Scroll To Top

Go for the Gold

Go for the Gold


Out and proud, Lora Hirschberg is nominated for her first Oscar for sound mixing on The Dark Knight . Her gig at Skywalker Sound allows her to work on projects big ( The Prestige ) and small ( Shortbus ).

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 .

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."

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."

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Regina Marler