Q&A with Academy Award-Nominated Sound Designer

By VFS Web Team, on October 21, 2016

As part of their year at Vancouver Film School, students are given the opportunity to engage with impressive professionals from their chosen industry. These guest speaker series are designed to bring students closer to their craft by connecting them with the best of the best. 

A few weeks ago, Sound Design for Visual Media students were treated to a special evening with Craig Berkey – a sound designer with three Academy Award nominations under his belt. Craig regaled students with career anecdotes (like working with the Cohen Brothers), brought in his own equipment to share, and offered up pearls of wisdom straight from his experiences designing for films like X-Men: Apocalypse and True Grit.

We asked Sound Design student Jorge Taracena to write about his time at the Berkey lecture. You can read about his experiences below. Enjoy!

Guest post by: Jorge Taracena

VFS gave us the opportunity to be in the presence of Craig Berkey -- a rock star in the world of Sound Design. Nominated for three Academy Awards for his work on True Grit and No Country for Old Men, Craig talked about the main differences between Dolby Atmos and Surround. He also brought an Atmos system, and we had a look at a premixing session from the movie Pan. “I thought it would be appropriate since we’re talking about panning,” Craig said.

Here are some interesting points he shared with us about Surround and Atmos:

  • Unlike being limited to a channel pan system in Surround, Atmos is an "object" based panning system. This means that sound behaves as individual particles moving around the room while the movie is played.
  • He introduced the use of overhead speakers which helps achieve a more dynamic and immersive sound.
  • Atmos offers improved sound resolution and spatial control.

When using the Atmos system, Craig offered up some advice:

  • Be careful with overhead speakers since panning more than necessary can cause sound to appear mono, instead of improving the surround image.
  • The system is not always necessary. It depends entirely on the movie and what the director is looking for. “When working on Hail Caesar, we actually thought the movie could have worked better in a mono mix.”
  • Although it is very powerful, Atmos cannot be our only mix choice, so we still have to create stereo 5.1 and 7.1 mixes. Even if the interface allows us to transfer Atmos mix to 5.1 and 7.1, we would still have to fix some of the panning, especially when it comes to the overhead speakers panning.

When watching the premixing session, Craig showed us the interface used for panning in Atmos. X, Y and Z axis are now displayed as panning parameters, and there is an input for every object going from the plugin to the main Atmos interface, which can display the location of the object in the theatre. The automation data is recorded separately and replayed in the theatre, so it can adapt to the room where it’s being played.

He then played back some of the scenes in the movie and we were able to see how the automation works in real time in the interface. There were a hundred dots moving all around the room as the scene took place on the screen.

At the end of the lecture, students asked Craig some questions about his career, his work, and his experience. Some of the things we took from his answers were:

  • When asked about his work with the Cohen brothers, he said “they’re not very interested in high tech sound as much as the content itself.” He also said that they don’t disagree very often, and when it happens it’s usually very easy for them to solve the situation.
  • He usually works on editing from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
  • He spends about 7 weeks premixing, and the final mix takes from 3-4 weeks.
  • Sometimes he records his kids and uses their recordings in his movies. His daughter was actually one of the Sentinels in X-Men: Days of Future Past.  
  • Paraphrasing Craig: “It is amazing that we can have this kind of powerful tool like Atmos, but we have to remember that the story is always on the screen. We need to have that in mind."

I would like to thank Craig Berkey for this amazing lecture. We had a great time and we learned many things from his visit. Thanks to Vancouver Film School for making this possible. I believe I speak for everyone when I say that we really appreciated this opportunity.

Thanks, Craig and Jorge!