Flashback: Transitional Thinking

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Dig It just recently completed the sound editing and mixing for the documentary film What Is Cinema?by Chuck Workman. The film premiered at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival. Chuck has been an editor, director, and producer for the past 40 years. He is an Oscar winner for his short film Precious Images, and has edited the archival sequences for 14 Academy Awards shows. His credits go way further should you have the urge to look him up. Needless to say, he is a real pro and takes his editing to a high art form.


What Is Cinema?  is a very interesting film that deals with that very question through interviews with renowned directors and an artful selection of archival clips. It was a fairly straightforward mixing job as films go. It was mostly three main elements: interview, archival film clips, and music. There were a handful of sound effects sprinkled in here and there, but not a lot of effects or sound design. Because Chuck also had to attend some of the color correcting sessions, the plan was for me to mix unsupervised for part of the time and then to review and mix with Chuck for the final passes. We started the mix working together though. We both felt that it was important for me to understand what he wanted in terms of the style of the mix, before he left me to work unsupervised. As we worked through the first few scenes, I was able to get a feel for how he liked his music to voice levels and what the feel of the piece was supposed to be.


Once I had a good sense of what he wanted he left me to plow on ahead as he tended to the color sessions. This can often be a great strategy as it also allows the mixer to really work fast.  If there are no conversations and no input then you can just do what you feel is right and cover ground quickly. My plan of attack on a piece like this is to EQ and ride levels for the voice or voices for a given scene first, then set a level for the music, and then go back and make small fader riding adjustments to all the elements to make sure they are in balance throughout the scene.


When Chuck came back to join me for the final mix and review passes, he said something I found very interesting. He said that he thought the levels for the music and voices were feeling good and he might have a few notes pertaining to them, but that mostly he was interested in really working the transitions in and out of the archival clips and between scenes and sections of the film. That comment really rang true for me, as I have always felt that a really good mix has to flow in a way that makes sense and works for that given project. That does not mean that some abrupt and even jarring hard cuts might not be appropriate. It just really depends on the moment or specific transition. So we spent some careful time working the transitions. We experimented with different fade combinations and also trimmed or extended the regions at those cuts to make sure that we had found the best solution for each one. 


We were on a very tight schedule to finish this feature length mix in just 20 hours. As soon as the audio files were created they would be rushed over to the picture house to make a DCP that would then go to Toronto. Fortunately we were able to execute the plan with the efficient workflow we had laid out at the start. We were both confident that we had done a thorough job and come up with a solid mix for the film.

Thomas Efinger