5 December 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
Oscar-winning Supervising Sound Editor Don Sylvester discusses Cinematic Sound
24 Sep 2021 : News Desk
Oscar-winning Supervising Sound Editor Don Sylvester
The Irish Film & Television Academy (IFTA) hosted a special IFTA Skills in Focus: Cinematic Sound event with Oscar-Winning Supervising Sound Editor Don Sylvester Peter (Le Mans 66 / Ford v Ferrari).

The event, which was supported by Screen Skills Ireland, was hosted by IFTA-winning Sound Designer Nikki Moss(Patrick’s Day). Moss spoke with Sylvester at length about the unique techniques and skills he deployed in his Oscar-winning work on  Le Mans ’66 (AKA Ford v Ferrari) and over his 30-year career as a Sound Editor. 

Following the conversation, the pair were joined by four-time IFTA winner Niall Brady (Normal People, Room) who has been working in post-production for film and television for over 20 years, and Brendan Rehill, who won the Best Sound IFTA Academy Award for his work on Arracht. They joined Donald and Nikki to take questions from the audience to discuss key skills and techniques that they use to make top level work. 

Donald Sylvester is an Oscar and BAFTA-winning American sound editor with a career spanning 30 years and over 100 films. Sylvester is best known for his collaborations with James Mangold on the films Le Mans '66 (AKA Ford v Ferrari)(2019), Logan (2017), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), and Walk the Line (2005). Sylvester won the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing at the 92nd Academy Awards for his incredible work on Le Mans '66/Ford v Ferrari, the petrol-fuelled recreation of the 1966 race in Le Mans. 

He also picked up the BAFTA Award in 2006 for Walk the Line, the biopic about American music icon Johnny Cash starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. Sylvester has been the Supervising Sound Editor on Award-winning films The Hate U GiveDawn of the Planet of the ApesThe Wolverine and is currently working on the next instalment of the Indiana Jones franchise. He has worked in the Sound Department on films such as Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Apocalypto, X Men 2, and The Insider.

Moss began by asking Sylvester to define the role of supervising sound editor as he sees it. Sylvester noted that the role can differ with some Supervising Sound Editors working more on the supervising element than the editing. “I'm also an editor, some supervising sound editors supervise, but  they don't edit sound” said Sylvester. 

“Simply put, I make sure the director hears what he/she  wants to hear, communicates the story he/she wants to tell, as well as faithfully executing the sonic atmosphere he/she wants to express,” Sylvester said.


Asked about the challenges of supervising as opposed to working “in the trenches” Sylvester said: “I wanted to do everything but as a supervisor you don’t get to.  I often like to imagine I’m the creative force behind the soundtrack of these films, but honestly sound editors are all little worker bees and I’m only a trussed-up worker-bee, taking directions and challenging myself to deliver something I think is perhaps better than what was requested. I'm basically one of the last people on the film who'll wrap it all up in a nice bow, and then go onto the next one.”

Sylvester’s career began with cutting Foley. As he was doing that the director noted that foley was pretty similar to sound effects “so he said I may as well cut those too!”

Similarly, his first supervising gig was as a supervising ADR editor and once again production asked him why not supervise “the whole thing!”

He spoke about the transition from film to digital and the difference between experienced cinematic sound professionals and those who came in through music. 

“The guys that came in through music, they would come in and do sweepings and throw things and see if it stuck. People who worked in film would cut a section, then we’d cut the next section. It was hard for them to understand that a two-hour film takes six months and everything is done inch by inch.”

He praised the attention to detail of those who came up through working on film reel, while also noting the benefits of digital technology: “Sound people that came up through mag film are more deliberate, but I agree that there’s a new sense of ownership now that it’s all digital, it’s a different world now - but at least you don’t lose a sound by dropping it under your desk, never to be found again!”

Sylvester then touched on the importance of sound libraries and how to be creative in their use saying that it is  “impossible to not use libraries.”

“You can’t record every single thing in a film. Not everything can be foleyd. The problem with libraries though is that if you are looking for a door sound, you pull up “door” and you get 52,000 door sounds! But the smart editor will be creative and find what he/she likes from different sources. “

Moss then asked him about ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) which Sylvester noted he prefers not to do it but it’s often unavoidable, saying: “I never want to do any ADR ever. I will turn to the director and say ‘when he says that line there was a tree in the background, do you want to go again?’ and he’ll say no I hear it. It’s fine. Then later they will come to you and say there is a tree falling, can we ADR that? Either that or a director will not have gotten what he/she wants from a performer and will want to use ADR to get it right. But not all actors like that.”

The pair, who have both worked in Animation spoke about the differences and advantages of the form vs live action with Sylvester stating that without the need for field recording Animation will always have the advantage in terms of sound and that it is often unfair to compare the two.. 

”Animated films by nature are going to sound better. I mean who is the recordist credit on an Animation? It’s the ADR person right? Do they get a recordist credit? No. So many sound effects categories do not compare across the mediums. You should compare apples to apples.”

On the creativity of his role as a supervising sound editor Sylvester highlighted the collaborative nature of the work saying: “I mean how creative can you be? What is sound at the end of the day? People in theatre’s don’t hear what we hear as it comes out. Maybe stop eating popcorn so loud. But you gotta ask what you are trying to do: Are you trying to create the perception of an event? Are you trying to convey story? The director will have their own opinion, I’ll have mine. But it’s a collaborative medium and that’s where the creativity is. The devil is in the details and perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Sticking with Collaboration Moss asked him on his longstanding working relationship with Director James Mangold. He spoke about how he initially interviewed with the director for Walk the Line: 

“I went to Interview with James and his editor. But another guy’s interview overlapped and we were in the same room and it was almost like a quiz show. The other guy was far more accomplished, he had a name and a lot more credits. But the other giuy was suggesting that we have “blue” segments in the film and “red” segments with different coloured soundscapes. I was more pragmatic and said things like “well the city should sound different to the countryside.” I got the job! James is ultimately very pragmatic and though he was nodding and agreeing, he had no time for the colours guy! “

One of the things he learned from working with Mangold over the years was about decision making.

“I realised I had to defend why I had made a decision, but I realised that I had to be able to explain to myself while I was doing what I was doing. You learn the language and explain when you hear a crow for example, what does that mean? It’s about giving the right emotion for the story. I learned a lot. It was a big learning curve.”

Following the discussion Sylvester and Moss were joined by four-time IFTA winner Niall Brady (Normal People, Room) who has been working in post-production for film and television for over 20 years, and Brendan Rehill who won the Best Sound IFTA Academy Award for his work on Arracht in 2020.

They took questions from the audience at this point where they all shared their advice for people looking to work in sound .All four agreed that the best way to learn is by doing. They advised that everyone interested in working on sound should work on as many short films and projects as they can, and that each time they will get better. They also advised that getting on a set or post production and getting to know the crew and other departments is vital.

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