SOUND AND MUSIC
Job Title: Production Sound Mixer
The production sound mixer is the head of the on set sound department and is responsible for recording the actors' dialogue during the filming of the production.
After reading the script, mixer Tim Cooney determines what microphones and equipment will be needed. During filming, he records room tone and sound ambiance, directs the boom operator, and adjusts sound levels. Later, any unclear dialogue will be rerecorded by the ADR supervisor and replaced. The dialogue track will then have music and effects added to complete the production sound track.
“To work in sound you have to know electronics, simply because you're going to be fixing cables and electronic equipment,” says Cooney. “If you're on location in the Philippines and the machine doesn't work, what are you going to do? I've spent time fixing equipment in the hotel so that I could have it ready for the next day. You've got to have those skills. You have to have a certain amount of people skills and salesmanship—any kind of salesmanship helps, because the hardest part of the job is getting it. The second hardest part is keeping it.
Advice for Someone Seeking This Job
Before embarking on a career in film production, Cooney advises having a year's worth of savings to live on. “Whatever you're doing to pay your bills, save every bloody nickel. You need to have a year's worth of money in the bank all the time, because if you're stressed out about money, you're not going to be focused on what you need to do.”
He further advises that anyone desiring to be a production sound mixer should start out working for free. Read the trades to discover what films are in production. Contact the production office and ask if a sound mixer has been hired and who they are. Then contact the union to obtain the person's telephone number and call them to ask if you could work as their PA for free. “In my case, I've had a couple of people say, ‘I'm trying to get into sound. I went to college and need some experience.’ Or, ‘I've always been interested in sound, I don't have the money to go to college, but I want to learn. Can I come and work for free?’ I always say, ‘Yes, absolutely, come on down.’ If somebody is willing to work for free, I'm willing to give them a chance.”
Once you've worked a couple of weeks for free for one sound mixer, Cooney advises repeating the process of working free for another sound mixer one or two more times. Go back to the trades and look for nonunion pictures and contact the sound mixer and offer to serve as an assistant to build up some credits. “That's how you get your first paying job. You have to do a few nonpaying jobs first in order to get some kind of credit, some validity. Eventually somebody is going to give you a break. Once you get enough hours, you can join the union.”
Professional Profile: Tim Cooney, CAS, Production Sound Mixer
A former rock musician, clown, and elephant trainer, Tim Cooney's journey into the film business is strange and almost unbelievable. From a young age he loved going to the movies. “If I had a spare dime I would put it together with some more dimes until I had enough to go to the movies. When I was a kid, back in the '60s, it cost 50 cents to go to a movie.”
An emancipated minor at the age of 15, Cooney soon left home to pursue a career as a musician. He lived with various musicians while putting himself through high school and after graduation, moved from his hometown of Van Nuys, California, to Charleston, West Virginia. There he played in a group that performed music and comedy on a TV program every weekday morning from 7:00 to 8:00. When the group lost its contract and broke up, Cooney found himself flat broke and alone. “I spent Christmas at the Midnight Mission. I said, ‘You know, this whole drinking and drug thing just ain't working out.’ I was 19 years old. That's when I gave up the drugs. It took me three years more before I gave up the booze.”
With nowhere to go, Cooney reconnected with a high school friend who was performing as a clown with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The friend got him a clown job and Cooney got out of Charleston. Circus management liked him so much that they sent him to Ringling Brothers’ Clown College. He traveled for another year with the circus following graduation, during which time he began learning to train elephants, “because I really hated being a clown.”
What do you like least about your job?
“What I really hate is trying to get the job. It's the worst part of the business. Regardless of what you do in the film business, that would be most people's reaction. It's the hustle I hate, because there is nothing artistic about it and there is nothing technical about it; it's constantly selling yourself.”—Tim Cooney
What do you love most about your job?
“What I love most is the actual filmmaking, the actual job itself.”—Tim Cooney
Deciding it was time to get off the road, Cooney took a job as an elephant trainer at the St. Louis Zoo, where he remained for three years. On a summer vacation, he returned to California to look up some old friends who were in the animal business. He discovered upon arrival that the business had been sold to actress Tippi Hedren, but went to see the elephants anyway and learned they were in need of a trainer. After verifying that he was indeed an elephant trainer, Cooney was offered twice his zoo salary to train elephants for the movie Roar, starring Hedren and Melanie Griffith. It was his first film.
The elephants did not work every day, so Cooney filled the down time by hanging out with the picture's sound mixer. “Having been in music, I knew how to engineer records. I've always been kind of an electronically technical guy. The sound mixer liked me and took me under his wing. He taught me about mixing sound and taught me to be a boom man.” When the movie wrapped, Cooney took work on a couple of nonunion movies as a boom man, eventually logging enough hours and experience to get in the union.
His next big break came when he was hired under contract as a boom man at Universal Studios. There he worked year round and was assigned projects by the studio, including feature film E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial and television series Quincy, The Incredible Hulk, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Night Rider, and Battlestar Galactica.
Cooney served as a boom man for four or five years before moving up to mixing. The first feature he mixed was Blue Thunder, a helicopter film starring Roy Scheider. Afterward, he alternated between boom jobs and mixing, steadily building his reputation until landing the job of mixing the first four seasons of Murder, She Wrote, which finally established him as a sound mixer.
“I've been very, very fortunate. I have nine nominations for sound,” including three Golden Reels, one of which he won in 2000 for Noriega: God's Favorite, three Emmys, two CAS awards, and an Academy Award nomination for Cliffhanger.
* “The best advice I could give anyone is one sentence: Do something to further your career every single day. Period. I don't care if you're sick in bed. You get the trades, read them, and redo your résumé so that you can send that out. Do something every single day. Even on Christmas—go to parties where there are people in the business so you can hear about what shows are in production. Find out if they have hired a person for the category you work in. If you do something every day, you will succeed; and if you don't, you won't. I've been working for 26 years, and after 26 years and nine [film award] nominations, it still doesn't even get me the interview. That's the reality of the business. “—Tim Cooney
* “It's a people business. I don't care if it's sound, if it's acting, or if it's producing. You have got to know people; you have to make contacts and remember their names and where you worked with them.”—Tim Cooney
Filmed in the mountains of Cortina, Italy, “Cliffhanger was an unbelievably difficult show—logistically it was a nightmare—but it still remains the most beautiful place I've ever seen. The mountains were just unbelievable. We were there three months. As I was getting in the car to go to Rome, to continue shooting in that location, I kept thinking, ‘This place is magnificent. Inspiring.’ Receiving the Oscar nomination was like the cherry on the pie.”
Cooney continued to work on blockbuster features, including: Conspiracy Theory, Demolition Man, Die Hard 2, Ford Fairlane, Lethal Weapon 4, Marrying Man, Mighty Ducks 3, and We Were Soldiers.
Many believe Cooney's work on We Were Soldiers will win him a second Oscar nomination. “They used 80% of my production track, which is unheard of in a war picture. You're lucky to get 40% as a rule.” We Were Soldiers was only the second film for director Randall Wallace. “He was such a gentleman. I must say he is probably the best director I have ever worked with. Ever. He was so sound conscious.”
The film Cooney is most proud of is the Academy Award winning documentary The Last Days, a stirring film detailing the return of Holocaust survivors to Auschwitz. He currently has offers for three features in the upcoming months and is trying to decide which picture to accept. “You either have nothing or you have three projects and you have to turn two down. That's just the way it is in this business.”
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