Sound plays a crucial role in any film or TV series — from the dialogue levels to effects and music — without it, the show is incomplete. It is the sound editor’s job to create the literal soundtrack of the project, and it can be quite an intricate undertaking. Whether it’s capturing the sounds of a car crash and its surroundings to accurately portraying the sounds of a destroyer and its crew in a WWII action drama, these sounds can make or break a project and stand out to a viewer — good or bad.
Often, the hard work of these individuals goes unnoticed or underappreciated unless it’s something like a war film or action-packed fare. But I recently got the opportunity to chat with sound editor David Wyman. With an interesting backstory and some diverse credits to his name (including last year’s Greyhound for which he garnered an Oscar nomination and the Bryan Cranston crime drama Your Honor), he talks about how he got into the biz the art of sound mixing.
LV Taylor: So I just want to start at the beginning — what drew you to sound mixing, and how did you get into this?
David Wyman: It’s interesting for me. Hopefully, it’s interesting for you. I’ve always been fascinated with sound. I started playing music at a very young age, starting with the piano when I was about four or five years old. So the medium of sound has always fascinated me. Growing up as a teenager in bands and playing music in studios and everything, I was completely in awe of the process of actually recording and stitching together all these instruments and then being able to control all the assets and make amazing sounding records.
So I was convinced I would be a recording engineer and a producer — I even went to school to study sound acoustics and dynamics to further understand what engineering entailed. But as fate would have it, I interned with a film company in England. One day the director comes to me and says, “you know that sound right?” And I said, “Yeah, I do.” Then he goes, “Good, learn how this works,” and he gives me a reel-to-reel machine, a boom microphone, and a timecode slate. He said that our sound mixer just got appendicitis, and you’ve got to come to Norway tomorrow with the production and do this little documentary for us. I was only like 20 years old, and that was my first introduction to what location sound recording was all about. And I absolutely loved it. It was everything that I hadn’t realized that I miss about being in a recording studio — which was being outside, being faced with a new set of challenges every day, and getting to travel.
From that point on, I realized I wanted to be involved in production sound. But as luck would have it, I ended up working in the finance industry — I was working in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Denmark — I’ve worked all over the world as a money broker in international money markets. I worked for a Japanese bank in New York when I sort of fired myself from my life and decided to go to Los Angeles to pursue what I really wanted to do.
LV Taylor: Nice, that’s quite the journey! So let’s fast forward a bit. We now know that a lot has happened between your start and today. But how big of a deal was it for you to be nominated for an Oscar for Greyhound?
David Wyman: Oh, it was fantastic! When you’ve been in that circle of working on feature films, you sort of slowly move up in the quality of productions you make, and you meet many other people from different crafts who’ve either been nominated or won Oscars. It’s sort of the shining light of — not only validation of the job you do, but it gives you a certain amount of bragging rights. But at the end of the day, it’s certainly a great honor to be nominated. For 2020, Greyhound was nominated one of the best five films of the year worldwide — that’s an enormous achievement in and of itself — than to have the Academy recognize your work really is a wonderful thing.
LV Taylor: Definitely. So I know each project has its own quirks, but what is your approach when you’re brought on to a new project?
David Wyman: Fundamentally, the first thing I have to do is read the script. I try to put myself in the theater or in the living room — whichever way you want to look at it these days — and imagine what it is that I’m reading in a sort of pictorial and audio terms so that I can get an overall, overarching idea of how everything is going to sound. And I’m not just talking about dialogue — I’m talking about music, sound effects, everything. So as we chisel away and do a day’s work, I have an idea of where the dialogue would sit within the placement of the final product. That is very important because production audio can be somewhat burdensome to the production itself because of unwanted noises or various things on set that make noise, actors who don’t speak loud enough, clothing that can be very difficult to wire, etc.
Apart from that, you may have a Director of Photography who enjoys shooting very wide and somewhat tight at the same time, and that will preclude you from using the boom, and then you have to negotiate the different shots. If you have an overall idea of where the dialogue will sit, there is no point in making a fuss about a noisy light when there’s going to be a car exploding behind you. There’s no reason to worry about an actor’s noisy clothing if you know that the scene is gonna play predominantly in close up and you’ll have to overcome that in a different track a few hours down the road as you work through the filming of the scene. That’s pretty much my starting point — to understand where my job sits in the worldwide view of the project.
LV Taylor: You talked about all those different elements, and layers to capturing the sound in a scene — so do you think that sound mixing is more of an art or science?
David Wyman: To me, it definitely an art. The art form is to constantly be creative with your approach to solve some of these problems — whether it’s the creative choice of what particular microphone you use or it’s the creative choice of how you wire somebody. I don’t think that’s scientific, particularly when it comes to wiring people and understanding an actor’s temperament. You have to be very creative, and you have to approach it from an artistic level because that way, you’re speaking the same language as the actor, director of photography, or the director or whoever you’re trying to communicate with. And the last thing is, there have been so many advances made in how we record audio on location — we now have these phenomenal machines that can record 24, 30, 50 tracks at a time. When I grew up and first started working, you recorded to two tracks — if it was a stereo, it was stereo. You may have had eight microphones and a number of wires run a couple of ways. You had to mix those sounds every day, every scene, every shot, live to one track or two tracks.
So that in itself is the art that really excites me. I still mix every track to give the editors their assembly track, which is just a single mix track. For me, the art is to give the editors the best representation of what’s happening on set for every shot, in every scene. It doesn’t matter if I got one boom or whether I have 12 wires or whatever, whatever those combination of audio sources are, I still match to a single track, and then everything else is isolated onto independent tracks so that they can come back and pick the bones out of it if they so desire. To the best of my ability, my ultimate goal is to give them one track to work with, and that should be good enough.
LV Taylor: You mentioned filming on location — I read that most of Your Honor was filmed on location — what are some of the unique challenges that come with that?
David Wyman: You mean that project specifically?
LV Taylor: Sure, yeah.
David Wyman: We can talk about Your Honor because I live here now, so I’m very familiar. In terms of the challenges, a lot of it took place in and around highly popular and populated areas — there were a lot of industrial sounds. We had a lot of driving jobs in it. I’ll give you a particular example of something very difficult. We did a scene where Michael Desiato (Bryan Cranston) pretends to be taking a pee over the bridge, and he stopped by a police officer when he’s actually dumping a bag of bloody clothes into the river. That particular scene was shot, I think, in early February. It was freezing cold. It’s a solid bridge; it’s a grid. — like an iron grid. And the bridge itself is a drawbridge. So, not only was it freezing and Brian had a cold at the time, and he was supposed to be in shirtsleeves, but every hour, a boat would come by, and we’d all have to come off the bridge — take all the equipment off the bridge. It would go up, and it’d be up for like 20 minutes. The boat would go, and then it would come down again because it’s on an industrial canal. I had never seen a bridge go up and down as many times as we did when we were filming. You can guarantee that the longshoreman must have had a field day messing with us that night because we were on and off that bridge at least six or seven times over the course of the night shoot. And it’s not that it was just like okay everybody off — everybody had to get off the bridge, get the equipment off, get all the vehicles off the bridge — so that was challenging.
We did other stuff on Your Honor, which is not atypical, but we did a lot of it, which is this free driving where the cameraman is in the car, and the actor actually drives the car instead of being put on a trailer and towed. We did do process trailer work of that nature, but we did a lot of free driving. For me, as a sound guy, I don’t get to ride — the only thing that gets to ride is the recorder. So you have to be really, really, really confident and sure of your microphone placement because there will be a whole dialogue scene, and the camera will capture where you don’t have any chance to change anything once the car takes off. They come back and yell cut, and then they’re like, okay, let’s go again. I’m like, I’m pretty sure that everything was good, but I’m hoping. But those things can be a little bit stressful.
LV Taylor: Yeah, I can imagine. I always like to end up by asking what’s up next — do you have any projects in your pipeline that you can talk about?
David Wyman: Yeah, sure. I’m currently working with Happy Madison again — who I hadn’t worked with since 2010 when I did Grown-Ups. They’re shooting a comedy with Kevin James here in New Orleans, and that goes for the next couple of weeks. Then, I might have something — I’m still waiting to get a contract on another movie with Blumhouse that’ll be a short project, and then I have something big coming in November that I really don’t have many details about, but apparently, it’s a rather large budget — I’ve just been asked to keep my calendar open to that by my producer friend.
LV Taylor: Gotcha, well definitely looking forward to seeing — or hearing rather — everything that you work on going forward. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I really appreciate it.
David Wyman: I hope it wasn’t overly technical. If you want me to answer anything else, I’m happy to stay on.
LV Taylor; No, it was great. It wasn’t too technical. I understood the vast majority of it, so thank you.
David Wyman: (with a chuckle) Okay. You know, sometimes we sort of get lost in our own little way of putting it — that’s the polite way of saying it, I can’t say it the other way.
LV Taylor: No, I get it. I appreciate it. Before I do interviews with craft people, I try and do as much baseline research as possible to make sure that I’m at least up on the terminology and the basics. I enjoy doing these interviews because I always come out of it having learned something new. So, thank you.
David Wyman: There’s just one other thing that I might add — I think it’s important. Location sound work exists in a minimal crew — there was only three of us, myself, my boom operator, and the sound utility. My work would not be as good and as easy if it wasn’t for those two — Betsy, who is my boom operator, and Alessandro, who is my utility — if those guys were not on my team, it would be considerably harder. I think that’s often understated how important those roles are when dealing with such a small unit. Everybody has to be on their game, and everybody has to be on the same page, and we all work very, very hard to make that happen.
LV Taylor: It’s definitely a team effort. Again, thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.
David Wyman: No problem. My pleasure.