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fellowship & service award

Sound Minded:
Donald O. Mitchell

by Mel Lambert • portrait by Wm. Stetz

Helming a re-recording crew during the preparation of an intricate motion picture soundtrack takes a unique combination of technical capabilities, people skills and an appreciation of sound and imagery — plus a healthy sense of humor. For many who know him, Donald O. Mitchell exemplifies all of these qualities and more, and is a worthy recipient of the Editors Guild’s prestigious 2013 Fellowship and Service Award, which will be presented to him at a ceremony scheduled for October 5.

Starting, unusually, as a draftsman at 20th Century-Fox in 1955, Mitchell spent the following four-and-a half decades in the film and TV industry, including many years at Warner Hollywood Studios’ Stage D, as well as a brief sojourn at Warner Burbank Studios. With fellow mixers Gregg Rudloff handling sound effects and Elliot Tyson overseeing music, in 1990 Mitchell won an Academy Award for Best Sound for Edward Zwick’s Glory (1989), and has been nominated for 13 more in the same category: The Paper Chase (1973), Silver Streak (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Terms of Endearment (1983), Silverado (1985), A Chorus Line (1985), Top Gun (1986), Black Rain(1989), Days of Thunder (1990), Under Siege (1992), The Fugitive (1993), Clear and Present Danger (1994) and Batman Forever(1995). Between 1973 and 1998 — the year of his retirement — he worked on nearly 120 films.

Despite a teenage interest and a planned career in architecture, in the mid-1950s, Mitchell joined the Fox studio drafting department before moving to “loading mag dubbers, handling recording duties and then limited engineering — repairing, but not necessarily running a console,” he recalls. “One day my boss came to me and said, ‘You’re mixing dialogue today.’ And that was it — Go! It was a session for one of Aaron Spelling’s shows; we did them all: Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat and many others. I also probably mixed at least 50 percent of the M*A*S*H TV shows.”

Regarding his mixing philosophy, Mitchell says, “Dialogue is king. Personally, I don’t like dialogue off the walls; I don’t like pretty much anything coming off the walls except subliminal textures and ambiences. As soon as you are aware that the speaker on the wall is working, then I think that’s wrong. Even with a fly-by of a helicopter that goes by the front and then comes off the wall, I’ll sit there and think, ‘Yeah, they put it into the surrounds.’ I don’t know if every audience thinks that way, but I do and it bugs me. It often pulls me out of the movie. A film happens in front of me; music belongs a little bit in the surrounds, with ambience in the surrounds. But that should just be filling up the room; you should not be aware that is happening. If you are aware, then it’s too loud!”

The Motion Picture Editors Guild awarded its Fellowship and Service award to re-recording mixer Donald O. Mitchell on Saturday, October 5 at a ceremony and dinner at the Sheraton Universal hotel. Over 100 friends, family and colleagues, including director Arthur Hiller and previous recipients of the prestigious award, Carol Littleton, ACE (2010) and Don Hall (2011), came together to celebrate Mitchell’s recognition by the Guild.

The award was presented to Mitchell by veteran producer Peter MacGregor-Scott, who passed along praise from director Andy Davis as well as glowing praise of his own. Davis called Mitchell “a legend among those who really understand sound.” All three worked onUnder Seige(1992) andThe Fugitive(1993). MacGregor-Scott remembered watching an unflappable Mitchell at work in Warner Bros.’ Stage D and wondered aloud, “Why can’t they rename the room for Don Mitchell? If Clint Eastwood can get a room named for him, why not Don?”

Humbly accepting the award after a standing ovation, Mitchell said he “owed his career” to three “giants of our industry”: the late Burt Wilks, who ran the sound department at Fox; Don Rogers, to whom Mitchell reported at Fox and later at Warner Hollywood, where Rogers was senior vice president, post-production; and the late John Bonner, sound director at Fox and then director of special projects at Warner Hollywood. “They protected me,” he said.

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