Re-Recording Mixer James Parnell Talks Working on Trinkets & Moonlight

Daytime Emmy Nominated re-recording mixer James Parnell was nominated for his work on Netflix’s Trinkets. As such, we decided to speak to him about the challenges and rewards of working on this series.

Trinkets follows the story of three teenagers who find an unexpected connection when they all land in the same Shoplifters Anonymous group. James’ past projects include Academy Award winner Moonlight and Hulu’s hit comedy PEN15.

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Ames: Talk to us about your job as a re-recording mixer.

James Parnell: Well, people go out and record production sounds, dialogue for shows or they’ll go out and record custom sound FX and then the re-recorder mixer’s job is to receive all of that and re-record those sounds and blend them together. In this day and age, you’re working with teams of people, teams of editors — dialogue editor, sound effects editor, foley editor, music editors, background editors — whole teams of people working on TV shows these days. Oftentimes, you’re working in pairs of two, so you’ll have a partner who is either mixing dialogue and music or you’ll be mixing dialogue and mixing and they’ll be mixing sound effects and background and foley and together your job is to mix the sounds that have been recorded from the show, blend them together and try to get the most cohesive soundtrack possible so that you’re telling a story but also elevating the experience that a listener has.

What drew you to this career?

I did an undergrad in political science at York University in Toronto and I hated every minute of it. I mean, I liked it, but it was super clear I wasn’t meant for a career in politics and just academia in general. I was playing in a band at the time, I was playing drums, and I was recording my band, and I finished my undergrad not knowing what to do and saw some adverts for Toronto based audio schools and one of them had a course for sound post-production — mixing sound for film and television. Until that moment I had only thought of audio in terms of music, careers in audio being music recording studios or being a producer for a band. Once I stepped into that course it was like a lightbulb went off, like, of course, this was something you could do. Then it was like pandora’s box was opened. I finished that program, I went to the UK and did a master’s degree in it, I moved to London and worked there for two years, and then I moved to LA and it’s been one open door after the other. It’s been really cool.

What is your process when you approach a project?

Typically, it’s project-dependent. A lot of the time re-recording mixers are flown in about two weeks before the mix starts, they’ll have a meeting with the supervising sound editor, they’ll probably have a couple of days to compile the elements together, comb through and see what they’re missing or flag any issues that might come up during the mix; and then you’re pretty much left to your own devices. If you were fortunate you’ll have some pre-dub days or pre-mixing days, depending on the budget, so you’ll be sitting on the stage without the clients in the room and you’ll have the lay of the land where you can dial things in and get things honed in enough so that the first day of the mix when the director comes in they’re listening to something that’s already been sculpted so that they’re not hearing music just blasting, sound effects too loud, etc. But it is project dependent.

On Trinkets, the TV show I worked on, I had a day per episode to mix ahead of the playback day so what they heard when they came to stage was pretty much as closest I could get to what my creative vision was for the show; and knowing what they wanted from the spotting sessions, trying to strike that balance and get it as presentable as possible.

Do you have a particular style that you try to lean on a little more?

Well, on Trinkets I was both the supervising sound editor and the re-recording mixer, so I had the benefit of that situation where we would have spotting sessions where we would sit and watch the rough edit of the picture, so it would be like dialogue, temp music; and you would have the basic constructs of the mix so you would see where they were going, but, obviously, the editor in an Avid is limited to twenty-four audio tracks whereas in a mix stage each system can have upwards of seven hundred audio tracks. So, having the supervising sound editor role, I was able to hear and see exactly where we were going, but generally speaking you’re looking for key story points. So, for example, the opening scene of Trinkets we’re introduced to the main character Elodie and she’s going through this bar and it’s this feral experience where she’s run away from home and she’s hearing crowds but not really hearing the dialogue — you have to look for keys in the editorial: the dialogue, sound effects or music that you’re given and determine which one you want to play. Then it’s about not throwing the kitchen sink in and making sure things strike a balance and that you’re telling the story the writers and the showrunners want to tell, but also being as creative with sound in order to give the listeners things they can sonically grab onto while they’re listening to it.

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Did Trinkets present the opportunity to try out new things from a sound perspective?

I worked with AwesomenessTV before. They were the production company and we worked on Light as a Feather on Hulu and we worked on PEN15 together — also on Hulu — and initially I got called on to do Trinkets because I had a working relationship with them, but specifically talking about the creative stuff on Trinkets, each episode was completely different. There was a season arc to the show where the characters were developed, but episode by episode was challenging in its own way. For example, in one episode we follow one of the main characters to a robotics competition where she’s on a team and she’s competing against other high schools who have their own robots and we had to do a ton of sound design for the robots; and simultaneous to that robots competition was this intricate sequence where Elodie has snuck into a teacher’s hotel room and she’s digitally hacking into a laptop and stealing a test. So, we’re constantly going back and forth from the robotics competition to the hotel room where there’s an impending sense of urgency for her to get out without being spotted by the teacher, and then cut back to the robotics competition. All of that is — and not just from a sound effects and sound editing standpoint — not only is that intricate but then the mixing aspect of flip-flopping back and forth and gradually increasing the tension over that sequence, those kinds of things are hard to mix but also enjoyable because it presents a number of challenges and you’re figuring out what to play and when to deliver the most impact.

You were nominated for an Emmy for Trinkets. What was it like to receive that nomination and be recognized by your peers?

Oh, it was a complete honor and something I was genuinely surprised by. I was coming back from lunch and received an email from the production company that was just congratulating the members of the show on Emmy nominations. My first assumption was, oh this will be set design or writing, and I put my phone back in my pocket, but then I did a double-take and thought, I should probably read this email. I opened the email up and, sure enough, the second line was sound mixing and sound editing and I was jumping for joy in the parking lot. It was really quite an honor and I’m super proud of the whole sound team that worked on it and really ecstatic to get the nomination.

Was there something you learned while working on Trinkets that you will now carry over to other shows?

Totally. So, Trinkets was unique because we got to mix it in Dolby Atmos. Typically, Dolby Atmos is reserved for Blade Runner or Terminator Salvation — you know these big films with drones flying overhead. And it was really cool mixing in Dolby Atmos on Trinkets because, you know, from an outsiders perspective, the show is a basic walk and talk — you know, there are scenes where the three main girls get together and they talk and there are music moments — but a lot of Dolby Atmos shines in its use of subtleties, so you can use the overhead speakers for design elements or for music reverb. The opening scene, after the opening set-piece with Elodie, we go to a police station and the reverb on the characters’ voices is mixed with Dolby Atmos, so I’ve put the reverb and high channels in the ceiling so it makes them seem like they’re contained in this holding cell where they’re being grilled by these police officers on the location of their friend. Little intricacies like that, you know, putting birds in the overhead channels, or if there’s a design moment that calls for flying something in the overhead speakers, all of that really lends itself to the medium. I’ve mixed on Dolby Atmos prior, but not much, so getting my feet wet working on Dolby Atmos was really cool.

I have to ask about your experience working on Moonlight. What was that like and were you surprised by the critical reaction the film received?

No, it was funny … basically, when we were receiving reels for the film you knew right off the bat that this was something special. The story is so powerful in that that you can almost — and I shouldn’t be saying this — watch it without the polished sound and it would’ve been just as powerful. Barry Jenkins was incredibly articulate, from what I’ve heard from the supervising sound editor, about exactly what he wanted. It didn’t go through many picture revisions in terms of when it got to the mix stage. Sometimes what happens is we’ll get the initial turnover and we’ll have five reels of a film and as you’re mixing, they’ll say, “Oh, we did some reel cutting in Reel 3 or Reel 5,” and we cut our sound to fit the picture changes. Sometimes that’s late changes to scenes where they’re tightening up the edit, but [on Moonlight], very limited picture changes were happening on the mix stage and it was a fully fleshed out story from the jump. It was a pleasure to work on that.