Jul 14, 2016

A Few Questions with Veteran Sound Editor Don Hall

If you’re a fan of the iconic films: The French Connection, M.A.S.H., Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Young Frankenstein, it’s likely that what made a lasting impression was not just what you saw but also what you heard.  And if you were lucky enough to see these groundbreaking features in the theatre, what you heard was a sound design that inspired countless cinematic storytellers.  The man largely responsible for all that sound is veteran sound editor, Don Hall.  Don has seen this company town go through an incredible technical change but as anyone who has ever spent time with Don will recognize- class and professionalism never go out of style.  Don has been a member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for 52 years having served as a Governor of the Sound Branch for 18 years, he’s been a member of countless committees and is now serving as the CO-Chair of the Student Academy Awards.  

Photographed at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts Sound Department where Don is a Professor of Cinematic Arts. 

VG: Tell me how you got started in sound?  What attracted you to this particular industry?

DH: It was not my intention to enter the sound or another motion picture field.  My aim was to become an Architectural Photographer at the end of WW II.  I attended The Art Center School in Los Angeles and during the first semester, the instructor asked the class “who is interested in filmmaking?”  I raised my hand and noted only one other student responded.  That is how Hal Stegman and I became the first film class at Art Center (1947).

Upon graduation I was employed by a small but very successful film company that specialized in industrial films and the budding television commercial business.  This attracted the eye of the guilds (unions) and they made Mercury International Pictures into a union company. I was given the choice of joining 2 unions, camera or editing, and I opted for editing because I could not afford to join camera.

Then I learned about the seniority system that banned new members from editing until they were in the union for 8 years.  I was allowed however to go into sound and that’s where I started.  I fell in love with the medium and I never once wanted to move to film editing.

VG: What was the most personally fulfilling project that you worked on?”

DH: This is a simple answer: All of them.  Each and every project, no matter how large or small, had challenges and all were rewarding.

VG: Were you influenced by films when you were young, before you got in the business?

DH: I never saw any movies when I was young.  I grew up during the depression and the only time we went to a movie was because they were giving a “dish” to all who attended.  This is how our family got dishes to eat on. So I was not influenced by any films.

VG: You’ve worked with greats like Mel Brooks, William Friedkin and Robert Altman just to name a few.  Can you tell us a little about those experiences?

DH: Mel did not want the Fox Feature Sound Editing department to cut Young Frankenstein.  Mel had a very bad experience with a studio crew on Blazing Saddles.  He finally committed when I said I would supervise and actually do the work.  It was the start of a very good relationship and continued to Silent Movie his next Fox commitment.

The studio execs did not understand the stylized overlapping dialogue in M.A.S.H.  No studio representative was present for the mix and I was asked to handle it all.  I enjoyed working with Robert Altman who strived for what he wanted to achieve.  I continued on to supervise the TV version for the first 3 years.

On The French Connection, William Friedkin was probably the most demanding director (from a sound viewpoint) I’ve ever worked with.  I was supervising with the Fox “feature” crew and sound editors. Grueling! Recorded all car FX with Hal Needham on the Fox back lot. 

Author Side Note: For anyone unfamiliar with the car scene with Gene Hackman, it is the car chase sequence.  Click HERE to see it.  Every filmmaker going forward knew that this was the action standard to beat second only to Bullitt with Steve McQueen.  Click HERE to see a breakdown of the sequence as told by William Friedkin on the DGA website.

VG: I know you as a highly respected artist in your field. Can you share any thoughts for anyone who has visions of becoming a top sound mixer?

DH: I appreciate your comment but so many things go into suggesting ways to be successful.  I was not a sound mixer but a Sound Editor (before Sound Design became the vogue).  And I worked as a Post Production Supervisor for 8-10 years, rounding out my career.

My suggestion is to be the best you can be in your field!  But be mindful that this is a collaborative medium with many people to satisfy (artistically and financially) so there’s lots of give and take.  In other words, whoever you offend will never become your friend and can hurt your career in the long run.

This is a small industry and every one knows every one.  Be the best you can, respect your co-workers and rewards will come your way!

Tags sound editing production post production audio don hall