Mad Max: Fury Road’s sound editor recounts his tryst with the sound of movies

A little more than a year ago, sound editor Mark Mangini got a phone call. The caller was a director who had finished making his film but wasn’t satisfied with its sound; it had to be redesigned. Could Mangini take care of it? And one more thing: Could he do all that in four weeks? That call was from director George Miller. “Thus, began my odyssey of designing sound for Mad Max: Fury Road,” said Mangini. The audience burst into loud applause. Mangini was facing a full house in Maquinez Palace’s Auditorium – I, delivering a masterclass on sound design.

Quite early in the session, Mangini, who’s been a sound designer and editor for more than four decades and has been nominated for three Academy Awards, set the tone for what was about to follow: “While this has been advertised as a masterclass, my focus is non- technical,” he said. “It is more a mediation on skills that are not taught but should be. How many of you here want to work in the field of sound?” Some 20-odd hands went up. “I want to explore, examine, and remind you about the ephemeral side of our profession.” Mangini’s talk was punctuated by a series of slides on the big screen, often displaying just a word or two, such as “Immersive Sound”, “Be In the Conversation”, “Sound design is storytelling”, and “How vs Why”.

Talking about “Immersive Sound”, Mangini said, “Reliance on just technology distracts from our goals as artists — of telling stories with sounds.” At the beginning of his career, Mangini took some time to understand the true essence of sound design. He used to feel left out after preview screenings, where the film’s editor, director, cinematographer, and other professionals, discussed its finer details. “I had nothing to contribute. I felt I needed to have a better understanding of storytelling.” To become a better sound designer, Manigini, quite ironically, didn’t begin with sound. “I began teaching myself the fundamentals of narrative.” He also learnt several allied fields, such as “improvised comedy, cinematography, and writing”. Because, for Mangini, success wasn’t just about how he made sound, but why he made it.

Talking about “How vs Why”, Mangini said, “How is technical; it’s about plugin, sample rates, and mechanical attributes of sound. How creates the temptation to imitate. And you can only be as good as the person or the technology you imitate, and it comes at the expense of a unique artistic voice.” But “Why”, according to Mangini, “begins with the understanding of story from a dramatic standpoint. I break the script into story arcs, so I can understand the film’s language, and then I make a sound script that references dramatic beats, not visual cues. I need to understand Why to arrive at How.” Mangini, who feels strongly about the impact of technology on his profession and its practitioners, continued, “jargons keep us out of conversations [with filmmakers].” He believes it is one of the major reasons why sound designers are “are not referred to as authors but technicians.”

“The Sound Guy” was the next slide on the big screen. “We are referred to in Hollywood as the Sound Guy,” Mangini said. “I hate that term.” He instead prefers to be called one of the following: “Sound Designer”, “Audiographer”, “Director of Sound”, “Sound Artist” or, the designation that he prefers the most, “Sonophile”. “No one calls cinematographer the image guy,” he said.

During the course of his talk, Mangini also showed some clips from the films he worked on, including Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Jack the Giant Slayer, and, of course, Mad Max: Fury Road. “I am so proud of that film, and what we achieved, sound wise,” he said referring to Miller’s film. He also spoke about the time he came on board. “[Mad Max:] Fury Road hadn’t achieved its sound potential initially, because no one wanted to speak the unspeakable to Miller — that he should abandon this failed effort, and start from scratch. We had to redesign the sound. We owe this honesty to our filmmakers. It was incumbent on me as an artist to tell him.” When the Mad Max: Fury Road’s preview was shown to a test audience, said Mangini, the film’s “score was decent but not great”. However, six weeks later, when a revised version of the film was shown, which included the new sound designed by him and no other changes, “it scored eight points higher.” Next we saw a slide on screen that read, “Mad Max [Fury Road] is a film that we see with our ears. I had no idea that the enormous extent to which sound could help me tell this story — George Miller.”

“And this is coming from a guy,” said Mangini, “who has been making films for the last 40 years.”

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