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Interview With Donald O. Mitchell

By David Weishaar, C.A.S. 

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with one of the true gentlemen of sound mixing, Donald O. Mitchell. His name is familiar to all of us in motion picture and television sound. His credit list is non-stop. The word vast is an understatement. The list includes such titles as Raging Bull, Silverado, Terms of Endearment, Top Gun, Sneakers, Black Rain, Days of Thunder, The Fugitive, and of course Glory for which he received an Academy Award. Don has fifteen Academy Award nominations to his credit. I had an opportunity to visit the stage while Don and his crew were mixing. There was an obvious air of ease and plenty of laughter on board.  Don's popularity with Producers/Directors and post-production people is understandable. 

Whatever the project or level of difficulty, his ability to walk them through the complexities of the mix with ease, places him in a class apart. At the time of this interview, he and his crew were just finishing The Ghost and The Darkness. What follows is a conversation with one of Hollywood's Best: 

CAS: Don, you studied Architecture in school, and you said that's what you wanted to do if you ever grew up. First, I'd like to say it's our good fortune you never grew up, and secondly, how did the transition into sound occur? 

DM: There was a friend of the family's who worked in sound at Fox. And they needed a (Electronics) draftsman. I was involved in architectural drawing and had all the tools and actually had a ton of experience, so it was a natural. I said, "Yeah I'll take the the job, that wasn't too tough." And that's what I did, electronics drafting. And just went from there. Then probably started doing some engineering, and from there worked into being a recordist. The drafting actually gets you into machines and 
recorders. It placed me into the technical or engineering part of it. 

CAS: And you mentioned the realization that all the fun was in the mixing. What brought that realization to light for you? 

DM: Well, as I said the drafting lead to engineering which put me in contact with mixers and in those days everybody was staff. Every studio in town had staff mixers, first generation sound people -- you've probably met a bunch of them. Wonderful guys, really bright guys. Most of them came out of the telephone industry. A lot of them at that time came out of Westrex and Westrex is still alive, called by another name now. Anyway, I'd be leaning over somebody's shoulders fixing consoles, and in 
talking and kidding around I'd think to myself "you know, I think I could do that better," (laughing) stuff like that. As time rolls by you realize, this is the fun part. This is where things happen, and it just went that way. All those mixers out there really helped me. Any questions I had, they would et me play, they were all very helpful guys. I don't think we have people like that today. 

There's no place for a kid to go, that I know of, and be treated that way. You know, a place where you could do pre-dub or work on backgrounds for a year. Nowadays its feet first. That training ground in my opinion, doesn't exist today. And when I started it was even tougher. There was a lot of nepotism, if you didn't have family in the business you couldn't be in the business. But anyway it was all very exciting. 

CAS: So I guess the transition into mixing wasn't all that smooth in the beginning for you. As in -- once having that (Union) Y-1 card, it doesn't necessarily mean instant work? 

DM: Oh no, in fact, in the beginning I couldn't get anybody to let me go mix. I said they were all very friendly, they really were, but there were no learning programs. I put down my money, bought a Y-1 card -- "I are a mixer, and I are also out of work." (laughter) But that was the way you did it. And that was ok. I think that would only work today, if one knew somebody or had a good contact. 

CAS: Don, when you began mixing, what chair did you start in? 

DM: The effects chair. All the guys starting out sat in the sound effects chair. I actually had sat in the music chair, doing a lot of TV, a few features. Then I was able to swing the dialogue chair, and wished I'd never had (laughs). I'd still rather be in the music chair. 

CAS: That's interesting what prompted you to go for the dialogue position? 

DM: Because that's where . . . lets see I have to word this carefully because I don't want to be misconstrued. But, that's where it happens. That's where it gets put together, I think you have more input, it might even be a control thing. But I like that, I like control in what I believe in -- it worked good for me. But, if had my druthers today I'd rather be an effects mixer for a musical, and the music mixer for a big effects show (big laugh). 

CAS: Twentieth Century Fox hired you back to mix for television. You say you did a ton of TV. Some schools of thought, say that television is a great school for the feature world. Is that true? 

DM: I think so, I think television is a great teacher. Television I believe has grown in complexity and the need for quality to the point where it's the same mantle. It's just that one's on a monitor and the other on the big screen. So, its not the basic training ground that it was-- because its not what it was -- now, it's enormous. 

CAS: So a mixer that is doing television today and doing it well, would do well with feature mixing? 

DM: In a second -- oh yeah in a second. Well for one thing, in feature work the pace is generally less hectic. I think television mixers work harder, in a shorter period of time. CAS: When you made the move into feature mixing, was it all positive -- i.e., more time, bigger budgets, better quality tracks? If there were some negative aspects about the move into features, what were they? 

DM: As I recall, in the beginning nothing was negative -- it really wasn't, it was all positive. The crunches that we have today, didn't exist then. Everybody came to work and did their job, and went home at regular hours. I would love to know why we have crunches today. How come the crunch is on? A suit will sit there and say you're going to release it here, having no concept of what has to happen to get there. I feel the sound group as a whole has given too much away, and it's not going to stop. Look at the grosses, the money's there. But if I were management I'd probably be doing the same thing. 

CAS: Don I know that when people in our industry hear the name Donald O. Mitchell, the first word that comes to mind would be quality, and not just in reference to sound but also that of a true gentleman. You mentioned being with a major studio that was no longer interested in a quality sound-product at that time -- how did you handle that? 

DM: Yeah, (pause) I went elsewhere. (laughs) It happened in-house gradually. They weren't not interested, they just weren't going forward. So the little companies, considered independents, like Todd, (Todd-AO) and, at that time Goldwyn (Warner Hollywood) were spending money buying consoles. They were doing all the work and that's why I went to work in the independent field. I never got fired from the major studios or anything I just quit. It was a pretty small community then. It's still a 
small field today when you look at the big picture. Yeah, were in a very small group. 

CAS: Don, how would you compare the re-recording craft today, to that of say, The Raging Bullera, or mixing during the seventies and eighties, i.e., equipment, mixing styles, sound editorial, etc. 

DM: Well, I think where we are today started with Raging Bull. We did some unusual stuff -- the guy I give the credit to is Frank Warner, supervising sound editor. -- he did a wonderful job. The things we did are common now. The mixing consoles weren't like they are today. I can't think of the last movie we could have mixed without an automated console. You consider a sound effects job today, has just hundreds of units, literally hundreds of effects units. We have cue sheets across the floor, for lack of room. On a picture I'm currently working on, there were twenty-three units of dialogue for a single conversation between two people. lEquipment and mixing styles go hand in hand. 

CAS: Speaking of Raging Bull, one of my all time favorite films, you mentioned how at that time Frank Warner (Supervising Sound Editor) had cut, for the first time, animal sounds for drama, and human effect, and also how at times this would cross into score (music). Could you tell us about that? Were there problems with that? 

DM: I hope I'm right about all that. No there weren't any problems with this. They just brought the effects to the stage (animal sounds such as a lion roar mixed over a man's scream, etc.) and we worked with them, tried them out and it worked great. I'm sure if there were an area where it conflicted with music, it would have been changed. This was not really planned between composer and sound effects I believe. But it worked. 

CAS: It was also the first time I experienced dialogue playing lower than what we were used to. I thought that was very interesting. 

DM: That was probably Scorsese. He does that, most all of his pictures have a rough edge , maybe a little noisy. Makes the audience kind of hush-up a little bit and pay attention. A lot of people (directors) do that though. 

CAS: I've had the opportunity to have been on the stage while you were mixing, and one thing that was very obvious was the comfortable atmosphere that exists. Having fun in the mix. How do you create that atmosphere, and how far can you go? 

DM: Hmm, I'm not always aware that I do that. I believe I do try to keep that atmosphere. I feel that I'm just a tool -- all this equipment and me are just tools so that this guy (Director/Producer/Client) can have what he wants. I impart my taste all the time. I've always just felt that we should be part of the tool that lets this guy get what he wants on the screen. I've always said it should be fun. For the most part every dubbing stage I've been on has been fun. 

CAS: If my count is correct, you have fifteen Academy Award Nominations, and one Oscar, for Glory. A record such as this requires a great deal of work and love for the craft. Can you say just what it really is you do love about mixing? 

DM: Well, its so easy to say that it is fun. But, it is. You get to make something better then what it was when you first touched it. You know it might just be that control thing again too, I think. I would love to make a movie, but I think it's too hard. It's easy to sit back and see what's wrong. 

CAS: I would think someone like yourself would have as much an opportunity to make a movie as anyone. 

DM: I don't know -- well I just wouldn't attempt it now. 

CAS: Do you write? 

DM: We've all written stuff -- we've all messed with photography. We all look at camera angles, we see all that stuff, and we've all seen so many films that we could put all this information in a computer and probably come out with a product, but our failure rate would be just like everybody else -- very high. I saw a little movie the other day, a movie that cost a ton of money, now about a year old. I looked at it and thought all the ingredients are there -- didn't work. It died at the box office. I 
wondered what didn't work about this movie, and I just didn't know. I couldn't figure it out. Except one thing -- it had well-known american actors with accents. That could have been the part that didn't work. I don't know. I really liked the movie. 

CAS: In all your experience as a re-recording mixer, what equipment, process or other changes have been the most beneficial for you in mixing? In television now the work stations and digital recorders -- i.e. A-Dat, Da-88's are replacing 24trks, and tape. Do you see sprockets/mag being replaced relatively soon? 

DM: To have work stations on the stage requires the operator to be there and be on it when you need it. And he can't be editing something else, while he's doing that, or out of the room when you need him. I think sprocket mag will eventually go away and I think quality will suffer because of it. The whole argument about analog versus digital in regards to music (quality) is still blazing away. But the tube did go away, and the mag track will go away, and we'll all be sorry for it. It's really going to 
make the process slower and it will degrade the quality. I really believe that. On the other hand I think we're in a transition period and when we move forward a decade all that will be behind us. I think you and I are just living and working through this transition period. 

CAS: Both Feature Motion Pictures and Television have been affected by budgets today. Where do you notice the crunch most in feature mixing? 

DM: Pre-dub time is cut down all the time. Our pre-dub time now is far too short. When push comes to shove we will go and pre-dub on another stage, so our stage can be dubbing something else. I will stay at nights, or come in weekends to pre-dub, so that it gets done. Once again we pay for that in the crunch with overtime. They never say "then don't do it." 

CAS: When someone else is pre-dubbing your tracks, do you have to watch that pretty closely? 

DM: That's a tough area. First of all, I try to have it done by people that I know. And people that know me and what I do. If Bob Litt is available, if Kenny Polk's available, if Jeff Haboush is available. In other words any of those guys there that, I can just walk over to a Stage and say just do it like this, and put these marks on it, if reverb and certain processing are needed, I trust them to do it. I say to them if you want it and are convinced it should be that way, then marry it. If you're worried at all, 
then split it off. If there's a question, I won't marry anything together. I'll put it on two six track recorders. I keep all my production pre-dubs separate, my ADR pre-dubbs separate, production effects pre-dubs too. 

CAS: Don, what would you say to a person coming up in the ranks has a re-recording mixer, if they were to ask you how they might best emulate your career or quality in mixing? 

DM: I watch a lot of film. I go to all types of theaters. I try to make the big houses, but I go anywhere, multiples, big theaters, even drive-ins. And now I'm trying not to rent. I see a lot of film. I'll see a film and think "you know either I don't really like what the mixer did with this or the director made him do it." You don't really know for sure. I'm not a big fan of moving 
dialogue around for an example. Sometimes I think I would sooner jump on him with both of my feet with cleats on before I'll move some words over behind the drapery. I find that highly distracting. But I know a lot of guys that feel "Hey its stereo, so I'm going to make this stereo." I don't really care for voices in the surrounds, but I know some people like that. Some wallas occasionally work there. But I don't like restaurant walla in the surrounds. I'm not really a center guy, but I'm pretty close to being a center guy. For dialogue that is. Although I've placed a voice by just edging it slightly one way or the other, but usually not to an extreme. How it plays depends on the size of the house. For an example the Hastings in Pasadena, I'm not sure how big it is, but this mass of humanity is  incredible. The screen's bigger than the Academy. The screen is easily as big as the Cinerama Dome. And you start moving stuff in there, I mean it's out of the movie. It's over there by the popcorn machine or something. You put it in a little tiny narrow house (theater), it doesn't matter what you do with it, because it all plays in the middle anyway. 

CAS: If a production mixer were to ask what you wanted from him in his recordings, and type of coverage, what would you say? 

DM: I wouldn't have to say much, they almost all do it anyway. They all make backgrounds. Production mixers today do a fabulous job. They've got so much stuff to deal with, and we have none of that to deal with, thank God. It's a tough gig. It's three against a hundred. If the DP (Director of Photography) doesn't like working with you, you'll never get the sound you want. I still feel this way today although budgets don't allow for this: I think the Production company should give their movie to 
a dialogue editor. Pre-dubb it on a stage, sit down and say what part of this can't you live with, and that's what they go loop. If they did that the loops would be 1 per-cent, or it would be some really, really low number of loops. 

CAS: What would say to the sound editor who works with you for the first time? 

DM: We don't get to have that input anymore. It all comes down from somewhere. Today it's coming from some digital bay somewhere. We don't have much to say about it unless it's not working, but the editor knows that. The really good dialogue editors are wonderful -- oh man I love those editors. They make it peaches and cream. And there are others, known as editors from hell. They can really make it difficult. You've been there. I guess if I'd say anything I'd prefer stuff to be split left, right and so forth, but that's what they do, really. The stuff you work on is probably digitally edited. 

CAS: Oh, yeah. We did a MOW (Movie of The Week) last week, that came to us built entirely on DA-88's -- that's pretty common now. Lock-up leaves much to be desired, I think. 

DM: I could never remember long enough to back up far enough, get going forward, have it lock, have it come on and think "now what am I supposed to do to this? What did I back-up for?" You know because a minute has transpired. Like in film you hear the ramps up and back, but it's there, right on, the same time every time. But also this is the format I'm used to mixing in. 

CAS: I was also used to hearing my tracks in reverse, which could help in giving you extra time to EQ a track, set levels. Outside of the film medium you just don't have that anymore. Oh, maybe on a two-inch machine you can have the head lifters adjusted so that you can hear in reverse, but I believe that luxury is gone with the digital formats. At least that I know of. 

DM: Absolutely, If I go through it once, then on the way back, I can get level, EQ, the fade in, I can get all of that and go, it's done. DA-88's -- it's nine times or whatever, and then you're never happy with it, you give up. You give up because you don't have enough time. 

CAS: If you had a new wing guy or gal in either the effects chair or the music chair, would you make any requests of them before you rolled film? 

DM No, I generally never butt in or interfere. I'm going to trust that my effects mixer knows what they're doing. The same way with the music -- I seldom make a music comment. With something like music you have to be very careful. Because it can become a 'Me' thing. You know, most of the time how you feel about a particular score or cue, is very subjective. In other words, the music mixer and myself can disagree on a piece of music. Maybe I have a problem with loud brass. Well, I can't let 
that interfere with the mix. That's just my particular taste, and so forth. So I'm real careful about that too. I think everybody plays end-credit music too loud. I would love to have the music end, the last cue play, and I would like the audience to sit there and be able to reflect, or walk out and talk about the movie, without being killed. 

CAS: What do you think about where we are going with digital dubs? Have we created a new monster that's going to blow out our hearing at a young age? 

DM: I think the mixers are doing something about it -- I really do. Everyone I've talked to about it is real conscious, real careful. I think it was a learning period for all of us. While that was all happening, I was thinking -- I was praying -- I wish we just had SR-D (A Dolby Dual-Process: SR-Analog, and Digital combined on the same print). It had a nice sound. Good head room. Good enough for everybody, but now with the unlimited Digital formats and stuff, there seems to be no limit. And that's the danger. But, I really think that problem is fixed now, because it's a self-fix. 

CAS: Do you have a favorite type of film to dub, i.e. action, adventure, etc. . . . ? 

DM: No, I've never really thought about it like that. I'd rather do this, I'd rather do that. No I never have. 

CAS: Don, have you mixed to a lot of the different digital formats -- DTS, SDDS, SR-D and so forth? 

DM: Yes, we sure have. In fact the last ten projects have had every format on them. We usually mix to a six track discreet. (35mm magnetic film) and then make all the different printmasters in the formats called for. We try to do this all on our stage, but sometimes it has to go to another stage. Sometimes we send a mag. print master off to the SDDS people and they will do a digital master. Most the time we mix them. We'll mix it directly to the digital medium. 

CAS: You are at the pinnacle of re-recording in Hollywood, or in the world of film sound. What aspects of your job have given you the roughest time or been the most difficult to handle personally, professionally or technically? 

DM: Ah, lets see, maybe a noisy production track. (laughs) Well, for one thing, when things don't work, they just don't work. Production has better energy than good ADR. Production has got to be pretty bad in order for me not to use it. I'll do everything I can to clean it up. 

CAS: Did you ever have to leave a show or get fired so to speak? 

DM: A couple of them. It was just personality disagreements. 

CAS: That's something I would've never thought happened to Don Mitchell. 

DM: Well, it was pretty mutual, because on both of these instances we had only been together a day -- maybe two days. And I realized I wanted off the picture, but unfortunately they beat me to the punch, both times. 

CAS: And that doesn't affect you negatively with the studio at all? 

DM: No, not a bit. Actually both of those pictures got pulled and they went somewhere else. I don't know what that says, because if it didn't happen all those other years, why does it happen now, and twice in a row? I've reflected on why that was and I don't really have an answer. At the time my only defense was -- "I don't need this." It points out some of the changes we go through with time. I rather like it. It seems more honest. 

CAS: Well, Don it looks like I've run out of questions. That wasn't too painful was it? 

DM: Ah, no. (laughs) 

CAS: Thank you very much, Don. 

DM: You're welcome. 

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