Bill Varney, an Oscar-winning sound mixer for Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back, died April 2 of congestive heart failure in Fairhope, Ala. He was 77.
A production sound mixer, location sound recordist, location sound engineer or simply sound mixer is the member of a film crew responsible for recording all sound and sound effects on set during the photography of a motion picture, for later inclusion in the finished product, or for reference to be used by the sound designer, sound effects editors, or foley artists. This requires choice and deployment of microphones, choice of recording media, and mixing of audio signals in real time.
Sound mixer at work.Usually, the recordist will arrive on location with his/her own equipment, which normally includes microphones, radio systems, booms, mixing desk, audio storage, headphones, cables, tools, and a small amount of stationery for making notes and logs. The recordist may be asked to capture a wide variety of sound on location, and must also consider the format of the finished product (mono, stereo or surround sound). The recorded production sound track is later combined with other elements or re-recorded by automatic dialogue replacement.
The sound mixer is considered a department head, and is thus completely responsible for all aspects of production sound including the hiring of a boom operator and utility sound technician, planning the technical setup involving sound including both sound equipment and ancillary devices involved in syncing and time offsets, anticipating and discussing sound-related problems with the rest of the crew, and ordering and preparing the sound equipment to be used on the set.
A veteran of more than 80 feature films, Varney’s sound work also earned him Oscar nominations for Dune (1984) and Back to the Future (1985) and an Emmy nom for 1977 miniseries Roots.
Varney was a past president of the Cinema Audio Society and received CAS’ highest honor, its Career Achievement Award, in 1990.
Varney worked 30 years as a rerecording mixer and joined Universal Pictures as vp sound operations, where he was responsible for the remodeling and upgrading of the studio’s sound facilities. He also spent 14 years at Goldwyn Studios as supervising rerecording mixer.
Varney began his career in radio and television in the early 1950s. His first motion picture was a government-funded project at MIT featuring folk singer Joan Baez, whose father was a professor of physics there. This film caught the eye of some filmmakers, and he soon moved to the West Coast.
Along with fellow Oscar winner Walter Murch, Varney used a 58-page memo from Orson Welles to reconstruct the sound for the 1998 DVD director’s edition rerelease of Touch of Evil.
Varney’s other credits include The Last Waltz (1978), Grease (1978), Ordinary People (1980), Poltergeist (1982), My Favorite Year (1982), Gremlins (1984) and Dragonheart (1996).
“I recall as very young production sound mixer meeting Bill and finding him to be gracious and welcoming to me,” CAS past president Edward Moskowitz said. “He was incredibly supportive in establishing and strengthening the camaraderie among all the mixers in the CAS.”
Survivors include his wife Suzy and daughter Lisa. Arrangements are pending and will be held in Alabama.