Q & A with Chris Munro
Chris Munro is an Oscar and BAFTA Winning Production Sound Mixer.
Chris won this years OSCAR and BAFTA for Sound on Gravity, along with his colleagues Glenn Freemantle, Skip Lievsay, Niv Adini and Christopher Benstead.
Here's Chris accepting the BAFTA.
Chris worked on Captain Phillips and Gravity, both of which are nominated for Best Sound Mixing at this years OSCARS.
He's worked with directors such Paul Greengrass, Alfonso Cuaron, Ridley Scott and on films as diverse as Casino Royale to The Muppet Christmas Carol.
Chris is represented by Exec Management, a member of AMPS, IATSE 695, CAS and thecallsheet.co.uk. We asked him about his incredible career...
This interview was originally posted in December '11.
Can you tell us what you are working on at the moment and what’s in the pipeline?
I have just finished "Snow White and the Huntsman" for producer Sam Mercer, who I have worked with on a number of films in the U.S., mostly with M Night Shyamalan. Before that "Gravity" for director Alfonso Cuaron and producer David Heyman with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney which I started straight after “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”. Quite a year so now I’m really looking forward to a Christmas break.
Going back to your early career. Can you tell us how you got started in the industry?
I started at Elstree studios as a trainee aged 16. One of my many interests then was electronics. I would get the monthly magazines and spend hours building the projects but my great passion was films and the cinema. I was so desperate to work in films I would write to all the studios only to be told that they only employed union members and of course you could only join the union if you had a job. So when by chance I met someone who worked at the studio and he told me there may be a job for a trainee I was straight on to it. My knowledge of electronics got me the job, particularly as modern electronics were a mystery to some of the older technicians, who were more used to valve technology. It was bit like a few years ago when computers were in their infancy and people were moving over to computer editing and experienced editors needed a kid to work with them because they would be the technical experts. I took the job and told my parents it was just a summer job during the school holidays, which worked fine until September when the school called to ask where I was. The rest is another story but needless to say I kept the job.
What sort of recording equipment and microphones were your using in your early work?
It was the start of recording on Nagra. In the studio we recorded directly to 35mm magnetic but used Perfectone and then Nagra recorders when we went on location. Microphones were made by RCA and were those really heavy ones that you sometimes see on old TV broadcasts. But of course we mainly used Fisher booms so only occasionally had to hold them on a boom pole.
You’ve mixed some of the biggest and demanding films, what was your breakthrough moment in sound? Was it a particular project or technological advancement?
I left Elstree and went freelance to work on a TV series at Pinewood and then freelanced as a sound maintenance engineer and as a boom operator until I had a call to mix 2nd unit on a Sam Peckinpah film called "Cross of Iron". I was about 25 years old and didn't look back. I have remained fascinated by technology but wouldn’t say I was a geek. However, I have always been amongst the first to adopt new technology like digital recording and computer based recording. Nevertheless I would still describe myself as a filmmaker specialising in sound rather than a soundman that worked on films. Probably, the film that I’m most proud of is United 93. This was probably the most technically challenging film but also the most professionally satisfying. It was great to get a BAFTA nomination and there were mixed emotions when I actually won for “Casino Royale”, which was also nominated the same year, even though as far as I know this is the only Bond film to win a BAFTA for sound.
You worked with John Cleese on ‘’A Fish Called Wanda’, ‘Clockwise’ and 'Fierce Creatures'. Did you do anything different to capture his often explosive delivery?
I worked a lot with John Cleese. He hated ADR and felt confident that I would do my best to get all usable sound on location. “A Fish Called Wanda” was a great experience, directed by Charles Crichton, who had directed “The Lavender Hill Mob” and several of the Ealing classics. He was a master of comedy and as an ex editor had a great sense of timing. I last worked with John when he played Q in a couple of the Bond films.
What were the challenges on Muppet Christmas Carol? Had you ever recorded dialogue from Muppets before?
“A Muppet Christmas Carol” was another a good experience . I’ve always enjoy working on very technical films like, “United 93” and “Gravity”. But this was something else. Before this I had no idea that the puppeteers were also the voices of the characters and that it was all recorded live. I somehow imagined it would be done to playback. But they all needed to be able to improvise. This almost caught me out on the very first day of shooting. We were shooting a sequence where the camera cranes with a fruit and vegetable cart crossing the foreground. The director, Brian Henson, shouted cut and said: “I couldn’t hear the melons – I’ve given them each a line”. I was prepared for anything to talk from then on even fruit and veg. It wasn’t until I later found myself asking Kermit to speak up that I realised I was a total believer.
How did you feel on getting the job on Bond and what do you think got you the role?
I have recorded 5 Bond films. “Tomorrow Never Dies” was my first and the first Bond to be recorded digitally. It was a technical milestone as it was also the first to be edited non-linear, all of the others were cut on film. We were able to develop a lot of technical innovations, which are today commonplace. Each subsequent Bond bought a new challenge and a solution, particularly in regard to digital recording and developing processes to enable such a short postproduction schedule. They usually start shooting from January to July for a November release. But this time Bond 23 started shooting in late October and I’ve been working on “Snow White and the Huntsman” right up until Christmas 2011. It’s felt strange not to be involved but we’ve both been shooting in Pinewood and I’ve seen a lot of the crew, including Daniel Craig, who I more recently worked with on the UK shoot for “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”.
Black Hawk Down tells the story of a Battle between the US Air force and Somali soldiers during the Battle of Mogadishu. How did you capture those sequences? What equipment did you use and were you able to consult the soldiers who fought in that conflict?
“Black Hawk Down” was another of those very technical films. Ridley Scott is an amazing director and one of the few that can use multiple cameras so effectively. I think that at times we had up to 14 cameras including aerial shots. Not many people were using multitrack recorders at that time and we were recording to digital multitracks. It was a challenge, but very satisfying This was also the first time I had been able to use live ammo for sound FX recording, which gave some great results and sounds very different to some of the gun FX in libraries. I have since done this on many subsequent films with results that I have been very happy with.
You won the Oscar for Sound on Black Hawk Down – tell us about the evening itself, how you felt and what impact it’s had on your career.
I had previously been nominated for an Academy award for “The Mummy” so at least I knew what to expect. That time I had not written a speech or had any thought that I may win. I had seen “The Matrix" and knew that would win everything technical. When I was nominated for “Black Hawk Down” I was working on “Die Another Day” so Dame Judy Dench and Halle Berry had also been nominated. It was quite an event for us all to go together to L.A. but more of a surprise when Halle presented me with the Oscar.
Your most recent projects, John Carter and Gravity (which is mostly set in space) – Did you do anything different to capture those alien locations?
John Carter was another of those very complicated pictures for sound. I seem to always get the complicated jobs! Many of the characters are animated but were performed by actors working on stilts and with headcams capturing their facial expressions. The director, Andrew Stanton particularly wanted to get usable dialogue as he felt that though he would be animating the actors faces he wanted to be able to remain true to the original performance. This is going to be an amazing film that I’m really looking forward to seeing next year. “Gravity” is a totally different kind of film. The important part of this was not only to be able to record dialogue from Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, without hearing the noise of the motion control robots that had cameras on, but we also had to be able to run a complete communications system for them to be able to hear the various radio voices that they interact with in addition to atmospheric sounds and even some music. This is also going to be a great film.
As with all technical departments, the workflow has changed significantly over the last 15 years – what do you use at the moment and what do you think the future will bring?
There was a point where workflows were changing so quickly that it was different on every film. That seems to be settling down a bit or perhaps we’re just getting used to new challenges on every film, the latest being with 3D and HD cameras. The things that currently cause problems are that many cameras and even some lighting equipment have noisy fans in. It’s as if the designers have no idea that the equipment would be used on a film set where sound may be an issue and I’m often surprised that these problems are not recognized before going on set. At the same time ADR has become less popular with directors wanting to use much more original dialogue. One of the drawbacks of multitrack recording is that it takes much more time for editors to investigate all of the tracks to find the best quality sound. Though this will be done before the final mix this can sometimes result in unnecessary ADR being recorded. On “A Game of Shadows”, the second Sherlock Holmes film directed by Guy Ritchie, I spent a couple of weeks after the end of shooting just going through all my tracks cleaning up and selecting the best. This was easy for me because I knew the material so well and knew how I had recorded everything. I was then able to hand over a much better cutting copy sound to the sound editors which also helped the director to have a better quality dialogue for previews and to more easily identify any ADR requirements.
You’ve worked all over the world, almost non-stop for the last 30 years and your nephew Paul Munro is also a production sound mixer. You’re soon off on another project as well, is there any sign of slowing down?!
Paul is the son of my brother who was also a sound mixer and now retired. My son Angus, is an assistant picture editor. He worked for some years in tech support for one of the big Avid vendors and has had the benefit of Avid training and accreditation so now that he’s working in editing his skills are in demand. I’ve got a little while to go before I get to retirement age but don’t envisage slowing down as I have a very low boredom threshold and am always busy with something.
If you could change one thing about the film industry, what would you do?
I work a lot in the USA and I’m a member of the LA union. Though I’ve never been a union person, the one thing I like about working there is the structure of the union. Having scale rates and set overtime rates means that you never have to argue about your rate or overtime, something that I hate most.
I know you said one thing but the other is already being done by “The Call Sheet”. That is to have a complete database of UK technicians and their availability because in this internet connected world I think its crazy that you can’t immediately find crew.
What do you do when you are not working?
I worry about why I’m not working.
Which film or film maker do you wish you work with (who you haven’t already)?
I’ve had the great good fortune to work with some great directors many of whom I’d like to work with again particularly Alfonso Cuaron, Ridley Scott and Paul Greengrass but I do enjoy working with new directors and new challenges. It sounds like there are a lot of great filmmakers planning to shoot in the UK next year. Hopefully, I’ll get the chance to work with one of them.
You can see Chris Munro's profile here.
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