It’s easy to take for granted the powerful role that sound plays in TV and film. From the smallest sound to a powerful boom, what we hear plays a big role in how we assimilate what we see on screen. And few Hollywood tradesmen have mastered the process like sound engineer Russell Williams. The recipient of two Academy Awards and multiple Emmys, Williams is a virtuoso when it comes to manipulating what we hear and turning that into on-screen magic. Currently dividing his duties between picking and choosing his projects and teaching classes in sound to American University students, Russell Williams agreed to share the tips of his trade with EBONY.com.
EBONY: How do you contribute to the overall process of making a film?
Russell Williams: My department and I would be tasked with watching actor rehearsals on set and determining the best method of recording these performances. We have a variety of options in our toolbox, but must find a balance between getting near-pristine tracks and staying invisible to the camera, except in scenes where a visible microphone would be expected. We would (with the assistant directors) also function as the “noise police,” to identify and hopefully prevent unwanted sounds from reaching the set and [being] recorded with the performance.
EBONY: Why did you pick sound mixing as a career?
RW: The short answer is, the line was shorter to get into sound than to get into camera jobs. In truth I had somewhat of a perfect foundation to enter into the business of listening for a living, starting with my music background and seven-plus years working in radio and television.
EBONY: What distinctive quality do you bring to your craft?
RW: Being a department head on a film or TV project requires that you be thoroughly versed in your field, able to manage your team, plus maintain a working relationship with the other filmmakers in front or behind the camera. As it relates to my actual role as sound mixer, having been trained to listen critically; first in music, then in radio, as an engineer/announcer. The next important phase of my career was being able to observe or apprentice with people that had mastered their craft and passed these lessons on to me.
After considering those formative steps, I really loved movies and was not dissuaded by the long hours and highly competitive nature of the business in general. So I attribute much of my success to respecting the craft and being a team player that wants whatever is best for the project to be successful. I learned during my first real job [NBC TV during the Watergate Hearings] that having a nine-to-five mentality was one of the first things to get tossed. I was baptized through working 22-hour days, three to five days a week for about three months. You can’t work those kind of hours unless you are passionate or a prisoner.
EBONY: Are there any obstacles that you’ve had to overcome to achieve success in your career?
RW: When I reflect on my early years in Los Angeles, the biggest hurdle was to get into the union. Getting that card then would put me in a position to do projects at the major studios. There was and still is quite a bit of non-union work, but working for the majors was one of my goals.
The union was a hurdle for people of all races and genders, and more so before 1970, where for many with a permanent tan and/or female, it was a brick wall. A hurdle, by comparison, is still progress.
EBONY: You are one of the few African-Americans to win an Academy Award, and you’ve won it twice—for Dances with Wolves and Glory—plus two Emmys. What did winning mean to you?
RW: All the years I was growing up in D.C., I was made aware of the double standard. At some point, the practice of being graded on a curve was introduced to schools and certain professional exams. My goal was to be held to the same standard as anyone else. And in the business, I feel that may still be easier behind the camera than in front, if only we pursued more roles behind the camera.
Winning multiple awards, I think, showed that if nothing else my (our) work was consistently good and could be compared to that of any others in the field. You still have to be lucky, especially when you consider how many projects are released in any given year vs. the ones that get nominated, vs. the ones that win. That being said, it meant that the personal risks and sacrifices, the years of training, the thousands spent on equipment, vehicles, seminars and mentoring newcomers all paid off for a kid from southeast D.C. who couldn’t have started much further from Hollywood but found a way to get there anyway.
Gil Robertson IV is a noted A&E and Black lifestyle journalist, author and producer. President and co-founder of the African-American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), he resides in Los Angeles and Atlanta. Follow the AAFCA on Twitter @theaafca.