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Interview with Mark Berger



Over the last few decades, the Bay Area has built a reputation for its commitment to sophisticated sound quality in film. It began when individualistic experiments with art films developed into internationally acknowledged feature films that elevated the role of their soundtracks, and in the process, set new industry standards.  
A case in point is ‘The CONVERSATION’, a ‘film about surveillance sound’ that Francis Ford Coppola made here in 1974. Since then, many more films have been conceived and post-produced in the Bay Area, whose soundtracks attest to their creator’s ingenuity.

One of these local sound pioneers is Mark Berger, veteran sound mixer of   ’APOCALYPSE NOW’, ‘THE RIGHT STUFF’,‘BLUE VELVET’, ‘AMADEUS’, 
(‘ THE ENGLISH PATIENT ’ 1997) and numerous other features. Mark Berger began in the ‘60s as a Location Sound Recordist in San Francisco. His earliest film work was on ‘GODFATHER II’ (1974), and most recent feature was
’DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS’ (1988), mixed at the Saul Zaentz Film Center where he is supervising re-recording mixer. In the years between, he has collected three ( now four ) Academy Awards.

What events shaped the Bay Area in terms of its becoming a preeminent center for sound work?

In the early ‘50s and ‘60s, even through the ‘70s, were the times of the real experimental avant-garde. It started out with . . . a lot of people just taking cameras and making personal films … nurtured by the San Francisco State University Film Department and the San Francisco Art Institute . There was a spirit of creativity and freedom that you could do whatever you want.
That was one of the reasons why Francis Ford Coppola wanted to bring Zoetrope up here, to get away from the Hollywood factory atmosphere, and to come to an area where things were a little looser and more creative.
Then there came a period of truth . . . (when) the Bay Area film community proved itself in the feature film world, with 'The Conversation', 'American Graffiti', 'One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest', 'The Godfather II', 'Apocalypse Now', 'Star Wars',
'The Right Stuff', 'Indiana Jones' . . .
. They captured a lot of Academy Awards and brought people all over the country the idea that the Bay Area is very good in sound. A lot of that was due to Ben Burtt and Walter Murch and people who . . . applied . . . the idea that the craft was very important and that quality was paramount.
Now I think we are in an era where we are capitalizing on that.
Instead of expressing the craft of the Bay Area in films that are produced here, … people come to us because of the reputation.
We get films from Hollywood, New York, St. Paul, all over, and there are enough facilities to accommodate them.

Did 'Apocalypse Now' set standards and expectations for future soundtracks?

A film does not have to be 'Apocalypse Now' or 'Star Wars' to benefit from a good soundtrack. The soundtrack does not have to be loud and full. Striving for the one perfect track is just as important as the two hundred noisy tracks to fill it all up.
There is an incredible range of people, of talents, that all bring the same basic idea to a film, which is to find the right sound. The ideas are very flexible in terms of what is needed for this movie at this time, at this frame. From the loud movies like 'The Right Stuff' and 'Indiana Jones' through the musical splendor of 'Amadeus' to very subtle and intricate, almost minimalist soundtracks like … 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being', where people spent days just working on one character’s breathing.

Do you think soundtracks have improved significantly since the early days of film sound because of the sophisticated recording equipment available now?

I don’t think things were cut and dried back in the early years. There was plenty of room for editorial decisions to be made as there was plenty of room for decisions regarding the creative sound work. Look at the old Preston Sturges bedroom comedies from the ‘40s. You will see that he specifically made space for the sound people to give him a good train or a good city traffic jam or something he wanted in the script.
There is a tendency to think that because everything is so miniaturized and digital and high-tech that people really know what they are doing now, and that back in the old days they did not really know what they were doing, because they did not have all these fancy tools.
This is totally wrong. Certain things people would even do better before than they do now.

Does technology have an influence on creativity?

I don’t think that there is any particular relationship between advances in technology and expressions of what we all call creativity . . . Ideas are human and their expression will find a form in whatever happens to be current at the time.
The fact that there are more toys, more complicated ways of expressing things, does not necessarily mean that anything that is interesting will be expressed. An analogy would be the difference between the quill and the pen and a typewriter. With the advent of the typewriter, were there better novels written?
Not necessarily.  The same with technology and sound. The sound may be faster and cheaper, but there is no particular reason to expect any increase of creativity. That comes from the human side, not from the machine.

You have said that working with sound is like painting or sculpting a form out of clay.

A sound . . . is like a rock. It has a particular shape and texture and wavelength and height and width, and with the tools at hand you can shape it into whatever you want. You can take the rock and carve it into a bullet, you can carve it into a knife, a flower or a snowflake.
An editor can only make twenty-four decisions a second, because you can only cut on the frame line. A sound person can make any number of decisions a second, because you can cut and scrape wherever you want, you are not limited by the frame. Not only that, you are not limited to one piece of film, you can use as many tracks as you want.
The opportunities for influencing something and being creative are limitless and every time you make a decision, conscious or unconscious, you are applying your particular style, your particular brand and approach to the entire soundtrack.
It may not be in as blatantly obvious ways as in other crafts, but there are certainly plenty of opportunities.

In the ADR for 'Mosquito Coast', Harrison Ford could not exactly reproduce the mood of his lines in the dying scene. You went back to the production sound and recreated the sentences word by word out of the production tracks?
Harrison Ford could not exactly reproduce the mood of his lines in the dying scene. You went back to the production sound and recreated the sentences word by word out of the production tracks?

That wasn’t just me. Vivien Hillgrove and Laurel Ladevich did most of the work of going back and listening to all the takes and cutting it together. It was a very collaborative effort. They had the idea. They figured it was worth the effort on the chance that I could make it work.

. . . with the "sprinkle of mixer dust" ?

The concept of mixer dust is sort of an electronic mystique that I perpetuate. If somebody says, "It’s not sounding too good, why don’t you do something to fix it?" - I’ll fix it and they say, "Wow, that’s great, what did you do?" I will say, "oh, I just sprinkled some mixer dust over it", which is a way of saying: "That is my
job. I did what I do", rather than saying, "well, I took the Cat 43 and put it in a series with a de-esser and a Kepex and ran that through the Lexicon large group program with a sampler and a second thing and did a wave change and then pitched it down and took a little bit of the treble off".
You are telling them what you did, but it is gobbledygook, Audiosprache, and it really does not convey the spirit of: "I did my job. I used the tools at my command and I made it better".


Recent years have shown a variety of technical developments in audio signal manipulation. How do they influence your work?

Technical innovation for it’s own sake, at least in the area that I work in, takes a back seat to the interesting and creative use of sound for the picture’s sake.
I make a distinction between the two. Just because there is a new box or a new machine available, the first question is: how can it increase the impact of the sound for a particular picture? Does it really do what I need? I have discarded half a dozen boxes that people bring by and say: "This will solve all your problems, this is wonderful". They always get more and more complicated and they invariably follow Berger’s Law: these things work best when you need them least. The technical innovation per se is not as important as the ideas that people bring to a film.

For example, look what they did with ‘FANTASIA’. Disney Studios did a digital re-recording of the soundtrack so they could re-release it in stereo and say ‘digitally recorded’ . . . They had a famous orchestra with a very well known conductor and they re-recorded the track and mixed it in stereo, digital brouhaha and everything and released it and it is awful. All the life and magic and mystery is just gone. They had to make the music match an existing picture, and that is like trying to wear somebody else’s shoes . . . {They do} not fit and it feels awful. That is just a prime example of technology for it’s own sake.
There is no free lunch.

What about analog versus digital?

You gain something with digital technology, but it doesn’t come free. There is always a little catch. In some cases the catch can be just sucking the soul out of whatever it is you are doing, in other cases . . . not starting or stopping exactly on the frame if you want to make a change. The film business is a business of change
. . . even after things are done, you start changing them.
Digital recording technology is a great tool for manipulating sounds in abstract ways, but in order to do things that are fairly simple in film, like start and stop on the frame, you have to get into computerized boards that are controlled by Midi and driven by SMPTE and control the E-max to turn things on and off. When you turn a ‘mute’ switch on and off, it is probably going to pop, especially if there is a lot of low frequency.
You can’t scrape it in or out, which you can very easily do with a razorblade on analog tape.
The place where digital has its use is in creating these extra unusual magic effects or special things like bending the pitch and all other sorts of electronic stuff that invariably comes out sounding slightly electronic. A lot of times the way it is used seems like overkill and people get into a technological bind when they try to duplicate things that can be done very easily in the analog domain.
When people first started out to do their mixes onto digital tape, it turned out you could not just do your mixes onto one $150.000 32-track digital tape recorder. The minute somebody wanted to add a few frames here and there you had to edit it, and the only way to edit it and still preserve the digital nature, which is the reason for doing it in the first place, is to buy another machine so you can bounce it from one to the other. (If you do two or three edits and you keep piling one on top of the other, you can drift a frame or two).

You spent $300.000 for two machines. Three hundred thousand dollars buys a lot of analog recorders and SR-channels and buys a lot of editors time . . . And all for what? So that you can say that it is digital? That’s not worth it.
In terms of actually recording in the film medium, I think apart from the editing difficulties, recording Dolby SR on mag-film is certainly as good as you need and probably better than you need, given the state of today’s playback systems in the theaters .
Every soundtrack is going out optically printed now and there are limits in that. People are working on all digital playback systems for theaters, and (when they are available) it will make some difference what the original recording is and what the processes are.

Today we hear more synthesized sounds than ever before. Do you, as a mixer and musician, see an artistic development in the way they are used?

When synthesizers first came out, everybody said: ‘Oh well, we won’t need musicians anymore, because the synthesizer can duplicate any instrument’. (But) after all these years synthesizers still sound like synthesizers and you still need people to play them. The latest rage is drum sequencers and all of a sudden every drum sounds like every other drum . . . originality is completely gone. Give a guy who is a musician a chance to express his craft. If everybody buys a drum machine and nobody buys drums anymore, pretty soon it will be hard to find sounds to put into the drum machine.
A lot of times somebody’s intuitive mental thinking or inspiration about what the right sound is is replaced by a room full of electronic equipment, trying to get something that sort of works. Too many buttons, too many people who are oriented towards the mechanics of it, rather than the emotional content.
It brings another problem, which is the democratization of composing. The only criteria needed to be a composer is money. You buy yourself a drum machine, a sequencer, a synthesizer, a Midi this and Macintosh that and you can set yourself up as a full-fledged composer. Whether or not you have talent is totally irrelevant.
I haven’t seen it be the liberating force . . . that opens up new areas. In the hands of more and more people who have less and less talent or conception of what sound is about, it is just a toy.
In the hands of somebody who really knows what they are doing and sees it in its appropriate place as a very sophisticated tool to be used along with his or her other arsenal of tools, it can be a very important instrument.

What I don’t know is how more and more complicated electronic manipulations of the sound really add that much to what goes on on the screen. In some ways the . . . one right sound is more interesting than ten manipulated sounds . . . How you get there is again of interest to people who are technically oriented, but the person who goes to see the film could not care less. It is whether or not it has the right effect.

Do you have any suggestions for people who want to start out on the Yellow Brick Road ?

When people come and ask about what shall I do to learn filmmaking or what courses should I take to become a filmmaker, the first thing that I always tell them is: don’t take any film courses. Study art or history or science or literature or even economics – anything that gives you a large context to put your ideas into. For example, if you want to be an editor, you need to develop a way of reacting to various scenes. It should be with a history and a background of other things besides just other films.
You can always learn by yourself and go to a lot of movies and read books, but the context that you put that knowledge into, in terms of the rest of the world, is much more important than the specifics about any given film or director.

FILM/TAPE WORLD, San Francisco 1989.

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