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.
Skip Lievsay

“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.”
About MPSE
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.
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