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Composing with Sound: A Conversation with HPA Award Winners Mark Mangini and Ron Bartlett

Mark Mangini and Ron Bartlett with presenter Kimberly Jimenez

“Dune: Part One,” the most recent big-screen incarnation of Frank Herbert’s iconic sci-fi novel, was a hit with fans and critics alike when it was released in the fall of 2021.  Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the film was a box office sensation, made several of the year’s Top 10 film lists, was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning six, and received numerous other accolades.

One of its Academy Awards was for Best Sound with Mac Ruth, Mark Mangini, Theo Green, Doug Hemphill and Ron Bartlett taking home Oscars.  The sound team also netted the 2022 HPA Award for Outstanding Sound – Theatrical Feature.

Mangini and Bartlett first partnered with Villeneuve on “Blade Runner 2049” in 2017.  Mangini, a sound designer and supervising sound editor, won a 2015 Academy Award with David White for “Mad Max: Fury Road.”  Bartlett, a re-recording mixer, received an Oscar nomination for his work on “Life of Pi.”

Both Mangini and Bartlett had been fans of Villeneuve and the way the director uses sound in his films.  “It was clear that his appreciation for sound dramatically informs his filmmaking,” says Mangini.  “When we first met, it was readily apparent how important sound is to his creative process in the many non-traditional ways he works: He engages sound during filming to build during the shoot and the edit, he encouraged us to ‘compose’ with sound, and he facilitated early collaboration between VFX and sound to work symbiotically, [with] each informing the other.”

That approach encouraged Mangini “to think much more narratively with sound design, working towards using sound to support story ideas rather than being simply diegetic,” he explains.  In addition, it “validated what I had always felt to be true, that sound can be a very economical storytelling tool when used imaginatively.”

Sound’s role in storytelling also impacted how the sound team worked with editor Joe Walker, who won an Academy Award for “Dune: Part One,” his fourth collaboration with Villeneuve.

“Joe is wonderful to work with and very knowledgable about sound since he is a composer and pianist as well.  This creative musical sense, and the fact tht we can communicate in musical terms as well as film terms, makes him quite a unique film editor,” notes Bartlett.  Mangini agrees, adding that, “Joe has a great ear for sound, having been a sound editor himself.  This only improved the contribution sound could make to the film as Joe had a fundamental understanding of what was possible.”

Bartlett explains that Walker “creates an audio track in his Avid that is quite filled out.  He and Denis both love to work with a good audio track that helps inform their cut of the film as they go along.  Having sound editorial on the project so early really helped facilitate this – I wish more films were done this way.”

The frequent pairing of Villeneuve and Walker means that the editor “evinced all the same progressive ideas that Denis encouraged,” Mangini points out.  “Joe asked us to build sound as he constructed the edit and, often, these sounds would inform his edit.  That might beget a cyclical exchange of work where, after ingesting sound we had designed, he would recut to maximize the impact of the sound, then send it back to us for improvement.  Rinse and repeat. True collaboration.”

Since most of the film takes place in the desert of Arrakis, sand plays a crucial role in “Dune: Part One.”  “Sand crawlers harvesting spice, the Fremen people popping up in fights and the giant worms traveling through the dunes like water gave us quite a lot to create and incorporate new recordings involving sand,” Bartlett says.

Mangini notes that, “sand is a uniquely difficult sound to record and mix.  It’s very ‘broad-band’ and can easily sound like tape hiss.  We recorded all manner of sand sounds in the Mojave desert to capture as much source material as possible, hoping to use these very authentic captures as grist for future design.

“This recording session led to the development of several key sounds like the ‘thumpers’ that summon the worms and the waves of sand seen as the worm furrows under the ground.  In fact, during the final mix, [re-recording mixer] Doug Hemphill noticed how similar these roiling ‘waves’ of sand looked to actual ocean waves.  We found out from VFX supervisor Paul Lambert, that they used ocean waves as visual models for these shots.  Doug very astutely had us add actual wave and surf sounds to cement the illusion.”

The Voice, the ancient audio-neuro control tool used to influence people and things, “was the design project that took the longest to sort out, almost 14 months, with Ron putting the finishing creative touches on it in the final mix,” reports Mangini.  “Until then, we were still searching for a way to make it work.

“Theo Green and I had developed the idea that to summon The Voice, one summoned the collective voice and wisdom of one’s ancestors.  We recorded and designed ancestral ‘voices’ not only as replacement voices for [hero character] Paul’s but as clouds of voices swimming in the ether.  To add weight and power, Theo developed a clever use of subwoofer enhancement that undergirded Paul’s utterances and tracked the modulation of his voice.  The coup de grace came from Joe while he was experimenting with the breakfast scene when Paul tries out The Voice for the first time.  He slipped the sync so that Paul uttered the words but his voice came seconds after we see him speak on screen.  Denis loved this idea, and it became the template for all future Voice work.”

Bartlett recalls that many early attempts at The Voice were rejected by Villeneuve and says that “actually was the best thing that could have happened!  Denis loves to let us try out things and if they fail, it just means we have to dig deeper and get more creative.  This led to all of us adding ideas and building on each other’s attempts.”

A prime example of that creative collaboration was when “the low element was slid out of sync by Joe, Mark added in the ancient voices layered up by Theo’s recordings and processing, and I took all the elements and painstakingly crossed from one to the other by syllables and panning to get a very layered affect showcasing the many ancient voices from Paul’s past.  It later becomes a weapon when they are attacked and the force of it becomes sharper and more powerful.”

While all of the sound work has been acknowledged as award-worthy, Mangini’s personal favorite scene is the introduction of the fully-formed worm at the end of the movie.  “There is all sorts of detail in that shot, part of which came as a collaboration of sound and VFX,” he says.  “We assumed in the initial design phase that the worm was a beast to be feared, so our early designs were very monster-like.  This was dramatically incorrect: the worm is a revered creature on Arrakis, Denis pointed out, and a thunderous Godzilla roar would be antithetical.  Instead we made something much more biologically and narratively correct. These sounds went to VFX, [which] animated the back of the worm’s throat to the sync of the sounds we had created.  I’m really proud that we played against type and avoided what would have been a science fiction trope with sound.”

Bartlett’s favorite scene to work on was the spice harvester rescue because “it has so many elements and every department is showcased with amazing dynamics.”

Although the sound team’s trophy case was bursting at the seams, winning the 2022 HPA Award was futher validation of their work on a unique project.  “It’s always a great feeling being recognized by people and great organizations like the Academy, BAFTA, CAS and the HPA,” says Bartlett.  “The recognition we receive from our peers is the highest form of flattery,” Mangini adds.

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