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


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 i
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