Aaton-Digital interview with Academy Award® winning US Production Sound Mixer Phillip Bladh, Oct 2021
- by Mel Noonan, StylusMC
Phillip with his Academy Award® for Best Sound for the movie Sound of Metal, recorded with his Aaton CantarX-3.
Photo credit: Temma Henken
1: Re your growing up years, were there any influences that may have led you to your later sound career?
I started as an amateur musician in garage bands, in bands called ‘The Velvet Marina’, then ‘Sarcastic Plastic’, then ‘Blue Bus Stop’. My first introduction to recording came from my desire to make a record with my band. My High School had a recording tech class and a recording studio essentially built into a closet in one of the band rooms. It was mostly set up for vocals or providing a service recording auditions for any senior who needed one to get into a college. I really was endlessly fascinated with it.
2: At what stage did you realize that sound recording was what you wanted to do for a career?
I always tried to keep up with what I learned in my recording tech class. For a while I just used a karaoke machine, then I eventually did all my demos on a 4 track Tascam disk recorder. Eventually I found out about Pro Tools and got my first interface which was an Mbox. In 2007 I was in LA for a concert and drove past the Los Angeles Recording School and my girlfriend said ‘You should go there’. We took a tour and I signed up for the next semester that day. It all happened fast. When I graduated in 2008 I quickly realized I was better suited for production sound.
3: What were your first paid jobs, if any, for recording in those early years?
My first film gig was a film called You Should Meet my Son about a mother who tries to find a husband for her son. This was a learning experience for sure. I did a lot of things for the first time. I learned how to mic tight pants and giant flowing nightgowns! These are methods that I still use to this day.
On the set of Madison County in Arkansas, 2009, one of the first film projects that I ever read the script and had a connection to. I met a lot of great people on this movie who I still keep in touch with. As we all evolved from this project we all kept working on each other’s projects. As my first horror film I learned a lot of certain pitfalls that you can avoid while making movies. I learned that after 2 days of our actors screaming thru all the takes, they ended up with no voice by day 3. After that we did a lot of pantomime screams; which is when the actor pretends to scream but adds it into the mix later.
4: What gear were you using back then?
I bought an Aaton CantarX-2 as my first recorder. When I took out a loan to get my gear I wanted to buy all of the gear that the current Oscar® winner used. Kirk Frances won in 2009 for Bourne Ultimatum and he used a Cantar. I wanted to be competitive and ready for any gig, big or small, that was being offered to me.
5: What about the experience of your training in sound? How did it all go?
I learned a lot as a production assistant. It’s a low responsibility job that offers you a way to get on-set experience and learn at your own pace. I would always talk to Sound. They were always so supportive and helpful. This is when I first saw a CantarX-2.
6: What were your first jobs as a production sound mixer? How was the experience?
The first Job I did that came out and was commercially available was a movie called Madison County. It was a slasher movie filmed in Arkansas in 2010, and came out on Netflix, Redbox, and Wal-mart. This was the first project I applied myself to in a way that was more in tune to how I currently mix. We took time to do a lot of stuff on set. We had a scene with big boots walking on gravel, and in the script it talked about how scary the sound was, therefore I made sure to take time to record it correctly on set and try to be proactive about the smaller details, as well as trying to record the dialog cleanly.
My first sound cart with my original CantarX-2.
7: What was the first recording setup you owned as a production sound mixer? How was the experience of using it?
I started with an Aaton CantarX-2 and have never used anything else but Aaton professionally. I purchased my X-2 new. It’s #678. I love it and still use it as a bag or back up rig. I bought my CantarX-3 in 2017. It’s # 93.The X-2 was tricky at first but I read the manual and figured my own way to teach myself. I always tell anyone who asks about the Cantar, ‘If you buy good gear it does a lot of the hard work for you.’
8: When had you first become aware of Aaton recorders?
I had studied them when I was looking into getting my own gear. I had seen one on set before as a PA, and knew that Kirk Frances used one to win the Oscar.
9: What did you come to like about the X-2?
I loved the way it sounded and that it was all one package. I didn’t need any additional gear to get it to work. I also thought it was awesome how weatherproof it was. I took that recorder through thick and thin and it never failed me. It’s a solid state friend!
10: What led you to the decision to buy your Aaton X-3?
I wanted the flexibility that it offered with more tracks and features. I think they improved issues that were a little off about the X-2. I will buy the X-4 when it comes out, and so on and so on.
11: Did you just jump in and start using your X-3 for real, or did you spend some time first getting to know it?
I honestly just bought it started using it. It’s the best way to really get to know your gear. I was reading the manual my first days on set. They wanted to jam the camera so I figured out how to do that. They wanted to change the scene numbers so I figured out how to change the metadata. One small thing at a time until I had mastered it.
Starship in Los Angeles, 2015, a small movie that I had a great time making. This character was codenamed ‘Mr. Buttons’ on set. He was a costume and armour maker who was a friend of the film makers.
12: What are the features of your CantarX-3 that you now really appreciate in your work?
I really like the ability to go back and change things easily. You can change the metadata and take notes while rolling! You can record to multiple cards and a thumb drive at the same time! You can go up to 24 tracks! It’s a monster upgrade from the X-2.
13: Anything to say about Aaton’s support for their users?
I have fried the FireWire out port to my X-2 on more than one occasion, which was my fault because of the way I had it my bag rig. It would sometimes run on the fly while mixing and the stress would randomly detach the port. I learned my lesson and added a layer of padding on the bottom and used the built in tension relief knob.
I had a small issue with my X-3 and they replaced a part for me free of cost.
Aaton is a company of integrity and amazing professional support. I also really appreciate Mike Paul and the service department at Location Sound for helping me all of these years!
14: You have obviously worked hard and built up an impressive body of work. Looking back over all, which are the highlights that stand out in your career so far, and why?
Sound of Metal has become my signature credit. I think The Invitation was my break out movie of sorts. I remember when we went to the screening at the Egyptian theatre in LA my wife Rose Bladh, who is also a production mixer, came with me. After the Q&A following the screening all the actors passed by us on the way out of the theatre and enthusiastically said ‘Hi’. My wife turned to me with her mouth open in surprise and said ‘They all know you!’- it was a fun moment.
The Little Hours in Italy, 2016.
Filming this movie in Italy was a great experience. There was no script, only a 12 page outline and ideas. It was mostly improv, so every take was different. Lots of tricky mic work to get the best sound possible.
15: I’m really intrigued by the mention on IMDB of the movie you made based on your own prom experiences. Can you talk about how that came about and the experience of doing it?
My Friend Brandon Walz and I produced a movie based on my high school prom, which is the king of all Bad Date stories. It’s a fun, light hearted comedy in the vein of a 90’s rom com and it’s called Geek USA. It’s never been distributed but my dad has hundreds of copies on DVD in his basement.
Working on a movie about my own experience was tricky. I think a lot of aspiring film makers get ideas and make projects without proper financing or support. My experience was exactly that. We had a good time making it and maxed out all of our credit cards but never had a good way to get it out to the masses.
16: Also intriguing, the fact that your wife Rose is also a production sound mixer. Does she borrow your X-3 or is that off limits?
We had so much gear a few years ago that we realized we had 2 full packages. She used the X-2 for a while but after doing a Christmas film late last year she wanted to have her own X-3, and now she does.
17: Are you Hollywood based?
We live in Albuquerque, New Mexico but still belong to the LA union as well.
18: Considering all your experiences along the way getting to where you are now, what advice would you offer to those starting out or in the early part of their sound careers?
Get good gear at the beginning. Otherwise you’ll end up spending more by upgrading. Make sure to always get good results.
My current sound cart with my CantarX-3
19: Regarding your Oscar winning movie ‘Sound of Metal’? What led you to getting the job?
In 2016 I did an Azazel Jacobs movie called The Lovers with producers Chris Stinson and Josh Gonzalez. We worked well together. They called me in 2018 with Sound of Metal. I immediately wanted to do it!
20: Were you recording dialogue or music or both in ‘Sound of Metal’?
I got to record both. Coming from a music background I had spent a lot of time coming up with ways that I liked to record. The band was set up thru the front of house or the venue we filmed at in Boston. Then I was sent a stereo feed to plug into my CantarX-3. In addition we added a stereo pair high up in the room to record the band with the crowd.
We also recorded the muffled (deaf) dialogue and the high quality all the same time with plant mics and contact mics. Everything was timecode embedded a ready to use on its own ISO track for post
21: Where was it shot?
We filmed in Boston in the late summer of 2018. My boom operator, Jeremy Eisner was such a champ working in tight quarters doing amazing work in sweltering heat.
22: Was it all cart based with the X-3?
Yep. I used my CantarX-3 to record all of this movie.
23: What your equipment list for ‘Sound of Metal’?
In addition to the CantarX-3, I used Lectrosonics wireless gear and portable recorders, Countryman Lav mics, Schoeps boom mics, Omnigoose plant mics, and we had a few off brand contact mics that we ordered from overseas.
24: Did you enjoy the experience?
I feel really good about the results. I enjoy working on a project I believe in and can really sink my teeth into. The Director was a wonderful talent, as were the actors and crew. There was a lot of thinking outside the box as to what could be done sonically to tell a story. I also understand that this was a special film and I may never get the chance to do one like it again, so I’m really happy I got to do it this time.
Phillip with his recent Oscar® awarded for Best Sound for the movie Sound of Metal alongside his Aaton CantarX-3 recorder which he used to record dialogue and music for the sound track.
25: Did you realize at any stage that it could be a contender for an award?
Not while we were filming it. No one ever thought that this would be a film like that. All I knew is that it was a really great art film. After it premiered in Toronto I read a few reviews and they all talked about how good the sound was. Keeping in mind that I had not seen the movie yet at this point I was starting to get the feeling something special was happening. It wasn’t until Variety published an Oscar predictions article in October with us as the number 1 spot for sound was when I started to think we might get a nomination. I never thought we would win, not even when we were at the ceremony and everyone told me we were going to win, I couldn’t let myself believe it.
26: Was winning an Oscar something that you had hoped for in your work as a production sound mixer?
I thought maybe one day I could make my way to work with Spielberg or James Cameron, the big movies that often get a nomination, but never thought it would happen like this. It was a total blindside for me.
Phillip with his wife Rose at the Academy Awards presentation in Los Angeles. Rose is also a Production Sound Mixer with her own AatonX-3.
27: Do you want to thank anyone for the help that was extended to you in your career along the way?
My Parents, Eric and Mickey Bladh. They have supported me and let me follow my heart into a career that has been a lot of ups and downs. I was really excited and happy for them. I cannot imagine what it’s like to see your kid win an Oscar. My Wife Rose has seen me go through it all and is now doing her own mixing. It has spread into a family business. So many producers and friends over the years - Chris Stinson, Amy Greene, Josh Gonzalez. My boom op for many years, Jeremy Eisner, Brandon Walz, Monson Douglas, Matt Burgett, Eamon Fay, Joanne Wu, Gordon Moore.
28: Where do you go from here?
The future is bright. I have a few movies in the can that are coming out hopefully this year. One is a Joaquin Phoenix movie Directed by Mike Mills titled C’mon C’mon. I also did a movie Directed by Jesse Eisenberg starring Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore. It’s called When You Finish Saving the World and it’s based on Jesse’s audiobook of the same name. I’m currently working on a movie about the invention of the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto directed by Eva Longoria.
Phillip Bladh CAS
On the set of Modos The Prophecy of Armageddon in Santa Paula CA, 2011.This pilot episode never went to series. It was fun to film in Santa Paula, which is the same town where they filmed Stephen King’s Carrie in the 70’s. This scene in an airplane required me to put the X-2 into a bag rig and hit record before they went up in the air to film.
Destroyer in Los Angeles, 2017.Destroyer is a dark revenge movie that was one of my first action movies. I learned a lot about recording gunshots and we did many, many night shoots.
On the set of C’mon C'mon in New York, 2019. I was very lucky to be a part of this beautiful film. On this show we did tail slates on almost every take, so on day one I adjusted my pre record from 5 seconds to the full 30 second pre roll, just in case they started filming without me knowing. It came in handy every day!
Sound of Metal in Boston, 2018. I enjoy using a smaller cart when on set because it affords me the ability to keep a small footprint and get closer to the actors for range. Sound of Metal had a lot of ‘pick up and go’ type shots. We also ran many tracks that were just for post, such as contact mics or plant mics, on top of the standard production ISO and mix.