Telling a Story through Sound with the Music Editor of A Man Called Otto, 1917 & More


By Assemble

February 2, 2023

Throughout film history, music has played an important role in adding depth and emotion to storytelling. It sets the mood, it reveals character, builds tension, explores conflict and gives the audience a deeper understanding of the impact of events.  Whether it's Max Steiner's operatic compositions and leitmotivs for 1933's King Kong or Max Ritcher's On the Nature of Daylight used in HBO's The Last of Us to add poignancy to the last moments of a relationship, music is an integral, powerful tool for filmmaking.

However, for producers this is often the overlooked stage of film budgeting. But imagine for a moment Darth Vader entering a scene without the imperial march representing the galactic empire, the frightening simplicity of Jaws' theme, or the searing notes that propel Superman forward. It would be difficult to think of any of these iconic films without composer John Williams' influence. The music remains an inseparable part of their lasting appeal.

Constructing a film's music budget doesn't follow a formula.  Audio, however, is often referred to as the other fifty percent of visual production, so it’s important for producers to know how music can contribute to a film's success and where the resources should go.

To help us better understand the process of music editing and score mixing, Assemble was fortunate to chat with Shinnosuke Miyazawa, who most recently served as Music Editor on the Tom Hanks megahit A Man Called Otto. 

Music Editor and Mixer Shinnosuke Miyazawa

His numerous music department credits include the TV series Star Trek: Prodigy and feature films Passengers, Bullet Train and 1917. Impressively, Shinnosuke has had a long and fruitful sixteen year collaboration with composer, Thomas Newman.

Assemble: A Man Called Otto, the Tom Hanks starrer just released, has outperformed expectations. In a pandemic world where some people are still hesitant to go to the theater and superhero films rule the roost, the success of this decidedly tender, adult focused film has hit a note with audiences. What was the process working with your long-term collaborator, Thomas Newman and director, Marc Forster?

Shinnosuke: I have been working with Thomas Newman for 16 years now. Besides his compositional talent, he is an amazing collaborator and a genius at bringing out the talents of others. He always looks at work from multiple perspectives and never gives up on pursuing its potential. I also collaborated with Marc Foster in two movies, A Man called Otto and White Bird (set to be released in late 2023). He too is an excellent collaborator, always open to others opinions and not afraid of change. Both of them have something in common, they are very loose and fluid. They never fear accepting new ideas, so their ideas never become rigid. Because of this, I have witnessed the outcome of results that no one could have imagined many times. So, I also try to be loose. However, both of them have extraordinary intuition and sensitivity and when they make a decision, they move quickly and sometimes change direction dramatically. As a music editor, there have been several occasions where I have been challenged to keep up with their speed.

Assemble: As both Music Editor and Score Mixer, what were the unique perspectives of serving Thomas Newman’s score through the macro-lens of editing and the more detail-oriented, micro lens of scoring?

Shinnosuke: The Score Mixer and Music Editor jobs are both centered around audio processing and editing, but they require two completely different skills. The Score Mixer processes each individual element of music to deliver the musical piece acoustically and convey a story. With changes in technology, such as surround systems and Dolby Atmos systems, movie music now enhances the story unconsciously through sensory experiences and sonic experience as part of composition. The work involves accurately recognizing necessary and unnecessary frequencies, processing and arranging dynamics, distributing sounds to multiple speakers, and efficiently delivering the composer's message by adjusting individual sounds. 

The composition of Thomas Newman is very delicate and each sound has a crucial meaning in the story, requiring meticulous understanding and artisan-like work. On the other hand, Music Editors view music from a broader perspective, not micro-focusing on individual elements, but rather understanding key points in the composition and determining how each aspect of the music affects the story. The editor views the story created by the overall music in a movie, rather than just one song. As a music editor, I always work with Tom and support his composing activities. Sometimes I have to take a bird's-eye view to see what he cannot see. Switching between analyzing guitar frequency in composition and understanding all the characteristics of the music in the movie as well as seeing the big picture is different work for the brain. Either pattern is easy to stick to, making the switch sometimes difficult. The positions of engineer and editor is a difficult but rewarding challenge.

Note:  A Man Called Otto spoilers ahead.

The train scene from A Man Called Otto

Assemble: The train suicide attempt scene in A Man Called Otto was complex, musically. Can you tell us about how that was achieved and your collaboration with the dub mixers to make it happen?

Shinnosuke: That scene is where Tom Hanks goes to the train station and tries to commit suicide, but instead ends up saving a man who fell onto the tracks because of illness. Musically the scene starts with a sad, emotional tone, but when the man falls onto the tracks, the rescue scene has action elements. After the rescue, it ends with a heroic theme. It was a challenging scene to blend the dynamic music and sound effects naturally. The British re-recording mixer Chris Burton and Gilbert Lake were very cooperative in music and we were able to make a great mix together. It was important for the music to stand out in a scene with many sounds of trains and crowds - which are difficult to coexist sometimes, but we were able to make a good mix together.

Tom Hanks in A Man Called Otto

Assemble: The film is lighthearted and yet deals with very serious subjects.  What was your approach to balancing the mood, especially in a scene such as Otto’s attempt at suicide with a gun.

Shinnosuke: Balancing the mood and describing complex human emotions through music is Thomas Newman's expertise. In the beginning of the scene, the music expresses the protagonist Otto's confusion and anger. The mix starts off with a very narrow stereo-image and cold mix of sounds to represent his confusion, but as the scene shifts to a recollection of his trip to Niagara Falls with his deceased wife, I used more surround sounds and made the sound much warmer to convey a feeling of being enveloped in music and love. I believe I was able to achieve the goal of supporting the emotions that Thomas Newman was trying to depict in this scene.


Assemble:  1917 effectively used the landscape of silence, diegetic sound and then sweeping score.  Can you talk a bit about the use of music to heighten the film's tension in 1917? 

Shinnosuke: The movie 1917 was one of the most intense projects that I experienced with Thomas Newman. It was a given that a lot of energy was needed to create music that would heighten the tension in such a thrilling film. The composing and music production was done over several months at Abbey Road Studios in the UK. Together with amazing musicians George Doring, John Beasley, and UK musicians, we repeated experimental recordings creating intense, original ambient and other sounds. 

The compositions were presented to director Sam Mendes frequently and opinions were gathered, modifications were made, and the work continued. Mendes is a director with a clear vision who does not compromise. I remember having many meetings to make sure we are on the right path. Not only the action scenes, but also the process of a young soldier growing up and becoming an adult in the extreme situation of war was beautifully expressed by Thomas Newman.

Tom and Sam had many discussions to express the growth and depiction of the heart of the protagonist, Schofield. In order to accurately support the subtle nuances of the heart that appear in the images with music, multiple patterns were tried for each scene. The effect on storytelling was constantly verified with small differences in melody and harmony, not with major pattern changes. I was lucky to be able to see the wonderful collaboration of Tom and Sam based on their long-term trust in front of my eyes and achieve to make such amazing art.

Assemble: As a Music Editor in film, you are expected to have wildly divergent skill sets as you oversee the creative, technical, and logistic elements of composing and implementing music. When approaching a new project, how do you balance right brain and left brain thinking?

Shinnosuke: Is it about relaxing? In any case, I always try to keep myself loose so that logistics don't interfere with creativity. Especially in the initial stage, I try to give composers and directors freedom to imagine. Sometimes it may be technically impossible or physically difficult, or there may be times when the final goal is not visible, but I try to be patient and let them be free. As a Music Editor, I am good at calculating how to realistically complete music, but sometimes I may quickly come to a conclusion based on what is physically and realistically possible. I try to keep up with the ideals of composers and directors as much as possible in order to support them and help make it possible in terms of logistics, time and money.

Assemble: Sound Designer Walter Murch once said  "In the same way that painting, or looking at paintings, makes you see the world in a different way, listening to interestingly arranged sounds makes you hear differently."  Similarly, all the musical cues you choose, arrange and mix can be seen as a tapestry of moods that affect how the audience will view a scene. How do you know when these choices serve and elevate the story rather than manipulate emotions?

Shinnosuke: This is a very deep question. In the initial stages of a project, no one knows how music will enhance the story. Just by watching the visuals, there is a possibility that people who see the same scene will interpret it differently. The director and composer do not always have the same interpretation of a scene, and what the director thinks is the right music for the scene may not necessarily be correct. And vice versa. That's why I think the collaboration between the director and composer is great. They share their perspectives on the visuals and exchange ideas. 

As a Music Editor, I support both of them, analyze their opinions, and watch over their creative journey. Sometimes, I review the path we've taken and I go ahead as a scout for the path ahead. This includes composing, music mixing, and dub mixing. By the time of dub mixing, the music that the director and composer have agreed on is musically almost complete, but now we must think about how to express it acoustically to the fullest. We communicate with other departments (sound effects and dialogue) to think about where to emphasize the music and where to give space to sound effects, and other musical cues in order to be the most effective in storytelling. I think that by carefully conducting such collaboration, we can create sound that enhances the story.

Assemble: In life as in art, it’s not always the words or actions we remember, but how it made us feel. Nothing evokes feeling so much as music.  And yet, when producers prioritize budget, music editing, scoring and mixing might not be top of the list. What should a producer understand about music editing and score mixing in terms of providing the needed resources for a successful production?  Can you break down where the money should be best spent in your department and why it’s important?

Shinnosuke: This is a difficult question and I think there is no one correct answer. The importance of music editing, scoring, and mixing may vary depending on the project. I believe that all of them are very important. Music editors support composers and contribute to the efficiency of music production, such as reusing music and adjusting music to new picture cuts. Sometimes, composers may get too absorbed in the music world, so as a partner, a music editor provides a panoramic view and supports their creativity.

Scoring and mixing are also becoming more important as technology develops. Music is changing from something to listen to, to something to experience. Techniques such as Dolby Atoms and 5.1 mixing require a lot of skill. Composers may not be able to handle it all by themselves. Producers need to understand how the experience affects the audience's emotions and allocate the necessary budget accordingly.

Assemble:  Working in both film and TV, are there any significant differences in your work depending on the medium? And how is the process working with producers different in TV where they are often part of the writing process?

Shinnosuke: TV and film editing mixing styles differ significantly. Film takes much longer to delve into various angles, compared to TV series which produce 10 hours of content within the same time frame. Speed is the main difference between the two. TV series set the musical tone and direction in the first few episodes but may face tight deadlines later on. Music editors for TV need to respond quickly to reused music and editing changes. In film, various tones are explored, and possibilities are fully pursued, and music and visuals are often edited right up until the end, requiring careful and swift music editing to avoid disrupting the music storytelling. TV mixing also demands speed, with tight deadlines often resulting in mixing while the dub has already started with only two days available. TV mixing must balance time and quality. Film mixing has more time but can be more complex, with longer recording sessions leading to more tracks and more artistic choices in surround and atmos mixing.

Assemble:  Finally, what advice would you give to someone that wanted to break into music scoring and editing?

Shinnosuke: 16 years ago, I met Thomas Newman when I worked as an assistant at a studio called the Village, in West Los Angeles. After that, I worked as an in-house engineer at the studio, and while working on film music, I also learned various techniques in rock, R&B, hip hop, and other genres. Some of my colleagues would say "I don't want to work in this genre," and would turn down certain types of work, but I actively participated in any genre and wanted to help make music. I worked with artists from Lady Gaga to Smokey Robinson to Guns ‘N Roses, and I think it strengthened my mixing and musical skills. Thomas Newman was one of my clients who I wanted to help create music. My relationship with Thomas Newman deepened over years and we were able to have creative collaborations that I couldn't have imagined at that time.

God prepares a future beyond our imagination, so I believe that if we don't limit our future by deciding it ourselves, and if we perform the task of the day, and help people, we will surely be able to go to the place we want to go.

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