Oscar-winning sound editor Mark A. Mangini (Mad Max: Fury Road, Dune) talks about the challenges of the sound work of the animated film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. Such challenges include new sound design work such as the cast recording in the same room to allow better bonding while making it harder for him to edit the finished product. He also talks about creating the multi-animal sound of the giant beast of Superfly. Finally, he describes why all of those challenges are something he definitely needed to make this movie work.
Awards Daily: Are you a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
Mark A. Mangini: You know I have grown to love it, especially with the way that Jeff Rowe, our director, and the entire team have approached this film. They were a bit before my time. I was a Huckleberry Hound and a Wile E. Coyote guy when I was consuming animation, and the Turtles came early in my adulthood and I didn’t quite understand them originally. But I think Jeff and the team really brought some nuance and some style to them that they really needed. Now I just love them! Jeff has told me that Paramount has greenlit the sequel and we’re making another one! So I am super excited.
Awards Daily: When you first started approaching this material, what was the initial approach including talks with the director Jeff Rowe in creating the sound for this film?
Mark A. Mangini: Given its unique visual style we felt as though it needed to be mirrored sonically and similarly. So we tried to find a narrative approach that mirrored the story arc. Which is to say, the underground is safe and that is home, and sound reinforces those feelings emotionally. Above ground, in the human world, is frightening and different. Yet we wanted to build an arc and change that over the course of the film as we introduce April as a human being in their world and their environment. Then she comes underground to experience their world. We wanted to do this very delicate shift from underground– safe, recognizable, above ground–frightening human sound, and shift that balance through the course of the film. So we have a two mode change in the way we perceive the movie. We do that very gradually over the hour and a half of the film.
Then of course Jeff and I, being huge fans of all animation–in fact you probably don’t know my first job in the industry was with Hanna Barbera Studios as a sound editor. I made cartoon sounds as an adult for Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones, and then I would go on to do Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Lion King for Disney feature animation. I still have an abiding love for animation. We wanted to create our own style that would not be the broad vaudevillian, or the rotor-scope Cool World style of Ralph Bakshi. We wanted this universe to feel real and not comedic and not cartoonish. To that extent we would avoid all cartoon sounds of any kind, whether they would be funny canned ones that we might recognize or ones that we would invent. We wanted this film to feel grounded in reality.
Awards Daily: Touching on that, the sound that really stood out to me is in the build-up to the finale. There’s that great score after a Superfly goes into the water and then you have this huge build-up of the destruction of the city and the way the animals attached to Superfly are making little noises and everyone is talking. How on earth did you guys get that balance of getting that all together?
Mark A. Mangini: I am glad you hear those nuances. They’re not super in-your-face, and it took a lot of deft mixing–meaning taking all the sounds that we had designed for Superfly and what we call the menagerie. That gorgeous design of his body that has elephants, giraffes, dolphins, narwhals and a variety of creatures, yet you still have to hear the story, you have to hear the dialogue, you have to hear the music! A lot of things you have to hear, and it’s really a matter of painstaking inch-by-inch work crafting the balance, ensuring that you hear all of it and appreciate it all in its correct balance. It was not easy, it took a great deal of time. but thankfully Jeff appreciated those subtleties in the sounds that we designed. In fact we would design the sound of the Menagerie and Jeff would listen to it and say, “I like the sound of the whales but the elephants, let’s play those down. ” Whenever sound attaches itself to something you see on screen–and there’s a fancy academic word called diegetic for that–it helps glue animation into a reality that animators are always afraid they are not going to get. Animation sort of lives in this still world without sound because it is all made up. There is no sink sound, there’s no one on the set with a boom pole. So anytime sound can validate what you see on screen it makes it that much more real and that makes Jeff’s storytelling feel that much more compelling. That was a big charge for us, and I’m glad you appreciated those nuances because that was part of our goal.
Awards Daily: I read the cast recorded their voices together so they could interact together more. Did that present any challenges when putting this all together?
Mark A. Mangini: [Sarcasm] Nooooooo, no way. Yes, Jeff and Seth (Rogen) rightfully brought the Turtles voice actors in as a group of kids so they could feed back on each other live. The upside of that is that we get youthful energy and exuberance as they feed and riff off each other. But the downside is they break a fundamental rule, which is that actors should never overlap each other. The reason for that is buried in some deep editing technology where if you overlap another person the editor can’t put the scissors in and separate them and change the timing, because they are on top of each other and you have a bad edit. So we had to employ a number of sound editing techniques including using AI-based tools to separate out. If we had an overlap where one character was talking and another character talked on top of them and Jeff just wanted to hear the one character, we had to use these tools to extract the overlap voice. That is not an easy thing to do in sound.
Awards Daily: For me the songs blended in almost seamlessly. It never distracted from what was going on. What was the process in integrating the music into the story?
Mark A. Mangini: Our music supervisor Gabe (Hilfer) was a big part of suggesting musical material to the filmmakers Jeff and Greg Levitan (our editor) who are really fundamentally responsible for making sure it was the right music and it is the right tone for a scene, and it works. I was not a part of those meta decisions of what kind of song should we have underpinning a scene. Those decisions are made outside of my purview. My purview would be, now that we have those recordings, how do we make sure that we keep the energy up with a song but also ensure that we hear the dialogue and have the story progressing properly? But many of those decisions are made early on in the production. I would say at least fifty percent of the songs were in the film a year before release. So we were listening to them as we reviewed the movie ad nauseam and getting used to and feeling it. Over the course of that process we would preview the movie for audiences and take feedback, and that would sometimes alter our perception of a song, and that would begat looking for a new song, to find a better narrative approach.
Awards Daily: You were the supervising sound editor for this film. What is it like being the leader of the team versus just being one of the sound editors?
Mark A. Mangini: Being the supervising sound editor is the sound equivalent of the director of photography or cinematographer, which is maybe easier for the audience to understand in terms of responsibility. I think we all know that a cinematographer is the person the director turns to for the look of the movie. (Now, of course, there are others– production designers and costume designers.) But ultimately what you see on screen has to go through that cinematographer’s lens. So too with sound, I am the person through whom all sound must channel because I am the interpreter of the director’s wishes. The director wants one person in any given discipline, to turn to and say, “I want the movie to feel like this, I want to hear these things.” You go and figure out how to do all of that stuff. How do we make Superfly a giant multi-monster? Jeff doesn’t have to think about how to do it, he just has to tell me, “Mark, you figure that out. I want something stunning for that.” Then sometimes I take it on myself or I delegate it to experts in those areas of the film.
Awards Daily: I was looking over your filmography, and you have done so many different movies and so many different genres. What gets you excited about a new project?
Mark A. Mangini: Doing something new and different is always the first thing. To me a project is always an opportunity to develop a new skill. Every movie is exciting because every movie is different, so I apply myself in a way that necessitates inventing new ways to challenge myself. For example, I have rules of approach that include: never repeat myself, never use a sound I’ve used before, and don’t reuse technology. How can I use this new project as an opportunity or excuse to rethink everything? It’s a horrible way to work and live because you live in this constant state of anxiety wondering, why can’t I just do what I did last time? But there is something in my personality that doesn’t allow me to do that. It has to be a challenge, it has to be something new so I can put my artwork up on the wall and say, react to this; I hope you like it.
Awards Daily: Final thoughts?
Mark A. Mangini: We are working on another movie and it’s going to be even better. There will be a lot of exciting new characters and plot twists. Look for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a theater near you. Then next time your readers think about seeing a movie ask yourselves, what movie do we want to go hear?