Oscars: Re-Recording Mixer Kevin O’Connell on the Awe-Inspiring Sound of ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ and His 21st Nomination

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In 1984, re-recording mixer Kevin O’Connell earned his first Oscar nomination for Terms of Endearment (1983). Then he earned three more in the years that followed for Dune (1984), Silverado (1985), and Top Gun (1986). But the Oscar noms didn’t stop there. So far in his long, prestigious career, O’Connell has mixed over 200 films and earned an incredible 21 Oscar nominations for the mixes on films like A Few Good Men, Days of Thunder, Armageddon, The Patriot, Pearl Harbor, Apocalypto, and many more. Here, O’Connell discusses the details of his most recent Oscar-nominated mix on the film Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson. He shares the nomination with re-recording mixers/supervising sound editors Andy Wright and Robert Mackenzie, and production mixer Peter Grace.

S&P: Kevin, you’ve worked with Mel Gibson before, when he directed Apocalypto about 10 years ago…

Kevin O’Connell:  Actually, the first time I worked with Mel was when he directed The Passion of the Christ (2004). Then Apocalypto in 2006. And now on Hacksaw Ridge.  So I worked with him on his last three films.

Kevin O’Connell

S&P: And you earned an Oscar nomination on Apocalypto as well. In fact, you’ve got quite the list of Oscar nominations. This one on Hacksaw Ridge being your 21st nomination…

KO:  There’s been a few, that’s for sure. I’ve had a good run with that. I think the sound of, “The 21st time is the charm,” has a bit of a ring to it [laughs].

S&P: How did you get involved with Hacksaw Ridge? Obviously you have a successful past with director Gibson. Did he call you up and offer you the gig?

KO:  I got a phone call from Bill Mechanic, a producer on the film. He had been trying to get the film made for the last 13 years. Finally he was able to get Mel Gibson on board and that’s when Bill contacted me. The film had to be done down in Sydney, because of the tax credit. Bill thought it would be comforting for Mel to have someone down there he was familiar with to help wrangle the sound team in Sydney. So I met Bill for lunch and we talked about the story of Hacksaw Ridge. The story is one of the most compelling that I’ve ever done. It’s a real life story about Desmond Doss, who is a complete and utter hero. He ran into the Battle of Okinawa — one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific, without a gun and did what no other man could do. When Bill told me the story, it didn’t matter if I had to go around the world twice to work on it, I would have done it, especially to work with Mel again. Working with Mel is like a gift. He’s a compassionate, thoughtful, and provocative filmmaker. I really enjoy working with him. So that was an easy sell for me.

S&P: You started the film in Australia but then brought it back up to Sony for the final mix?

KO: We started premixing the dialogue and sound effects for four weeks down in Sydney and then came back to the U.S. for the final mix, which we spent another four weeks on at Sony Pictures Post in Culver City, CA.

S&P: Did you start off with the Atmos mix, or did you start in 7.1?

KO:  The film was pre-dubbed in native Atmos. We mixed it in 7.1. Then, we did an Atmos upmix at the end. So all the sound effects had been pre-panned for Atmos but because of our schedule, we ended up final mixing first in 7.1. Originally we were supposed to mix at Soundfirm in Sydney, Australia, which is where we went to pre-dub the film. We were going to mix in 7.1 because Soundfirm didn’t have an Atmos room. But then Mel [Gibson] had to be back in the US, and we couldn’t finish the movie at Soundfirm. We moved the mix to Sony to finish it in the William Holden Theater. It was quite an interesting and fun time for us there. I mixed on an Avid S3 console. It’s a portable console that you can place on top of another console and so that is what I mixed on. The sound effects were mixed on an Avid S3 and an ICON, on top of the Harrison console. The Harrison was used for the back end of the console, but the Avid S3 and ICON were used for the front end.  The S3 is a much smaller version of the Avid S6. You can put the S3 under your arm and take it with you anywhere you go. It’s amazing to think that you can mix a film like Hacksaw Ridge on an Avid S3. It’s a powerful tool.

S&P: Who was on the mix team, and how did you divide the mix?

KO:  Myself, Robert Mackenzie, and Andy Wright were the re-recording mixers. I handled the dialogue and music, and Rob and Andy handled the sound effects, backgrounds, Foley, and sound design.

S&P: Having two mixers on the effects seems reasonable. There were so many sound effects in this film, especially during that first assault on the ridge…

KO:  The first 10 minutes of the first battle, which is the entire first battle, is completely choreographed with sound effects and sound design. It was pretty cool.

S&P: Tell me about the dialogue. The first half of the film is dialogue driven, but then it turns into a big, crazy action movie for the last half. What were some challenges there?

KO:  The dialogue is intricate in many ways because Desmond Doss [played by Andrew Garfield] flashes back often to when he was younger. Going in and out of those flashbacks was a little tricky and we wanted to get it right. Andrew [Garfield] did such an amazing job with his performance that we needed to try to step up and deliver 110% on the sound side to help evoke the emotion that he was trying to convey to the audience.

In the first hour of the movie, there are a few flashbacks and it’s fairly pedestrian dialogue, but once we hit the battle in Okinawa, all hell breaks loose and it’s about deciding what dialogue we want to understand because in the heat of battle you have grenades and mortars going off, extensive gunfire, and people shouting at each other. The idea was to be able to understand all of that dialogue while also trying to keep the intensity of the battle up. The directive from Mel was to get it right. That battle was one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific and Mel shot the battle to show that war is hell. Andrew [as Desmond Doss]is running through this battle without a gun. The directive was to put the audience on the battlefield with Andrew Garfield, Luke Bracey [playing Smitty Ryker], and Vince Vaughn [playing Sgt. Howell].That was what we were tasked to do. We put a lot of time and effort into trying to achieve that goal.

S&P: The POV of the battle is so close to the characters, like you’re right next to them. How were you able to use the perspective to your advantage during the mix?

KO:  The entire battle is all redone in post. We used very little of the original production recordings. The battles are 90% choreographed with sound effects and replacement dialogue. We were only able to use a portion of the original dialogue, and everything else had to be replaced. The explosions are box bombs which look cool and look flashy but they don’t make any noise. The guns are props and they sound more like cap guns than real firearms. The battleships are all visual effects and they don’t exist. So everything had to be created from scratch. The sound team used period-correct weaponry, which they went to great lengths to achieve. Mel wanted to keep it authentic.

So, literally every battle scene had to be sound designed and sound edited and choreographed from scratch because none of it existed in the production sound. During filming, you had a bunch of guys running around a football field with no sound, basically — with the exception of the dialogue. That was how the movie was shot. The guys are yelling at each other while the guys behind them are shooting prop guns while prop explosions are going off. It all sounds like cap guns and firecrackers. You can’t have cap guns and firecrackers in your dialogue tracks so you have to replace the dialogue. So that’s why 90% of the dialogue was completely replaced by the sound team. The ADR was recorded wherever the actors were. In Los Angeles we had a team led by Kimberly Harris [ADR supervisor]. And in Sydney, Andy Wright recorded the actors down there.

All of what we do in sound mixing is about perspective. Sometimes the guns are up in your face, and sometimes they are offstage. The same goes for the explosions. If you took away what was happening on-camera, there was an entire offstage battle which was made up of several hundred tracks just to keep the battle alive.  The American guns and the Japanese guns, explosions, mortars, and battleships sounds, all of that had to be created from scratch. There were no original production recordings for any of that. We take every single shot and try to figure out what is important to hear in that shot. Is it the dialogue? Is it the close-up gun sound? Is it an explosion? There’s one moment in particular where the battle is raging and Desmond is at the top of the ridge, and he can’t figure out whether to retreat with the rest of his platoon or to stay and try to save lives. He talks to God and during that moment we take the realistic sound and dial it down to a highly-stylized sound so that you’re still hearing the gunshots and mortars and explosions, but they sound completely different. They sound like they are behind a wall of glass. Desmond asks God what to do, and he gets his answer when he hears an offstage soldier crying for help. He then realizes what he needs to do, and that is to run back into that battle and save lives. At that point, we go from stylized effects back to a realistic sound as he runs back into the battle.

S&P: Did having such a close POV limit you in any way? Did that POV ever feel restricting?

KO:  Not really, because when you’re working on a story that is as important as this story was to tell, we felt like we had an obligation to get it right. Everyone took that part of the mix very seriously. Although we had a lot of fun doing it, and working with Mel is always a blast, we treated the battle scenes with careful detail. We put a lot of effort into making sure they were as specific as possible, and as impactful as possible. We were also aware of moments of silence that we needed to put in between the explosions to give the audience a break sonically.

S&P: During the second attack on the ridge the platoon gets pushed back, and that’s when we start to hear music return to the mix. It’s not just solely sound effects anymore. How did you work the music back in, after not having it play for so long?

KO:  One of the most important things that I learned from working on so many Jerry Bruckheimer movies is that you can never lose the melody. The melody is where the emotion of the score is. So, as much as the scene may have lent itself to playing the sound effects heavily, we were careful to strike a delicate balance between the sound effects and the music because we never wanted to lose the thread of that melody. Once the music comes in, it changes the emotion of what is going on. We paid very careful attention to the balance in those scenes between the dialogue, music, and sound effects.

In contrast, the third battle is more like an opera. The third battle is more like slow-motion. The shots are stylized. The sound is stylized. The guns are firing and the shells are ejecting from the rifles and you’re hearing them in a very stylized, reverbed-out way that’s nothing like how a real gun would sound. At that moment, the film is driven by the music. We went for more of a stylized approach. It was an important moment to get right.

S&P: Since all the battles were created in post, there must have been a lot of loop group…

KO:  There were scads of loop group in the movie because there were so many people. We took all the people who were dying but not saying anything — all the “Ooohs,” and “Ahhhs,” and screams, and had the sound effects mixers handle those. I took all the people who were yelling out things in American or Japanese. The entire loop group was very cleverly edited by Justine Angus and Tara Webb. They spent a lot of time splitting up the loop group into American, Japanese, intelligible American, and intelligible Japanese and editing them appropriately.

S&P: Did you have a favorite scene to mix?

KO:  One of my favorite scenes was after the first battle. Luke Bracey and Andrew Garfield are hunkered down in a foxhole. They’re bonding for a moment and it’s the first time we’re getting a bit of a break from the battle after being hammered for 10 minutes. So they’re bonding and there are flashbacks. The dialogue is flashing back to Andrew’s life. Then Andrew falls off to sleep, and suddenly he gets surprised by a Japanese soldier who pops his head up over the berm. The intention there was to scare the hell out of the audience, but we couldn’t find the right sound, either in the sound design or the music. We couldn’t quite nail it the way Mel wanted to nail it. So Mel says, “Hey guys, can I give it a shot?” So we gave Mel a mic, we ran the scene and hit the record button. Right as that Japanese soldier popped his head over the berm, Mel yells into the mic. Mel has this deep, cool, gravelly actor voice. We took that sound and put it into all 56 speakers in the room at one time. Trust me when I say that when we played it the first time it scared the crap out of us too! That was one of my favorite anecdotal scenes.

Another scene is the very first time the guys hike up onto the ridge and crawl into that battle for the first time. You’ll notice that as they hike to the top of the ridge you hear music, but as they are creeping further into the battlefield, every time we cut to a character, more sounds get taken out until eventually all you can hear are their breaths. These guys are scared to death. As they get further into the battlefield, the sound gets quieter and quieter until the guy falls down and a soldier pops up. Then all of the sudden it’s game over. The battle is on and all hell breaks loose for the next 10 minutes. That was an interesting scene to craft and I think it was one of the ones we wanted to get right.

S&P: What was the most challenging scene to mix?

KO:  It started at reel four and ended at reel seven; that was the most challenging scene to mix! Meaning, once the battle started, it was all challenging. I don’t think there was ever a part of the backend of that movie that wasn’t challenging. For all the reasons that I stated: we wanted to keep the intensity of the battle up and make it feel real, the actors are acting at 110%, Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score is driving awesomely from the second battle and on.  Our job was to try to get all of that right on the sound side.  Anything to do with the battles was a challenge.

S&P: Any final thoughts you’d like to share on Hacksaw Ridge?

KO:  This movie is an amazing twist of fate. It was 13 years in the making, and it landed on Mel Gibson to direct. They got Andrew Garfield to star in it. They had John Gilbert as the picture editor. And I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with all of these folks. I give props to my co-workers on the film, Rob Mackenzie and Andy Wright. They were every bit as involved with this soundtrack as I was. It was a huge collaborative effort with the entire sound team and I’m very proud of this movie.

-S&P-

Images courtesy of Summit Entertainment
Kevin O’Connell photo by Rachid Ait

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