During the Covid-19 pandemic, very few cinephiles have seen the inside of a theater, let alone a grand old one like the Castro Theater in San Francisco or the Paramount in Austin, Texas. Yet those who have recently watched Mank, David Fincher’s biopic about Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, might’ve noticed—or, more specifically, heard—something that felt old, something that sounded like it was coming from a 1930s theater, even if they were streaming the movie on Netflix. It’s eerie—and completely intentional.
With Mank, Fincher wanted a movie that not only looked but also sounded like the films produced in Hollywood during Mankiewicz’s era in the 1930s and ’40s. To do that, he shot the film in black and white (of course), and also enlisted the help of sound designer Ren Klyce, who came up with a method to create an aural “patina” that made all the dialog, all the ambient noises, and the score sound as though they were created using the methods of Golden Age pictures. “We came up with the technique by analyzing the sound spectrum of old-fashioned movies,” Klyce says, “and of course Citizen Kane was one that we modeled, and we kind of realized that that film sounded the way it did because of the limitations of the technology.”
Originally, Klyce thought it might be easy. Old equipment didn’t capture the spectrum of sound that today’s microphones do, so he thought he could just make the sound dull, monaural, and lacking in low and high frequencies, and that would be it. “Nothing could have been further from the truth,” he laughs. There were issues of understanding the guttural delivery of Gary Oldman, who plays Mank; there were times when things just sounded off. It was all over the place. Soon, Klyce, who’s worked on everything from Fight Club to Star Wars: The Last Jedi (and is now on some people’s lists for an Oscar nomination for his work on Mank), realized he was going to have to build a bespoke method. The “patina” was born.
Creating it involved three steps. First Klyce “completely threw out the idea of making it sound old-fashioned.” Instead, he began by making a perfect, clean mix. That allowed the audio team to find all the places where the sound wasn’t working and fix it (so long unintelligible Gary Oldman!). Klyce also insisted that Fincher make all of his decisions about the soundtrack early on, so Klyce could work on that too. It was almost unfortunate how beautiful the clean version sounded. “We mixed the film once, all the way through, and no one will ever hear this mix,” Klyce says ruefully. But making it also helped him figure out that each audio “food group” needed to have its own patina. Dialog, background music, jazz, ambiance, effects, foley sounds like footsteps and jangling jewelry—each needed its own custom treatment.
The next step was creating the patina texture. To do that, Klyce added distortion throughout, but also compressed some of it by modulating the mid-range frequencies. He limited the low frequencies and the high ones. After he’d done all that, it “sounded great, but there was something missing, and what that sound was was the sound of old-fashioned 35-mm film.” To recreate that, Klyce added crackling and hissing, and also a whirring motor sound turned down real low to replicate the noise a projector makes.
But even with those additions, it still wasn’t quite right. One of the other “sounds” of old-fashioned movies is hearing them in big cavernous rooms without soundproof walls or Dolby speakers in every corner. To imitate that, Klyce played the film’s audio in a big empty room, recorded it, isolated the echo it made and then wove that sound back into the mix. The resulting aural atmosphere is one of Mank’s most noticeable features. It’s also an Easter egg—in order to hear it, you have to watch the film on a surround-sound audio system.
Ultimately, Klyce came up with “26 or 27” different patinas before settling on the one used in Fincher’s film. It took a lot of trial and error. “I was joking with my friends that it’s a like guy who puts on cologne,” he says. “If you keep wearing your cologne, after a while you can’t smell it. Pretty soon, people are saying, ‘Oh my god, you’re wearing so much cologne,’ and it’s like ‘Really? I don’t smell it at all.’ We were always afraid of that.” In the end, it didn’t stink.
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