Film Sound Mixer Whit Norris: No Sound Problems, Only Sound Solutions

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Whit Norris is a professional film sound mixer with a filmography ranging from work on Fast Five to Anchorman 2. Norris took some time off on the set of his current project, the forthcoming Vince Vaughn film, Term Life to talk about gear, and share some great tips and experiences from his expansive filmography.

On your IMDB page, you have a fairly prolific filmography listed. When did you realize sound for film was your passion, and how did you get your start as a professional?

When I was in college, I always had a passion for sound, music, and electronics, as well as movies, but I originally wanted to work in radio. I worked at the campus radio station and did all the production work there. That was the old days, when we actually cut and spliced tape. I did have an opportunity to do radio, working overnights for a Golden Oldies station when I was young and poor, and one or two people felt sorry for me! (laughs). When I wasn’t doing enough in production, they helped me out. When you’re young, it’s always a good thing to have mentors. That’s another thing I always try to do, help out younger guys who need a little guidance in this industry.

Through certain circumstances, a production company that did commercials ended up asking me to do an internship with them, and that’s when I really discovered my passion for doing sound for pictures. It’s when I first operated a Nagra, which a lot of people will realize was the reel-to-reel recorder used to record sound for pictures on location. I started doing bad car commercials and industrials for banks, and different things like that. 

I got hired after the internship, and was working in the one-inch-tape room and the editing suites back in the '80s. The production side of that company closed down, but they had one main client, Ringling Brothers, the circus, who carried me and two co-workers to New York for about eight months to do a film-restoration project for them. We had 150 boxes of film mag and negative (and that’s what sound is on, the mag), and we would repair, sync it up, and splice it. It was here I learned how to handle film, and handle the one-inch transfers, at Devlin Productions, in New York.

After that, I relocated to Atlanta, and the reason I have stayed in Atlanta and never moved to LA is because I never could find good BBQ in Los Angles (laughs). I’m an old Southern boy and I enjoy the south, and also having seasons!

The styles of the films you have worked on vary tremendously, but let's talk about films like Fast Five, where at first glance, it would seem as though capturing clear dialog over things such as gunfire and loud cars would present a challenge. How do you approach those kinds of shoots?

You know, with working on the Fast and Furious franchise, generally the car work is always challenging. Gunfire, on the other hand, doesn’t really cause many issues; generally people don’t talk and fire at the same time, they’re doing one or the other, so you can get the dialog clean between the gun shots.

But the car work is sometimes a little challenging. The thing about it is, we’ll do real road work with the cars, which doesn’t always work out well for sound capture, but we’ll also do green-screen work, which is when we try to cover the dialog and have our chance to truly get it clean without having to worry about ADR [Automated Dialog Replacement] down the line.

We also shoot the car work two or three ways, so we have a few opportunities to get it. Usually, out of those two or three ways, I’m able to capture it.

Keeping on that theme of a noisy set, if a scene is going to be shot without sound (meaning all dialog will be recorded in ADR), when is that decision typically made?

Even when it’s effects-driven, or there is a lot of wind and they’re bringing out the large Ritter fans and wind machines, we still try to get a good track. It’s amazing what post production can do these days with iZotope and some of the other processors for removing noise and background rumble. If I can get the actors above the noise floor, there is a good chance they can salvage it in post and clean it up.

But sometimes we agree, because of effects (and it’s generally because of effects), that we’re not going to be able to capture the dialog as best as we can. Often times, we will record the lines wild, and give post a chance to slide them in.

Generally, I have a good track record for ADR, because of my team and the crews that we work with. You really have to have everyone’s cooperation to capture great dialog on the set. I can only give credit to the crews that I work with as well as my sound team.

There’s one thing that I’d like to talk about that I think a lot of people don’t realize. I think one of the most challenging things to record is a comedy. They are some of the hardest work out there for production sound mixers.

When you’re working on a picture such as Anchor Man 2, with guys like Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Will Ferell, and, of course, director Adam McKay, who are such great talents, these guys ad lib and do different versions that aren’t scripted. They’re taking lines off of each other, Adam McKay is throwing them lines to use or a certain direction to go in. Not knowing what an actor is going to do or say, for a boom operator and sound mixer, can be pretty challenging sometimes. That’s why we are all about keeping everybody on a wireless mic and an iso track. That way it helps us capture that performance. It’s a lot of work; you have to keep your cast wired all the time, and keep them tracked because you don’t always know when someone is going to say a line. We’re also typically using multiple booms at that point as well.

With all of that, an action film, where you’re more or less following a script, is a little simpler to record.

That’s not something everyone might realize.

I’m always about protecting the performance, it’s my philosophy. I don’t want them to have to replace it [dialog] later on. I think that is so important to capture that magical moment when you have filmed a scene and they don’t have to replace it. I think it’s so hard to go back into the studio six months later and sit in a recording booth and try to replace the lines, though some actors are better at it than others. I really try to prevent that from happening.

When you have a shot in a reverberant space, say a kitchen or gym, do you have any tips to control what could be an overwhelming room sound?

Well, first I want to use the best microphone for that room. I would consider something like the Sennheiser MKH 50, or a shorter shotgun, and possibly even a cardioid (as opposed to a hypercardioid) to help on the reflections.

I use something that’s called Echo Killers. They’re basically 4 x 4 sheets of packed cotton. They’re environmentally friendly, as they’re made from recycled material, and are also flame resistant for safety standards. I’ll generally have the production order these things, depending on how much space we have to cover. They also come with O-rings in each corner so you can tie them off. Using these kinds of things goes into working with the cooperation of other departments helping me record great sound; the rigging grips will hang those in the ceiling for me to reduce some echoes and reflections in a room. That’s what I would do that if it was a large space.

When we’ve been on a budget, or weren’t able to do rigging in the ceiling, I’ll have the production purchase carpet padding, which you can get at Home Depot, and comes in a roll about 10 feet long. It can be hung over a wall or rigged, and it will take down some reflections as well.

For smaller places like bathrooms, sound blankets (which the grip department refers to as "furni pads") are always a great tool and generally are in a production package. Also, I’ve been guilty of carrying around sheets of Sonex on foamcore so they can be easily mounted, and placed those on set.

It’s really hard to take out echo, and I think re-recording mixers and dialog editors could speak more on that. I know iZotope can do certain things to remove that, but it is really important to lower the reflections in a room.

Most audio guys have their go-tos and favorite equipment. Do you have a particular mixer, or set of mics that you greatly prefer to use?

First of all, I have a Sonosax mixer; they’re a Swiss company. I love my Sonosax. It’s an analog mixer with an AES out, so you don’t see too many of them out there nowadays, since many people are going with digital mixers. I really love the sound of that Sonosax. I’m not a fan of the sound of some of the digital mixers out there, but maybe I’m being a little old school.

I think we’re going to see, whether it's Sound Devices or Zaxcom or someone like that, come up with a great mixer for us guys who work off the cart most of the time!

I love my DEVA 16 (digital recorder). I am a incredible DEVA fan. I love the touchscreen and being able to cycle through menu settings. I’ve been recording on DEVAs since the DEVA 2 came out, so that’s really my go-to recorder. I’m also a big fan of Sound Devices, who make some wonderful recorders. I have a 744t that I use as a backup on my cart. But since DEVA was the first hard-drive recorder out there, I’ve always stayed with them. I got used to their ways of working, but by no means are they the only one out there, and Sound Devices makes some wonderful devices that I think a lot of.

Well, it’s important to have something that caters to your workflow.

Yeah, exactly.

A big part of your job is being able to put out fires, like glitches or bugs, right as they come up. Is there anything you always have on hand that has saved you from what could have been a big headache?

What we’ve become big fans of in the last couple of years is Joe’s Sticky Stuff. It comes in a little tin, and it’s this double-sided gooey tape. We use it to mount lavaliers sometimes, especially when we’re doing rigs where someone is wearing a coat and tie. We use it to stick a Sanken Cub to a surface. It’s one of those things, when you see it and play with it, you’ll get it. It doesn’t leave any residue behind, the way some of the similar-type tapes can. It’s become one of those new things in the last couple of years that you see in everyone’s sound kit.

I could not do without Dr. Scholl’s Bunion Cushions. Of course, these are the non-medicated version, and I find the glue on the other brands is not as good. We take them and we cut them in half, and that’s what we are generally attaching the Sanken COS11 [lavalier microphone] with. Sometimes we have to attach the mic directly to the skin, and since the bunion cushions are made to put on skin, it’s safe for the actors. We even sometimes use them to attach mics to clothing. That is definitely a go-to product in my kit. They used to be hard to get in bulk; if you go to Wal-Mart or CVS they’d only have one or two packs, but now I just get the production company to order them in bulk from Amazon.

Talking about microphones, my preferred lavalier is the Sanken COS11. I think it matches the Sennheiser MKH50 shotgun and the Schoeps CMIT shotgun really well. Those are my two favorite microphones. Generally, I’m using the MKH50s on interiors, and I use the Shoeps in larger areas, like more outdoor settings or large sets.

What’s your preferred wireless system?

Right now, Lectrosonics. I’m a big fan of Lectrosonics, which I’ve used all the way back to the 185; I think that was the original VHF system. I’ve used all the different models over the years, and now I’m using the SMAs and SMVs, and Venues. I run two Venues on my cart, which gives me 12 wirelesses.

Lectrosonics is such a wonderful company, all those guys are. I think you can only do this in our corner of the film industry; I can actually call and talk to Larry [Fischer, President] at Lectrosonics, or to Jon at Sound Devices. I can call Glen Sanders at Zaxcom and talk to him about their products and give them feedback that they’ve actually used in new products. I don’t really know of any other industry where you can do that, and I think that is just awesome.

You’ve worked on a really wide range of films; do any stand out as your favorite?

I only did a week on Blackhawk Down, but I will say this, it was really cool to sit down next to (Director) Ridley Scott at lunch. I generally don’t get very excited about actors, but Ridley Scott was the director of Blade Runner, which is one of my favorites.

More recently, on Anchorman 2, working with Harrison Ford made my day. That’s working with Indiana Jones and Han Solo. It doesn’t get any better than that!

Going back to what is my favorite, I really like all the films that I’ve done for different reasons. Working with Kevin Smith (Dogma, Clerks, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back); he is one of those directors who really cares about sound. A lot of directors claim to care about sound, and I’m not saying that they don’t, but Kevin has a higher priority for sound than a lot of other directors do. I think in some ways sound is more important to him than the picture. He is all about the written word; he writes all that dialog, and he is very protective of that. He could be described as being a writer first and a director second. If there was a sound issue on one of Kevin’s films, it was addressed and taken care of immediately. They also were very careful in scouting locations and always thinking about sound.

One of the most fun pictures I worked on was Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. There were so many great cameos in the film, and at that time in my career, we were all young and had a great, great time.

Anchorman 2 was such a wonderful experience, working with Adam McKay and all the wonderful cameos we had in that film. To get to see all these masters of comedy all together, that was a very special film. We never knew what Steve Carell would do, and he would come up with some things that almost had me falling out of my chair laughing. Going to work and getting to laugh all day long, who would not want that job?

Going to the Fast and the Furious, that is a family. Working with those guys, Vin Diesel, the late Paul Walker, who my team truly, truly enjoyed; The Rock—really, the whole cast and that whole production team are so nice. I cannot say enough nice things about them, so those films will always have a special place for me. But I don’t know if I have a truly top film.

A lot of our readers are still in the early stages of their careers, whether they be amateur filmmakers or in film school, and are trying to get their foot in the door. What advice would you give for getting steady work and making it your full-time gig?

I think the best thing to do for a young person starting out in the business is to build a resume, because people go by resumes, or your IMDB. When you’re first starting out—and some people might disagree with me about this—I believe, do any job you can do, whether it’s for free helping someone make a short film on the weekend, just get out there and do it and start building credits and your resume.

But, I think one of the more important things is relationships. This industry is very relationship driven, and it’s about who you know, and who knows you. Getting out there, having a great attitude, and doing the best job you can is going to carry you farther than anything else. Then the people you meet will refer you to other people. I try to tell the young people, our industry is a very, very small industry. Everybody knows everybody, or they know somebody that knows them, so you always want to protect your reputation, and you always want to have a great attitude. Word spreads quickly when a person doesn’t play well with others or is hard to work with. I always believe there aren’t any sound problems, there are sound solutions. Having a great attitude, and looking for the solution instead of being negative about it is always a great thing, and it makes you a team player.

One more thing I think is really important for young sound people, or young people getting into the film industry in general, is to find a mentor. Find somebody that you can discuss things with and get ideas from. While you can learn a lot from school, and you can learn a lot from reading, the way this craft is truly passed on is learning from somebody who is doing it or has been there.

Another important thing is self-education, I spend a couple of hours every week either reading a new book on part of my craft or doing research online for new products and trying to always stay up on the cutting edge.

Whit Norris has been working in the film industry since the early 1990s, and has an impressive list of credits. For his full filmography, check out his IMDB page.