The Oscar-Nominated Sound Mixers: Greg P. Russell of ‘Transformers: Dark of the Moon’

Greg P. Russell's seven films with Michael Bay have earned four Oscar nom nods. Will this “Transformers” bring in the gold?

Sound re-recording mixer Greg P. Russell may be a name few moviegoers — or even many Academy members — know. But with more than 185 films to his credit and more than a dozen Oscar nominations, he has worked with some of the biggest directors in Hollywood.

Greg P. Russell is nominated for his 15th Oscar for Transformers: Dark of the MoonRussell picked up his 15th Oscar nod this year for Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” With a worldwide gross of more than $1.1 billion, Bay's film ranks fourth after "Avatar," "Titanic" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2." Russell and Bay have collaborated on eight films, with six nominations for sound mixing. But so far the director's action brand has not yet translated into an Oscar win for Russell, whose first nomination came for 1989's Ridley Scott film "Black Rain." 

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TheWrap caught up with Los Angeles-based Russell during a mixing session for his latest job, the June 29 release  "G.I. Joe: Retaliation,"  starring Channing Tatum.  His big hope, he says, is to take home the statuette for his 9-year-old: “She’s hoping Dad gets to win one time.”

Michael Bay is famously hands-on and a relentless worker and taskmaster. But after seven pictures, you must have a shorthand with him?

Michael gives us tremendous creative license from a sound-design and sound-mixing standpoint, gives us a lot of leeway. But he really does sign off on and approve what we do. And we certainly know when he’s not happy with something, and we make those changes for him. When he’s happy, he’s like a 14-year-old kid who’s absolutely thrilled and excited, and it's fun to see.

Sound is incredibly manipulative — we can manipulate an audience to look at any given portion of the screen by where we place sound and what we do with it, and that’s a big part of the storytelling process—Michael has said it’s 50 percent of the experience of his movies.

In any scene you might have muttered dialog, clanking robots, jets strafing, choppers buzzing—it’s not quite like a drawing-room drama is it?

I know today I’m a better mixer for having worked on his movies because they’re probably the most demanding and complex films a sound mixer or designer can work on.

So other than dialog, just about every sound in these modern action epics is created after shooting?

Every sound you hear other than the dialog is all prepared by the sound editing team — none of that is recorded while shooting the movie. That means all the helicopters and jets, all the gunfire — every bullet impact and every whiz-by. Plus, all the robot sounds — and there are thousands of robot sounds to create the life of these beings and make them believable — are designed and recorded by our sound team.

They prepare the entire palette of sound to be used in the film,  then I take all of those sounds and there’s many food groups of them, to work with.

So Optimus Prime, for instance, is  sonically much more complex than any human character could be?

The robots consist of, say,  nine 'pre-dubs,’ where the feet are separate from the big thigh sounds and the big, metallic motor sounds, as well as the medium-range integral movement sounds, that are in turn separate from kind of servo-sourced zipping noises. It goes right down to the eye blinks. All that material is prepared, and then I mix them and pan them across the screen. So if that robot is walking from right to left, those sounds have to be right behind the image.

As theaters installed updated speaker systems, have you been able to take advantage of 5.1 technology and beyond to get a true surround experience?

Yes, though 5.1 was only accessible on 70 mm prints before we went digital with Dolby and other technologies that opened the doors to every film getting a 5.1. And now we’re in 7.1, so we can hear better separation in the same way when we went from mono surrounds to stereo surrounds. There’s just more detail and the ability to hear all the surrounds, better than before.

Does that lead to complexities in the mixing bay, distributing say, a buzzing fly noise all around the room?

I prefer to put it on what we call a joystick — you grab this wand— and I can move it anywhere in the theater from front to back and left to right, just with the stick. I can make it circle the room by turning the stick completely in circles. For this latest “Transformers”  specifically, we wanted it to be a completely immersive experience. You  want the audience to be in the movie, not overwhelmed by it but really having sounds all around you all the time so you feel completely engulfed and immersed in the film.

There are some big-time whammies, but I’m almost more impressed by the subtle room sounds of a big hangar in one scene.

All that ambient sound is added by our sound design team. They've gone into big areas like that and recorded in that space. They’ve assembled a history of over 20 years of cataloging and digitizing their content so they have so much material they’ve been acquiring for a long time.  They pull up the tracks that suit that environment – and yes, there is a nice dense sense of air and space that you feel.

Erik Aadahl is a tremendously talented sound designer, and he has what Michael Bay calls the “Magic Box,” where he can go into that computer and immediately pull it up from his bank of sounds at the touch of a button.

All this artistry, and yet you feel ghettoized within the Academy voting process because these are action pictures?

What is tough is when we look for support from the general Academy—not just the sound branch but cinematographers and the rest. Actors play a big part in this because they’re some 1,800 of the 6,000 voting members of the Academy. [Ed. note: The number of actors is actually closer to 1,200.]

Are they apt to go for the more performance-driven films? Will they even look at a summer popcorn “Transformers”?  All the nominated films have great sound,  but I’ve been told there may be  50 to 60 percent of the Academy who never even see a “Transformers” movie. So that’s a little depressing. And maybe if they did and they looked at it for what it is  they, might feel differently about what they’re voting on come that final ballot.