The sound of success

22 Jun 2017

Author: Ruby Lohman

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While most people are watching the action unfold on the big screen, Andy Wright is listening to it. As one of Australia’s leading sound mixers, he has mixed the sound of several major films in his 17-year career, culminating in an Oscar for his work on Mel Gibson’s 2016 war drama Hacksaw Ridge.
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When we watch films, we notice the costumes, the locations, the actors’ skill. But elements such as how the dialogue mixes with sound effects or the way the music transitions between scenes can sometimes be overlooked.

For Andy Wright, it’s always been the opposite. When he was young, the Sydney-based sound guru – who last year won an Oscar for sound mixing on the film Hacksaw Ridge – watched the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films on endless repeat. And he was struck most by how they sounded. 

“I think I was always destined to be involved with post-production sound because it was something that really left a mark on me,” he says. “Especially those George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg films. They were so creative with their use of sound. That just opened up another world for me.”

It’s a world he has existed in happily since. Growing up in Sydney’s Penshurst, Wright worked at a local cinema and during high school, did work experience at Soundfirm, Australia’s largest and most awarded audio post-production company. He’s been with Soundfirm ever since, working his way up from dialogue recording to sound editing and sound mixing, and now supervising sound editor. 

Debuting at the Oscars

For those unfamiliar with the terminology, the line between post-production (also referred to as ‘re-recording’) sound mixing and editing can be blurry. 

“Sound editing is the creation and placement of the sound against the moving image,” says Wright. “The sound mixing is the manipulation of those sounds against each other in relation to the music, dialogue and sound effects.” 

The sound mixing team is responsible for creating the soundscape of the entire film. 

In 2016, Wright worked on Hacksaw Ridge as supervising sound editor alongside fellow Australian Robert Mackenzie. The film, directed by Mel Gibson, is a war drama that tells the true story of Desmond Doss, an American pacifist and World War II combat medic who refused to carry a weapon. 

Hacksaw Ridge was one of the biggest films I’ve worked on in terms of responsibility and scope,” says Wright. “It was really exciting and a little bit daunting, but highly rewarding and a hugely creative experience.”

What made it unique for Wright was the creative licence granted to the sound team to help craft the story.  

“Mel [Gibson] gave us an amazing opportunity through the battle sequences to orchestrate and design a sound piece that was almost like music,” says Wright.

“He gave us a battle sequence that didn’t have any scored music to it and allowed us as the sound editors and mixers to really sculpt those moments. It is fairly unheard of in modern cinema to have an 11-minute piece of military battle without any scored music.” 

The film went on to win 29 awards and 77 nominations, including two Academy Awards. One of those was for Best Sound Mixing, which went to Wright (his first Oscar) and his colleagues Robert Mackenzie, Peter Grace and Kevin O’Connell. Wright and Mackenzie were also nominated for Best Sound Editing. 

Winning an Oscar wasn’t on Wright’s mind while working on the film. But in the final few weeks of sound mixing, in August 2016, the team worked from Los Angeles in collaboration with Sony Pictures, and Tinseltown started to talk. 

“It was very exciting because I’ve never been part of that buzz and that Oscar community,” he says. 

Leah Katz and Andy Wright on the Oscar
Leah Katz and Andy Wright on the Oscar in 2017.

The sound of success

Good sound mixing usually goes unnoticed by the casual observer – the mix is designed to support the story, not to be obtrusive. But this can belie the artistry and technical mastery behind outstanding sound mixes. 

For Wright, it comes down to attention to detail. 

“One could see a film like Hacksaw Ridge and think you just throw sound at it: you throw in bombs and explosions and guns and people dying and that’s your soundtrack,” he says. “But we really wanted to make sure that each moment and each sound, in each moment had its own place. 

“For us, and for good sound mixers, that attention to detail and clarity of story is something that’s vital. You want the audience to understand what’s being said even if somebody is in the middle of a battle, and that requires finessing of things like background sounds and bombs that are dropping.”

Hacksaw Ridge was a career highlight for Wright in a long list that includes Last Cab to Darwin (2015), Red Dog (2011) and Killer Elite (2011), as well as Australian director Phillip Noyce’s films Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), The Quiet American (2002) and Catch a Fire (2006).

Wright cites Chinese films Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) by director Zhang Yimou as among his favourites to have worked on. 

“Those films really exploded on screen for me because they showed what sound mixing can bring.” 

Front and centre on a global stage 

Andy Wright and Diego Ruiz mixing at Soundfirm Sydney 2016. - approved. Photo by Steven Woodburn
Andy Wright and Diego Ruiz mixing at Soundfirm Sydney 2016. Photo by Steven Woodburn.

The Australian film industry has built a strong international reputation over the years, with many major Hollywood productions now shot in Australia. But according to Wright, it is less common for the post-production work to be done here. 

He says this is largely because the film crews are keen to head home – but he points out numerous benefits to keeping the work in Australia. The exchange rate is a big one. A stronger US dollar means productions can stretch their budgets an extra 25 per cent or so.

“Bill Mechanic, the producer of Hacksaw Ridge, has stated that without the Australian and NSW Government incentives and the value in the exchange rate, the film may not have been made at all,” says Wright. 

Another benefit, he says, is the skill and versatility of Australian post-production crews.

“We work slightly differently to the Hollywood system,” he says. “In Hollywood, people very strictly stick to their particular skill or profession, whereas in Australia we tend to wear many hats and be versatile in our skill base.

“We have a good understanding of Hollywood films because we’ve always been attached to that style of filmmaking. And we also understand the nature of Australian filmmaking and storytelling, as well as other cultures such as Chinese filmmaking.”

To aspiring sound mixers, Wright recommends learning as much about the technology as possible, but also being prepared to work collaboratively. 

“There was a great lesson I was taught early in my days: sound mixing is 20 per cent knowledge of the technology and 80 per cent diplomacy,” he says. “When you sit in that room as the mixer, you are steering the ship. Someone else may be the captain but you’ve got to keep that ship on the straight and narrow.”

 
Andy web 1
Leah Katz and Andy Wright on the Oscar's red carpet 2017
Andy web 1
Leah Katz and Andy Wright on the Oscar's red carpet 2017
Andy web 1
Leah Katz and Andy Wright on the Oscar's red carpet 2017