The Oscar-Nominated Sound Mixers: Michael Semanick of ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’

“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” marks Michael Semanick’s ninth nomination and fifth collaboration with director David Fincher

David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is cold and dark, chilly and kinky; it's a virtuoso thriller in which sound plays a key role in ratcheting up the tension and keeping the audience uneasy as the main characters struggle to solve a decades-old crime.

Michael Semanick, sound mixer for Girl With the Dragon TattooRe-recording mixer Michael Semanick received his ninth Oscar nomination for the film, his fifth movie with Fincher. His other work includes the "There Will Be Blood," "WALL-E" and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, for which he won one of his two Oscars. (The other came for Peter Jackson's "King Kong.")

What were the particular challenges on "Dragon Tattoo?"

The biggest challenges, I think, were folding things in and out of the Trent Reznor-Atticus Ross score, transitioning out of sound effects and tones right into music. And sometimes it's not really noticeable. One scene has to do with a floor polisher that eventually blends right into the score. The floor polisher starts that tension and eeriness, and then the score kind of takes it over and it blends into it.

Also read: The Oscar-Nominated Sound Mixers

What's the process like when you have to blend a floor polisher with the score? Does that take trial and error?

It is a kind of a trial and error over time, yeah. The scene starts when it's late night. She comes out of an elevator, and you see a closeup of the floor polisher. So the sound team went out and recorded several different floor polishers, Trent sent the music, and we started to blend it. You create a palette so you can have some choices in the final mix, and then [re-recording mixer and supervising sound editor] Ren [Klyce] would feed the editors different versions for their Avid track when they were cutting.

There were some polishers that were a little harsher sounding, so we had choices – and when we got to the final mix, it was, "OK, what works best with the way the picture's been cut? What works best going in and out of the music?"  We just kind of picked the polisher that seemed to set the tone. And then when we get onto the big dubbing stage, we were really fine tuning: "I like that one, let's see if that one will work, we can tweak it a little bit more as we're putting all the elements of dialogue and music and the sound effects in."

The last movie you did with David, "The Social Network," was more chaotic when it came to sound: dialogue was always overlapping, and scenes took place in loud clubs. This one is very sparse and chilly, which obviously requires a very different sonic approach.

Oh, yeah, without a doubt. In "The Social Network," David wanted more things, more technology. "Dragon Tattoo" is interesting – it feels like a sparser track, but it's actually not. But it's a more subtle track. And a more tension-filled track, because it's really a thriller where they're trying to solve this mystery.

I don’t want to say it's a more precise track, but when you're in a subtler track, you do have to be more precise in what sounds are placed where, and how that affects the storytelling.

I would think that because so much of it is about tension, you're playing a key role in creating that tension through sound.

Yeah. Sometimes less sound is more tension. Like anything, you build peaks and valleys to support the storytelling. And in this case, blending in and out of music was very important. Sometimes the music would hand off to sound effects and dialogue, or vice versa. A lot of times in "Dragon Tattoo," there's a lot of transitional music and sound effects, dialogue with reverb, things like that.

And also, there's all the wind at the end of the movie, where you hear it through the open door of the house. There's a whistling. David had very specific whistles that he wanted, to capture the wind and the pressure in the house. It had to really be tense, and then the pressure gets released and the whistle stops.

Obviously, every director is different. But are there specific characteristics that stand out with David Fincher?

Well, David is very involved in all aspects of filmmaking. He's very into the sound of the film, and creating textures and a tone. He does it visually, he does it with the actors, but he also does it with the sound, and it all has to complement each other and support the story.

And David does have a huge attention to detail, sonically as well as visually. His attention to detail is pretty incredible. David's very into sound, which is not to say other directors aren't. I would say it's become more and more important over the years from when I first started. But with David, it’s always been part of the storytelling.

And also, he makes sure that we're allocated the funds to do what we want to do. That's always a pleasure. As with anything, budgets get crunched, because as a business you want to make the movies for less so your profits are more. It's always been, "Can we make it cheaper, can we make it cheaper?" And David says, "No, I need this, because this is what I gotta do to make it the way I gotta make it." He's very supportive in fighting for us, making sure our budget doesn’t get crunched.