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Interview with Richard Portman

by Mark Rozett, C.A.S.

Richard Portman does not fit the mold of the stereotypical Hollywood rerecording mixer. Sporting long hair well before it was in vogue on the dub stage, Richard's clothing of choice was also unconventional. He is fond of wearing flowing robes -- giving the image of what he indeed is -- a wizard at his craft

Richard began his career in sound in 1957, first as a trainee at Columbia Pictures,and then working at numerous facilities including Walt Disney Studios, R.C.A., Ryder Sound Services, Ziv Television Studios, Samuel Goldwyn, Lion's Gate, and Todd-AO. He also formed his own idependent sound design company, "Portomatic Sound Effects, Inc." His experience is rich and varied, reflecting the fact that he has held almost every sound position on his rise to the top of the rerecording echelon.

After mixing such classics as "Kotch," "The Candidate," "The Godfather," "Paper Moon," "Young Frankenstein," "Funny Lady," "Nashville," "The Deer Hunter," "Coal Miner's Daughter," "On Golden Pond," "Harold and Maude," "Carnal Knowledge," "Little Big Man," "Body Heat," "Star Wars," "Splash," and "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," and receiving an Academy Award for Sound, as well as eleven nominations, Richard decided to change course and devote his career to teaching full time. He is currently employed as a Distinguished Filmmaker in Residence at Florida State University in Talahassee, where he teaches film sound.


CAS - Mr. Portman, it is a pleasure to have you here today. Your reputation and the high regard with which you are held in the Sound Community precede you.

RP - Thank you. It's an honor to be here.

C.A.S. You worked your way up the sound "ladder," so to speak, holding virtually every position in production and post-production sound along the way. In what ways has that helped you as a rerecording mixer?

RP - By learning the film sound biz from the ground up, so to speak, I acquired a rock solid foundation of what was to be done, how it was done, and who did it. This is of great value in the rerecording room as it is anywhere in the process. When I got the chance to mix, I already knew how to do it.

CAS - You pioneered "one-man" mixing in Hollywood. What are the advantages and disadvantages of that style?

RP - The advantage was that it was my mix - I knew where every sound was – I built my pre-dubbs very carefully combining those sounds I knew would stand up and keeping separate those I knew would not. Because it was my mix I was able to build it in any order I saw fit and that order was completing a double reel before I went on to the next. I was able to record the reels backwards -- that is to say I did the background sound effects first, the dialog second (the reason for this is the principle of masking), hard effects third, and lastly the music. However, there were those occasions when I would make a temporary music mix that I would play along whenever I wanted to see how some balance would work with all the elements. On other occasions I would do the foley feet after the reel was completed -- only using those foley items which were needed for the domestic and when I did the foreign I would put the rest of the foley in. Another advantage was that I was working all the time with the director or whoever else was to say "yes" or "no" about my efforts and this really speeded up the mix -- there was no waiting around. Communication was supreme and the result of good communication is a happy mix. This method had no dis-advantages as far as I was concerned -- we were able to make the best mix we could in the shortest practical time. The key to this style is that everything be ready -- not a condition that rerecording mixers find very often these days, and the primary reason why mixes sometimes resemble a fist fight.

CAS - Do you think that one-man mixing is still practical, given the huge number of tracks of today's shows and the limited amount of time to mix them in?

RP - No and Yes. Mainstream movies are vastly over-built and now require more hands. I believe that a Master Mixer working with a good second is the way to go. Now in the low-budget movie world, where things are more or less like they were a number of years ago with a lot less material provided, the one mixer concept is still the way to go.

CAS - Have the new digital release formats brought about improvements in current movie soundtracks in your opinion?

RP - Once again, yes and no. What we are talking about is the storage medium. The yes part is that Digital formats are discrete, do not require noise reduction devices and are the way to go when doing stereo -- and everything is in stereo or somebody's idea of what stereo is today. The no part for me is the formats are over-used, mixed too loud on many occasions and lack clarity because sound is piled on by the pound (Clarity depends on content). Just because you can make something really loud does not mean you should do it. Movies are not reality -- if they were the film producers and directors would be sent to jail for some of the things they make. I don't believe that films featuring sex, murder and mayhem are art but only a form of voyeurism.

CAS - Do you feel that we are reaching the upper limits of mix complexity?

RP - Yes we are, you don't need that much material. One must remember that recording houses are is the biz of selling time so the longer something is on the stage the better for them, in addition the sound editing houses are in the biz of selling sound, like board feet of lumber, so the more sound they sell the better. As far as being able to hear all of these sounds, I say no, you can't, it is just a matter of over kill and profit not fine sound work. Less is best. Play what you see, not what you think you see.

CAS - Did you ever feel you were mixing with "limitations" while you were mixing analog? And if so, how did you circumvent them?

RP - The only limitation was the storage medium - optical film - which is still a limitation, you just can't over shoot the track. Period. As far as I'm concerned there is no difference between mixing analog and mixing digital. I'm still listening to an analog signal from the speakers, it is not coming to my ears in ones and zeros. What we are looking for is clean and quiet - transparent if you will - as long as the equipment can provide this situation there is no problem and no difference. Most of the limitations are caused by the filmmakers themselves and to circumvent these requires good relations -- a quality, due to my nature, that I did not always enjoy.

CAS - Is there a certain point in your career that you would say that you became a "sound designer?"

RP - I don't know. I have mixed feelings about this title. I would prefer the title of sound director or sound direction. In my day, during the spotting run, the director would tell the sound editor what special sounds he or she wanted and the editor would get them. If the sound editor had some special thing he wanted to do, it was cleared with the director first. Sometimes a director would say "surprise me" and a lot of times the sound editor started to make a different picture than the director had in mind. This can happen and does.

CAS - What soundtracks are you particularly proud of and why?

RP - "Harold and Maude," "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," "Young Frankenstein," "On Golden Pond," "The Last Detail," "Little Big Man," "Nashville," "California Split" -- in fact I have so many favorites it is hard to choose. I think the mixes that sounded best were the ones on which I had the most fun -- it is hard not to do a good job when you are happy with the work and the workers. Stress is the enemy of good motion picture sound.

CAS -What led you to your decision to become a teacher?

RP - After well over 95,000 hours of work had been reported to the pension fund people I was simply burned out. The reason I was burned out was because of the horrible hours and the lack of knowledge of sound, sound recording and the function of the human ear by directors, film editors, producers and studio bosses. I felt the only way to get some sense into the above the line filmmakers was to get to the seed, the new people who would be making the films in the future. If I could teach them about sound and how to use it and not kill people through over-work, this would improve the working conditions in the industry and upgrade the quality of the production sound and the post process which by my standards is a shamble. So I took my retirement and went to Florida State University where the equipment was modern and so was the program (Avid & Pro-tool editing equipment, Nagra and Porto-dat production channels) Where I could teach the techniques of film sound recording current in today's industry.

At the school we enjoy three re-recording rooms, one mono the other two 4-track discrete, a foley/ADR stage, and a recording studio for music. The editing and production departments, Camera, Grip, Electric, etc are similarly well equipped. Teaching at the university has brought back the days when you could get control of the sound track from the microphone to the loud speaker, just like it was when I started back in 1957. My hearing may never recover from my Hollywood days but I'll tell you my mental and physical state sure has and being able to pass on what I've learned is certainly good for the soul.

CAS - To what degree do you feel it is possible to "teach" film, as opposed to learning in the "school of hard knocks?"

RP - It is very possible to "teach film" and we do-- that is all we do at the film school. This last season we produced 156 short films running for three minutes to 35 minutes, in color and black & white with high quality stereo sound tracks. All of the problems encountered in film production are faced by our students, so by the time they hit the streets they know how to make a film and many do. There is a real opportunity for the independent filmmaker, and the best place to get the overall knowledge of the process is at a well equipped and properly run film school -- where it is all right to make mistakes. Hands-on experience in the school of hard knocks is most likely the best arena, but limits the person to a specialty rather than having the skill to function in any capacity. There is a place for both methods of instruction. All of our students have to learn how to operate every piece of equipment -- be it production or post - it's hands-on all the time.

CAS - Richard, thank you for your time -- we're looking forward to bestowing the Cinema Audio Society Career Achievement Award upon you at the C.A.S. Banquet on March 7th..

RP - I'm looking forward to it myself -- see you there!


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