Michael Semanick: Mixing SFX, Foley for Star Wars: The Last Jedi

By Jennifer Walden

Oscar-winning re-recording mixer Michael Semanick from Skywalker Sound mixed the sound effects, Foley and backgrounds on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which has earned an Oscar nomination for Sound Mixing.

Technically, this is not Semanick’s first experience with the Star Wars franchise — he’s credited as an additional mixer on Rogue One — but on The Last Jedi he was a key figure in fine-tuning the film’s soundtrack. He worked alongside re-recording mixers Ren Klyce and David Parker, and with director Rian Johnson, to craft a soundtrack that was bold and dynamic. (Look for next week’s Star Wars story, in which re-recording mixer Ren Klyce talks about his approach to mixing John Williams’ score.)

Michael Semanick

Recently, Semanick shared his story of what went into mixing the sound effects on The Last Jedi. He mixed at Skywalker in Nicasio, California, on the Kurosawa Stage.

You had all of these amazing elements — Skywalker’s effects, John Williams’ score and the dialogue. How did you bring clarity to what could potentially be a chaotic soundtrack?
Yes, there are a lot of elements that come in, and you have to balance these things. It’s easy on a film like this to get bombastic and assault the audience, but that’s one of the things that Rian didn’t want to do. He wanted to create dynamics in the track and get really quiet so that when it does get loud it’s not overly loud.

So when creating that I have to look at all of the elements coming in and see what we’re trying to do in each specific scene. I ask myself, “What’s this scene about? What’s this storyline? What’s the music doing here? Is that the thread that takes us to the next scene or to the next place? What are the sound effects? Do we need to hear these background sounds, or do we need just the hard effects?”

Essentially, it’s me trying to figure out how many frequencies are available and how much dialogue has to come through so the audience doesn’t lose the thread of the story. It’s about deciding when it’s right to feature the sound effects or take the score down to feature a big explosion and then bring the score back up.

It’s always a balancing act, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed and throw it all in there. I might need a line of dialogue to come through, so the backgrounds go. I don’t want to distract the audience. There is so much happening visually in the film that you can’t put sound on everything. Otherwise, the audience wouldn’t know what to focus on. At least that’s my approach to it.

How did you work with the director?
As we mixed the film with Rian, we found what types of sounds defined the film and what types of moments defined the film in terms of sound. For example, by the time you reach the scene when Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) jumps to hyperspace into the First Order’s fleet, everything goes really quiet. The sound there doesn’t go completely out — it feels like it goes out, but there’s sound. As soon as the music peaks, I bring in a low space tone. Well, if there was a tone in space, I imagine that is what it would sound like. So there is sound constantly through that scene, but the quietness goes on for a long time.

One of the great things about that scene was that it was always designed that way. While I noted how great that scene was, I didn’t really get it until I saw it with an audience. They became the soundtrack, reacting with gasps. I was at a screening in Seattle, and when we hit that scene and you could hear that the people were just stunned, and one guy in the audience went, “Yeah!”

There are other areas in the film where we go extremely quiet or take the sound out completely. For example, when Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) first force-connect, the sound goes out completely… you only hear a little bit of their breathing. There’s one time when the force connection catches them off guard — when Kylo had just gotten done working out and Rey was walking somewhere — we took the sound completely out while she was still moving.

Rian loved it because when we were working on that scene we were trying to get something different. We used to have sound there, all the way through the scene. Then Rian said, “What happens if you just start taking some of the sounds out?” So, I started pulling sounds out and sure enough, when I got the sound all the way out — no music, no sounds, no backgrounds, no nothing — Rian was like, “That’s it! That just draws you in.” And it does. It pulls you into their moment. They’re pulled together even though they don’t want to be. Then we slowly brought it back in with their breathing, a little echo and a little footstep here or there. Having those types of dynamics worked into the film helped the scene at the end.

Rian shot and cut the picture so we could have these moments of quiet. It was already set up, visually and story-wise, to allow that to happen. When Rey goes into the mirror cave, it’s so quiet. You hear all the footsteps and the reverbs and reflections in there. The film lent itself to that.

What was the trickiest scene to mix in terms of the effects?
The moment Kylo Ren and Rey touch hands via the force connection. That was a real challenge. They’re together in the force connection, but they weren’t together physically. We were cutting back and forth from her place to Kylo Ren’s place. We were hearing her campfire and her rain. It was a very delicate balance between that and the music. We could have had the rain really loud and the music blasting, but Rian wanted the rain and fire to peel away as their hands were getting closer. It was so quiet and when they did touch there was just a bit of a low-end thump. Having a big sound there just didn’t have the intimacy that the scene demanded. It can be so hard to get the balance right to where the audience is feeling the same thing as the characters. The audience is going, “No, oh no.” You know what’s going to come, but we wanted to add that extra tension to it sonically. For me, that was one of the hardest scenes to get.

What about the action scenes?
They are tough because they take time to mix. You have to decide what you want to play. For example, when the ships are exploding as they’re trying to get away before Holdo rams her ship into the First Order’s, you have all of that stuff falling from the ceiling. We had to pick our moments. There’s all of this fire in the background and TIE fighters flying around, and you can’t hear them all or it will be a jumbled mess. I can mix those scenes pretty well because I just follow the story point. We need to hear this to go with that. We have to have a sound of falling down, so let’s put that in.

Is there a scene you had fun with?
The fight in Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) room, between Rey and Kylo Ren. That was really fun because it was like wham-bam, and you have the lightsaber flying around. In those moments, like when Rey throws the lightsaber, we drop the sound out for a split second so when Kylo turns it on it’s even more powerful.

That scene was the most fun, but the trickiest one was that force-touch scene. We went over it a hundred different ways, to just get it to feel like we were with them. For me, if the sound calls too much attention to itself, it’s pulling you out of the story, and that’s bad mixing. I wanted the audience to lean in and feel those hands about to connect. When you take the sound out and the music out, then it’s just two hands coming together slowly. It was about finding that balance to make the audience feel like they’re in that moment, in that little hut, and they’re about to touch and see into each other’s souls, so to speak. That was a challenge, but it was fun because when you get it, and you see the audience react, everyone feels good about that scene. I feel like I did something right.

What was one audio tool that you couldn’t live without on this mix?
For me, it was the AMS Neve DFC Gemini console. All the sounds came into that. The console was like an instrument that I played. I could bring any sound in from any direction, and I could EQ it and manipulate it. I could put reverb on it. I could give the director what he wanted. My editors were cutting the sound, but I had to have that console to EQ and balance the sounds. Sometimes it was about EQing frequencies out to make a sound fit better with other sounds. You have to find room for the sounds.

I could move around on it very quickly. I had Rian sitting behind me saying, “What if you roll back and adjust this or try that.” I could ease those faders up and down and hit it just right. I know how to use it so well that I could hear stuff ahead of what I was doing.

The Neve DFC was invaluable. I could take all the different sound formats and sample rates and it all came through the console, and in one place. It could blend all those sources together; it’s a mixing bowl. It brought all the sounds together so they could all talk to each other. Then I manipulated them and sent them out and that was the soundtrack — all driven by the director, of course.

Can you talk about working with the sound editor?
The editors are my right-hand people. They can shift things and move things and give me another sound. Maybe I need one with more mid-range because the one in there isn’t quite reading. We had a lot of that. Trying to get those explosions to work and to come through John Williams’ score, sometimes we needed something with more low-end and more thump or more crack. There was a handoff in some scenes.

On The Last Jedi, I had sound effects editor Jon Borland with me on the stage. Bonnie Wild had started the project and had prepped a lot of the sounds for several reels — her and Jon and Ren Klyce, who oversaw the whole thing. But Jon was my go-to person on the stage. He did a great job. It was a bit of a daunting task, but Jon is young and wants to learn and gave it everything he had. I love that.

What format was the main mix?
Everything was done in Atmos natively, then we downmixed to 7.1 and 5.1 and all the other formats. We were very diligent about having the downmixed versions match the Atmos mix the best that they could.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
I’m so glad that Rian chose me to be part of the mix. This film was a lot of fun and a real collaborative effort. Rian is the one who really set that tone. He wanted to hear our ideas and see what we could do. He wasn’t sold on one thing. If something wasn’t working, he would try things out until it did. It was literally sorting out frequencies and getting transitions to work just right. Rian was collaborative, and that creates a room of collaboration. We wanted a great track for the audience to enjoy… a track that went with Rian’s picture.


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney


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