Go for the Gold

By Regina Marler

Originally published on Advocate.com 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
Francisco.

Her first project as
sound re-recording mixer was Agnieszka Holland's
The Secret Garden

.

Skywalker Sound Studios xlarge (publicity) | ADVOCATE.COM

On
The Dark Knight

, Hirschberg's mixing partner was Gary Rizzo, who also worked
with her on
The Prestige

.

"I mixed sound
effects and music on
The Dark Knight,

and my partner mixed dialogue and foley. That isn't a typical
division of labor, but we like to try different things," she
says.

Hirschberg, Rizzo, and
colleague Ed Novick have been nominated for the Oscar as a
team.

Some sections of
The Dark Knight

were shot in IMAX, and Hirschberg and Rizzo first produced a
temp mix for that format -- a short film of the bank heist, and
the Joker being revealed -- and then, about six months later,
mixed the film as a whole. It was by far their biggest project
to date.

"It's a huge
soundtrack, a big music score, a lot of fun," Hirschberg
recalls. "The sound team was relaxed. None of us had any idea
it was going to be as massively successful as it was. Chris
Nolan is an amazing director. He oversees every aspect of the
production and postproduction. He was with us the whole
time."

Although Hirschberg
doesn't like to pick favorites among the films she's worked on,
she's especially proud of some of the smaller films,
documentaries like Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's
Paragraph 175

and lower-budget narrative films, such as her friend Nicole
Holofcener's forthcoming
Please Give

, starring Catherine Keener. These are films that might not
ordinarily have been able to hire a mixer with Hirschberg's
experience and expertise, and her involvement can make a big
difference.

She's also one of the
angels who brought John Cameron Mitchell's beautiful
Shortbus

to life. Hirschberg came to the project through her work on
Jonathan Caouette's
Tarnation

, which was produced by Mitchell. Everyone had been talking
about
Shortbus

, and she offered her services to Mitchell for the film. After
production, she spent a week and a half in New York mixing
sound with her friend Brandon Proctor, but the work felt rushed
and frustrating: "With these little films, you don't have the
time or money that you need."

Hirschberg arranged for
the
Shortbus

team to come to Skywalker and mix for another week. "It was
wonderful," she recalls. "With most films, there's usually
one scene that really gets you. In
Shortbus

, that whole beginning montage was so brilliant. And I loved
all the actors' performances. When I'm mixing I get to watch
movies over and over. If it's a good movie, that's an
incredible experience."

Lora Hirschberg x100 (Skywalker Sound Studios) | Advocate.com

Another highlight of
Hirschberg's career is Spike Jonze's
Adaptation

. She remembers Jonze as "the coolest dude. He didn't stress
about anything. When you have such a good movie you can be
really relaxed." That same year she mixed sound for David
Fincher's
Panic Room

.

"Fincher works with
Ren Klyce," she says, "a talented Northern California sound
designer and mixer who does all of Fincher's films. That set
was half of a house that they built on a studio sound stage.
Klyce would go on the set each day after shooting and record
doors slamming. It was a perfect sound job. You could take the
dialogue out and that would still be a perfect film."

She also worked with
Jodie Foster on the underappreciated Thanksgiving film
Home for the Holidays

: "There's great stuff in that movie. Anne
Bancroft's performance is hilarious. And that song
'Candy' that keeps coming in and out."

Referring to a
scene in which a cat coughs up a fur ball, Hirschberg says
proudly, "That's my cat. I recorded that at home."
She also remembers screening the temp mix for Foster: After a
scene wherein Geraldine Chaplin farts in a car, Foster
remarked, "That fart sound isn't quite funny enough."

Hirschberg was able to
turn to a colleague on the spot and ask, "Would you
please cut us a new fart?"

"Sound people love
farts," Hirschberg admits. "In
Iron Man

we got to create a symphony of farts. Hilarious! We couldn't
get enough of it. That's what makes my job
worthwhile."

Like a lot of gay
Californians, Hirschberg and her wife, Dr. Laura Norrell, have
been married twice. They have two daughters. Hirschberg has
always been out at work and says she's never faced any
discrimination.

"There are maybe a
hundred people in the country who do my job for feature
films," she explains. "And two of those are women. I'm
already a special case! But what's good is that when any
stereotype -- about race or anything -- comes up at work, I can
say 'That's bullshit.' I get to say what other people don't.
And my general manager is out and gay too."

Of the 20 sound people
nominated for Oscars this year, 11 work with Hirschberg at
Skywalker Sound. "So I can honestly say I don't care who
wins," she says, "because I feel one of us there will
win, and I'm really proud of that."