Veteran sound mixer Jonathan Wales reveals the tiny film details no one realizes

Jonathan Wales doesn’t read movie scripts. He hears them.

The Los Angeles-based veteran sound mixer, whose credits include everything from comedy, horror, and documentaries (Bring It On, Get Out, and Gaga: Five Foot Two are just a few titles), has combed through his fair share of scripts. And while the ordinary reader may glance over a scene-setting line like “It was a quiet night,” Wales begins to play the possibilities in his head.

“Is it a quiet night in Louisiana, or is it a quiet night in New York?” he’ll ask. For New York City, he’ll hear relaxing wooshes of traffic, perhaps distant sirens. For a place like Louisiana, he’ll think of frogs and crickets. Then he’ll go a step further: “Is the wildlife annoying, or is it nice and soothing?” That can dictate his imagination, too.

Wales inserts all these sounds in post-production. That is, when the film’s already been shot and he’s sitting in his home studio, behind a massive mixing board. In front of him, he watches scenes on a large screen. Behind him, sound-proofing panels line concrete walls. He hooks up Evercast on one of the monitors to chat with his sound department cohorts, the director, or other movie makers.

While talking to Wales through that same monitor, it’s clear his job is not just a job, but a collaborative art that he gleefully tackles with an open mind and attention to detail. With gusto, he spills details on the small sounds that build big scenes, and the decisions made behind them.

“You get into it,” he says about the hundreds of scenes he’s tinkered. Each effect–like the chirp of a bird–is scrutinized depending on the movie’s location or time period. For example, if it’s set in New England, a random cinephile on IMDb will definitely notice the out-of-place call of a California gull.

“A lot of research goes into what is appropriate,” Jonathan said. “If it’s set in the 1950s, then you can’t have any computer-controlled car engines. If you get that wrong, the audience may not know. But some people in the audience are going to immediately know. They’re going to be like, ‘What? That’s totally wrong!’”

The ever-changing post-production industry

A keen ear for sound mixing takes practice, of course. In the early 1990s, Jonathan bounced from place to place, producing records. But when he saw the Napster era and DIY records on the rise, he chose the movie route instead. Making the move to Los Angeles, he befriended some creatives running a “little buzz production studio” and worked his way up.

At the time of his transition to working in film in the mid-90s, the digital era was well upon the music industry, but post-production still needed some help to get there, he says. That’s where his recording experience with MIDI and other programs came in clutch.

“People like us who knew how the computer versions worked became a hot commodity for a minute,” Jonathan said. “We needed to show the other guys how to do it.”

Admittedly, Jonathan’s seen the post-production world transform. He welcomes new software, and when there’s an advancement in technology, he uses his background with older tools for context. Sometimes, the new technology challenges him to rethink his way of doing things. It’s a challenge he’s willing to accept.

“If I was a kid now coming into this stuff? You’re coming in and you’ve got programs that are, like, version 30, and I’m like, we started at version 1.0,” Jonathan joked. “I’m hyper-jealous of kids now who are 10 years old and are getting to play with stuff that’s way more powerful than we’ve ever seen.”

The horror in a hum

Sounds aren’t usually written into a film script–all the sonic enhancement happens in post. That’s the mixer’s time to play and help morph the story into what it becomes. Most of the time, the sounds are all manufactured.

“In most movies, there’s almost nothing in terms of sound that comes from the set, except for the talking,” Jonathan said. “So everything else, we put in there.”

That freedom to inject audible details into every second of a scene? It allows the sound department to manipulate the viewers’ emotions. For Jonathan, who has a slew of horror projects on his resume, the unnoticed sounds can be the creepiest ones.

In Get Out, viewers can easily recall the rhythmic clinking of a teacup–after all, it’s a major plot point. But even seemingly mundane moments add to the tension.

“When he’s tied to the chair, that room has this big hum to it, which it never did originally,” Jonathan said. “We were just kind of like, ‘How can we make this place a little more ominous but without being overly ridiculous?’ And I literally think that I just took one of the sounds that was already in there, like an air conditioner or something, and just cranked as much bass on it as I could and it was like, ‘Whoa, maybe this is good.’ It’s those kinds of experimentations that are fun.”

The tricks of making a documentary

With fiction, the possibility for a soundscape is endless–insert a teacup clink here, sprinkle in some scary music there, amplify this, decrescendo that, etc.

With documentaries, however, the sound from the day’s shoot is all they have to work with, says Jonathan. It’s all about getting creative within the constraints of what’s delivered.

In a doc like 2017’s Lady Gaga: Five Foot Two, a film that captures the pain hidden in the pop star’s real life, altering the sound too much could ruin the storytelling -- making Gaga’s plea disingenuous. It’s Jonathan’s job to patch up the recordings.

“We don’t get to recreate them; there’s no Take 2,” Jonathan said. “There’s a lot more clean-up, a lot more making things work that are sub-optimal, and then we’re trying to obviously enhance the feeling of it without getting in the way.”

That clean-up can be very labor-intensive–especially when there’s decades’ worth of footage, like in 2018’s Quincy. The documentary threads together narration from record producer Quincy Jones’ audiobook, as well as concert footage from the 1950s and beyond. There are award show clips and snippets from interviews. It’s tied together with videos shot by his daughter, Rashida

“It’s like treading this fine line between How do you make it flow for the audience the way that an audience wants to hear it? And at the same time, obviously, you’re pulling off all of these technical sort of stunts to put it all together.

In the end, documentary sound mixing is a delicate behind-the-scenes craft.

“Honestly, the best thing for me in anything I’ve done, whether it’s fiction or not, is, if you can tell that I was in there and I was doing stuff, then I probably didn’t do it that well,” Jonathan said. “Because the goal for me should be that, when you watch it, you’re just like, well, of course it is like this.

A new way of collaborating

Jonathan settled in Los Angeles for work, and he lives there today, but the necessity to be nestled within the circles of Hollywood’s filmmakers is no more, he says. With Evercast set up in his home studio, he’s been able to connect with collaborators across the globe at any time–which is especially helpful for creators with cluttered calendars juggling multiple projects.

“As people grow more and more comfortable with working remotely, it’s inevitable that the physical barriers of time zones and physical locations are going to start going away as a barrier of being convenient.”

The ability to work with anyone–whether they’re on location in Canada or at home in China–allows people like Jonathan diversity in the projects they take on. “You could end up doing something completely different from day to day, and I think that’s really fascinating,” he said.

Regardless of distance, what brings a crew together is their shared love for movies, and a common goal to be invisible in their creation of them.

“These are jobs where the reward is people don’t know what you do,” Jonathan said. “If the movie’s good and people like it, you probably didn’t screw it up.”

With that, the tiny, pored-over details fade into the story. And a quiet night is just a quiet night.

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