Studio City, California – This month, The Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) will present Supervising Sound Editor Skip Lievsay with its annual Career Achievement Award. Lievsay joins a list of distinguished sound artists, including Larry Singer, Walter Murch, George Watters II and Randy Thom, who have been recognized with the organization’s top honor. The award will be presented at the MPSE Golden Reel Awards on February 15th in Los Angeles.
In a career spanning 30 years and more than 150 films, Lievsay has collaborated with such talented filmmakers as Joel and Ethan Coen, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and John Sayles. Among many other accolades, he won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Sound Mixing for his work on Gravity( sharing the award with Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead and Chris Munro).
Lievsay’s recent projects include The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I, his fifth collaboration with director Francis Lawrence. He also worked with Lawrence on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second film in the series, and will soon begin the sound editing process on the final episode, Mockingjay Part 2.
The key members of Lievsay’s sound team, sound designer Jeremy Peirson and supervising dialogue and ADR editor Thomas Jones have remained the same throughout the Hunger Games series (and across many other film projects) and they have attacked each film in a similar manner. Soon after production is complete, Peirson “embeds” himself with the picture editing team (led by editor Alan Edward Bell), and works alongside them, producing sound elements and preparing temp mixes as the picture takes shape.
“Jeremy is there the whole time, making sounds,” Lievsay explains. “By the time they are finished cutting pictures, he has created and reviewed most of the sounds with the director and the editor, and they are really far along. When they hand the movie to Tom and me, and we begin the process of ADR and Foley, and working with the score, the sound is already well thought out. At that point, the process is pretty straightforward.”
Lievsay explains that Lawrence, as well as other directors, like this workflow because it speeds the sound design process and leaves more space for finessing sound during editorial and mixing. “Anything that makes it more efficient gives you more time to work out ideas,” he says. “Filmmakers want to explore and experiment, but they also want things to be inexpensive and super-efficient. This is the best way that we’ve found.”
“There’s a long period during picture editing when we can work on stuff,” he adds. “We can get feedback from the director and editor, do updates, reimagine things. We can even fail and go back to the drawing board. That’s a big advantage. Filmmakers understand that. It’s a more powerful, experimental process.”
Working on a film series like The Hunger Games presents special challenges. The books that the films are based on have been read by millions of people. “The producers, Jon Kilik and Nina Jacobson, and the people from Lionsgate are very keen to be true to the books and meet the expectations of people who’ve read them,” Lievsay notes.
The films are heavy with sound elements and, because they are fantasies, many of the sounds relate to things that do not exist in real life. “You can’t rent a space ship and record it in the desert,” Lievsay says. “You experiment. You marry ideas together to produce something new. You get feedback from the filmmaker. Is this what you had in mind? Should it be bigger…smaller? You have to be clever, smart and talented enough to put together sounds. You have to use a lot of imagination. To me, the biggest part of the job is putting things together in your head that don’t seem to belong together, but when you put them together, they create something new.”
“For Hunger Games, it’s all about the sheer amount of material we have to get through in a short amount of time; we do one film per year,” he adds. “That said, I have lush tracks to work with and a beautiful score (composed by James Newton Howard), so my job is gravy. It’s like having your cake and eating it. It’s a beautiful thing, a really nice gig.”
Lievsay is perhaps best known for his long association with directors Joel and Ethan Coen. He has supervised sound for all of the directors’ films, dating back to 1984’s Blood Simple. Lievsay describes his work with the Coens as rewarding, inspiring and infinitely challenging. He notes that their relationship has also evolved over the years and become something more than an ordinary professional collaboration.
“We’ve developed a deep understanding of their movies and personalities,” he explains, “and because of that we are sometimes able to go deeper with ideas for sound than we might with a filmmaker we don’t know so well. In a lot of cases, I know what they expect because we’ve done it before or because we understand their sensibilities. I think that’s comforting for them and its rewarding for me. It’s a win-win sort of thing.”
Lievsay notes that the Coens often write sound ideas into their scripts. He recalls a scene from Barton Fink where the film’s title character (played by John Turturro) is tormented by a mosquito while trying to fall asleep after being assured that such insects do not exist in water-starved Los Angeles.
Coming up with the right sound for the insect’s relentless attack took weeks. “It had to be more than a buzzing sound,” he recalls. “We had better recordings of flies than mosquitos, so I used fly sounds, but pitched it up. But getting it right was really elusive. I had to dissect it in my head and reconstruct it before I realized what was missing: It wasn’t just the sound of the mosquito. It was that the mosquito comes near you and then darts away.”
“Everyone has been in that situation. You are trying to fall asleep but a mosquito is buzzing around your head and you know if you fall asleep it’s going to bite you…repeatedly. If you can just grab it before you fall asleep! Then you have that game where you are chasing it around. It’s a very realistic thing.”
Lievsay says that when working with the Coens, he and his sound crew are often pressed to make such imaginative leaps. “We have a very high bar with them,” he notes. “We don’t want to disappoint them. Their movies are filled with opportunities and we don’t want to miss any.. We shoot for the moon.”
Over the course of Lievsay’s career, a lot has changed in motion picture sound. The biggest has been the transition from analog, film based tools to digital technology. For the most part, he sees that as an improvement. “Everything that we do now, we used to do differently,” he observes. “Some things are better and easier, some things, arguably, are not as good.
“On the sound side, most of what we do editorially is more efficient, cheaper. Technology is enabling in terms of editing and mixing. On the mix side, it creates an opportunity for everyone to be a mixer and to work at a very high level. That is an important breakthrough. It’s similar to the way digital technology has given everyone access to high-quality cameras, not just Panavision people. I happen to embrace that idea. Not everyone does, but it works for me.”
If Lievsay has one regret, it’s that he hasn’t had an opportunity to make his own movies. With the advent of low-cost, high quality cameras, anyone who wishes to can make a movie. Lievsay’s advice for young people seeking a career in film is to seize that opportunity. “It’s a difficult business to be involved in. All art is,” he says. “It’s very hard and takes a lot of ability to produce something that makes an impact, but if you are a great artist, it will get out there.”
Founded in 1953, the Motion Picture Sound Editors is a non-profit organization of professional sound and music editors who work in the motion pictures and television industry. The organization’s mission is to provide a wealth of knowledge from award winning professionals to a diverse group of individuals, youth and career professionals alike; mentoring and educating the community about the artistic merit and technical advancements in sound and music editing; providing scholarships for the continuing advancement of motion picture sound in education; and helping to enhance the personal and professional lives of the men and women who practice this unique craft.