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A Conversation With Craig Mann

Academy award-winning re-recording mixer, Craig Mann is world-renowned. With over 15 years of sound industry experience under his belt, his work can be heard on a number of blockbusters, including The Insidious franchise, Paranormal Activity 3&4, and Whiplash, which led to his win for Best Sound Mixing. At BroadcastAsia2015, courtesy of audio specialists AVID, ETA’s Elissa Nadine had a conversation with Craig concerning his outlook on the industry and what he had to do to get to where he is. Here’s what he had to say..

Many audiophiles have dreams of being in the entertainment industry since they were old enough to walk. For Craig, it was a natural bloom that started around the time he was 5 years old, when he was handed a tape recorder from his grandfather.

“I remember that I would go around and interview people, record sounds and even myself singing. That was kind of my first exposure to audio.”

That small start wasn’t enough, though. Craig didn’t develop his passion until he developed a hatred for the rigidity of Canadian public school system. It was only after he worked with an Apple 2E that Craig found his niche in computers. He became the guy who went around the school setting up their multimedia systems and troubleshooting the programs.

“I would never quite set it up right – leaving a cable a little unplugged or something like that so that I would get the chance to get out of my lessons and fuss around or ‘troubleshoot’ the computers.”

That bit of slyness would be his first stepping stone into the entertainment life as it eventually evolved to Craig handling his high school’s film projectors and soundboards for school events.

On top of that, he was offered an internship at Sound Ideas, a leading publisher of professional sound effects that offers 272 distinct royalty free collections to broadcast, post-production and multimedia facilities around the globe.

For the next six months, Craig would ride with his dad on the 90-minute journey to the studio and be sent into the field to record sound effects, master them in the studio and prepare the audio for CD (remember CDs?) release.

“That was really my first sort of introduction to a studio environment or working in any kind of situation like that, so that was pretty huge.”

After his experience at Sound Ideas, Craig got his Degree in Music Recording Arts and was introduced to post-production mixing.

“It was like a light switch flicked on. After I graduated college I started applying to places around Toronto and I got a position at Casablanca Sound .”

On Persistence
After working under several top re-recording mixers in Canada for 5 years, it all came crashing down when funding was cut to the studio and it had to shut down. This left Craig at 27 years old out on the street and not sure of his next move.

“Just to pay the bills I got a job in a broadcast master control room. I was in-charge of removing the tapes from the machines and switching them out for the new program ahead, there was no digital at this time.

“Honestly, it was pretty rotten, it was the least creative and least interesting job that I have ever done. I knew I wanted to pursue post at this point, but the studios in town were over their capacity and I was at my wits end. I decided to start calling and take a chance trip to Los Angeles, visit some studios and try to meet people. The trip was a modest success since I met a few department heads. When I got back to Canada, I remember I would call the same 8 people I had met every week for the next 6 months.

“Eventually, Todd-AO called and said their Santa Monica facility was changing one of their rooms from a screening room to a mixing stage, and they needed another assistant to run the room once it got online. Because I had been calling this guy for six months, when the time came to make a hire, he called me – BAM I’m in Los Angeles two weeks later.”

On Living The Dream
The LA scale was much bigger and terms for things were a bit different than I was used to in Canada, and instead of sitting with David Cronenberg, suddenly it’s Quentin Tarantino.

It was a little bit intimidating sitting with these guys and assisting them. The mixers in LA were gods, people you read about in magazines.

I was like, ‘WOW, this is Quentin Tarantino, this is pretty huge, this is crazy!’

The first thing I worked on was shadowing the main assistant of Kill Bill 1. I remember being overwhelmed for the first month or two with the amount of time we worked, because it wasn’t just working till 6 or 8, you’d be in there at 8am and you’d be there till 11 or 12 at night.

For the next few years, I was given the chance to assist probably just about every big mixer that came through Todd-AO with shows like Kill Bill, Bourne Ultimatum, X-men and Dream Girls. It doesn’t get any bigger than that. Seeing that many different mixers work on that amount of material, gave me a very unique insight into mixing.

On Getting Up Again
The 2007/2008 writers strike and economic downturn was the next hurdle that hit Craig’s career. Once again, the studio was slowing down, right around the time he was starting to mix. A milestone came in 2010, when he was engaged to work on the James Wan film, Insidious.

The real important connection there was Blumhouse, the production company, because Jason Blum had just started his own production company and the first title under that company was Insidious. The budget for sound was like 20,000 USD or something crazy even compared to a modest film at that point.

In 2010, most people would say anything below 300,000 was impossible. We had about 5 days, I think, to do that mix, it was crazy. But we did it. As it happened, that movie was a big hit and opened at number 3 at the box office. About 18 million opening weekend.

Within two weeks of that happening, no less than 3 senior mixers approached me and said that I was ruining the business because I had done this film on such a low budget. I can remember that that was a pretty heavy thing to lay on me.

However I didn’t agree… I don’t think I was ruining the business, I think I was responding to a need in the market. I’m not the kind of guy to really lip off to more senior people, so I took it with a grain of salt and walked away.

So Insidious 1 goes down and it was pretty successful but things still weren’t popping off like I was expecting and it was still pretty rough to find steady mixing work. I was going out and recruiting work, really just hitting the phone and just calling up people because I had a couple of credits that were, you know, okay.

Work at Todd-AO had slowed down so much that I wasn’t even getting assisting gigs because there was nothing to even assist on. I thought they weren’t being responsive to the market and they needed to recognize that budgets were coming down.

There’s all this work happening in like the 80-90,000 dollar area that no one was addressing and we had to figure out a way to address the market or they were going to sink. This was me talking to management and them just not having any interest in it, they were just like, there’s not any money to make in this. They weren’t really looking at this even as a stepping stones to get into bigger things. One 90,000 show isn’t great money, granted, but do 10 or 12 a year and now you’re talking about one million dollars in revenue that could have supported a small team of people and could have been a good opportunity to get junior people learning and practicing the craft.

So, struggle struggle, 2012 was rough. It was just not happening at all, it was pretty much time to throw in the towel and head back to Toronto.

At this point I just wasn’t able to get anything from Todd-AO and they eventually went bankrupt in 2013. I had also got married and had a nine month old baby, so it wasn’t just about me anymore. I was ready to close up shop and go.

That was when I heard Technicolor at Paramount was almost done being built. I knew the chief engineer from Todd-AO had started to build the new facility at Paramount. Going back to Blumhouse, they told me they had a film and asked me where I wanted to take it. I said to go to Technicolor at Paramount.

The film turned out to be Dark Skies, a sci-fi Halloween hit under Scott Stewart who also did Priest and Legion. Same as Insidious, this was a high concept, low budget film with a 10-day mix. We rented a room at Technicolor and I got to work as the re-recording mixer. For Dark skies, I mixed it alone, which was unusual and the supervising sound editor who was in charge of the editorial was nervous about that decision!

My feeling was sink or swim, I didn’t want anything getting in my way. The composer was the same from Insidious whom I knew and so we are all in there with Scott the director and it goes really well! We get through it in the allotted amount of time, it’s a modest hit at the box office but it’s a bitching sounding film and he’s really happy with it. So now this puts me on the Technicolor radar.

“Hey, you’re that kid that mixed that film alone, that’s crazy”. From there, they threw me some shows and it was the first time I felt like I was starting to get some traction. They gave me two, I brought one, they give me one, it was clicking.

Nowadays, I’m full-time at Technicolor and it’s only been in the last 16 months that I can see my hard work paying off because now I’ve worked with directors and they’re doing others films and they’re calling me back and recommending me, so I’m, ‘Okay, here we go!’

On Shrinking Budgets
If you back up to 5/6 years ago, low budgeted shows were around 300-350,000 and that has become the average for a show in LA now. That’s what is considered good money now and was considered impossible a few years ago. With the shrinking budgets also comes less time on stage and editorial.

Big shows like Transformers mix on stage for 3 months, but shows like that are the exception now.

To this day, I’m mixing for 3 weeks on a film and that’s more of the norm. You need to adapt to these changes and many people are still not able to get films done on these budgets. You have to be able to deliver the goods on time and at the level that is expected.

Would I like a 3 month mix, yes I would. Am I going to get that? One day, maybe. You need to have a workflow that supports the budget.

On How To Maintain Your Sanity
I’m compulsive in a way. I want people to know that if my name is on something, it’s going to be a solid piece of work. That’s the main thing for me. Weather it’s a 20,000 dollar sound job or a 2 million dollar sound job. I’m always going to find a way to put something of myself into everything I do.

Nowadays, I’m always busy to the point that people at work are wondering if I’m alright. So, personally, I know when people are stopping by and asking if I’m alright or thinking that, I’m in the right zone and have the right volume or work. On Why This Is The Era Of Audio This is the best time to be in audio because I feel like the work-flow is at a point where you can meet project demands on what is, seemingly a ridiculous schedule, but still be creative and end up with a very good sounding piece of work.

Whiplash is a prime example – 20 day shoot, 6 week edit and 10 day mix on a stage led to an Oscar winning film. With AVID and Pro tools, dialogue clean up and level matching, ADR matching can all get done in a smaller editorial room ahead of time before I ever hit the stage.

The ability to get this mundane, but necessary, portion of mixing out of the way, helps me preserve the stage time for the creative aspect of mixing. The amount of automation and the amount of clean up that can be done in Pro Tools and the fact that you can do all this work in a small lower cost environment and it translates into a bigger mix stage is.. I can’t even say enough about how much that makes the difference of being able to get that amount of work done at the speed that we have to move at.

I love the S5 console. It’s the most intuitive console on the market. I can blaze through a massive amount of material in a very short amount of time on that particular desk. The way the panels are broken out, I can access up to 5 different things at a time.

So once I hear something that’s not working, I can grab 4 or 5 different functions at once, and by the time that thing rolls by again, it’s in the ball park of where it needs to be. I use the AVID S5 on pretty much everything I’ve done.

On Making It
I went from Canada to the States, a move that was ‘impossible’, I was told. You just have to never stop pestering people and preserve through the craziest things. I could have thrown in the towel many times over the years, whether it was when the studio closed in Toronto or when I was trying to transition out of assisting into mixing.

These were all pretty insurmountable hurdles that I managed to get through one way or another.

If you’re really hungry and if you’re really sure this is what you want to do then you’re going find a way to do it. I think whether it’s learning the craft by working on small budget projects or if its getting clicked in with somebody that has more experience and you’re able to learn from them, you just have to know that you will find a way.

Whatever you do, don’t let someone tell you it’s impossible, keep going.