Go for the Gold
BY Regina Marler
February 19 2009 1:00 AM ET
On January 22, Lora
Hirschberg was shaken awake by her wife, Laura, at 6 in the
morning with a laptop screen in her face.
"Does this relate to
you?" Laura asked.
It did. Hirschberg had
been nominated for an Oscar for sound mixing on
The Dark Knight
. This is her first Oscar nomination. She's worked on more than
60 films, many of those at her current home with
Skywalker Sound, and was nominated for an Emmy for her sound
work on HBO's
The Celluloid Closet.
Hirschberg's job title
is "sound re-recording mixer." To explain what this
is, she likes to use a cooking analogy: "The sound designer
decides on the menu -- the way things will sound, the kinds of
sounds that should be used -- and the sound editors are like
sous chefs, preparing those sounds, and the mixers are the
cooks. We basically blend all the materials -- the dialogue,
the music, the sound effects, and foley [ambient and room or
prop sounds, like footsteps or a clock] -- decide on the levels
and equalization, and put it together."
It's the mixer who
processes sounds to make a phone conversation, for example,
sound thin and distorted, as if the voices are really coming
through a telephone. The mixer also underlines the realism of a
film by channeling the sound into the right, left, or center
speakers, or panning across the speakers if the sound should
seem to move.
"I try to pay
attention," explains Hirschberg, "to see how things sound
in real life. We tend to tune things out. We don't notice the
sound of the air-conditioner in the room, for example.
Sometimes we want to put this in a film or make a decision to
leave it out."
After this "premix"
stage, a rough cut called a "temp mix" is screened
for the film's director. In this screening, Hirschberg says,
"we talk about how things will feel in the final mix, what
challenges are coming up." The atmosphere can be contentious,
but it's usually a smooth creative collaboration, she
says. "I've found that if I admire a director's
work, we usually like working together."
Born near Cleveland,
Hirschberg attended NYU's film school, where she also studied
music. After graduation it seemed a natural development for her
to work in film sound in New York. In 1989 she was hired by
American Zoetrope -- starting in the machine room, the
ground-floor level in film sound -- and moved to San
Her first project as
sound re-recording mixer was Agnieszka Holland's
The Secret Garden