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A chat with audio post legend Don Hall

By Daniel Restuccio
October 18, 2011
A chat with audio post legend Don Hall During my recent interview with sound editor Don Hall, I mentioned that he's considered a legend in the industry. He responded, "Are you sure you have the right Don Hall?" Hall is one of those exceptional individuals in the movie business: modest, in love with his work, respectful of the craft and appreciative of the wonders that new technology have brought to the field. Most of all he's eager to share his knowledge — Hall started his 16th year teaching audio editing and sound design at USC.

Highlights from his career include sound editing on such classic movies and television shows as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, MASH, Patton, Bridge on the River Kwai, The Towering Inferno, Young Frankenstein, Lost In Space and Journey to The Bottom of The Sea.  

He has run the audio department at Fox and post production at Disney. He's been nominated for numerous Emmys and BAFTAs, and in 1971 he won a BAFTA for Cassidy and an Emmy for the television show Tribes. In 2004 he won a career achievement award from the Motion Picture Sound Editors of which he is a founding member. He also received the John A. Bonner Award at the 2006 Sci-Tech Oscars, which is given “in appreciation for outstanding service and dedication in upholding the high standards of the Academy.” That is most certainly Don Hall.

POST: What inspired you to get into this area? Have you been watching movies since you were a young kid?

DON HALL: “I wish I had a story like that but I don't. I saw very few films when I was a kid because they just weren't available to us at the time. What happened was I went to Art Center School (now Art Center College of Design in Pasadena) to become an architectural photographer — it was at the end of the War (WWII) and architecture was just booming at the time. I admired the work that Julius Schulman was doing and I thought I'd like to do that. So I started at Art Center School and at the very beginning someone came into the classroom and asked, ‘Would anybody here like to go into motion pictures?’ Two of us in the classroom raised our hands, and that's how I got into films instead of continuing still photography.”

POST: How did you go from still photography to moving pictures to audio?

DON HALL: “Upon graduation, I had a job waiting for me at a firm called Mercury
International Pictures. It was a small independent film company that made industrial films. At that time it was (also) the start of television commercials. We were unionized by the IA (IASTE), and I was told I could join the cinematographers union and the editors union because I had experience in both fields. I could only join one because I couldn't afford to join both at that time. So I chose editing because I didn't like the confinements of the soundstage. There was only one telephone and you could never call out (to) make a dental appointment or anything like that. When I entered the editors union I was told I had to wait eight years before I could edit picture. They, however, allowed me to move up into sound almost immediately, waiving the three-year waiting period. I got into sound, planning to wait my eight years, then, (pause) I loved sound so much I stayed with it and when the time came, when I could move up to picture I just decided, I'm not going to. I'm happy where I am.”

POST: In those days sound editing was a totally different thing. You had
mag film…

DON HALL:  “We had optical film when I started. We were just making the transition from optical film to mag film. So it was a good time to be in there with the new technology.”

POST: How technical was it, and were you mentored by anyone?

DON HALL: “Basically what we had to do is learn the craft to begin with, because there was nothing in the way of sound design. In fact sound design was not even a term at that time. For sound editing, we just called it ‘sound cutting.’ I had an excellent backer at Samuel Goldwyn Studios by the name of Gordon Sawyer, who was Sam Goldwyn's right hand man. He also ran the sound department at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios. Sawyer felt confident with me and gave me some projects and that's how I started.”

POST: Where you mostly editing dialogue at that time or were you editing music as well?

DON HALL: “In those days we didn't break it down into categories — if you were a sound editor you did everything, except music. We had a separate category, as we do today, for music editing. It wasn't the case that I specialized in ADR or did Foley as we do, today. Those of us who worked at that time, moved from one thing to the another (dialogue, SFX, Foley, and so on) as they were completed. Our schedules were more relaxed than now. It would be impossible for someone to do that today.”
 
POST: What was one of your first big projects?

DON HALL: “I recall the first one was a musical Porgy and Bess that was directed by Otto Preminger. What happened was the day before the shootsomeone burned down the set, but they kept the editing crew on so when it started again, we resumed working. I jumped to other pictures like The Alamo with John Wayne. So I got some pretty good breaks at the beginning of my career.”

POST: What were some of the challenges technically? Those big mics?

DON HALL: “Well we didn't do much recording. I was only in the editing part. So I wasn't involved in the production end of it. But you know we had nothing else to compare it to — big microphones that's what we were using at the time. It was at that time, the new technology and we thought it was wonderful.”

POST: You've worked with some amazing directors, Mel Brooks, Robert
Altman. I remember Robert Altman had that technique of all the overlapping audio.

DON HALL: “Oh, yeah, that’s when I was at Fox studios. I first encountered
it with Mash. Where everybody in the scene was talking at one time.”

POST: How did you deal with it? Did he come in and say, “This is what I'm going to do?” Or did people think it was nuts?

DON HALL: [Laughs] “Actually I think that's what the studio felt because they asked me prior to rerecording (mix) if I would handle the final mix because no other studio reps would be there. It may have been that Fox felt that Mash was not going to be successful and lessened their support for the final mix. This feeling was supported by the film not being mixed in the main theater and by mixers usually assigned to mix features and television. As it turned out, the mix of Mash was an excellent experience enjoyed by everyone on the mixing crew and we laughed every day of the mix. Ironically, I supervised the TV series of Mash with basically the same crew in the same mix room.”

POST: It’s in the history of films very often the ones that are artistic breakthroughs are the ones that the studios didn't have a lot of faith in. Even Titanic, they never thought that that movie was going to do as well as it did.

DON HALL: “That's true. I don't think studio heads at that time, especially the major studios, were that visionary. It was good that they had some younger people on the lot and others who were starting to direct that could see the potential in the type of films they were making.”

POST: In the case of picture editors sometimes the directors literally sit in the room the whole time and hash it out. Did that happen with you and Mel Brooks or Robert Altman?

DON HALL: “Not so much with Altman, but with Otto Preminger and Mel
Brooks. I didn't know it at the time that it probably wasn't the best thing to visit with the director and talk about their films. It worked out for me that I didn't know and became friends with them. It enhanced our working relationship.”

POST: When it comes to picture you can say, “Oh cut that shot a couple of frames,” but what kind of notes do they give with sound?

DON HALL: “For the most part we just talk about the obvious things they wanted covered. The other things were reinforcing story points and I would bring in treatments or ideas that we would discuss and go from there. They were in the true sense, back and forth sessions.”

POST: Were there any outrageous requests?

DON HALL: “No. Didn't encounter any of that. Once in a while I'll work with a young director who won't know exactly what he wants until he hears it. So we just try different treatments, audition it for approval to give us a direction to go ahead.”

POST: You worked on the classic film Butch Cassidy and the
Sundance Kid. You won the BAFTA for best soundtrack. I'm going to put you on the spot. Why do you feel that film stood out to be acknowledged that way?

DON HALL: “It was just a good film. We spent a lot of time working on the soundtrack. We were given horses to record. It wasn't common at the time that you could take a sound crew out and do some recording. I think that helped with the authenticity of the sound. It was what you would call a milestone picture. It had a milestone soundtrack to support it.”

POST: Were there special techniques or things that had never been tried on that film?

DON HALL: “George Roy Hill wanted a signature sound for the ‘Super Posse.’
I created a low frequency rumble and underlaid it whenever the posse was in view or nearby, off camera. It wasn’t really that low (100Hz) because of the limited range of the release print’s optical soundtrack. This low rumble treatment is common in many films we hear, today. Only now we can reproduce low frequencies that shake the theater. In addition, we made a number of original recordings of gunshots, ricochets, horses, and other sounds important to the film. Because studios were mostly using library material at the time, many tracks had hiss or sounded scratchy, we chose to record them live making fresh sounds for the film.”

POST: That was a technique that you used on Butch Cassidy
recording new sounds as opposed to using just the stock library?

DON HALL: “That's true. Not all the films in those days were given the
budget or even thought about going out and recording sounds for it.”

POST: Which seems more the trend these days. You made the transition into television
.
DON HALL: “Yes. When I went to Fox I was basically just doing the work for Irwin Allen on his films like Towering Inferno, Poseidon Adventure, the big disaster movies. They also had some television series going at the same time, Lost in Space and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I went there to work with Irwin because he wasn't too happy with the sound editing department at Fox to do all that work. I started working for him and that's how I ended up supervising the Fox sound editing department.

POST: I notice you also do a lot of teaching.
DON HALL: “I’m starting my 16th year at USC. After I retired I got a call from Jimmy Nelson who is a colleague of mine, he got a call to teach at USC and didn't feel like he was prepared to do it. I said; I'll go do it for a semester and I'm still there.”

POST: So what do you tell all these fresh young students wanting to get into audio?

DON HALL: “The one thing that I do, which is the most important, is not to discourage them. They come across people who have worked in the motion picture business, who may not have been successful in their own careers. These individuals have the tendency to discourage them from continuing on. Among the students who are going through USC, are always a few gems who are worth spending extra time and effort to teach and share your knowledge with. I feel that's the thing what makes it worthwhile.

“Presently, the school teaches all media: editing, sound, camera, writing and visual effects. When the students start, most want to be directors, but they soon find their own path to what they really want to do. Many of the students choose to stay in sound, and I'm very happy for that.”

POST: I’ve seen presentations on creating the sound for Tron: Legacy and The Social Network, and I’ve been amazed by the intricacy of the sound design with hundreds of audio tracks created by huge teams of people. I can't imagine it was always like that. What changed?

DON HALL: “It was the technology and the ability to work with an infinite number of multiple tracks. In the early years, we were restricted to maybe 50 to a 100 tracks on a film. Now Foley or background tracks alone, can number into the hundreds. So just being able to do it and take advantage of putting in all the nuances, which before was restricted to a handful of tracks has opened the world of sound design.”

POST: So has all this technology enhanced the craft?
.

DON HALL: “Yes, I feel it does, because like art it just gives you more colors, more shades and more brushes to paint with.”

POST: In terms of analog, have we lost anything? There are some audio people who say you still can't get all the subtle undertones and sweetness of an analog signal, but my ears are getting so bad now I can't tell.

DON HALL: (Laughs.) “Join the crowd. We haven't given up anything in enhancing the craft. Sound designers (and) filmmakers are asking for sounds that we have never heard before. I've heard that a lot of times through my whole career. What is that sound that you haven't heard before? Honk if you can describe it. It’s just the different shading, treatment, a new concept of a basic sound that you always go back to. Something your audience will believe in if they know what it is.

“The tools now just allow you to shape the sounds and do anything to them that you want to, and I think that's wonderful. Those who can are the ones who have the artistic ability along with the technical ability. Except for the crunch of time inherent in this business, it's wonderful because they can express themselves anyway they want to.”

POST: If one of your students came up to you and said, ‘Don, I have this
scene... how should a sound designer approach it and what do I look for in terms of designing the sound to better tell the story?’

DON HALL: “It's just exactly what you said at the end... to better tell the story. If the sound that is designed emotionally furthers one particular scene, but if used again in another situation and fails to advance that scene it doesn't mean anything no matter how great it sounded.

POST: What new sound are you still looking for?

DON HALL: “Effective silence, because silence is one of the elements of sound design. It's not filling every frame of the film with sound and playing it as loud as you can. We used to have a saying in the mix room: ‘If you can't make it good make it loud.’ Because a lot of films (then) were just loud.

“Getting back to your question, what comes out of silence. Silence itself is a dramatic moment. What comes out of silence is very important. It's the dynamics and contrast of the level of a sound that make a scene dramatic.”

POST: Did you have a favorite movie or TV series that you worked on?

DON HALL: “The one that I liked the most, and I didn't realize it at the time because it was early in my career, was Young Frankenstein with Mel Brooks directing. Young Frankenstein was so varied, so different. The sounds were there and they served a purpose of not only a Frankenstein film, but to make it believable, make it humorous at the same time.”