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Ten Minutes With: “The Hateful Eight” Sound Mixer Mark Ulano

Mark Ulano and his team were always looking for the best spots to place their boom mikes while on the set of “The Hateful Eight.” Photo courtesy of: The Weinstein Company

By: Marjorie Galas

Imagine blending the sounds of a howling blizzard and the jangling chains of a six-horse buggy with the rapid-fire pacing of Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue.  The daunting task provided a welcomed challenge for sound mixer Mark Ulano.  He approached mixing the sounds in “The Hateful Eight” as if it was a new piece of music he was composing.  His efforts paid off with a 2016 Cinema Audio Society (CAS) nomination for “Outstanding Achievement in Sound Mixing for Motion Picture – Live Action.”

The CAS nomination is Ulano’s fourth (his first nom, for “Titanic” resulted in taking the award for “Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Feature Film”) – and his first CAS nomination with longtime collaboration Tarantino.  They first met on the set of Robert Rodriguez’s 1995 feature “Desperado,” and worked more directly with him on “From Dusk ‘til Dawn” – a Rodriguez feature that Tarantino co-wrote.  Ulano began mixing for him directly on “Jackie Brown,” and has worked on all Tarantino’s features to date.  Capturing the authenticity of what happens on set is a crucial aspect to any Tarantino film.

“Quentin wants what happens on set to be brought to the audience.  He doesn’t believe in replacing audio,” said Ulano.  “He’s not in the video village but on the set with the actors.  He believes in everything going on.”

Digging into the components of the project, Ulano paid particular attention to the blizzard.  The storm underscores the entire story:  it’s a menacing shadow at the beginning of the film whose blustery rage elevates the tension through the final scenes.   Although the production was shot on location, blustering storms weren’t on call for the set.  Large refrigeration devices were used to provide a constant low temperature on set, Ulano had many conversations and spent a great deal of pre-production time with crew and the effects team to define ways to minimize the equipment noise.  One solution involved switching fan blades and insulating equipment to create a quieter set.

“There was tons of minutia, but you don’t want to be fighting it on the day.  It has to be all about the performance,” said Ulano.

Traditional sound mixing equipment was used on the set of “The Hateful Eight” including a collection of microphones, booms, a mixing desk and audio storage.    Finding the best mike, what Ulano refers to as the “meat and potatoes” of his job, was another challenge on the set.  Shots were constantly switching from close-ups to over the shoulder shots.  Equipment was switching out page by page, line by line.  Recognizing the importance advanced preparation would have on set, Ulano and his crew spent two months tested a number of devices for each sequence and knew what they needed for any given frame.    This process also assisted on capturing the sounds made during the journey of the carriage, which Ulano saw as a “delicious challenge” fueled by a “musical concept.”

The 70mm format also had an impact, not only on the sound but every department.  Ulano noted it was as if the crew was involved in a play, where every detail had to be working simultaneously.  He noted all members of the production put their heads together to overcome obstacles.

“We had a responsibility to do it right, so you had to come to the set and be a student.  You never want (to come on set) with an ideology in place,” said Ulano.

Despite close collaboration with all departments on set, Ulano notes for any sound mixer the greatest collaboration comes during the post production phase.  An approach for handling the audio is determined during pre-production that allows every gun shot, every horse’s snort, every gust of snow to blend perfectly with the dialogue of the scene.  A great deal of trust goes into working alongside the members of the sound mixing team, whom Ulano has worked with on multiple projects.  This trust was then passed along to the composer, in this case, Oscar nominated Ennio Morricone, who came out of retirement to score “The Hateful Eight.”

Reflecting on the finished product, Ulano is happy with the balance of sound in “The Hateful Eight” and its relationship to dialogue.

“Dialogue is where I live,” said Ulano.  “Quentin Tarantino’s writing is where he lives.  To be a performer in that troop is its own reward.”