It’s Sound Check!

with Kevin O’Connell

Re-Recording mixer, Kevin O’Connell, was in Australia this year working with the Australian sound team for Mel Gibson’s latest movie Hacksaw Ridge. The Australian Screen and Sound Guild were lucky enough to be able to ask Kevin a few questions.

ASSG: You started off wanting to be a Fire-fighter, you liked being outdoors and active. Do you still chase a little bit of that action in your down time?  

KEVIN O’CONNELL: Actually I’ve been a motorcycle enthusiast my entire life and when I can, I like to go out for motorcycle rides. Lately I’ve been teaching my oldest son who is 14 to ride motorcycles off-road and that’s been lots of fun. Both boys keep me very busy when I am not at work.

986 The Fan – Tony Scott, Kevin O’Connell, Heather O’Connell, Greg P Russell, Rick Kline

In an interview you said that when you first started working in the machine room you hated it. But after looking out on the mixing stage and seeing the guys creating soundtracks, it became the best job you ever had. What was it about the mix stage and sound that called to you?  

KEVIN: Having spent the summer working as an LA County firefighter when I was 19, I was used to being outdoors a lot. So when I first waked into the machine room of a mixing stage, it seemed kind of dark and closed off. The thought of spending 10 hours a day indoors didn’t really appeal to me. Luckily I began my career at a world class sound facility, The Samuel Goldwyn Studios later called The Warner Hollywood Studios, I was fortunate enough to work on some very cool films with some extraordinary folks. Films like Grease, Animal House, The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. With films like that, it was easy to get hooked.

When you started out you worked on Empire Strikes Back with Steve Maslow, were you ever jealous of his hair?

KEVIN: It’s hard not to be jealous of his hair. It’s magnificent… And still is by the way.

Tell us about your first mixing experience.

KEVIN: My first mixing experience was when I was 24 years old on a film called Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. It starred Steve Martin and was directed by Carl Reiner. Steve Martin was also a producer on the film. Bill Varney was the dialogue mixer, Steve Maslow was mixing music and I was mixing sound effects. Bill and Steve had just come off winning back to back Oscars for Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Arc. To say I was a bit intimidated would be an understatement.

Steve Maslow and Kevin O’Connell

There was no formal training for mixers back in those days so my first day on the console was basically my first day on the job. Having never done this before, I asked Bill and Steve for advice. Since the plan was to not pre dub and go directly into finals, they told me to just put all of the faders at -10 and see how it goes. I actually only had about 15 to 20 tracks, all mono of course.

If you are unfamiliar with the film, it starts off with a car racing down a muddy winding dirt road while it’s pouring rain with lots of thunder and lightning going on.

At about 9:15 AM after Varney and Maslow had exchanged pleasantries with Reiner, Martin, and picture editor Bud Molen, Varney pressed the forward button. The sound that proceeded to come out of those speakers I can only describe as the loudest, harshest most piercing sound ever produced on a mixing stage. It defined the term, total harmonic distortion.

I looked over at Bill and he was yelling at me, actually he was screaming at me. My hands were frozen on the faders and I was basically in shock. I had no idea what he was saying because it was so loud in the theater. I looked back and saw Steve Martin and Carl Reiner cringing in their seats. I thought Bud was having a coronary. They all had a horrific looks on their faces. Finally, I leaned into Bill to try to hear what he was saying and faintly I heard YOU ARE PLAYING EVERYTHING TOO LOUD!!!  I quickly shouted back, “what should I do?” To which he replied LOWER IT!!! I literally had no idea what I was doing and I was totally petrified. To this day I do not know how I survived that mix.

I remember going out to the restroom as soon as I got a break and took paper towels and stuffed them underneath my armpits to stop the sweat from pouring down my shirt. I had never perspired like that in my life before that job and this was just the beginning. Without Varney and Maslow there to look after me, I never would have survived that mix……. Or the many that followed.

My next film was Poltergeist in which Steven Spielberg directed the mix, needless to say I ran through a lot of paper towels that year.

What is your mixing philosophy? Is there a particular process you like to follow?

KEVIN: Not really, I guess the only philosophy I like to follow these days is to just go with the flow and do the best job you can. A good mixing experience for me now is when everyone walks away happy. In the past, I may have been pushier about how the process worked. Now I tend to just take it easy and go with the flow.

Has it changed over the years?

KEVIN: I came into the business during an era when many staff mixers ruled the stage with an iron fist. It was their way or the highway. On occasion, they could be very unkind to the sound editors as well as the clients and even their fellow mixers. More than a few of them were problem drinkers and many were chain smokers. There is no room for that type of behavior in our business these days. The mixing stage has become a much more pleasant environment…most of the time.

Also, prior to Automation, three man-mixing teams were the norm. On day one of the final mix you had clients sitting behind you at 9 am and we did a faders up pass which we used to call a strafing run. We set the faders at zero and ran right to the end of the reel. Most of the time it was a train wreck. It wasn’t until later, around 1989-1990, when fader automation arrived, that many of us split off into 2 man teams. That’s when the term dialogue pass, music pass and sound effects pass was created. It gave the mixers a chance to get things together before the clients arrived and chimed in.

What is your desk of choice? And do you think the older analogue desks are on the way out due to the new work flows?

KEVIN: My desk of choice lately has been the Avid S3 or S6. Either one is cool with me. Since I work 100% in the box, these consoles are the best for my workflow. In my humble opinion, I believe this is the direction most of the industry is moving in. Certainly the next generation is. The flexibility of working in the box provides endless opportunities.

There have been a lot of changes in technology since you first started mixing, ranging from stereo to Dolby Atmos, analogue to digital, etc. 

KEVIN: Going from analog consoles to fully automated digital consoles was a huge leap. It also made it so anybody could be a mixer. In the old days, (pre-automated consoles and pro tools), It took a really talented individual to be able to juggle 60 or 70 tracks while mixing real-time with no automation all the while trying to maintain a cheerful disposition as filmmakers tossed more and more requests their way. Nowadays with everything automatable, it’s a whole different ball game.

Also, I believe going from 2 track stereo optical to 5.1 digital was a huge leap as well. Any new format that focuses on improving sound quality in the theaters is good for our craft.

Have these advancements been exciting and helped your process or is there some part of you that secretly yearns for the ‘good old days’?

KEVIN: The only part of the good old days I yearn for are the more recent good old days, like 5 or 6 years ago. When studios had staff mixers working in stages they called their homes with crews they had developed relationships with. When working on a film at another studio or facility was the exception rather than the rule. Lately our business has become, mixing de jour. Pick a facility, pick a stage, pick a crew and go for it. Some facilities still have staff mixers in dedicated rooms but that model appears to be on the decline.

1985 The Last Dragon mix – Kevin O’Connell, Bill Varney, Berry Gordy, Steve Maslow

Do you have much contact with the sound editing team and supervisor before you start a mix? Would you like to?

KEVIN: Yes, generally there is some level of communication depending on the complexity of the show. Oftentimes I work with sound teams that I have worked with many times before and we have already developed a shorthand.

There seems to be a temp mix and mixes for screenings on every film. Is this a development of modern film making or have they been around awhile? Do you find the temp mixing process useful or is it more of a throw away exercise?

KEVIN: Temp mixes have been around for as long as I can remember. However, back in the day, sound editors provided us with temp dialogue tracks and temp sound effects which we combined with temp music to create the temp dub. Then we basically threw that entire mix away when we started the real deal. Nowadays the temp is more like a pre-final. It has become a very valuable tool in the film making process. I’d say roughly 80 to 90 percent of the film’s sonic blueprint gets developed during the temp process.

Top Gun was released again at the cinema for its 30th Anniversary and is still one of the best sounding films. What do you think it is about a film like that and its soundtrack that stands the test of time?

KEVIN: When you talk about the sound of Top Gun, you can’t overlook the fact that the sounds of the jets were the real stars. Supervising sound editors George Watters and Cecilia Hall provided us with the most incredible palate of jet sounds ever heard at that time. They had done an extensive recording session with the Thunderbirds, an Air Demonstration Squadron of the United States Air Force. To this day, I have never heard such a great compilation of jet sounds.

1980 Raiders of The Lost Ark mix machine room

You combine that with a talent like Tony Scott, sprinkle in some Kenny Loggins and a touch of Berlin. Wrap it around a love story starring Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis. Add in the dynamic producing duo of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson and you’ve got a pretty badass film.

I was only 27 when I worked on Top Gun. We mixed that film pre-automation. Every single cut, would take myself, dialogue mixer Don Mitchell and music mixer Rick Kline hours to craft. Each mixer had several tracks on faders as well as a joystick in the other hand and we would rehearse our pans and faders moves many times until we got it right. It was certainly a group effort.

I think the reason Top Gun has stood the test of time is because it was a very cool original concept film that appealed to both men and women.

Top Gun Crew- Kevin O’Connell, Don Mitchell, Rick Kline

Also did you ever get sick of the song Dangerzone?

KEVIN: No, it’s my mantra…I listen to it every morning…. sometimes twice a day when I need a lift.

You have collaborated numerous times with directors such as Tony Scott, and Mel Gibson. What are the advantages to working with the same director on multiple films? What type of short hand do you develop?

KEVIN: The more you get to know a director the more you get to know their likes and dislikes. Both Tony and Mel are true artists by nature.

I was fortunate enough to work with Tony on 12 of his films from Top Gun to his last film Unstoppable. Mixing with Tony was as difficult as it was rewarding. Tony micromanaged the mix until he got it exactly what he wanted, he never settled for less. We stopped at every single cut to decide what sound, whether it was dialogue, music or sound effects would drive the next scene. We would dismantle the score until he found whatever element he felt would drive the scene. If he couldn’t find it in the music, he would take apart the sound effects until he found exactly what he needed. Usually, it ended up being combination of all three disciplines. He taught me how to be a better story teller through the use of sound. Every time we sat together at the console to begin a mix, Tony would bellow out his trademark “KILL” and we would dive in. Tony’s friendship, generosity and sense of humor made every project a special one.

Mel Gibson has a bit of a different approach. His films tend to be a bit edgy and that’s the way he likes his films to sound. Mel likes for us to take a pass at the reel and then come in and run it with him. He is always appreciative of our efforts and works tirelessly alongside us until the film takes the shape he is looking for. Mel likes to push the edge of the envelope. Like Tony, Mel doesn’t let go until he gets what he is looking for. You can tell he really enjoys the process of hearing his film come to life on the mixing stage. Even though the subject matter of his films can be very intense, Mel always keeps things light hearted on the stage which makes mixing with him a blast.

Then on the opposite side of the coin how do you approach working with a director for the first time?

KEVIN: I really like working with first time directors. I had a great experience this last year working with Elizabeth Banks on Pitch Perfect 2. For a first timer she was awesome. Even though she had never sat on a mixing stage and directed a mix, she knew exactly what she wanted her film to sound like. She was very gracious in letting everyone give her input, but then she would make a decision and do what she felt was best for the film. I really respected her for that.

Michael Bay films’ are well known for being big blockbuster explosive events. How do you approach films like that so there is a balance between the awesome spectacle and the smaller story moments?

KEVIN: I was fortunate enough to work with Michael on several of his films. From his first film, Bad Boys, to the first Transformers. I got to see Michael mature into one of our industries finest filmmakers. His edict was for us to make his films sound as cool as they looked and we worked long and hard to achieve that. I give most of the credit for that to my mixing partner at the time Greg Russell. He would sit in that chair mixing his ass off for hours upon hours crafting those big set piece scenes. Then Michael would come in and waste no time letting us know if we had made it cool or not.

Michael has a way with words. I remember one time on Pearl Harbor there was a scene of an aircraft being lifted up on an elevator aboard an aircraft carrier and Michael said. “You guys gotta make that elevator sound louder, Have you ever been on board a fucking aircraft carrier? to which we replied “no”. To which he replied “well they are pretty fucking loud!!!”

So we raised the elevator sound.

The irony of that story is that Greg and I were invited to the world premiere of Pearl Harbor which took place aboard the USS John C Stennis aircraft carrier docked in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. When Greg and I reached the ship, they were taking people aboard by the use of their aircraft elevator. Half way up the ship we noticed that the elevator made no noise at all. I looked over at Greg and said “Holy Crap, they don’t make any noise at all” we both had a good laugh and later when we ran into Michael we busted his balls about it. It’s been kind of been a running joke ever since. I feel very fortunate to have worked with Michael on so many of his films…….as for how we handled the smaller story moments in his films, I don’t remember many of them.

What are you currently obsessed with? Film, book, TV show, game, new pet?

KEVIN: I am actually still obsessed with Steve Maslow’s hair. Since you brought it up I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s haunting me.

Do you use these external interests and put them into your work?  Or are there other influences?

KEVIN: I listen a lot. I listen to traffic, music, live shows, applause, background voices in restaurants, building slaps, footsteps, voices, animals and anything else that makes a noise. I pay careful attention when I watch other films and I take it all in. I do a lot more experimenting lately and I like trying new things more and more these days. I think that’s how you grow.

Film-making can be a very consuming process, creatively, time wise and even emotionally. It can also be very un-predictable. How do you cope?

KEVIN: The new trend in filmmaking is smaller budgets that don’t allow much for weekend and overtime work. That works great for me as I have had my fair share of that in the past. Now I enjoy my nights and weekends with my family. When I am at work I give 150% but when I’m done, I’m done. I never take it home with me.

Your first job in the industry was in 1980 and then first Oscar nomination in 1983. You’ve then gone on to have a long and hugely successful career, what is the secret to your success, besides the obvious of being an insanely exceptional mixer?

KEVIN: This question makes me a bit uncomfortable but I will do my best to answer it. If there is any one secret to what you refer to as my success, it is that I have had the good fortune to have been surrounded by some of the most talented individuals this business has ever seen. From my first job at Goldwyn studios, getting to work with giants like Bill Varney, Don Mitchell, Gregg Landaker and Steve Maslow. Later having the opportunity to partner up with the incredibly talented music mixer Rick Kline for many years. Following that up with a ten-year tenure with super mixer Greg P. Russell. When you are fortunate enough to be surrounded by these titans of the sound community, some of that is bound to rub off on you. I am very thankful to have had the honor to sit alongside of these extremely gifted individuals.

Do you have any advice for the next generation of sound re-recording mixers?

KEVIN: I guess I would encourage them to learn as much about the technology as they can but to keep in mind that they are only tools and not to over-use them. To remember that sound mixing is a collaborative process and no matter how much you think you are right, be open to others and their opinions. In the past I remember going toe to toe with folks because my opinion about some particular element of the mix differed with theirs. I compromised relationships over things I thought were so important at the time that now don’t really seem so important and probably didn’t matter so much in the first place. Films will come and go but the relationships you make during the process in the end will serve you well throughout your career. Don’t sweat the small stuff and do your best to stay humble.

1980 Raiders of the Lost Ark mix – Gregg Landaker, Steve Maslow, Bill Varney, Kevin O’Connell (standing)
Interview and written by Emma Mitchell