Peter Cowie talks to Lora Hirschberg About Her Views on Sound for Film

Lora Hirschberg has been one of Hollywood's top rerecording mixers since the mid-1990s, and was nominated with co-mixer Gary Rizzo for an Academy Award® this year for her work on The Dark Knight. Her other credits include Titanic, The Horse Whisperer, Panic Room, Batman Begins, Into the Wild, The Kite Runner, and Iron Man.

The Dark Knight
Christian Bale and Heath Ledger
in The Dark Knight

At what stage can you sit down with the composer and find out what they're trying to achieve with their score?

In my particular area I only get to do that when the music shows up on the stage. We do temp mixes before, so we do get an idea of what the score's going to be like. Nowadays, with the way scores are recorded, they are never married together, so you're given  stems—I think I was given 12 different stems on The Dark Knight. So at any given moment I could control the balance of the parts of the score. In The Dark Knight the score is very techno-driven.

The disco scene had lots of sound effects and foley. It was actually pretty tricky because in order to make the sound of Batman's punches feel strong, they had to cut through that throbbing kind of music.

Having worked on Batman Begins, was that a help in doing the sound rerecording for The Dark Knight?

Oh, absolutely. The score is essentially the same as before, except for the Joker's theme. I think The Dark Knight is the most realistic of all the Batman movies. Batman himself is the only kind of over-the-top character, because he's a guy flying around in a rubber suit. Everybody else is pretty believable. We certainly try to make Gotham City as real an environment as possible.

There's a scene where the SWAT convoy is ambushed and you have a lot of that bazooka stuff with Heath Ledger, but it's also very eerie. The explosions only come in the middle of that eeriness. Do you work with a fully-edited sequence or do you have to go all the time adjusting as they change the material for final edit?

By the time we get to it, it's really locked. And Christopher Nolan is not a director who does a lot of picture changes in the final as well. He locks down the cut before we start final mixing. The truck chase sequence has almost no music in it and that also makes it feel strangely real. For the audience… you have to put all that emotional stuff together yourself without giving the music providing those emotional cues. So in that way it does look more real for the audience. So, that particular scene was picture-cut and then, as we were mixing it, we'd start with an enormous number of elements. It's really only when we get to the final mix that we can put everything together and say, OK, this is going to work.

Lora Hirschberg
Lora Hirschberg

How did you split up your work with Gary Rizzo, your co-sound-rerecording mixer?

Gary mixes the dialogue and foley, and I mix the sound effects and music. So we're always working together. But we always want to make sure we protect the dialogue as much as we can.

How useful have you found the Dolby "container"?

I did a bunch of foreign mixes for Valkyrie, and of course in foreign versions all the dialogue is replaced or ADR, and you have to mix it so it sounds like the English as much as you can. The tracks are coming from all over the world, and each one of the recording studios, whether it be in Germany, or France, or Italy, has its own setup, its own ambiance, and its own different set of problems. What I really like about the container is that it's a really nice-sounding, multi-band limiter, and when I use it on ADR it immediately kind of sounds like a set-recorded microphone, making it a very manageable track. I have to be careful about not over-driving [it], because it's still an analogue device. It's a really great first step in picking sort of ugly recordings and making them sound more natural.

The container was developed for use in creating the optical track, and the optical camera only has so much headroom. So the container was devised for that piece of the process. It's a great and easy way in print-mastering to run through this multiband limiter and that allows the sound to still feel strong and full and close to what we want it to be, but contained enough so that it technically works on the optical soundtrack and doesn't distort the optical camera.

You have worked on films like The Kite Runner, which must involve a lot of location sound. Does that pose a problem at the rerecording mix stage?

Production sound recordists are now so good that they can record wonderful sound in difficult locations, and of course I might also get really bad sound out of a studio recording. We had a lot of great material on The Kite Runner. But I think that because production mixers record on the multi-track recorders, using multichannel recordings with several microphones live, that allows the editors later to select the best channel for each scene and camera take.

How closely do you work with directors? Are some hands-off and others almost obsessively hands-on at the mixing stage?

Every director has a different affinity to the postproduction process. Some of them really enjoy everything—editing, sound editing, mixing—and they want to be there with you the entire time. Chris Nolan is a perfect example of that. He sat with us every hour that we were mixing. Others want to wait until you've prepared something, and then they come in and respond to it as an audience member. They don't even want to know how it was done; they want to see if it works or not. It depends on what they want to accomplish. The directors who are very absorbed in special effects, such as James Cameron, really get involved in the whole process. Filmmakers like Robert Redford or Sean Penn—directors and actors, as it were—are more interested in watching the movie and getting that visceral feeling for the performances. If they watch it too much, it sort of ruins the effect for them. So they hesitate to be in the room with us the whole time, in case they lose the spontaneity they enjoy. David Fincher, too, for whom I did the rerecording on Panic Room, won't show up for the mix. He'll see it only during a few playbacks.

How much has the digital revolution impacted on your work, compared to when you began mixing on films like Toys, The Secret Garden, and Mrs Doubtfire in 1992–1993?

We worked in an analogue realm, and it was a linear process. So the process was slower. Now, with digital random access mixing we can jump around the film a lot immediately and we move faster because of it. I wish there was more time. Our schedules are shorter, and we work faster, for good reasons—but I think we also work faster not for good reasons. A lot of films feel like they should take some time, be finished, shown to an audience, and then be brought back to the mixing room and see where they're working or not working. There's also a big push now for the sound to be finalized as close as possible to the movie's release date. Now, too, with the emphasis on visual effects, a lot of directors are distracted from the mix.

Are movies today too loud?

I think they probably are, and I think there is a really good reason for that. Movies used to be Dolby stereo, and didn't have this full range of digital sound with six discrete channels—we didn't used to have that—we had in effect only three, three and a half speakers. By adding more speakers, we are actually increasing the amount of energy that the film is pushing out around the room. I wish we could tone movies down in this respect.

Now that home cinema generates so much revenue for the studios, do you have the DVD or Blu-ray release in mind when you're working on a mix?

Not when we're doing the theatrical mix. At the end, we do prepare a version for home video, so the version of The Dark Knight you hear on DVD or Blu-ray is not what you hear in theatres—some scenes, for example, would not have worked the same in the home theater environment because the dynamic range is so different.

How has Dolby helped you through the years in making sound an integral part of the movie experience?

I have a really great relationship with our Dolby engineers, and with Dan Sperry in particular. He comes in at the end of the print master, and I really rely on his expertise. The Dolby technology, from SRD on up, opens up a lot of creative possibilities for us. And we on our side encourage Dolby to work with us to make sound even better. The Dolby staff are really dedicated to their craft.