INSIGHTS: Interview with Michael Kohut
Executive VP of Sony Pictures Entertainment's
Post Production Sound Facilities
Interviewed by Mel Lambert in January 1996
Michael Kohut, during his more than 30+ years with the various entities that now comprise the Sony Pictures Studios' post-production complex in Culver City, CA, has done just about everything involved with sound for the movies. Starting in 1965 as a production-sound cable man with MGM, Kohut has worked consistently within the facility, remaining through its various transfers in ownership. During three decades he advanced to lead re-recording mixer, with over 50 credits, including "Basic Instinct," "The Prince of Tides," "War Of The Roses," "Dead Poets Society," "Rocky IV," "The Presidio," "Throw Mama From The Train," "The Sicilian," "Year Of The Dragon," "Old Gringo," "Crimes Of The Heart," "Annie," and "The Good-bye Girl."
He is a seven-time Academy Award nominee for Best Achievement in Sound with such films as "Total Recall," "Robocop," "2010," "Meteor," "War Games," "Fame" and "Pennies From Heaven," and an Emmy nominee for Best Sound for "Roe versus Wade." He also holds two British Academy Awards for his work on "War Games" and "Fame."
Currently Executive VP of Post Production Facilities at Sony Pictures Entertainment, Kohut is responsible for a number of departments, including electronic digital sound prelay, digital picture editorial, and motion-picture sound editorial departments. In addition to these responsibilities, Kohut is also the inventor of the eight-channel SDDS (Sony Dynamic Digital Sound) playback format. He is also Managing Director and a member of the board of directors for Sony Cinema Products Corporation, and is the newly named president of Sony Pictures Advanced Digital Systems, an R&D group that will be developing new technologies for the motion picture and exhibition industries, including a new design of hard-disk recorder/player.
Early 1996 saw the unveiling of what many consider to be the jewel in Kohut's crown: a new post-production area. Stage Three and Stage Five, which features a Sitcom Re-recording Room, an ADR Suite, a Foley Suite, plus two, state-of-the-art Re-recording Theaters equipped with 244-input/72-buss GLW-Harrison MPC-1 digitally-controlled analog consoles. And in March, this busy executive will receive the much coveted Cinema Audio Society's Career Achievement Award, at its 32nd Annual Awards Banquet. CAS Awards recognize outstanding achievement in sound mixing in films and television.
You wear several hats here at Sony Pictures' sound department. What is your primary role?
That's an interesting question. My role has evolved through the nearly seven years since Sony purchased this facility [in January, 1990]. We had gone through several management changes with the acquisition of MGM, through the Turner era, to Warners. Turner only owned the facility for about six or eight months; Warners owned it for one year.
The one area that really changed my career from being a re-recording mixer to management came about in 1987, when Lorimar purchased the lot from MGM and, basically, we were losing all of our customers. The new person in charge from Lorimar didn't have any sound background, and I felt that the whole department was going to deteriorate and maybe eventually disappear. I set up a meeting with Eddie Denault, who was running the studio at that time, and I asked him: "I'll still mix, but why don't you give me the responsibility of trying to keep the facility operational?"
So when it finally went to Sony, I was already advanced to VP of Post Production; I was still mixing, and also running the facility. So when I sat down with my superior at that time, Ken Williams, they wanted to give me a contract and be responsible for the post area. He asked me what my long-term goals were. I'd written an 10-year plan of where I would like to take post production at our studio, and where it was then, which was pretty antiquated. There had been very little investment from Lorimar, and the rest of the equipment was basically very old. So when Sony took over, I told them that it would take a tremendous influx of capital to turn this facility around.
And they were interested in your comments?
Yes. Sony wanted to make the studio something special. They always believed in technology, and they wanted post production to do extremely well because that has an influence on hardware sales. So I put together this 10-year plan, which described a series of upgrades. Instead of Sony shutting down the complex for six months or a year, and doing it section by section, I had laid out plans to upgrade and expand the facility a piece at a time. I had the whole overall scheme in my head, but we just took various areas to remodernize and expand, including the new Stage 3 and 5 development. We'll probably end up completing my original plans within a six- or seven-year expansion program, whereas originally I thought that it was going to take 10 years.
Is there more to come?
In the post area, the program is almost completed. We'll then be introducing new digital hardware being developed by our Advanced Digital Systems Group, and which will be implemented into the facility. I would say that by the end of 1997, or the beginning of '98, the project should be totally completed.
And the digital hardware will involve a new format of "Digital Dubber," plus networked servers?
Yes, we have already linked almost everything here on the lot with copper. Years ago, most dubbing stages operated with one, central machine room. Then, in the Seventies and Eighties we got away from that configuration, and everybody built separate dubbing facilities with designated machine rooms. What I'm doing now is to make the lot a cost-effective operation. With these new technologies you can build maybe two or three machine rooms for a major facility such as ours, and interconnect each area via fiber or copper. Labor wise, it's much more cost effective but, more importantly, you can share the hardware. If you need to assign a particular machine to this particular stage at that particular time, you can. Once they no longer need that machine, you can re-assign it very easily to another area.
Even back then you had the idea to take a major Sound Stage, and turn it into the type of dubbing suites that you've recently opened here?
Yes. As I was expanding and modernizing, I always had my sights on those stages. Obviously, it was in close proximity to the sound department. Our main prize at this facility was the Cary Grant Theater, which is the re-recording stage I called home for many years. And it always stayed busy, even during the bleakest times. But, as we expanded, my other two stages- Stages 6 and 7- were considerably smaller than the Cary Grant; it was always a problem of which pictures would be assigned to which theater. If they couldn't book the Cary Grant, the producer or director would say: "What's wrong with my picture?"
I knew that, even during the early MGM days, if we're going to modernize, compete and be the best, we would need more than one stage the size of Cary Grant. When I first proposed the idea, I had to prove to management that it wasn't just a pipe dream. And I got my opportunity over at Twentieth Century Fox. I got a call from Skip Lusk at Fox, saying that he would like to four-wall the facility; that they were no longer interested in keeping a lot of their staff. This was an opening for me to show that we could accommodate other stages. We took over two of Fox' big stages, including the Darryl F. Zanuck Theater, and ran them for over a year. It basically showed that we could then keep two additional stages operational. So then when I proposed that we build Stage 3 and 5 here, I had proved that it was possible.
What was the cost for approximate cost of building and equipping each of those new re-recording theaters?
Several million dollars; I cannot give you an exact sum. I wanted to make them special; the design for the basic facility is something I had in my head. I knew how I wanted it to be built, even though I hired an architect to do the drawings. Mark Koffman, my chief engineer, helped me to lay it out, but the day I walked into those original sound stages I knew the way it was going to look when it was finished- right down to the color of the wood, and the carpet.
I wanted to take Sony into the 21st Century. Obviously we're getting into digital media, and moving from analog to total digital. Why build a stage that's still in the Seventies and Eighties? I wanted to do something extremely different.
We've always been a big supporter of the Harrison MPC console. The difficulty when we started modernizing six years ago was that I needed consoles right then and there; I couldn't wait until digital became a reality. There was SSL and other manufacturers with analog consoles. We learned that Harrison was planning to develop a new digitally-controlled, analog console- the MPC-1- that could eventually be upgraded to digital circuitry. We were excited by the fact that we would be able to modernize the console as we progressed from analog to digital, simply just changing out circuit cards. We ended up co-developing the MPC with Harrison, and to date have purchased eight MPC-1 systems, including a pair of fully automated 244-input/72-buss consoles for the new [Red and Blue] Dubbing Theaters.
We are working with Harrison to digitize the back-end. Then, as we gradually get into digital production, and have to handle more and more digital information connecting to a particular channel fader, it will be processed digitally. If the next fader is being assigned to an analog source, obviously we can call up an analog section. The new version of these consoles will be the only design in the world that will be able to go both ways. When you think about it, that's really the only way a post facility can function. Unless you have total control of all the materials, and that would be very difficult to do.
Do you ever have the opportunity to handle a mix? To fire up the board?
I did work a little bit on the SDDS trailer. Yes, I do miss that side of the business. I'll watch a new release, and go: "Well, I would have done this," or "I would have done that," or "I would have talked the director into doing this." But now, with all my other functions, it's just too difficult. The last picture I mixed was "Basic Instinct," for Paul Verhoeven. I did all of Paul's pictures up to "Basic Instinct;" he's very sound conscious, and puts in a lot of effort to make it perfect.
What was the best film you ever mixed; the one you enjoyed the most?
I've enjoyed all of them. But I would have to say the one that really gave me inspiration was Alan Parker's "Fame." It was one of the first pictures I ever mixed as a lead mixer; in fact, it might even have been my very first picture. Alan knew how he wanted this picture to sound with the music. "Fame" also gave me the first inspiration of how creative you can be as a mixer; I really connected with Alan on that picture, and truly enjoyed the experience.
It was during the "MGM Years." Alan Parker was tied up with Alan Marshall; they shot the picture in New York. They did most of the picture editing in London, because they both lived there. They then came back here and were going to mix it at the Cary Grant Theater. I was about to move from sound effects into the dialog chair, and Alan Parker was sitting up in Alan Marshall's office with my boss. We went through the picture, describing how it was going to be. Alan Parker finally said to me: "Mike, if after the picture is mixed, and I'm unhappy with it, whose fault is that going to be?" That was a tough statement. But what else could I say? "Alan, if you're unhappy, then I guess it's going to be my fault." Then we dubbed the picture, and it turned out very well.
How do you find from a director what he or she wants to hear in the soundtrack? Is there one key thing you need to hear from the director?
It's an interesting process. The director's got maybe two, three years of his life in this project. They bring it onto the stage for what might be a six-week mix, and it's the last aspect before the show is delivered. I try to have a feeling for the person who has directed the picture, and why they chose this project; what they put into the film when I physically look at it on the screen. I think that to be a top mixer today, you have to have an element of being a film maker yourself.
I've never said: "Well, what do you want to do with this or that." It was just kind of an instinct that we both felt this is the way it should be. When I was doing sound effects or dialog, I would design the sequences the way I felt that they should be designed. I'd obviously work with the sound editor, and then with the director. It was always give and take, but I don't recall ever having a difference of opinion with any of the directors I've ever worked with.
When we were doing "War Games" with John Bantam, we were finalizing the picture and moving into the final mix. At the very end of the picture, there's a scene where we think that there's a nuclear holocaust starting between Russia and the United States. We're down in the central control room, and on a world map John had designed these white flashes to go off [on the display] where the nuclear explosions were supposed to he occurring. John always thought that he wanted this to be dead silent; all the machines in the room go off, and he just wanted it to be totally frightened with dead silence. It was a good idea.
When we finally mixed the scene, there was just something missing; it didn't have the impact I felt it needed. We went off to lunch, and I quickly found a sound editor, and said: "Just take a few of these explosions that you see on the screen, and I put a 30-cycle tone up." I ran off about a hundred feet [of 35 mm mag], and I said "Cut it to the white flashes." And then I gated the sounds, and put those "puffs" into just the subwoofer. I didn't tell John that I did it, but just said, "Let's run the last reel. I'd like to show you something." When I played it for John, he said, "Oh my God, that's it."
Is there a move within this facility to offer one-stop services; everything from sound editorial to mixing?
That's where we're going to move, just as soon as I put the finishing aspects to my digital technology, which we're going to start to introduce during the first quarter of this year. One of Sony Pictures Studios' big advantages is that we have two film arms, TriStar and Columbia. So we do have the entire package here, with all the facilities, including sound mixing and editorial. Yes, we do that on our pictures; we will take it right from production, through sound editorial, through re-recording, and up to delivery. We do that on several Columbia-TriStar pictures now, and it gives me the opportunity to de-bug what we're going to be changing here.
When Sony took over, Gary Martin
- who's now president of production at Columbia-TriStar - and I had a meeting. I told him that we needed more support from Columbia-TriStar. He said: "Mike, the only draw here is you, and the only stage is the Cary Grant Theater. If you can modernize and get more talent, I'll be happy to try to influence my directors to work here at this facility." That's what it took. He was absolutely correct that we could function together as a company, but that we needed more talent and modern facilities. Now that we've accomplished that task, our people want to stay here. This is where they want to mix. We do have excellent mixers and, once again, we're on the cutting edge with one of the best facilities in the world.
How did the idea for eight-channel SDDS come about?
SDDS is an invention that had been in the back of my mind for a long time. I recall that Peter Hines was the first person to get me seriously thinking about it while we were doing "2010." It was a dramatic picture, with a lot of sound. The only way to replicate what we did on the dubbing stage was to convince the company to make 70 mm prints; to go discrete 6-track on the film. But 70 mm prints were getting expensive. If you had a couple of hundred orders, it was around $10,000 per print, but if you went down to 10 or 20 prints, it could cost maybe $25,000 a print.
We had worked so hard on the picture to produce the best soundtrack possible for "2010," and Peter Hines says: "Mike, why the heck can't we replicate the sounds of what we're producing on this stage on a 35 mm print?" We're using Dolby A- I don't know if SR was popular at that time- but the [4:2:4] matrix was squeezing it down. We had low-end frequencies on that movie that were really important to the action. That's what got me started thinking that I'd like to develop a digital system for this industry.
And the multiplexed digital information had to be printed on the film?
Yes. As a matter of fact, when I was developing SDDS, Terry Beard was perfecting DTS, and he knew that I was very interested in his system. Most of Hollywood knew I was very pro-digital. Terry came to me and asked if I would support it. I said, "Yes, but you really have to be digital on film." He went forward and did his test
- it wasn't on CD-ROM at that time, but on 8 mm cassette locked to time code on the film. I said that I thought it was good technology, but that with today's world-wide delivery expectations, we mix up prints. To support a digital system, I really feel that it has to be on film. That was the challenge.
The design brief was to support eight full-range channels: five behind the screen, plus stereo surrounds and
an LF/boom track?
Eight channels was absolutely critical to me. I had the advantage of starting
in this business when some of the greatest pictures of all time were being mixed. I was here when David Lean came from London to remix "Doctor Zhivago" at the Cary Grant Theater; more importantly, I was on the scoring stage when they recorded the music. At that time, it was the biggest orchestra we'd ever seen - 110 pieces - which we recorded on six channels: five horns in front and a surround.
I snuck into the dubbing stage and, with music recorded discrete to five channels up front, plus totally discrete sound effects, it was a magnificent experience. Here we were with five discrete horns up front in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, and in the Eighties and Nineties - when we're supposed to be going forward - we're adding sub-woofers! How effective is that in most pictures? And to lose two screen channels because of that was, I thought, a creative mistake for our industry.
It was crucial to have the eight channels, and to optically print the [digital information] on the film. It was a big challenge. When we ran into difficulties, our Japanese engineers in Atsugi
[Sony's R&D center] always came back and said: "Mr. Kohut, can we drop two channels [inner-left and inner-right]?" I'd say, "No, we cannot drop two channels; we've got to work around it."
Did they try and talk you out of split surrounds?
No, split surrounds were important for effects, and because the competition was offering that capability. Obviously the sub-woofer was crucial. I wanted the five discrete channels up front, split surrounds and a sub-woofer. The beauty of what we did was that we took a tremendous amount of practical experience here at the studio; my experience as a mixer; what I felt was going to be needed in the future; Sony's technology.. and moved forward. If we'd tried to develop SDDS without access to that sort of technology, it would have been extremely difficult. But Sony is the "Father of Digital;" they've been doing it for more than 15 years.
Our statistics from exhibitors show that 24% of new [US movie] theaters are now eight-channel capable- that's pretty significant. Stan Durwood, chairman of AMC Theaters, and one of our biggest supporters, is building some of the biggest multiplexes in the world, with up to 28 screens. At least half of them are eight-channel capable, because Stan realizes that to bring people from their homes, you need a "bigger" experience.
In a big theater, with a 60-foot picture, instead of having just three horns up front, eight-channel SDDS is going to enhance that sound experience with realistic pan movement from right to left.
Is the SDDS process licensed by Sony? Does a rep need to be at the mix, to make sure it's okay?
Yes, we do license the process, and support being on the mix. But the difference between us and our competitors is that basically whatever [print-master transfer] media you record it on is acceptable to us. We do not have to be on the stage to have any kind of compression blocks, or any type of restrictions to what goes on the film. Basically, you can record on mag, DASH-format or DA-88; just so long as you like what you hear, and it will go onto SDDS.
For an eight-channel mix here at Sony Pictures, we pre-dub everything to five discrete screen tracks; I insist that the music be scored and dubbed down to five channels. Then we go into our final mix with three, eight-channel stems- dialog, music and effects- and mix it to SDDS. Then we take those stems and go back and to make our two-channel Lt-Rt matrixed-surround mix. And we can monitor reductions from SDDS to various 5.1-channel replay formats.
What are your thoughts on emerging technologies, including workstations? Sony has made a major investment in Wave Frame systems, and is developing is own proprietary Digital Dubber format.
Right now the Dubber is based on hard disc and removable media. Hard drives are okay for workstations, but in the dubbing or post-production environment you can't walk around with hard discs and use them like removable media. So I try to base the technology on mag film, which has been around for 50-60 years. Our new technology will involve hard disc and removable systems, with multiple channels on each media. The biggest pitfall with tape is that it can't slip a track; you have to layback onto another machine. If it was on mag, you always had that flexibility. Eight channels per drive is obviously mandatory for the media, with 22/23 minutes record/playback capacity for double reels. We plan to unveil the system at the NAB Convention.
We're seeing a lot more editing taking place on a dubbing stage, with two or three Pro Tools workstations handling music and effects playback. At $1,200/hour, a dubbing stage may not be the most cost-effective place to play second-guess the director? If you're going to make decisions, at least make as many as you can prior to the dub stage. Is this something that facilities need to come to terms with?
Putting on my company hat, yes, you're right, at a thousand dollars an hour, you cannot afford to spend that kind of money while somebody's looking for a music cue, or making an edit. If you can still keeps the wheels turning, that's one thing. But some of the newer technologies- these new consoles that are tied with hard-disc editing functions- how do you operate like that? Very seldom have I mixed a picture that there isn't editing going on constantly.
What we've always done in the past is that if you have some difficult edits, you can't afford to sit there while an editor's taking the film off the dummy and making the changes. New technology should be able to do simple edits. If you want it to make extremely difficult edits, it should also be able to handle them, but it should also have the capacity and the ability to very easily remove that media so that we can continue. Without giving away too many secrets, our new generation of dubbers will have the ability to do that on the stage.
But will the mixers also handle editing functions at the console?
It's going to be an interesting challenge. One of the concerns I have as a mixer and somebody who has spent his whole career creatively doing films is that there's a lot of distraction on the stage, and it' has got to go back to being much more creatively controlled. Mixers need to pay attention and get into the movie; to forget about the mechanics. Usually the difference between a fabulous mixer and one that's just okay, is that the former has a feel for what goes onto the screen. We can't make mechanics out of somebody who should be an artist. Then, once again putting on another hat as someone who's designing the hardware, we have to offer the best tools that we can.
Sony as a manufacturer can take advantage of my expertise, and of my people, and identify what's really needed. We have the capabilities, and a staff of hardware and software engineers that are part of the family. They sit on the stage, they sit with the editors, and so they're getting more educated about the film business. We hope that will be a winning combination for us.
Sound is becoming so totally important to the overall experience of movie audiences. I worked with Paul Verhoeven on the first "Robocop." At the end of the movie, I recall Paul saying to me: "Mike, sound was 60% of this movie." It was a great feeling.
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