August 3, 2006
Off Mic with Chris Newman
by Macy Jones

By Macy Jones

    As an intern for Gotham Sound, I was absolutely thrilled at getting the opportunity to interview the distinguished Academy Award-winning sound mixer Christopher Newman.  He has recorded sound on many films ranging from The Godfather to The Exorcist to Amadeus to Silence of the Lambs to The English Patient.  With 45 years of experience under his belt, one can only imagine that he would have so much to say in one sitting.

Q: How do you get a good signal to noise ratio?

A: Tell everyone to shut up.

Macy Jones: When did you start and what inspired you?

Chris Newman: Well, it’s a long story.  I didn’t finish engineering school in Boston.  From there I went to NYC – let’s see, I was nineteen years old.  It was the early sixties.  I had a lot of friends in theater.  Originally I just wanted to make films and help friends.  I needed the money.  From the beginning, I thought sound recording was “magical.”  So in 1961 I bought my first recorder – a Nagra 3.  I did my own recordings.  For a while I was an office temp, but I got a call and ended up working for nothing in a music-recording studio.  It so happened that I got the opportunity to sub for a film job that my boss couldn’t do. 

A  poster for Medium Cool, Newman's first feature project.

Eventually I left, and went out on my own.  I announced to the world that I was a sound person, which was not something a person would normally do back then.  First I worked one day a month – which paid my rent.  Then, I worked once a week.  After that I was doing commercials and documentaries.  In 1966, I went to Vietnam for 6-7 months.  When I got back, I was kept busy by the theatrical “Wonderful World of Disney,” and shortly after, I went on tour with the Beatles to India.  In 1968, I landed a job recording sound for Medium Cool, my first feature.  From then on it seemed like I was at the right place at the right time.

MJ: Did you have any formal training or did you just pick up skills along the way?

CN: Pretty much all self taught.

MJ: Did you have any mentors along the way or people you worked with that gave you advice?

CN: I would have to say that the person who acted most like a mentor for me would be Willy Schwartz [a sound recordist during the 50’s and 60’s.]  He was great, and he taught me a lot.  Also, on the earlier shoots, various boom operators would help me with things that I hadn’t come across yet.  But some other sound people I definitely learned a lot from were Dick Vorisek, Lee Dichter, and Tom Fleischman.  Then you had people like Peter Glushanok, who was primarily a cinematographer, but he could do everything.  The early days of taking sound could be compared with experimenting.  A lot of the time it was trial and error.

MJ: Which production has been your favorite thus far?

CN: All of them were my favorite - The Godfather, Amadeus, Silence of the Lambs.  They were all creative challenges.  The whole recording process was trying to be as transparent and invisible as possible.

MJ: Do you have any favorite directors?

CN: I’d have to say at the top are John Demme, Michael Apted, Sidney Lumet, and George Roy Hill.

MJ: What is your attitude like on set?  Do you have any set demands as far as accommodations are concerned?

"Back in the day, you couldn’t make a decent soundtrack if you were a nice person."

CN: In the early days, we had a lot of ego driven stuff going on.  Entry-level sound people are usually very unsure of what they’re doing (myself included.)  Like, what kind of microphone should be used, or what can a person get away with?  Experience is the only way to know this business of evaluating.  Sound people can get very overprotective of their work.  Way back when, people didn’t have the conveniences we have today.  We really got trapped – they wanted us to be invisible and unseen during the whole production.  As in we might be recording stuff in a hidden back room away from all of the commotion of the shoot, yet we still had to know about everything that was happening on set and make sure to get a good recording.  Back in the day, you couldn’t make a decent soundtrack if you were a nice person.  You had to be more difficult, maybe even a little pushy.  Today, sound people can be more classy about it.  As far as accommodations go, we don’t have much say in general besides what kind of equipment we get to use.  Often they’ll choose a poor location and we have to deal with it.  It might look pretty on camera, but it won’t necessarily be good for the sound department.

MJ: Do you prefer TV or film?  Are there any major differences?

CN: I’ve mostly done work on film productions.  In the earlier days, like for The Godfather, getting a sense of perspective was really important.  Only a few microphones would be in the room so that the visual and audio perspectives would match.  Now people are really into multi-tracking radio microphones, especially for TV.  Theoretically, the more signal to noise you have, the more choices the director has in postproduction.  On the “100 Centre Street” TV series, it was very much like film, but the production time was quicker because it was one episode at a time opposed to a feature length film.

MJ: How do you feel about the advances in sound technology since you started in the business?  Do they make things easier or more complicated?

CN: I always felt that sound technology kept pace with flaws of the industry.  A long time ago, recording equipment was so simple and primitive; therefore, the actors and actresses had to compensate by making their performances more dynamic and expressive so that they could be picked up more easily.  These days, actors and actresses don’t get trained in the same way, and as a result, their performances are different.  So the equipment has to reflect that and give the mixer more options to create a better recording. 

MJ: What is your preferred setup?

CN: I usually work with a Nagra D with the Fostex PD6, and a Sonosax analog mixer.  Some of my preferred microphones are the Sennheiser 416, 816, and other Sennheiser top of the line radio microphones.  I also like using the Schoeps 441, the Countryman B6, and Sonotrim Lavalier microphones.

MJ: As a sound mixer, where all have you traveled?

CN: Where haven’t I traveled?  I’ve been through most of East Asia.  I went to India for a shoot.  I’ve been to most of Eastern and Western Europe, except for Bulgaria and Romania.  I’ve done shoots in Tunisia, Italy, every state in the US, Mexico, Canada, a few places in South America, and Trinidad.

MJ: Do you have a certain style or trademark in your work?

CN: Not really.  I just try to get a good signal to noise ratio.  Basically I want the best recording possible.

MJ: How do you get a good signal to noise ratio?

CN: Tell everyone to shut up.

MJ: If you could pass on important advice or warnings to aspiring sound mixers and film students, what would you say?

Chris Newman (R) reviews sides on the set of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead while boom operator Gregg Harris (L) and third sound Warren Weberg (C) wrap cable.

CN: Well first off, I would say to take a chance.  Take risks.  Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.  A lot of the time, you’ll see people getting paralyzed because they want to be perfect the first time around.  The solution is to think less and do more - experiment.  As you gain experience, figure out what works well.  And as a sound recordist, you can make your own rules.  If you find that standing on your head makes your soundtrack better, then by all means do that.  If you find that turning your microphone around gets you better sound or gets the kind of sound you want, by all means do that – you get my point.  Just don’t be afraid of making mistakes.  Go with your gut.  Stand up for yourself.  Don’t let people push you around.  Make them appreciate you.  Also, if you really want to be able to assess the quality of your work, you need to hear it on loudspeakers, not on headphones, because almost everyone else who will hear it will hear it on loudspeakers.  If there’s a way for you to get your tracks to a re-recording studio to review them, you will be able to pick out every intricate detail of your soundtrack.  By doing this, you will be your own critic and correct your mistakes for the future.

Macy Jones, a 3rd year film student at NYU, is an aspiring sound mixer and film ethnographer.


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