Mark Mangini: Explore the Soundscapes of "32 Sounds"

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Mark Mangini is the Supervising Sound Editor for the film, "32 Sounds," a unique essay film, directed by Sam Green, which offers a captivating exploration of the world of sound, best experienced with headphones for its immersive audio design.

Mark Mangini's role as the Supervising Sound Editor has been crucial in shaping the audio experience of "32 Sounds." The film encourages viewers to engage with sound in novel ways, and Mark's expertise has been pivotal in achieving this. His insights into the film's audio design and the intricacies of sound editing would make for an engaging conversation. 

PH: Can you describe your initial impressions when you first read the script or heard about the concept of '32 Sounds'? What drew you to this project?

Mark Mangini: I never read a script. And I’m not sure if Sam had one. Sam Green was already well into making 32 Sound when he contacted me. Initially, I was hired as a consultant. I think Sam asked me “Would it be ok if I just called you every once in a while and asked some questions.” That was a great opportunity for me to be integral to Sam’s filmmaking process. Often he would bounce ideas off me for scenes he hadn’t worked out yet. Other times he asked technical questions to develop a greater understanding of Sound and its mechanics and how that might advance the movies narrative. At the end of a year of conversation, I realized that Sam considered me as a partner in his filmmaking. Less an appurtenance and more a central fixture. This was exciting. Sound is considered post production, accent on POST…after the filming. Sam was engaging me during the making of the film, where ideas we discussed would be integrated directly into his process and become a seamless part of it. That engagement is what drew me to 32 Sounds.
PH: Sound is such a central element in '32 Sounds.' How did you approach the challenge of using sound to tell a unique and immersive story?
Mark Mangini: By integrating some novel recording techniques into the shooting and distribution of the film. One of our favorite moments in the film is Dr. Edgar Choueiri demonstrating Binaural sound with the matchsticks and him playing with his young son in his backyard. Sam didn’t know Dr Choueiri before we met nor did he have an awareness of Binaural sound nor how it worked. For Binaural to be useful, Sam would have to not only record with a Dummy Head (“Johan Kristof” as Edgar calls the binaural dummy head) but have the audience use headphones to experience the 360 degree immersions that binaural can reproduce. We had already been talking about novel ways to present sound and were intrigued by Simon McBurney’s “Encounter” which used headphones and dummy head on stage. Once we had committed to the headphones, I worried that other sonic aspects of the film would be underwhelming, specifically the “In the Air Tonight” sequence that showcases Don Garcia in NY blasting the song out of his car and rattling windows and spines throughout the city. With Headphones as our main source of audio for the live performances, we wouldn’t be able to reproduce those low frequencies and this begat discussions requiring Sam traveling with a supplemental subwoofer playback system to augment the headphones in live performance to give us that deep rumble. These techniques brought a greater level of realism and verisimilitude to our performances.
PH: Could you walk us through the collaborative process with director Sam Green and other members of the sound team in shaping the film's audio design?
Mark Mangini: I’ve described much of that above. Initially I was to be a consultant on the film, but as Sam and I spent time working together it became clear that he wanted to have me involved in the post sound as well. There had always been challenges with budget but I was so invested in Sam and the film, I felt it was important to see the film to completion. Once the locked edit was completed, we hired Robert Kellough to do the initial sound design and editing work while JD Sampson was finishing the score/live music. We didn’t have a lot of time or budget for post sound. I talked my company, Formosa Group, into giving the film my mixing studio for cost to ease some of the pain. JD Sampson would continue to write music through post and deliver sketches to help us work the rest of the sound against. Robert delivered the initial pass on the sound design about two weeks before we were to mix and I took that work and expanded on it. Sam would fly out to Los Angeles and sit with me for about a week and work on the mix in person. 
The joy in all of this was discovering what am amazing collaborator Sam is. I can’t think of a moment during the 2 years of working with Sam where he didn’t ask me what I thought about a scene or a beat or an approach. He was as invested in my opinion as he was in his own. How often do we encounter that kind of engagement with the filmmakers we work with?

PH: Were there any particular sounds or moments in '32 Sounds' that posed significant creative or technical challenges during the editing process? 

Mark Mangini: One of the most complex challenges was reproducing the 360 degree binaural effect heard in the headphone mixes in a traditional theater/speaker environment. In the headphone version of the film, the binaural audio is exquisitely immersive and designed to be listened to that way…because it was recorded that way when it was filmed. Loudspeaker systems in traditional cinemas cannot reproducer that immersive effect. They can reproduce “immersive” audio but not in 360 degrees. This is because it is coming from speakers on the walls or behind the screen and not being captured by your ears in headphones, as we hear in real life. 
There was the additional challenge of doing the headphone mix. I’ve been a narrative cinema sound designer all my life. I had never done a “headphone” mix and pretty much learned how to do it “on the job”. I’ve only ever listened to movies on “speakers”. Sam and would buy matching headphones to make sure we were hearing the same things and we both learned together how to do it. 
PH: In a film where sound is so crucial, how do you balance the artistic and technical aspects of your role as Supervising Sound Editor?
Mark Mangini: I don’t find this to be a balancing act. My goal is simple: do what’s best for the film. If I am faithful to the director and the film, those judgment calls are pretty easy to make. That being said, my goal is to follow my creative muse first. I don’t allow technique or technical aspects of my work to drive my creative decision making. In some ways I try to be empathetic to the Director storytelling needs and allow that empathy to drive my choices. Sometimes those creative choices do bump into technical challenges, like playing binaural over loudspeakers or making sure the audience can feel the subwoofer over headphones. One must first determine what is best for the film, and then secondarily determine how to achieve it. I always ask my self WHY I am doing something and if there is a compelling narrative reason for it, we almost always figure out HOW to do it. 
PH: What role do headphones play in enhancing the audience's experience of '32 Sounds'? How did you take advantage of this medium to create a more immersive audio experience?
Mark Mangini: The headphones achieve a number of pretty great things in the live shows. First, they can give the audience a true immersive experience that couldn’t otherwise be had over traditional loudspeakers. The Headphones also added a level of sonic quality control. Sam never knew what venues the live show would play in and that meant, perhaps, some houses/theaters with run down or broken speakers and amplifiers. The headphones guaranteed us a very high quality and consistent sound experience no matter where we took the show. Additionally, the headphones acted like an isolation booth, giving each listener a relatively pristine sound with little to no external interference, unbothered by others eating food, talking on their phones or whatever other sonic inconveniences happen in traditional theaters.
PH: The film explores the idea of paying attention to the everyday sounds around us. How did this concept influence your approach to sound editing and design in the film?
Mark Mangini: Well it certainly dictated a more pure and honest approach to the design, compared to narrative cinema. I’ve spent most of my career enhancing a narrative with sound that might enhance and, hence, not be faithful to or offer a level of verisimilitude. Documentaries are a different beast. While I certainly could have “pumped up” a scene with exaggerated sound, that didn’t feel right. For example, the end credits play over a beautiful natural soundscape that evolves out of sound capture in Annea Lockwood’s backyard in upstate NY. I really wanted to be true to that environment so I sourced authentic nature sounds from that specific geographic area in upstate NY and built that sound montage from them. The truthfulness of those sounds was more important than more dramatic qualities I might have found in my sound library, but weren’t honest to the geography.
PH: Can you share any specific techniques or technologies you used to manipulate or enhance certain sounds in the film to create a unique auditory experience?
Mark Mangini: The most obvious is adding the physical subwoofer in the theaters where we played over headphones. We (and the audience) would never have gotten that kind of visceral effect in the Phil Collins bit without one. 
The addition of Binaural recording and its use in the filming necessitated that the material shot without it needed to be made as immersive as possible. This took some research and training on my part, to find the current tools that would allow me to “up mix” traditional mono and stereo audio to resemble an immersive binaural experience. I used a couple of plugins in my workstation to do this upmixing and enhanced their outputs with convolution reverbs and multi-tap delays. 
This would be also apparent in the Phillip Glass sequence. There wasn’t ever a fly in the room and we wanted it to sound like there was a real fly in that room. We did manage to capture a fly buzzing with a dummy head, but not as we shot with Phil and the piano. Then it was a matter of “worldizing” the fly sounds to achieve the desired verisimilitude and deftly pan them around the room.

PH: Are there any standout moments or scenes in '32 Sounds' where you believe the sound design truly shines, and if so, what went into creating those moments?

Mark Mangini: I'm not sure I would point to any one moment or scene but, rather, the entire film. I think because of Sam’s prescience, sound design informs this entire film. He insisted Sound be part of the filmmaking process, not just an addition in post. As such Sound Design informs the foundations of this film, how it was made and assembled and even envisioned. 

PH: What do you hope audiences take away from the sound experience of '32 Sounds,' and how do you think this film contributes to the broader conversation about the role of sound in cinema?

Mark Mangini: I hope an audience leaves with a deeper appreciation AND awareness of the impact sound has on us all. We spend most of our lives beholden to the primacy of our eyes and sight. Most people just take sound for granted. It’s a kind of back door sense that we don’t really understand nor appreciate the importance of. To underline that idea, imagine this question: “If you were asked to remember a deceased love one and could only choose a photograph or a sound recording, what would you choose?” You won’t be surprised that when I ask the question to audiences, the response is almost universally the latter, sound. We don’t really notice sound until we are asked to think about it. I hope this film encourages that awareness.
PH: As someone with extensive experience in sound editing, can you offer any insights or advice for aspiring sound editors or those interested in pursuing a career in sound design?
Mark Mangini: First: Do not peg your success on the mastery of technique or equipment. Take screenwriting and acting classes to enhance and develop your storytelling skills so that you cam communicate effectively and meaningfully with your filmmakers. This should come at the expense of learning new plugins or tools. You will be significantly more valuable when speaking the same language as your director. 
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