S&P had the pleasure of sitting down and catching up with the soft spoken Danny Michael about his days on set, life off it and what keeps him wanting to go back . The native New Yorker has an ensemble of various projects coming out including Limitless, The Adjustment Bureau, One for the Money, Mr. Popper’s Penguins and a Tom Hanks/Sandra Bullock film called Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Danny is a busy mixer these days, but when he was younger, he’d be the first to tell you, he’d never thought you could have a career that was fun — I guess he turned out to be wrong.
What influenced you to become a mixer? I grew up in Queens and I had a high school friend, John Sosenko, who is now a DP/camera operator out in LA — we would hang out a lot. His dad fancied himself as a documentary filmmaker and the summer we graduated high school, we went and made a documentary in Woodstock (a year after the music festival). Since I knew the most about sound, he made me the sound man. We kept going back and forth to Woodstock doing this documentary, but I never thought anything of it — especially for a career. It was just fun.
When I went off to college, I actually studied as a communications major and a sociology minor. I didn’t take any in the way of film classes in school, but I kept on working with John and doing other projects with students I knew at the NYU film school. After graduating college, I found that my years of small film projects developed into a new small group of contacts that were making films and documentaries that paid me for my work. This, I determined, was looking like a career.
Do you remember your first sound package?
I started sound recording in the 1970’s. I graduated college in 1974 and that summer my father helped me out and I bought a Nagra 4.2L — the mono version. It cost me exactly $1,735. I had a set of Beyerdynamic DT48 headphones one preamp that gave power to a T-feed mic. A friend would let me borrow his Sennheiser 415.
Was it easier to land work back then?
In New York, there were two unions. They had Local 52 and a smaller union called Nabet 15. It was pretty hard to get into the Local 52. You basically had to know someone or be grandfathered in, but Nabet was for people like me. People who were just starting out in the business. It was, therefore, comprised of a younger group of people who were intrigued by film — who thought it was more of an art form. It was easier back then to befriend people and stay friendly because the union was comprised of everyone in film; it wasn’t separated into their different crafts like it is in Los Angeles. Thru my early documentary work, I got to travel to places like Sweden, Columbia, Norway, Amsterdam, and Brazil. It was an amazing opportunity for a young person. Looking back, everybody helped everyone out, and I don’t remember not having a good relationship with the people I worked with.
How did working in the 70’s shape you as the mixer you are today? In ’75 or ’76, I was introduced to the Schoeps 41 hypercardioid mic. I used it all the time with a low cut for all my film work. It sounded very clean and smooth on dialogue and music. I often found myself preferring it for close up work outdoors over a shotgun because of the advantage of having the capsule in such close proximity to the actor’s mouth. As a mixer, I am always interested in making sound that matches the camera’s perspective. There was very little use for two camera shooting back in the day. It was a different style then. When they would shoot a wide master — it was okay to get wider sound quality, but as we got closer, my choice was always to work with the Schoeps on a boom.
Did you manage to start a family along the way? Yes, I did. I married my wife Judy in June of 1978 and we’re still married today with two kids. Well, they’re not really kids anymore (laughing). I have a daughter, Emily, who is twenty-nine now and a son, Max, who is twenty-six. It was tough in the beginning when I was traveling for months at a time, but Judy made sure to avoid making it into something negative. They’d come visit me on set in new and unusual places and then they’d fly back home to be with their friends — it was important for us, as a family, to find a nice balance whenever possible. I’m convinced, to this day, they know how to travel light because of all those trips.
How has your gear changed along the way? I used the Nagra up until School of Rock with Jack Black. I even used the Nagra on 8 Mile. I switched over to the Fostex PD-6 for Stepford Wives when that first came out and now I work with the Fostex DV824 8-Track Recorder. I have a Cooper 208D mixer and, along with the Schoeps hypercardioid, I now use the CMIT-5U over the Neumann KM82 that I used to favor. For my mobile work, I’ll strap on a Sound Devices 788T and, many years ago, I changed out my Audio Limited radio mics for Lectrosonics. Since The Departed, my backup has become Metacorder on an Apple laptop setup with an Apogee Ensemble (modified for 12V operation) for my A to D conversion. I also record that backup material about 3 to 4db lower for extra protection. I use a CAT5 system for video and audio and I loop the audio thru the video assist which then feeds the Comteks during playback of a scene. Sadly, with so much high def video showing up on jobs, that nice, durable Cat5 setup is no longer capable of providing SDI video to my sound cart. One step forward another step backward.
Tell us a little bit about your workflow.
I tend to set up my board more visually then a left to right manner. I’ll usually put my booms in inputs six and seven. The boom furthest right on set will go into the far right input. For the plant mics, I’ll do the same, and place them visually on the board in comparison to where they are in the room. I usually get larger sides and color code them because I don’t want to be squinting to read cues when we’re filming. I’ll remove every bit of action from the sides so it’s just the words… this way I’m concentrating only on the things I need to be.
As for rehearsal, I have an amazing crew I get to work with everyday. We’ve been together for a long time, which makes things so much easier. Kira Smith is my boom and Julian Townsend is utility/2nd boom who came in a little bit after The Departed. All three of us will try to watch rehearsals. There are often times when we are doing catch up and in that case, I’ll just have Kira watch. Once we figure out what the two booms will do and what Julian can help cover, then we sort out what else can be done — like sweetening the scene with a radio mic or putting down a plant mic for more coverage. But just because it worked in rehearsal, doesn’t mean it will work when they roll. Things change. Like a last minute flag or camera angle change, so we’re always on our toes to make those adjustments.
A lot of work goes into making these shows — do you mind briefly talking about some of those efforts? Adjustment Bureau was all shot in New York in about 65-70 days with all the reshooting. To work with Matt Damon again is an amazing opportunity — he really is a true professional and a very friendly person. New York has its problems though. They won’t shut down traffic unless it’s for a visual reason so you have to keep working in the environment you’re given. I can tell over the years New York has gotten a lot louder. We’re almost always on radio mics for back up during exteriors.
For Limitless, we were only able to shoot in New York for two weeks (thanks to ever fluctuating film incentives) then we moved to Philadelphia where we faked New York for the rest of the show. The director (Neil Burger) and DP (Jo Willems) were absolutely fantastic to work with and got us through all the tougher times on set.
Mr. Poppers Penguins presented some unusual challenges because we were working with live penguins on stage and had to keep the temperature around 40 degrees all the time.
Other than that, the shows were pretty smooth to work on without a lot of hiccups. We’d lay down carpets when we needed to and radio mic when booming wasn’t possible. One of the projects I really enjoyed working on was Last Night with first time director Massy Tadjedin. It was a small, twenty-five day shoot almost entirely shot with one camera. It made me feel like one of those movies I worked on in the 70’s & 80’s where everyone on set puts everything they have into it to make the best picture they can. It’s nice being a part of those projects from time to time.
Do you have any advice for up and coming sound people? Yes, let people know you’re there by being a presence on the set. Don’t just focus on being the sound mixer. No matter what happens, it’s a collaborative effort with the other crew members working with you. It’s important to establish relationships with all the departments because they’re the ones who will have the greatest impact on the quality of your work.