How I Got Into the Movie Business

by Jesse Rosen

Note: My student, Jesse Rosen, did an interview with me about my early career, influences, and how to break into the movie business. Read the original on Jesse's tumblr page.

When I first started school for Music Production and Sound Design for Visual Media I was often left wondering how all these professionals first entered the sound industry when they were younger. The other day I got a chance to sit down with a sound industry professional, as well as a great teacher, Michael Axinn. He has worked on various feature films such as Moulin Rouge! (2001)Titanic (1997), and Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002). In our interview he talks about how he got started in the sound and film industry and his views on it.

Q:  What did you do when you first came out of school?

A: I was hired as an apprentice sound editor. That was my first job, apprentice sound editor.

Q:  What parts of your job did you find most challenging and how did you solve them? 

A:  Well, when I started I had just finished an MFA and so I had big dreams of becoming a director and I was simultaneously put at the bottom of the heap to learn about post-production audio.  There wasn’t much of a manual for what I [was] supposed to be doing so I was in a position of essentially being told what to do and trying to do certain jobs as well as I could not quite knowing what was there.  At the same time I was overwhelmed with the level of expertise and perfection that was expected in those jobs and this being just a very small part of the overall movie. I realized that making a movie was a huge undertaking and I found that to be pretty overwhelming [and] how am I going to get through this am how am I going to climb back up to the top?

Q:  Who, known to you, are the most important people in the industry today?

A:  Well I talk a lot about Walter Murch in my classes.  Walter Murch was actually the person that I was hired by.  Not directly, but he was the editor and sound [mixer] on the English Patient, which was the movie I was hired as an apprentice for.  And I think, to me, I think Walter Murch is one of the most important people in the industry just because his methodology for sound design and his methodology for editing has been so influential and has a been a big influence on me.  

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(Walter Murch shown above)

Q:  How do most people enter this profession?

A:  Well, the best way to enter the profession is to do what you can to create connections with people working in the industry, and to try to go see them and talk to them. Not to ask for a job per se, but just to go and see them and talk to them and tell them you’re interested.  Several people I know, including some of my students, have followed that advice and ended up with internships. I also require a lot of my students in my advanced classes to meet somebody and interview them in the business. One of my students just completed an internship at Skywalker based on that.  The key is getting to stay because it is so competitive.  You start out as an intern, then you get a job as an apprentice and then you try to become an assistant.

Q:  What’s your favorite part of working with sound as a sound designer?

A:  My favorite part was collaborating with directors. And as I got more into it, I developed some close relationships with different directors and, it didn’t happen all the time, but sometimes directors would like to come and edit with me and I would do things like ADR editing were we select from different performances and decide on the best performances so I had, you know, movies where we would have 25 takes of sound and we would scroll through them and they’d say “take this word from this take, take that word from that take”, and it was fun!  The other fun thing, which was also one of the scariest things, is being on a mix stage where, essentially, your work is being reviewed and mixed into movies, and all of your decisions are up there on show and if nobody says anything then it’s all good.  Probably my favorite movie I ever worked on was Moulin Rouge because we could actually have a lot of freedom to pick and choose different performances and essentially collage them together, ‘cause that movie itself in the way it is edited is very collage-like.  

Q:  What was your favorite project to work on?

A:  I’d say Moulin Rouge was my favorite feature film project.  It was a great, amazing team, and the musical at that time —if you recall, musicals were not… well, there was no glee.  I don’t think glee would have been possible without Moulin Rouge and so it was a big deal to be doing a musical, especially spending $60 million of Murdoch’s money. And nobody knew if it was going to be successful or not.  It seemed like a grandiose experiment and, I think, one of the reasons it was successful was because the music people were so good and, not to mention, the sound editorial team.  But there was a lot of freedom involved, so I called it the $60 million Avant Garde movie.

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Q:  Would consider that project to be you greatest accomplishment?

A:  I was nominated an award for it.  My biggest accomplishment? Well, I don’t know if I think in terms of “biggest” accomplishments, because the truth is that when you’re working on it you never feel like your work is good enough, and it’s only in retrospect that I say “well you know that was fun, I had a good time, I did great work”.  I also worked on a lot of indie movies that I’m very proud of because I had a lot of influence over all the aspects of the sound tracks.  Whereas, if you’re working on a big movie, like Star Wars, which I worked on, you’re only working on a little piece of it.

Q:  What’s your favorite movie or film, to watch?

A:  My favorite movie?  I guess I’m a big fan of Good Fellas.  I don’t think I have a favorite.  I kind of stopped going to movies when I started working on them.  I got really, really detached from it.  

Rosen:  Seems normal.
Mike:  Yeah.

Q:  If you could do it all over again, would you do anything differently?

A:  Probably, yes.  I think I would have.  One of the things you realize when you work in the business is that the movie business is a business and we think that it’s all based on artistic achievement but, if you really want to get anywhere in the movie business you have to understand the business side. And I suppose if I was to do it differently I would work my way in from the business side –instead of work my way in from the artistic side– and then try to become business oriented. I never thought in terms of getting a business degree, but I think if you do that, but you still hold true to your ideals with film making, it’s possible.

Q:  Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A:  I guess it would be you know, probably something about what role does sound play in the film-making process.  Do you want me to answer it?

Rosen: Yes

Mike:  Well, I think the best movies use all aspects of movie-making and the best movies I’ve seen have a lot of space for sound to complete the picture. And I think some of the most memorable movies are memorable exactly because the sound was so crucial.  George Lucas says that it’s 50% of the movie-going experience.  But I’d say, probably only in the best of cases, that is really true.  It’s important.  It’s always exciting when you can approach a film as a sound artist and feel that your role is essential.                                    

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Michael Axinn currently runs a film production company named One to One Box and teaches Sound Design for Film at the Academy of Art University.

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(Michael Axinn shown above - Photo credits unknown)