Jonathan Wales is an award-winning re-recording mixer and supervising sound editor, who has worked on several fan-favorite horror films as well as the hit Netflix series, Midnight Mass. Learn about the details of his career, projects he’s worked on, a deeper insight into the unique style and design for Midnight Mass, and much more!
PopHorror – Hi Jonathan. How has the last year been for you?
Jonathan Wales – Wow, this has been such a busy year. I’ve been working at home a lot, but now we’ve got some of those workflows really dialed in. It’s actually super fun to do. I’ve also been able to work back in the studio at Warner Bros. again, so some really fun projects are coming up for release in 2022!
PopHorror – That’s great to hear. You’re an award-winning re-recording mixer. What inspired you on this career path?
Jonathan Wales – I actually started in the music business producing records back in the UK in the early 1990s. As a longtime musician and just loving the process of creating sonic art, I was progressively drawn to work on movies early on and gradually made the transition in the mid-1990s.
I have always enjoyed approaching sound from a viewpoint of storytelling and possibilities. How can we best communicate with the audience and how can we use our soundscape to elevate the storytelling beyond what’s simply there. I was fortunate (or unfortunate) to have literally grown up with the technology we now use as it was being developed. So I have been using ProTools since it was invented as well as Logic for that matter. From a very early stage in my career, because I knew my way around the tech, I started to blur the lines between editing and mixing on the stage. We’d try to keep things “live” as long as possible back then, so we could tweak and have as much creative possibility for as long as possible. Also early on, music was way in front of film in terms of mixing tech. So I was able to bring some of the music vibe and apply it to what was going on with the film mixing, and that was really fun.
PopHorror – For those who may not know, what is involved with being a re-recording mixer (details of what you do)?
Jonathan Wales – My job is to take the sounds that have been created by sound editors and designers plus the original dialog and the music and blend it all together to create the final sound that you actually hear when you watch the show. So I’m working with the director, the producers, the picture editor, the music editor, sound editors, dialog editors, etc. to really wrangle all the sound and make sense of it in both a communicative and emotional way. We can really enhance the experience for the audience by doing this, and the goal is always for the audience to have the absolute best experience of the show. We want the audience to be able to understand all the dialog and to be moved by how it all comes together both in spectacle and emotion. Plus as we know – pictures without sounds aren’t very effective! 🙂
PopHorror – Very true! Some of the projects you’ve worked on have been horror including Get Out and The Haunting of Hill House. Is the horror genre something you like and if so what’s your favorite horror film?
Jonathan Wales – I think it’s very true to say that sound is a big part of the horror genre. It’s one where we get to literally play (or prey) on the audience’s senses more than most. It’s really fun to watch something with people who’ve never seen it before and you’re just looking to clock their reactions to what you know is coming up. Historically though, I also think that as a mixer you tend to become known for the things you do early on that become successful. I definitely think that was part of it for me. \ And in sound we love to play around and make things cool. For that, the genres with the most to play around with are obviously Horror and Sci-Fi – and there’s a LOT more horror that gets made.
As far as favorite films are concerned, it’s really hard because there are so many great ones. Of the horror movies I’ve worked on, I think Saw was really great. I also loved Memento although that’s not horror. I also think Hush from Mike Flanagan was one of the most amazing projects, and especially it being such a sound focus to tell the story made it really rewarding.
PopHorror – You’ve worked on so many amazing films and projects. How did you get involved with your newest horror series on Netflix, Midnight Mass?
Jonathan Wales – I’ve been fortunate to work with Mike Flanagan and Trevor Macy since Hush and ever since then I’ve been so excited to get to work on Midnight Mass. It’s been hanging around in Mike’s head for so long. Even in Hush the protagonist is an author, and the book she’s writing IS Midnight Mass. So it’s not every day you get to have those kinds of connections in your work.
PopHorror – You brought this desolate island to life sonically with meticulous attention to detail. The vast emptiness of the island lends itself to a subtle sonic landscape, leaving little room for error or unintentional sound choices. Can you discuss how you created a geographical map of the desolate island in order to achieve the perfect volume of waves crashing depending on the location of the scene?
Jonathan Wales – Mike Flanagan actually drew the map for us originally and then we got more detailed versions as the VFX department was working. I was working with my co-supervisor Trevor Gates and his team, and right from the beginning we wanted to make sure that the audience really got the vibe of the island. So we used the map from Mike Flanagan which literally laid out where the different locations were in relation to each other and especially in relation to the coastline. For instance, there are no ocean sounds or gulls when you’re at the Church or the school. By being really tight with those differences made it very interesting depending on where you were. We also wanted to make sure that we communicated that the Island is dying. Everyone is gradually leaving. Nobody ever comes to this island. Originally we had built up a bunch of activity in the main street, and we had to strip it away because it actually felt too appealing.
PopHorror – Can you also give us more insight on the creative challenge of creating a sound landscape that works both with the emotional and horror aspects of this limited series?
Jonathan Wales – I work very hard in the mix to remain consistent so that environments feel the same to the audience throughout. However, we’re also changing them for effect. So sometimes we would intentionally be more sparse and at other times we might want it to feel a bit more intense. Those changes are done based on what will best support the story at that time. Then on top, we’re layering a lot of small little things – that’s something which is also really fun to do in Atmos because there is so much possibility for placement. The real world is made up of thousands of really small things working together – and making a soundtrack like this is basically just like recreating that, a few small little things at a time.
PopHorror – In addition to building the ambient sounds of the island, you also oversaw a lot of the music in Midnight Mass. Chilling hymns are a key feature of the show that can be heard in various churches with different structures that lead to unique reverberations. However, due to Covid, none of the singers were ever in the same room together. Instead, each singer recorded their vocals independently, and it was your job to weave their voices together to achieve seamless and harmonious hymns, all while making it sound like the voices were recorded together in the church. Can you tell us how you went about editing independently recorded vocals together to create the prominent hymns in the series?
Jonathan Wales – A huge credit goes to Brett “Snacky” Pierce, our music editor. He had the job of receiving all the tracks from the individual musicians plus the production tracks from the actors, and fixing them in terms of timing and (in some cases) pitch, to make it all gel together and feel right. Then I got handed literally hundreds of tracks to piece together into the result you have. There is definitely a different approach that I took for the hymns that are used like score (Holy Holy Holy, Abide with Me, Come Darkness etc.) vs. the actual singing that’s on-screen. In the “score” hymns,
I positioned all of the voices around the audience so that they are literally enveloped in the sound. Like they’re surrounded by singers and can’t escape. Whereas for the diegetic singing in church it was really a case of making it totally believable so the audience would just feel like they’re watching a real mass. I’m really proud of the results here. From a standpoint of score, it was a very experimental process that led to the end result. I would work very closely with Snacky and the composers, The Newton Brothers, to refine the score so that it was really working for Mike. Sometimes we’d try things and they totally didn’t work. Other times, we’d do something we were worried wasn’t that good and then Mike would just love it. It really was an evolution, drilling down to the essence of how the music could best help the really complicated knife-edge feeling that we needed for the show.
PopHorror – The series is a huge hit. Are you happy with its success and the response from viewers?
Jonathan Wales – It’s the most rewarding thing when you make something you’re really proud of and people actually appreciate it. I think that’s one of the best feelings you can have as a creative person.
PopHorror – What’s next for you?
Jonathan Wales – Well, I have recently mixed The Black Phone with Scott Derrickson and that movie is really special – coming out later in 2022. I am also currently working on some other amazing projects with Mike Flanagan and Trevor Macy – so you have to wait for those to come. It’s gonna be a really busy year!
PopHorror – Thanks again for chatting with PopHorror, Jonathan. We look forward to all your upcoming projects.