Oscar call music to my ears, says Kiwi soundman

By Michael Dickson

Tony Johnson says Avatar's sound mix was more subtle than in most action movies. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Tony Johnson says Avatar's sound mix was more subtle than in most action movies. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Sound engineer Tony Johnson felt relief when a phone call at 3am woke him with news that he had been picked for an Oscar nomination.

Johnson, selected for his sound-mixing work on Avatar, was one of nine New Zealanders nominated for an Oscar yesterday.

"It's an incredible honour to be nominated, but I'm also relieved because you know Avatar is probably in the running, but you never know until the nominations are read out," Johnson said.

It was his sister who called, from Melbourne, to let him know, he said.

Avatar uses pioneering 3D technology and has become the biggest-earning movie of all time, making almost $3 billion worldwide.

It is up for Oscars in nine categories.

Director James Cameron had been very particular about sound, often changing the script at the last minute.

The sound crew had to get it right without a rehearsal, Johnson said.

And there was the extra technology to deal with kilometres of wire and unfamiliar 3D techniques.

"It was the most challenging sound job I've ever done. There were a lot more problems to deal with," Johnson said.

Even though its visual effects had garnered most attention, Avatar's sound was just as important, he said.

"Sound is still 50 per cent of the filmgoing experience. It would be lost without it.

"It used a lot of subtlety, like the rain on [alien world] Pandora. A lot of action movies are just loud from start to finish. Avatar was far more creative."

Other New Zealand Oscar nominees all worked on either Avatar or District 9.

They include Peter Jackson, nominated as producer of best picture for District 9, a group of four Kiwis from Weta Workshop for Avatar's visual effects, and set decorator Kim Sinclair, for art direction on Avatar.

Sinclair was the supervising art director for Avatar's Wellington film sets, where all live action with actors was filmed.

The film's world consisted of much more than digital imagery, he said. There had been a massive physical set.

"Not only was the architecture built, but the food, packaging, knives, forks, spoons and vending machines were all designed.

"We had 13 electricians working full-time, wiring up lights. We had 3km of fluorescent light tubes."

All work in New Zealand had been done inside studios. It had been the first time a Hollywood film had come to New Zealand without any interest in our scenery, Sinclair said.

"Traditionally they come for the location. But Avatar had no location - it was purely for the expertise."

Both Johnson and Sinclair said they hoped to attend the awards ceremony in March.

Sinclair said he expected it would be a little uncomfortable. "I like to be behind the cameras I'm a typical Kiwi bloke. I think it will blow over. I hope so."

Johnson, meanwhile, has been to the awards ceremony once before, which means he is sure it will be nerve-racking.

"Over there [in Hollywood] they take it very seriously. It's a very big event. It's seen as the pinnacle," Johnson said.

"I couldn't eat on the day. You wake up and have to sit around until two in the afternoon, and you sort of stew all day."

- NZ Herald

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