.

AF: When I was prepping for the interview, I realized that you both worked on the Final Cut of the original “Blade Runner” when it was being remastered.

Doug: Yeah, that was about 8 years ago for Ridley [Scott].

AF: How surreal was it to from working on The Final Cut to working on a brand new one?

Doug: I have to say, working with Ridley a couple of times, I loved the original “Blade Runner.” I loved what he was trying to do when we worked on it, which was get rid of the narration. He never it in the movie. But for me personally, going from the original “Blade Runner” to “Blade Runner 2049” was a continuation of the same themes. I thought Denis was a perfect choice for “Blade Runner 2049” because it’s about what it means to be a human being and striving for what is good within all of us.

Ron: I think that one big reason that Denis reached out to us, other than our other credits, was because we would have that same viewpoint of having the same themes and knowing Ridley’s vision. Having worked with him, we could bring that into the new one. We obviously wanted to go to a new place, but we could connect it in a strong way.

AF: You each have so many strong credits, including “The Dark Knight,” “Life of Pi,” and “Prometheus.” How did working on “Blade Runner 2049” differ from some of those other movies you’ve worked on?

Doug: Well, first of all, it’s important for people outside the field to understand what it is we do. We’re just like them, we’re audience. If we have any ability or talent, its that we bring our audience sensibilities to the mix. We say “If I was doing the sound this film, this is the way I’d want it to be.” That’s really where we come from in terms of story, narrative, and using sound to support the narrative. We’re essentially rack focusing like a cameraman to determine what the audience needs to be listening to for the story to move forward.

Ron: Yeah, what would be different would probably be the crews. They always vary with different personalities and skillsets. This particular crew was A-list all the way around. It was a great group of guys that all got together and made a film in a very collaborative way. Denis wants us, no, expects us to bring our A-game so our best ideas are on the table. See what we’ve got.

Doug: Part of this is how well Denis will eliminate things that do not move the story forward in the soundtrack.

Ron: Yeah, we purposely had the composers Ben [Wallfisch] and Hans [Zimmer] deliver a lot of choices. It was in a way that Denis could really sculpt it and mold it. I had a lot of stereo sounds and 5.1 sounds to choose from. They had great themes that worked out nicely. Denis would go through and listen to each track and tell us “oh I like that one” or “no, not here.” He would focus it down to the essence and be bold about it. There were times where there were one or two things that he would love and say that’s all I need. So I would repurpose it and remix it to fill out a room. It was really interesting to see his process work through the film that way.

Doug: Yeah, and it’s not an overly intellectual process like Ron was saying earlier. You’re expected to really understand what is really going on. Denis will talk more about feelings and emotions then intellectual conceits, and I just really love the way that Denis works.

Ron: It’s the best way to go about it and the best way to work. At some point say what I want to get out of this scene is this feeling for this character, and then just let you go. He might give you a comment or two after that, but for the most part, he’ll just let you go after that.

blade runner 2049AF: How do you balance out the score in this film, versus the ever-present street sounds or environmental sounds?

Doug: Well sometimes they’re really interlaced. You might not be able to tell the difference between what’s a street sound, or which is the score, which is our goal. Sometimes they’re really interwoven. We don’t always think of music and effects as separate. They’re all pieces of the dystopian world of “Blade Runner” so they are interlaced and melded.

Ron: I think that’s one of the strengths of the film and our track because we did interlace them so tightly you cannot tell where each stops and finishes. It’s not, like Doug said, “versus” but instead it’s together. That’s a fantastic way to go about it. On other crews in other situations, that might be fighting. On this film, it was not that way at all.

Doug: It’s like a band when they get up on stage. When you’re a bunch of really good musicians, you know when to lay back, to not get in the way, and support. That’s what Ron and I did on this soundtrack.

Ron: It’s all about who can make the story better. Does the music take the lead? Do sound effects work better here? Do I push back or does he push forward? We’re together here, and it’s all about who is telling it best.

AF: Now I wanted to touch upon the street sounds because it is such an integral part of creating the environment. How did you determine which sounds to isolate and which sounds to pull back on?

Doug: Well before I let Ron get into this, I just want to say that when we did the foreign mix on the movie, we had a special letter of dispensation from Denis to leave all the voices in various languages in the screenings and foreign versions. He wanted the poly-lingual world we had created to carry on into all versions all over the world.

Ron: That was one of the very important things to him. That this world was a melting pot of all these different languages, of all these people coming from all over. L.A.’s like that now, but it’s gotten even more diverse and mixed with cultures and languages. We had all kinds of different people recording with group ADR and different Asian languages. We had German, we had Russian, we had Korean, you name it is was in there.

Doug: Yeah, and because of everything that’s happening with Putin and Russia, it was just this little teeny thing that he wanted to put in, and it’s when K enters L.A.’s airspace, it’s a Russian voice you hear.

Ron: It’s really subtle, you wouldn’t pick up on it. But all the big stuff, the holograms, and other ambiances were very specifically placed. It ends up sounding like chaos, and that was the whole point. It’s a planned, calculated chaos that’s designed to bring clarity, but it’s a crazy exterior vibe that’s dense and chaotic. The vending machine choices are hammering at you, the PAs are yelling at you, the trains are coming at you. It’s just this giant melting pot.

AF: How do you prioritize sounds in this environment?

Ron: The billboards and stuff like that, some were more ambient in their feel, while others are more pointed. The “off world” and those kinds of comments, we would poke through and establish as a character. Those have more focus because they’re important to the plot. Like Doug said, we rack focus on things so that as you move through a scene, you feel some of those sounds become closer and clearer while others have an ambient feel in the back as it pans off. This is a tapestry, and choices are made to propel the story.

AF: You just mentioned something I wanted to talk about. On the rooftop when K and Joi are on the roof, how did you balance the sounds of a hologram in the rain?

Doug: It took some developing. It’s strange because you want the hologram to be believable. K has fallen in love with a hologram that is a reflection of himself. So Denis asked if she should have footsteps or not? We kicked around the idea. We did end of giving her some sounds so that it was more relatable and she could become something that K could fall in love with. Now with the rain, we were mixing this and at the last minute, Denis asked for sounds of the rain. Electronic sounds as the rain hit her. These ended up becoming incredibly beautiful and moving sounds.

AF: It felt like the different locations had a different feel to them. Can you describe the difference between San Diego, or L.A., or Vegas?

Ron: It was very planned out that way. We really wanted each scene to have its own vibe, its own feel. Some of these different scenes also have more emotional content.

Doug: Even the sounds in Las Vegas, Denis was really enamored with the tones as K walks from room to room in the Casino. It was very difficult to do, and Mark Mangini and Theo Green deserve a lot of credit for getting the sound of silence in that old Las Vegas building.

Ron: I’ll tell you a story. In the scene before when he walked through that red desert, we had a music cue before the bees. There were these big drum hits that we had used from the original “Blade Runner.” We had dressed them up of course, after mixing for a week or so, the legal department called and told us we couldn’t use anything from the original “Blade Runner.” We had spinner sounds and these bass drum hits as a nod back to the original and suddenly they were gone.

Mark Mangini called me at like 10 PM that night and said we’re in trouble. I know you’re a percussionist, could you redo those drum beats? So I said yeah sure, and stayed up until 3 in the morning. I recorded all these drums at my house, mixed them in my studio and brought them into work. We had to replace them all over the film. So we got to this cue, and we had distilled it down to almost nothing. We stripped it down until it was just the drums and we played it. It was so stark and dynamic that we found it fascinating. That’s what’s in the final film. Denis is unafraid, he’s a very bold filmmaker in a very focused way.

AF: What’s one of the biggest things you’d like the audience to take away from your work on “Blade Runner: 2049?”

Ron: Emotion.

Doug; Exactly, our job was bringing the film with their emotional content to the audience. We hope as you leave the movie, you feel more for these characters. Really the humanity involved. Our job is to really bring out that emotion and tell it in a new way.

Ron: It’s the best job in the world, telling stories. It just doesn’t get any better, it goes from telling stories around a campfire to the theaters now.

AF: Are there any specific scenes that you want to direct people to look at as symbolic of your work?

Doug: It’s really the overall story for us. There are lots of scenes we love, but to us, it’s the whole thing.

Ron: Yeah, I mean we love the scene in Vegas, the seawall…

Doug: …the rooftop in the rain. It’s those really subtle moments that people might not latch onto or will pass over. But if you listen and see whats going on in the subtle tapestry, you may go “wow, look what they’re doing.

Ron: We don’t want you to notice it the first time so that it’s overpowering. Instead, we want to support the movie so you can understand the story.

CLICK THE CATEGORY TO SEE THE OSCAR PREDICTIONS:

MOTION PICTURE | DIRECTOR |
LEAD ACTOR | LEAD ACTRESS | SUPPORTING ACTOR | SUPPORTING ACTRESS | 
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY | ADAPTED SCREENPLAY | ANIMATED FEATURE |
PRODUCTION DESIGN | CINEMATOGRAPHY | COSTUME DESIGN | FILM EDITING | MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING | SOUND MIXING | SOUND EDITING | VISUAL EFFECTS |
ORIGINAL SCORE | ORIGINAL SONG |
FOREIGN LANGUAGE | DOCUMENTARY FEATURE |