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Michael Barry on His Career in Film Sound

Michael Barry has been a re-recording mixer for more than two decades, working on over 100 films. Some of the directors he has collaborated with include Tony Gilroy (Duplicity, Michael Clayton), Stephen Daldry (The Reader), David Koepp (Ghost Town, Secret Window), Robert Altman (Short Cuts, A Prairie Home Companion) and the Coen Brothers (The Big Lebowski, Fargo). In our interview he discusses his beginnings in sound, the job of the mixer, and the future of sound in film.

Filmmaker: When did you become interested in sound and film?

Barry: My mother studied piano at Juilliard. I grew up with her playing the Steinway in our house. She wanted me to practice but, well, you know. I did try later in life, and it just never took. I must have acquired some sort of listening expertise from my mother playing. She would comment that I could hear in-between the sound, which didn’t mean anything to me at the time, but later did. As a teenager, my friends were in a band, and I wanted to hang out with them and do all the things they were doing. Unfortunately I didn’t play an instrument so I ended up being the roadie and the sound guy. I just got into the nuances of how to balance different instruments and sounds. I never attended college and had to figure out a way to go to work. So I guess I got interested through osmosis.

Filmmaker: What kind of band were you a roadie for?

Barry: My good friends had a rock and roll band, and then later with Spyro Gyra.

Filmmaker: Do you feel like you have especially good hearing? Or is it all training?

Barry: I think a lot of it is training. I’m sure everyone can learn to listen in different ways, to educate themselves. You can tell the differences in the way it makes you feel, and I think good sound makes people feel a certain way.

Filmmaker: How did that get you into other kinds of sound work?

Barry: After a few years of hanging around with the band of friends, as far as my parents were concerned, I didn’t have a real job, so they insisted I do something, and move out of the basement. I went to audio school in New York for a short time, The Institute of Audio Research. I got a job shortly thereafter at a radio dub house cleaning the bathrooms and getting the coffee. Classic story. Soon a friend made an offer and I went to a music-recording studio, Secret Sound, and spent four or so years there. I ended up mixing records for various artists. One of the bands, the jazz group Spyro Gyra, wanted to build their own studio and hired me to come along. I spent another three or four years with them at Beartracks Studio. I toured the world doing live sound while also mixing the studio albums. All that time I thought I would stay in the music business and have a career until I came to the realization that because I didn’t play an instrument or read music well enough to be a producer, being an engineer in music was a dead end street. I was fortunate to know people at Sound One in the film business and they arranged an interview for me. When I turned 30 I made the jump across to film sound.

Filmmaker: What are the differences? Do you prefer one to the other?

Barry: They’re very different mediums to work in and certainly serve different purposes, but there are a lot of similarities. I think it’s been helpful in my career to have been trained in the music business first. I love movies and I love the process. I am in absolute heaven when I’m in the right situation, with my colleagues and everything is cooking along. But in terms of whether there are particular movies I would prefer to work on or not – that doesn’t really enter into my equation too much. I think a lot of that happens through relationships and timing; who you hang out with and what you have done before.

Filmmaker: Can you explain to someone who knows nothing about your job, what it is you actually do and how that changes the experience for the audience?

Barry:I have witnessed the sound of a film make the viewing of a film a much deeper and richer experience. The way movies are made today and for most of film history, involves literally hundreds if not thousands of sounds. The audience is probably not aware of the work it takes to get all of those sounds into their proper balance. That’s part of the point. As far as I’m concerned the sound is a supportive element in the film making process. Having said that, there are many different types of sounds or “food groups” which make up the sound track. There is, most importantly, the original dialogue recorded on location which very often requires sensitive manipulation to achieve clarity and consistency throughout the film, but that’s just one of the layers. There is also foley: sound effects recorded in synch to picture. Foley artists work is in a large room filled with all sorts of different things, or props, they use to create sounds. The film is spotted for the sounds needed by the supervisor and sound editing team. The foley artist and foley engineer then, step by step, inch by inch, painstakingly slowly, record all the sounds that people make in movies. These sounds are almost always recreated regardless of whether or not you can hear them at the original location. Not only do they add to the texture of the film but they are required for the foreign versions of movies. If a country dubs the film in their own language, they re-record on top of the original sound mix minus the English dialogue, so there has to be sound there for them to use, and foley is a big part of that.

There is also looping or ADR, Automated Dialogue Replacement, in this process, the actors come back to the recording studio, after the film has been edited, to replace their dialogue or add additional dialogue. This can be done for various reasons. The director may add some new dialogue or re-write some dialogue or replace poorly recorded dialogue. For example, if you’re on a street in a busy city and it’s very noisy, you might want to replace some of that dialogue, or a sometimes in a period film where modern background sounds are inappropriate. Often months, maybe a year after the movie has been shot the actor has to get back into that character and act that scene again in the studio. It is a very tricky technical process. In the best of circumstances the audience will not know that a replacement has been put in.

There are also sound effects, which can be background effects, birds, traffic, wind, etc. And there are many, many layers of that. Most everything you can possibly imagine in a movie is intentionally chosen and placed for maximum or minimum impact. There are also hard effects, which are specific sound effects – a car going by, or doors, phones, things like that. Things you see on camera. And there are many, many layers of those sounds. Obviously there is the music whether it’s source music, “live” music, or orchestral. These days it’s not uncommon to have 80 odd tracks of music at the final dub of a movie. And that’s after the music has been fully recorded and fully mixed down by someone else. By the time I get involved almost all the sound of a movie is already decided, already put in the right place in synch, but even after all the decisions have been pre-determined, it still takes weeks of final mixing to achieve all the nuances that the director intended, get it focused and highlighted in the right way so that you do hear all the words, or so you have the impact of the music at the right volume. After all the hard work that’s gone into your final mix, there is little better than finally hearing it in a great theater with great projection and great acoustics.

Filmmaker: What are a few of the films you have worked on?

Barry: I’ve been very, very fortunate. I’ve worked on films by the Coen Brothers, Tony Gilroy, Robert Altman, Jason Reitman, David Mamet, and many other interesting, creative, smart people, people who really know how to make movies. I’d hate to single out any one film, but I will say that each have their own challenges.

Filmmaker: Can you share a specific example?

Barry: This is silly, but there is a character in The Hudsucker Proxy, the elevator operator, and he had a funny voice anyway, but there was this one circumstance when he was projecting some sing-song-y response to something. We were not in digital format back then, it was on mag, or film magnetic recording, so just like a tape recorder when you stop it or start it in the middle of a sound you got a little “lipbip” sound. So, we recorded that accidentally and it just happened to be in the right place for his voice and it’s in the movie. It’s just this funny little sound, that’s what happens in those situations.

Filmmaker: I call them happy accidents.

Barry: These things are always approached from a creative stand-point: how do we solve this problem in a creative way? Rather than: “There’s no hope, we’re screwed.” It’s always: “How do we make this work?” It’s not uncommon for there to be moments in the process where things didn’t go exactly as planned or the things in your head you weren’t able to achieve as intended but now you are stuck with them on film, and then you have to come up with creative ways to use them. Maybe you run out of daylight and you didn’t get all of your shots, maybe the car went by at the wrong time in your dialogue sound track but you still want to use that piece of dialogue, maybe it’s started to rain on location at the wrong time. So you learn how to manipulate the picture and sound so it becomes an asset rather than a liability. There have been occasions where things in the final mix would just sort of happen. Mind you, you are in there for days and days, and hours and hours every day just focusing on all the sound that’s in the movie, being able to go backwards and forwards, and things just happen sometimes, you make a mistake or something’s too loud, or different than they have ever heard it before and they go, “Wait! That’s great!”

Filmmaker: If you were to advise a young person wanting to go into your job what would you tell them?

Barry: Get your MBA. No, wait – that would be anti-Occupy, wouldn’t it? There was something good about the technology being in fewer people’s hands. If you have to go to a professional place and use professional gear and have professional people execute it, that sets up a certain parameter to work in and I think the same argument might go for music. The development of artists over time was beneficial in my view to the music that we listened to. I think that there was something valuable in having to go through all these trials and tribulations, to have collaborators to help hone a vision. Now-a-days we have a juxtaposition of old school and new school, with the new school being very open and democratic. Anybody can get really good software and make a really decent product. To use the music business as an example, it’s difficult to make good money selling music any more; you can’t make money selling CD’s. Those days are long gone. But more artists have access to the general public than ever before. Distribution is a click away. Is the music better? You could argue that there’s just as good music now as ever. Surely there is. But is there an industry any more? The film business isn’t quite to that point, but if I were a young person starting out, I’d make sure that I understood fundamentally what the future’s going to look like, because it’s not going to look the same as it looks now. I’d still focus on a great story and the highest technical quality. There seems to be a dichotomy now between everybody having access to everything they need to make what they want and put it out there for little or nothing, or the established tried and true Goliath at the other end of the spectrum, and I don’t know where that’s going to fall at the end of the day. I think that’s the challenge for young people. I think ultimately it’s good, because if you look at it any other way, it’s a losing battle. You have to be positive about it, and figure out how to make it work.

Filmmaker: So, you ignore the fact that there are not enough life-boats on the Titanic?

Barry: Well, I’m old enough now to go down with the ship, thank you very much. No, I feel very fortunate that I fell into my career and there was enough work there, and the cost of living in New York was such that I rarely had roommates, I didn’t have great apartments, but I was able to make a living. I don’t know for how much longer that will be true. That’s the challenge.

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