Emmy-award winning Jonathan Wales, CEO of Sonic Magic Studios has worked on close to 300 movies. He believes that re-recordists need to stories interestingly, without being generic or boring and also without being too obvious
By Vinita Bhatia
The most endearing quality about Jonathan Wales is his childlike curiosity about everything around him – not something you would associate with an Emmy Award-winner. Perhaps that is one of the reasons he has managed to endure, and succeed, in an industry that is known to cut most people down to size within minutes. Yes, we are talking about Hollywood – the destination that everyone in the movie business wants to land up at!
Growing up in London, Wales was always musically inclined – in fact, he started playing the piano from the age of 4. Despite his passion for music, when the time came to choose a career, he decided to take the conventional route. That meant finishing high school and joining medical school. But he felt constantly drawn back to the music industry and ultimately realised that is where his real calling lay.
Since he had always been interested in recording technology, he attended the Tonmeister programme at the University of Guildford and started getting offers to work on records whilst in college. Soon, he left his studies to begin working professionally as a keyboard player and programmer, which quickly led him to getting involved in producing records, something he cherished, and which set him on the road to success.
We speak to Wales about his journey from recording for some award-winning movies, like E.T. the Extra-Terrestial, to winning awards for himself along the way.
Why did you decide to become a re-recording mixer for movies?
My work in music had me sometimes working in New York and Los Angeles and I decided that I would much prefer to live and work in LA. It was partially a lifestyle thing, and partially a talent thing (not mine!). The most ridiculously talented people I had met were in LA at that time, and getting to work with people like that, is so inspiring. So, I set about trying to get there to stay.
At around the same time, I was dabbling in some engineering projects that involved movies and I found it very fascinating. I also found that movies were far more collaborative. There were so many people working together and this was very cool and creative. So after a while, I decided to try to shift my focus towards movies.
Do you remember the first movie you worked on?
I remember it, but I won’t name it. I was filling in for someone who was sick and I didn’t know what I was doing at all and it was very, very scary. But it was an opportunity and I just went for it. That helped me get my first real job working on movies.
And then you decided to start your own independent studio. Was it an easy transition?
I was fascinated by technology and how far we could push it. I had always had a feeling that movies were lagging behind music in the late 90’s. In music everything had been computers all decade long. Movies were still analog; it felt so old.
I was looking for more freedom and wanted to incorporate every latest thing as soon as it was available and make a completely digital workflow end-to-end. I hooked up with a couple of friends and we decided to build up Sonic Magic into a real company.
What makes Sonic Magic unique, from a neutral perspective?
Well, I’ve been through two incarnations so far in the US and just become involved with a new one too! Originally, Sonic was built in a small-ish facility with two mix stages; two add stages and a few other rooms. We did a lot of work there that we’re really proud of, but there was no room to grow and we needed to get bigger.
So, in about 2014, we joined forces with Wildfire to create Wildfire Sonic Magic. The main reason was to consolidate into a larger facility with bigger mix stages and better infrastructure. The more centralised the better – everything on central servers – with central machine rooms and KVM infrastructure.
So you think Indian companies can emulate this?
I don’t think there is any reason Indian companies can’t do this – it used to be much harder than it now is.
How many movies have you worked on so far?
I’ve worked on somewhere between 250-300 movies overall.
How do you select projects that you want to work on?
Sometimes I get to choose, sometimes they choose me. However, since we run a business, we take work as a necessity. I seem to get a lot of work in horror movies, and in musical projects. I think that’s mostly related to my history and to some of the projects I’ve done in the past that have been successful.
Contemporary movies, be it in Hollywood or Bollywood, have a vast auditory range where every soundtrack or note has to be poignant. In such a scenario, doesn’t it make your job tougher? Do you have any technique to ensure that each soundtrack weaves harmoniously with the storyline?
I’m not so sure that there is a special technique per se. Movies are about story; period. Therefore, everything we do in the creation of the soundtrack needs to serve the greater good of telling the story. If that happens, the audience is delighted or moved emotionally, and that is what makes a good movie.
How can sound mixers and re-recordists create sounds for TV audiences so that it will envelop them much like cinemagoers, even though the former might not have surround sound or multiple speakers? How can they create the aura of an encompassing auditory experience?
Some of the best movies ever made had mono soundtracks. So it is not about the number of speakers or the format. It is about telling stories well and interestingly, without being generic or boring but also without being too obvious.
We are there to support the mood, the feel and the emotion of whats being acted. If we go too far, we can detract from the actors’ performances. If we don’t help enough, then they end up in a stage play. But none of that requires more speakers. What it needs is carefully crafted work that’s sensitive to what’s being done on screen.
When it comes to creating theatrical representations for TV or digital platforms, how can you create tracks that are more delicately nuanced and compelling than dramatic? What process do you follow keeping in mind that not everyone has a home theatre?
Well, we often create ‘near field’ mixes for theatrical projects. The goal is to preserve the feeling of what a theatrical audience can experience, but translated better to the home environment.
You simply can’t experience the dynamics of a full theatrical track at home even in a home theater. Plus, the theatrical is mixed to work at a relatively loud level, with a ‘captive’ audience.
That is not what happens at home or on a second screen. So for those formats, it is about keeping the essence of the dynamics, but also trying to help you to not have to constantly reach for the volume control. In many cases, this means the dialogue needs to come up a little louder because in a theater you are more focused.
Theatrically, you can hear dialogue easier and get the loud stuff to be far louder than the dialogue all at once. At home, we tend to raise the lower (quieter) elements of the mix, lower the louder ones slightly, and often help the more immersive elements still work as well as possible given the environment. Yet we do it carefully and sensitively. Not through compression – more through sensitively tweaking the mix.
On specific TV material – we recently worked on the TV series The Mist – I also do Scream TV (2 seasons already and a third in the works)……. In each of these cases they are dialogue driven shows, but with bad stuff happening sometimes.
It’s hard at home because being ‘creepy’ in a theatre involves getting very physically quiet, and then you can suddenly get very loud. In the home context, you have to figure out how to still get that feeling but without using such extreme dynamics. All of these challenges is what keeps the job interesting in my opinion.
Which is more challenging – working on movies, TV series, or content for digital platforms?
They are all challenging – just the challenges are slightly different. Ultimately, currently theatrical movies are the highest form of the art – mostly because we have longer to do them and larger budgets etc. Recently, however the explosion of Netflix or HBO Original TV series is really taking that to a different place.
Some of the highest quality shows on those networks (Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, for example) are literally mini-movies per episode. So, the challenges for different formats are different. However, ultimately, good movie-making and good storytelling shines through.
What new trends are shining through in the world of audio management from the technical standpoint?
I think the biggest changes from a pure audio standpoint are in formats, especially from from the immersive environments like Atomos, Auro etc. In the future, I think, augmented reality and virtual reality are going to permeate programmed entertainment. So, that will get very technically deep.
In the purely technical space, I think the move towards packet-based audio (Dante / AVB) vs. traditional streams like AES / MADI, etc, will be the dominant interesting factor. Packet-based routing has so many advantages, especially for facilities. I think most people haven’t really begun to grasp that yet.
Have you worked on any Indian movies till date?
I haven’t personally; although not because I wouldn’t want to. I’ve worked on Chinese, Japanese, Hong Kong, Mexican, Dutch, French, Irish, American and English movies. Actually, I’m extremely excited now because I feel the world getting smaller. The great movie traditions from the USA, China, India and Europe are working closer. I am looking forward to doing more of this. In fact, I’m now working with a new company – RDR Studios – out of Shanghai. They have created a new sound company in LA that I’m working with. This is a good example of the industries collaborating and coming together more.