Nelson Harvey
Post Independent Contributor
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

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January 12, 2013
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Rifle native helps Oscar-nominated films find their voice

The idea that you can completely reinvent yourself is a quintessential American concept, though one more often talked about than carried out. Eight years ago, Rifle native Sam Miille decided to go ahead and do it.

At the time, Miille was working as the head chef at Creekbend Bistro and Catering in Rifle, a business he helped to start with his mother, Olinda Nevonen. His wife was a film editor with clients in New York City, and Miille decided he wanted to try his hand in the movie business.

The couple moved to New York City, and Miille took an internship with C5 Sound, an editing firm that has worked on films for directors such as Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee and Spike Lee.

"I just interned, and did it the old fashioned way of learning everything I can and falling down a lot," said Miille, reached by phone in New York City. "You learn 100 times more on the job from your peers than in school."

After less than a decade, the approach has paid off: Miille's team won an Oscar in sound editing in 2012 for Scorsese's movie, "Hugo," and two of his bosses have been nominated for Oscars again this year for the Ang Lee film "Life of Pi."

The studio previously won an Emmy award for Scorsese's HBO series "Boardwalk Empire."

"We have very stiff competition this year," said Miille, of the Oscar contest coming up in February. "It will be a horse race to see who comes out ahead."

Waves crashing, tigers roaring

At first glance, "Life of Pi" is a simple film - a boy stuck on a life raft with a tiger must figure out how to survive. Yet the film is sonically rich.

"For as simple as the movie is, it was elaborate and dense in terms of sound effects," said Miille.

He said director Ang Lee was determined to highlight the sound of water hitting the lifeboat on which the tiger and the boy are trapped.

"He wanted it to be a character in the story," he said.

To achieve that effect, Miille and colleagues did a huge amount of field recording. They put a recorder on a homemade raft left to drift off the coast of South Carolina, then flew to Los Angeles to record the sound of water lapping against the actual boat used in the film.

Finally, they traveled to Maverick's - the historic big wave surf spot near San Francisco - and captured the sound of its killer waves on tape.

Since the film co-stars a tiger, animal sounds were another key part of its sonic landscape.

"We had several recording sessions with the hero tiger that you see on the screen," said Miille, noting that they tried to capture the animal in as many moods and positions as possible. Yet the team still relied heavily on computers for tiger sounds. More than 90 percent of the animal sounds in the film are computer generated.

A computer geek in love with sound

Growing up in Rifle, Miille said he was always a movie buff with a passion for good sound.

"When surround sound came out, I was the first person lining up to get a system." he said.

"He calls himself a computer geek, and I always knew that would be something he would like to do," said his mother, Olinda Nevonen. "When he bought a house here in town, he wired it himself with the best sound equipment."

These days, Miille works with a stable of editors and engineers on a typical project, but his specialty is sound effects: cars passing by, children playing in the background, doors slamming or waves lapping at a boat.

The New York editing scene is quite different from the work available in Los Angeles, heart of the big budget, blockbuster studios, he said.

"We don't tend to get the giant fighting robots quite as much as they do in L.A. The films here tend to be a lot less fluff and a lot more substance," he said.

Miille has a basic standard for whether he's succeeding in his editing role.

"Our opinion on sound work is that if you notice what we're doing, we're probably not doing a good job," he said. "Every decision we make, we ask whether it will help with the story, or whether it will draw attention to us and our work."

After working many 80-hour weeks during the "Life of Pi" production process, Miille is now in the middle of a month-long vacation. "But I'm sure we have another project coming up," he said. "We always do."

Although he has no formal education in the sound editing field, he said he's happy about the way he entered the industry.

"The best education I could get is from the people who are at the top of their game," he said. "Would you rather get an NYU education in literature, or learn from Ernest Hemingway?"


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The Post Independent Updated Jan 12, 2013 01:51AM Published Jan 12, 2013 01:45AM Copyright 2013 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.