While perhaps only the most ardent of movie followers know who Kevin O’Connell is, logic dictates that even the casual matinee watcher will be familiar with his work. His oeuvre reads like a summary of milestone films from the past 40 years, yet nobody could ever claim to have seen these achievements, though we’ve all heard them. Welcome to the riddle that is Kevin O’Connell – an incomparable contributor to the Hollywood machine as both sound technician and audio mixer. O’Connell’s first credit was for the 1980’s future classic, The Empire Strikes Back – a movie that’s widely considered to be the best of the Star Wars saga and one that arrived with such an impact it might be fitting to allude to it as the harbinger of O’Connell’s untouchable career.
Although The Empire Strikes Back actually won an Oscar for it’s sound mixing, O’Connell was merely a sound technician at the time. After cutting his teeth on this classic, George Lucas masterpiece, he collaborated with the the other pillar of late 1970’s and early 1980’s mass entertainment adventures, Steven Spielberg.
Raiders of the Lost Ark became his first job as a sound dubbing technician and as we all know it was another monstrous franchise and another epoch defining moment in film.
O’Connell never once showed signs of slowing down throughout the ‘80’s ’90’s or 2000’s and ran the gamut of genres; working on comedies (Airplane II: The Sequel, Beverly Hills Cop II), Oscar-nominated dramas (The Big Chill, Terms of Endearment), Sci-Fi and action films (Starman, Dune, Rambo: First Blood Part II) and other Spielberg hits (Poltergeist and Gremlins). It was Terms of Endearment that gave O’Connell his first Oscar nomination though, a trend that would continue throughout his career. Nominations followed for his work on twenty other blockbuster films including Top Gun, Days of Thunder, A Few Good Men, Twister, The Rock, ConAir, Armageddon, Memoirs of a Geisha and Transformers.
In terms of recognition, credit or acknowledgment, sound mixing might possibly be the most thankless position in Hollywood. Whilst the costume designer, set designer and production designers are in plain view (if sometimes upstaged by special effects and the actors themselves) and the editing is obviously apparent, the work of the sound mixer is nowhere to be seen. Whilst everyone who saw Armageddon definitely heard the sound of that drill burrowing into the asteroid and Bruce Willis’ shotgun blasts as he tried to shoot holes in both the ludicrous plotline and Ben Affleck after discovering him with his daughter, the impressive audio mix could only ever succumb to the visual spectacle of global mass destruction and Michael Bay’s signature circular camera work.
It would be a matter of such monumental understatement to suggest that were it not for the sound mixers, Armageddon and every other movie – blockbuster or not, would be a less engaging experience. They would in fact be unintelligible garbage as every movie director is well aware. Without that intoxicating blend of soundtrack, foley and dialog there is literally no movie. The work of a sound mixer, like that of an editor, is something that transpires once most cast and crew are embarking on their next projects. In a mix stage, using state of the art equipment, the mixer culls together the recorded sounds for the film and blends them into one cohesive track. A number of sound elements including signal level, dynamics frequency and panoramic position are manipulated and effects are added. The recorded dialogue, ambient noise, sound effects and music are all combined with the correct balance in post-production (or post as the industry insiders would say). This means if whilst watching a film in which two characters are having an important discussion about where exactly the money is hidden, but the location is obscured by the blair from the horn of a passing car, there’s a decent chance the sound mixer overlooked something and will probably never work in Hollywood again.
A sound mixer is needed to ensure all the explosions, all the screeching tires, the bullets and the screams as well as the quietest whisper are well-balanced and presented with the utmost clarity.
It is ultimately O’Connell’s precision, foresight, unparalleled experience and console dexterity that have earned him so many tuxedo fittings though, until now he’s never been able to accessorize with the trophy.
Over the years O’Connell has became the most Oscar-nominated person in history (besides Leornardo DiCaprio) to never win. Whilst nominations for sound mixing are selected by industry peers – meaning other professional sound mixers, the winner in this category is chosen by the Academy as a whole. This arguably makes winning more of a challenge because voters who work as screenwriters (for instance) might craft a riveting story, but probably don’t have the technical experience and aural sensibilities to select the most deserving sound mixer. They will simply vote based on which nominated film they liked the most.
O’Connell finally got his due on February 26, but he had no time to rest on his laurels, pop bottles or pass out at the strip club. He had nine films on his schedule in 2016 and he’s already at work on his next project, ‘I’m Not Here’. starring fellow Oscar winner J.K. Simmons which is likely to be another strong addition to his enviable corpus.