But it does… From the smallest sound to a powerful boom, what we hear plays a big role in how we process what we see on screen. Few tradesmen in Hollywood have mastered the trade like sound engineer Russell Williams.
The recipient of 2 Academy Awards and multiple Emmy Awards, Williams is a virtuoso when it comes to manipulating what we hear and turning that into magic on screen. Currently dividing his duties between picking and choosing the projects he takes on and teaching upper-tier classes in sound to students at American University, Russell agreed to share with Robertson Treatment the tips of his trade.
Robertson Treatment: How do you contribute to the overall process of making a film?
Russell Williams: My department and I would be tasked with watching the actor rehearsals on set and determining the best method of recording these performances. We have a variety of options in our “tool box” but must find a balance between getting near-pristine tracks and staying invisible to the camera, except in scenes where a visible microphone would be expected. We would (with the assistant directors) also function as the “noise police”, to identify and hopefully prevent unwanted sounds from reaching the set and therefore be recorded with the performance.
RT: Why did you pick sound mixing as a career?
RW: The short answer is, the line was shorter to get into sound than to get into camera jobs. In truth, I had somewhat of a perfect foundation to enter into the business of listening for a living starting with my music background and 7 plus years working in radio and television.
RT: What distinctive quality do you bring to your craft?
RW: Being a department head on a film or TV project requires that you be thoroughly versed in your field, plus be able to manage your team, plus maintain a working relationship with the other filmmakers in front or behind the camera. As it relates to my actual role as sound mixer, having been trained to listen critically–first in music then in radio as an engineer/announcer the next important phase of my career was being able to observe or apprentice with people that had mastered their craft and passed these lessons on to me.
After considering those formative steps, bottom line–I really loved movies and was not dissuaded by the long hours and highly competitive nature of the business in general. So I attribute much of my success to respecting the craft and being a team player that wants whatever is best for the project to be successful. I learned during my first “real job” [NBC TV during the Watergate Hearings], that having a 9-5 mentality was one of the first things to get tossed. I was “baptized’ through working 22-hour days 3-5 days a week for about three months. You can’t work those kind of hours unless you are passionate or a prisoner.
RT: Are there any obstacles that you’ve had to overcome to achieve success in your career?
RW: When I reflect on my early years in Los Angeles, the biggest hurdle was to get into the union [I.A.T.S.E. Local 695]. Getting that “card” then would put me in a position to do projects at the major studios. There was and still is quite a bit of non-union work but working for the “majors” was one of my goals.
Just so your readers are clear, the union was a hurdle for people of all races and genders and more so before 1970 where for many with a permanent tan and/or female, it was a brick wall. A hurdle by comparison, is still progress.
RT: Please share some advice for others who look to follow in your path.
RW: If you could indulge me on this response, I would like to use some of my favorite movie lines to address this important point.
“Earn it!” –“Saving Private Ryan”
“…my orders are to weed out all non-hackers who do not pack the gear to serve in my beloved corps.” – “Full Metal Jacket”
“It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” “Godfather I”
“This is the business we’ve chosen.” -“Godfather II”
“Details of your incompetence do not interest me. Is there some reason that my coffee isn’t here? Has she died or something?” – “The Devil Wears Prada”
Hopefully, those quotes will give your readers a great deal of insight into the work ethic, expectations, stress and attrition rate in the business, whether we are speaking of movies, TV , music, fashion or sports. Any highly competitive field like these will “weed out all non-hackers” and make you earn your keep. If you have a thin skin, assume that every slight or glare is personal or only interested in the “glam” of the biz and not the quality of your work…stay out. If you are too educated to make the coffee run, get Muffy from the groomer, sweep up your workspace, empty the trash or stand in line for food at the catering truck, you need not apply.
If on the other hand, you are willing to apprentice, assist, learn your craft, bring a personal code of ethics to the task that demands that you make yourself indispensable to the project no matter how small or large your role, work ungodly hours including weekends, nights and holidays…you might just have the “right stuff.” I have seen few sectors of the workforce that work harder than the industry. The final product may not always be a masterpiece, but no less work went into the production of it. No one wants to work the kind of hours we do to create a flop. One of the major differences in our industry and most others is that we sign our names to our work. If you can’t hear the dialogue, if the lighting is bad, if the clothes are wrong, if the sets are wrong for the period the movie is portraying, all you need do is look at the credits to know who not to hire for your next production. If you were constantly overruled in your attempts to get the right elements on the screen, it is better not to have you name associated with the project than to wonder why your phone doesn’t ring anymore. Just think if you could call the assembly line worker that put your headlight in upside down, or installed the wrong software in your mobile entertainment center, don’t you think that person would pay more attention to what they were doing? The Hudlin brothers told me that movie-making was “glorified assembly-line work” so it is critical that everyone along that line pay attention to the minutiae and get the best product on the street that your budget can produce.
RT: You are one of the few people to win an Academy Award and you’ve won it twice plus two Prime-Time Emmys. What did winning that award mean to you?
RW: All the years I was growing up in D.C. I was made aware of the double-standard. At some point, the practice of being “graded on a curve” was introduced to schools and certain professional exams. My goal was to be held to the same standard as anyone else and in the business I feel that may still be easier behind the camera than in front, if only we pursued more roles behind the camera. Winning multiple awards I think showed that if nothing else my [our] work was consistently good and could be compared to that of any others in the field. You still have to be lucky especially when you consider how many projects are released in any given year, versus the ones that get nominated, versus the ones that win. That being said, it meant that the personal risks and sacrifices, the years of training, the thousands spent on equipment, vehicles, seminars and mentoring newcomers all paid off for a kid from S.E. D.C. who couldn’t have started much further from Hollywood but found a way to get there anyway.
RT: What’s next for you?
RW: When I know, I’ll give you an exclusive. 🙂
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