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From the Guild


MIXING MUSIC FOR A 'BLACK MASS' AND A 'MAD MAX'

10/07/2015

 
A scene from Mad Max: Fury Road. Courtesy of Warner Bros.
 

Music for a ‘Black Mass’ and a ‘Mad Max’

Mixer Chris Jenkins Collaborates with Composer Junkie XL

 

by Mel Lambert

 

In post-production, it is often said that a film is made three times. Once when it’s shot on location; again when it is edited; and finally when the sound elements come together on the re-recording stage. And a key ingredient in setting the emotional tone of a film soundtrack is the musical score; the more intimate the collaboration between the dubbing crew and the composer, the more intricate will be the blending of critical musical nuances during the telling of the narrative that’s unfolding on the screen.

 

A unique and highly successful collaboration has been developing during the past several years between dialogue/music re-recording mixer Chris Jenkins, and composer Tom Holkenborg — better known as Junkie XL, a moniker he picked up while serving as a musician/remixer/DJ in his native Holland. To date, Jenkins and Holkenborg have worked together on a number of landmark films, including Man of Steel, 300: Rise of Empire, Mad Max: Fury Road and the new Black Mass, which opens September 18 through Warner Bros. Currently they are collaborating on director Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which hits theatres next March.

 

Chris Jenkins, left, with Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) at their favorite coffee shop in Sydney, Australia during re-recording sessions for Mad Max: Fury Road.

 

“I remember first seeing Tom at work on the Newman scoring stage at Fox when he was recording the score for Man of Steel with Hans Zimmer,” Jenkins states. “The day I was there, Tom was conducing 12 powerful drummers playing in unison, a real physical and percussive workout! It was an amazing session.” Holkenborg provided additional music and rhythm design for the film.

 

“I first met Chris on the dubbing stage during the re-recording of Man of Steel,” the composer recalls, “and quickly began to appreciate what he brings to the complex process of soundtrack mixing. While it is sometimes difficult for a composer to recommend a re-recording mixer, I did try hard to have Chris work on my next film, 300: Rise of Empire, because I really appreciate what he brings to the process. Subsequently we got to know each other very well.”

 

In additional to their love of music, both Jenkins and Holkenborg remain on the same technical wavelength. “Even though I came to Hollywood in 1976 to become a studio guitar player,” Jenkins says, “I soon realized that rock music was becoming more and more prominent in film soundtracks. But the majority of re-recording mixers at that time didn’t know too much about music; I was just the young punk at Todd-AO. But with Frank Zappa, the Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin coming to the studios during the late 1970s, I hit the curve at the very beginning. I still have a music studio of my own where I spend all of my spare time.” Jenkins won Best Sound Academy Awards for Out of Africa (1985) and The Last of the Mohicans (1992); he was also nominated for Dick Tracy (1990) and Wanted (2008).


“I think that Chis may be selling himself short,” counters Holkenborg. “He’s a tremendous engineer with musical talents, a kindred spirit. I’ve always been interested in mixing, since I was a young teenager looking at the world of recording studios, and also have experience of producing records.”

 

“Tom is a much better engineer than most people can ever hope to be,” Jenkins stresses. “He’s a brilliant mixer with an instinctive grasp of the process, which makes my life so much more productive during our collaborations.”

 

“Yes, I came to Los Angeles 10 years ago to see how other composers work,” Holkenborg elaborates. “And how other dubbing mixers work. Chris has always been good at explaining why this or that works or doesn’t work on the dubbing stage; I always keep that in the back of my mind and it’s why I keep asking Chris back to work on my projects.”

 

 

A scene from Mad Max: Fury Road. Courtesy of Warner Bros.



The duo also agrees on being “old school,” with a subtle twist. “Definitely,” Jenkins states. “My work with Tom wouldn’t sound a tenth as good if he wasn’t bringing such well-engineered, beautifully produced tracks to the re-recording stage. But, it has to be stated, that’s a ‘new school’ skill set. I grew up in the siloed world of re-recording, with set jobs for everybody. My skill is to make people feel comfortable, and able to achieve what they need to on the dubbing stage.”

 

“For me, ‘old school’ means that you’ve mastered all of the technology — you know everything about compressors, mixing consoles, recorders and the rest — and are well-versed in the process,” the composer says. “While I have a very deep respect for the ‘old school’ way of working, Chris has upped his game with an intense curiosity into the new worlds of music production. In essence, he is an ‘old school’ dubbing mixer with a very good understanding of the new world, which is essential for today’s complex soundtrack scores.”

 

Mad Max: Fury Road

 

Their creative collaboration probably reached a nexus with director George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road,” which was re-recorded in Sydney, Australia, at Deluxe StageOne Sound and on Stage 9 and 10 at Warner Bros. Post Facility, Burbank, with Gregg Rudloff mixing sound effects; Mark Mangini, MPSE, and Scott Hecker, MPSE, served as supervising sound editors, with Kira Roessler, MPSE, as supervising dialogue editor. As Jenkins recalls: “I would never have done Mad Max if Junkie hadn’t asked for me. He told the director, ‘We want his ears on this one.’”

 

 

A scene from Mad Max: Fury Road. Courtesy of Warner Bros.
 

 

“Chris knows what he is getting from me,” Holkenborg adds. “And I know what he will do with my tracks on the dubbing stage.” Bob Badami is the composer’s regular music editor/score wrangler.

 

“At the very beginning of the Mad Max mix, the workflow was highly chaotic,” Jenkins recalls, “with the early part of the soundtrack matching the high-action, post-apocalyptic film’s desert chases across sandy landscapes in a collection of armored vehicles. By the time we had finished, George Miller said that our mix ‘sounded so creamy’ — meaning that every frequency and sound layer had been surgically carved out, and everything was clear; the music had a perfect space in the mix against the dialogue and effects. Tom’s tracks are always presented with so many options in terms of sound textures. The 30-odd quads and 5.1 stems I received for Mad Max were so beautifully produced. And there is never any ego on the stage; I’ve never had Tom disagree with my choices because our techniques are so well honed. He just says, ‘Do it!’ It’s a perfect world for somebody like me who loves film mixes.”

 

And the creative dialogue continued throughout the mix. “It’s a conversation that we have developed over a number of projects,” Jenkins continues. “I’ll ask, ‘Where is this part good to play?’ Whereas most composers want to hand you a 5.1 mix of the whole score and hope you don’t f*ck it up, Tom is just the opposite; it’s all there to do. The score gets a better chance to work with our discussions about tone and dramatic effect; how the music helps or affects the scene, etc. It’s a pretty sophisticated vocabulary that we have refined over the past five or six movies. There is definitely a tool kit that Tom brings, and which we have opened up together.”

 

 

A scene from Mad Max: Fury Road. Courtesy of Warner Bros.
 

 

For Mad Max, the collaborators started with a 5.1-mix in Australia and then developed the immersive Atmos mix in Los Angeles. “Tom provided me with additional elements for the discreet Atmos channels, so that I could pan sources into the center of the room, although I preferred to keep the focus in the front of the auditorium, to reinforce the on-screen drama,” Jenkins explains. “Atmos is such a gift because it has more hard-placement speakers, which we don’t have in 5.1 or 7.1.” Holkenborg created unique sounds for the surrounds and other channels.

 

Jenkins recalls that when the director ran a final Atmos mix for Warner Bros. executives, they were shocked. “The first 40 minutes are amazingly complex with unusual visuals, and the score is incredibly involved, yet carefully balanced against the many, many effects tracks. As somebody commented, ‘We didn’t think that it was too loud, just that we don’t have any experience of this,’ meaning such a rich, immersive combination of music and sounds supporting the chaos of the road chase. We didn’t want to disorient the audience with sound; the visuals are already doing that! We wanted to use the space very creatively to envelop the audience in music and sound.

 

“But following that frantic chase, which runs for four reels, we had delicate adagios in the middle of the movie as things quiet down to add sonic grace and elegance to the soundtrack as the narrative unfurls; their impact is as inspiring to me as the big set pieces,” Jenkins continues. “George welcomed that idea of a score for those scenes being delicate and elegant,” Holkenborg says. “As he emphasized to me, we are dealing in the film with humans, not just victims of the apocalypse.”

 

Black Mass

 

But one size does not fit all, the team stresses, citing their most recent collaboration on director Scott Cooper’s film, Black Mass, starring Johnny Depp as Irish gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, who is pressured to assist the FBI in its scheme to eliminate the Italian Mob. The cast also includes Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kevin Bacon. The film chronicles the agency’s deal with criminal trade secrets and its take down of Boston’s Mafia in the process.

 

 

A scene from Black Mass. Coirtesy of Warner Bros.

 

“While Mad Max was way over the top, with so many sound effects against which we had to balance the score,” Holkenborg says, “Black Mass is a smaller, more intimate film with sparse music and effects, and a careful balance within the surround channels to support the dialogue.” Jenkins adds, “Tom and I were very cognizant of trying to be smart with the soundscape, yet not disorient the audience.”

 

“I played a 40-minute temp score to the director on the stage and asked if he recognized his movie in my music,” the composer continues. “He and Chris liked what they heard, and so we kept the score small with sparse instrumentation. I focused on just organ and cello — with added woodwinds and strings — but not much else.”

 

 

A scene from Mad Max: Fury Road. Courtesy of Warner Bros.
 

 

“It is also useful to hear a trial mix before we commit to anything final,” Jenkins offers. “We took over a stage at Warner Bros. for a day to get time alone and hear what we had for Black Mass. That time was extremely useful for both of us to fully understand the dynamics of the score, and how it was going to play against the dialogue and subtle sound effects,” which were handled by co-mixer Ron Bartlett on Warner Bros Stage 9, with Mangini once again stepping up as supervising sound editor.

 

Jenkins recalls that during the scoring session, the composer was unsure how a particular cue for a key scene was playing against the drama. “I thought it might work better if we turned off the click track and the picture, and let the conductor follow his instincts with the orchestra,” Holkenborg explains. “By going ‘off the stick,’ Tom was able to determine if the orchestra could play the cue at its own pace,” Jenkins offers. “The result was magical and inspired; the looser feel of the score fitted the scene exactly, and will enable the audience to better understand its emotional content.”

 

 

A scene from Mad Max: Fury Road. Courtesy of Warner Bros.
 

 

“I always try to create unique sounds for each movie,” the composer says. “And not just with conventional orchestral instruments. I use sound design and my own instruments, as well a software programs. For Black Mass, I tried for a mood of cold and evil to emphasize the criminal dimensions, and the victims who are caught up in that conflict. Those very hard, cold colors are contrasted in the score with softer, more emotional colors. The cello can provide that conflicted sense of good and evil like no other instrument.”

 

“Those counterpoints provided me with a range of options for the score on this 5.1-channel soundtrack for Black Mass,” Jenkins concludes.

 

Black Mass will be screened for Los Angeles-based Editors Guild members at the DGA Theatre at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 17. A Q&A with the film’s picture editor, David Rosenbloom, ACE, immediately follows the film. RSVP on the Guild website is required for admission.

 

 

A scene from Mad Max: Fury Road. Courtesy of Warner Bros.
 

 

Examples of Holkenborg’s music production can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/user/junkiexlofficial

 

Mel Lambert has been intimately involved with production industries on both sides of the Atlantic for more years than he cares to remember. He is principal of Content Creators, a Los Angeles-based copywriting and editorial service, and can be reached at mel.lambert@content-creators.com. He is also a 30-year member of the UK’s National Union of Journalists.

 

   


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