Frank Morrone is a Canadian film and television sound mixer – Justin Bieber’s Believe documentary was one of his projects – who has received seven Emmy Award nominations, winning for Lost in 2008 and The Kennedys in 2011. He has won other awards, too, including for his work on The Book of Negroes and Sleepy Hollow. He was president of the Motion Picture Sound Editors for four years and served seven years as the sound governor at the Television Academy. As he prepared to head to next weekend’s 92nd Academy Awards, he spoke to The Globe and Mail about his career, from its humble beginnings in the newspaper and bread businesses in Toronto to world-class sound artist.
What’s your history with The Globe and Mail?
A paper route at 12, my first job, delivering the newspaper for two years in Toronto. With my first $30, I bought a drum set at a toy store. Dad had an Italian bakery making the best bread with delivery trucks. Working seven days a week, he’d go in at 4 a.m. to ready dough for the bread makers. We hardly saw him, but were surrounded by family. I worked part-time and he’d get mad because I’d bring my drumsticks. When there weren’t customers, I’d practise drumming.
Were you expected to take over the business?
When I had to choose between taking business or technical courses, Dad said, ‘It’s way too many hours" [in the bread business] and to do what made me happy. Now, because I put in sometimes 80 hours a week, he asks, “Why was it you didn’t take over the business?” In high school and after graduating, I played in a band, working part-time at a music store and got a reel-to-reel [tape recorder]. I’ll never forget how four tracks was absolutely cool. I’d always taken things apart to see how they worked so took electronics engineering at DeVry [University]. After, I could put things back together. I started recording bands, my friends, then a demo with a synthesizer.
How did you get your studio footing?
The demo got Paul Zaza’s attention, a composer doing film scores – fortuitous because getting into a studio was difficult. I never took getting my foot in the door for granted. I spent hours observing as much as I could, learning what every piece of gear did. That’s what I wanted to do, what made me happy. I worked hard to deliver product to make sure clients were pleased. My degree came in handy because mixing consoles and tape machines – to me – were easy to fix. Many times, at 2 a.m. when we didn’t have a tech, I kept sessions going. Keeping up with technology is a huge part of what we do.
What prompted your move into film?
Raiders of the Lost Ark was the most exciting thing my ears ever heard – a visual and aural experience. My first film credit was 1983’s A Christmas Story. I got into the busiest film and television postproduction facility, where the disciplines are different. I did editing, foley [everyday sound effects] – everything to understand being in a mixing chair. Then I got an offer at the biggest New York City studio. My wife, who’d built a CPA [accounting] career, was unquestionably supportive. It was a risk, pulling our children away from their [extended family] for other opportunities. I can’t tell you how many times teachers corrected their spelling as in “colour,” taking out the U.
Beside the technical aspect, is empathy essential?
Doing client playbacks, we usually have a full room with writers, producers and executives. Clients come into the room nervous. It’s their product and represents who they are. Part of my job is to put them at ease. If the producer or director has an idea of how a scene should sound, I’ll prepare it two ways, their preference, then how I feel it might also work. Sometimes that back and forth leads to a better idea. I’ve been told many times playbacks are their favourite part of the entire process.
What do you tell someone unsure of a path?
Find something you’re passionate about. I lecture a lot and can tell who’ll be successful by their questions, how much attention they pay. I’ve had great techs who show up two hours before me. They’ll do well and have what it takes, like a guy now: I’ll reach to shut a monitor off before playbacks and he’s ahead of me. He does what many feel are beneath them, like getting coffee.
There’s no shortcut – success is always about working hard and being honest with clients, especially problems. Once you lose trust, you’ll never get it back. I’ve seen some blame a technician or editorial. I’m working with a team so it’s my problem. Clients want it fixed and delivered on time; they don’t want excuses.
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