Karen Baker Landers and Per Hallberg: Supervising Sound Editors
CreativeCOW presents Karen Baker Landers and Per Hallberg: Supervising Sound Editors -- Cinematography Feature

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Karen Baker Landers and Per Hallberg are celebrating 23 years together as a supervising sound editor team at Soundelux in Hollywood. As a team, they most recently won the 2011 HPA (Hollywoood Post Alliance) Award for Best Sound, Feature film, for their work on Warner Bros. Pictures Green Lantern (an award they shared with re-recording mixers John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Rick Kline). They also won the 2008 Academy Award for their work on The Bourne Ultimatum and have worked on an astonishing list of Hollywood hits, including all the Bourne movies, Gladiator, Braveheart, Heat, Black Hawk Down, Ray, American Gangster and many others.

Creative COW's Debra Kaufman had a chance to talk to Karen and Per about their path to becoming top Hollywood supervising sound editors, how they work as a team and the challenges and joys of working in feature film sound.

You each got into sound editing in very different ways. Can you describe your separate paths?

Karen Baker Landers and Per Hallberg
Karen Baker Landers and Per Hallberg
Per Hallberg: I taught high school math and physics. I also worked in the nightclub business and built houses. I was ready for a change when I went to Hollywood on a vacation and the friend I was visiting was a good friend of [supervising sound editor] Wylie Statesman. I observed him at work, and was really interested in what he did. We spent a few days hanging out socially and then he asked if I were interested to come work with him. I spent four months without a specific job, with sound editors, picture editors, scoring and mixing, everything from the shoot to the finished product to get a really good idea what this was all about. It was the most intense film school you could imagine. Sound editing was the area I looked into the most. It seemed challenging and I liked the idea that you're actually working with a picture that's put together, not in pieces.

Karen Baker Landers: I was always interested in sound. When I was little, my parents bought me a tape recorder and I would make up stories by recording sound effects. I'd record my own footsteps or get the dog to growl, or take an old soap bottle and toss it into the pool pretending it was a body. I used to take a tape recorder into the movie theatre just so I could play them back and hear the dialogue and sound effects. As I got older I started to realize that I wanted to work with sound in film but I don't think I knew that this career path existed. I went to California State University at Long Beach and this great professor Steven Hubbard brought in two sound designers -- Mark Mangini and Richard Anderson -- to do a two-day seminar about their profession. They hired me as an intern and introduced me into the world of sound. For my first task, Richard asked me to find a ratchety sound, for hoisting a bucket out of the water on a pulley, for Goonies. I went to a junk store and found an old eggbeater and brought it back to them.

Tell me about the origins of your partnership.

Karen: I remember meeting Per and we just talked for hours on end. At the time, he was an assistant and so was I. The first film we worked on together was National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, although I didn't get credit on that film; Per was the first assistant.

Per: Early on, we worked as assistants with different supervisors. The first chance I got to supervise was Bodies Rest and Motion; Karen was the first assistant with our editorial crew around us, which has basically stayed the same. We've had editors on our crew that have been with us for a very long time. Our crew is family: Peter Staubli, Dino DiMuro and Chris Assells in Sound Design; Dan Hegeman, Background/FX Editor; Dialog Editors Chris Hogan, John Stuver and Fred Stahly; ADR Supervisor Chris Jargo; ADR Editor Michelle Pazer; Foley Supervisors Craig Jaeger and Glenn T. Morgan; and Assistant Sound Editors Phil Morrill and Tony Negrete.

Once we got to a place where Karen and I got a chance to supervise together, we never looked back. Sometimes we do a project together and sometimes we split up and back each other up throughout the process.

Mel Gibson in Braveheart (1995)
Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Per won an Academy Award for Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing for Braveheart (1995), shared with: Lon Bender. Image ©Paramount Pictures.

Karen: The first film we supervised together was The Replacement Killers in 1998. This was also the first film that I supervised.

How do two supervising sound editors work as a team? How is the work split?

Karen: We're good friends and that helps a lot. We're very honest with one another. Obviously being a man and a woman, we bring different sensibilities to the project, which is a very unique thing that we have as a team - and it works very well for us.

We'll get a script and we'll either read the script or see the film, and then meet with the filmmakers and discuss what conceptually we think the project needs. There are certain types of films I might have more interest in or vice versa. After Per and I take our notes and decide the direction we want to take sonically, we spot the movie with our crew. It's pretty seamless.

Per and I have shared an office together forever. So we're always hearing what's going on with the day-to-day business. Because there is a lot of honesty, we fight a lot, in a good way. We're both very passionate about what we do. In addition to the creative aspects we love and have to discuss, there is the business aspect, which is tougher to love but we have to do it. We bounce ideas off of each other. It's hard to say why it works, but it works really well.

Per: At the same time we've grown together and gotten busier, the demands on films today compared to a number of years back have changed. By that I mean shorter schedules. We get locked picture later in the game. If you work alone today on one of the bigger complicated films, it's tough. One person can't be in more than one place at once whereas we actually can be in two places at once, which is good for the film and our sanity. The rationale of the partnership has proven itself over the years.

It is fairly common to have a team, but very uncommon to have a team that stays together for as long as Karen and I have.

Karen: Yes, I agree. Lots of teams come and go or they'll split up for periods of time. A team that's been together non-stop for 23 years is very unusual.

Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers won an Oscar for Best Achievement in Sound Editing for The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Universal Pictures.
Matt Damon and Julia Stiles in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Karen and Per received an Academy Award® for Best Achievement in Sound Editing. Universal Pictures.

What makes a good team?

Per: Let's start with the fact that we've almost killed each other and have certainly been sick of each other. It's like a marriage. But somehow you have to get back to it, to just focus and get going. You have a goal to get to. Bottom line, two has to be better than one plus one. Working together is so good and supportive in so many ways.

Karen: Something I've thought about is that women like to communicate. If something is bothering us -- like any relationship -- the woman will say, "What's wrong? Let's talk about it." Male partners tend not to discuss their emotions as much as a woman.

The film industry is a tough business. Per and I take care of each other. We have each other's back. We have a very deep friendship with a lot of trust and respect. We can fight on a daily basis. But we really like each other.

Per: The only way to end the fight is to admit that Karen is right. I just have to bite that sour grape and move on.

Have you applied what you've learned as a team to your other relationships?

Karen: We're both married and we're all friends. If I come home and am in a bad mood, my husband will say, "What did Per do?"

Per: It's a back and forth. But I think both our partners know when things happen at work -- you can't help but bring that home.

It's definitely what Karen said about the male-female relationship: The female is the nurturing one -- and Karen is that to me, and the crew. It's just a good combination.

How has changing technology impacted your work?

Per: We're doing the same thing -- we just have better tools. The thought process, the plan, the creativity is the same. What technology has allowed us to do is to put things together at an earlier stage than we would in the older days when you'd only found out if it worked on the dub stage. Now we can work deeper, wider and with more creativity before it leaves our office.

Karen: Not a lot of people understand what we do in sound. I always say that we're storytellers; we're telling our story with sound. Technology gives us more access to things more quickly. When you're designing, you have more at your fingertips. But you really do need people creating, using a creative mind to design another world or a creature or the subtlety of how to sell a scene that's emotional or suspenseful.

That's another thing with the male-female relationship. We come at things differently. Sonically, things can make me cry easily and if I do cry, then I know it's emotional and good. If Per cries, it's probably bad. [Laughs]

Per: We're totally ProTools-based company. That's our basis of all our editorial equipment. From there, we'll use any tool that anyone has ever invented that works. But I always say that my best hardware is the crewmembers we have and the best software is their imagination. It's up to us as supervisors to use that group of people to create something that becomes whole at the end, in design, taste and tone.

Karen: That pretty much covers it. The Academy calls it a Technical Achievement award. There are technical aspects to everything in the industry, even acting. But I really like to push the fact that it's a great bunch of creative, smart people in post production sound. They bring it to life.

Green Lantern. Image courtesy Warner Bros.
Per and Karen received the HPA 2011 Award for Outstanding Sound -- Feature Film for their work on Green Lantern. ©Warner Bros. Pictures. Click to view larger.

I know you just won an HPA award for your work on Green Lantern. What made that job challenging and extraordinary?

Per: I think that was a culmination of the cooperation between the picture editor Chris Rouse, the composer James Newton Howard, us and our team…as well as the director, Martin Campbell, and the mixers John T. Reitz, Gregg Rudlof, Rick Kline, Michael Keller and Michael Prestwood Smith. It was a great team.

Our biggest challenge was that we had such a short period of time and the visual effects were late. We had to go on our instincts and not second-guess ourselves, to come up with our best thoughts and keep building on it. One of our guiding lights was to not overload the track and have it be able to play with the music, which was big and great. We had to pick our moments of what and what not to play to create a clear, sharp, distinct sound track that helps you through the movie but doesn't overwhelm it.

What are some other highlights of your career as a team?

Karen: One of my favorite films is Ray. It wasn't a film about blowing things up or car chases (which I also love)...but it was a film about subtlety and it showed what sound can do. [Director] Taylor Hackford said to us when we started, Ray Charles had to use his ears as his eyes, so we had to convey that in the movie. It was a sound person's dream to work on a film like that, where the film is really about what you hear.

Ray - the 2004 biopic focusing on the life of Ray Charles
Ray is a 2004 biopic film focusing on the life of rhythm and blues genius Ray Charles, portrayed here by Jamie Foxx, who received an Academy Award for his role. Directed by Taylor Hackford. ©Universal Pictures. Karen and Per were also honoured with the 2005 BAFTA Film Award for Best Sound.

The bottle tree from Ray

I remember Taylor calling us up about the bottle tree late at night. He said he'd been doing research. The slaves would put bottles out in the trees where they were living to capture evil spirits, so that became the basis of how we started designing the sound of the bottle tree…not just wind whistling through bottles but kind of a mournful, almost melancholy sound.

I also love all the Bourne movies we've done together. And two other of my favorite films ever are Braveheart and Gladiator, both great films -- but I have a special place in my heart for Ray.

Per: Every time you work on a film, you feel it is so great. It's hard to pick one out. For me, the Bourne movies have been so much fun, so interesting especially to with regard to post production. The films we've done with Ridley Scott have always been great and exciting. The way they look challenges us. I also love history and read a lot of history, so any historical film - Gladiator, Legends of the Fall, Kingdom of Heaven -- allows me to create worlds that we do research on, worlds that don't exist today. Making those worlds more real is very satisfying.

Kingdom of Heaven artwork. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. ©Twentieth Century Fox.

What should we understand about how today's sound supervisors are working?

Karen: I'm surprised sometimes at how little people understand what we do. Sound adds 50 percent of the experience in a movie -- I'm quoting David Lynch here. I love when we get to sit and create; that's my favorite part of it. But, like everyone else in the industry, we feel the budget constraints. It's hit us particularly hard because we're the last man up in post so by the time they get to us, they've run out of money. It's a challenge to still do what we love, and pay for it.

Per: The audiences' expectations have grown. At the same time, the time schedule is challenging. You have two types of movies today: movies with quite large budgets and very low budget movies. The middle has disappeared. With lower budget films you have little time and few resources. With the bigger budget films, we spend quite a lot of our resources following the picture changing as we're working, just keeping up with changes in visual effects and picture cuts, previews and so on.

What are you working on now?

Karen: We're split between two projects. I'm working on a dark, adult version of the Hansel and Gretel story, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. There's a lot of room for design. The director, Tommy Wirkola, is a young Norwegian very much into sound. It's fun to work with him.

Per: And I'm working on Safe House, which is an action thriller, directed by Daniel Espinosa, another Scandinavian director. It's very exciting and fun to work with a Swede, a young guy with his first film in Hollywood. We can dream a lot of stuff up but we're never better than the team as a whole. This is really a team effort.

And although Karen and I are working on different projects, we always support each other's work. We're in the same office. There are no borders between what we do.

Karen: I'd love to see the invisibility of the sound community in Hollywood change, to keep the craft alive. Sound adds so much to the experience. From the sound of a new world to a subtle twig snap or a gentle wind blowing, it's all about detail and storytelling. I'm passionate about the craft and the people who do it. It's a huge deal for us to be appreciated; we don't get that all the time.

Oscar® and Academy Award® are ©2011 by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.