by Ken Schneck, Editor
“Out of Ohio” is our interview series featuring notable LGBTQ+ individuals born and raised in Ohio who are now out in the wider world using their voice and talents to make a difference.
Lora Hirschberg grew up wandering around Olmsted Falls–a few miles southwest of Cleveland–listening for sounds. With a father employed as a NASA engineer, she happily admits that she has the genes of a gear nerd.
“I had a tape recorder most of the time and was fascinated by bird sounds and nature,” remembers Hirschberg. “But I also loved equipment.”
Her penchant for using sound to create elaborate environments for moviegoers has resulted in Hirschberg’s work on one of the most incredible list of 170+ films to ever hit the screen: from Mrs. Doubtfire to The Lion King to Titanic to The Dark Knight. Her roster also includes LGBTQ+ classics like The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, The Brandon Teena Story, 54, Rent, and the is-she-or-isn’t-she heroine Captain Marvel.
To top it off, Hirschberg experienced that crowning moment of cinematic glory in 2011 when Matthew McConaughey and Scarlett Johansson called out her name to accept the Oscar for “Best Achievement in Sound Mixing” on the trippy, crowd-favorite Inception.
Not bad for an Ohioan with a tape-recorder.
We chatted with Hirschberg–a re-recording mixer at Skywalker Sound–to learn more about mixing, LGBTQ+ representation behind the camera, and how she would set out to mix together an Ohioan soundscape.
Give us the Ohio backstory.
I grew up in Olmsted Falls on the West Side. At the time it was 2500/5000 people. Small town. Very rural. My high school was fantastic. Good arts, good music programs, all those things that are still important. I played in the band, made films in high school and decided right then I wanted to become a filmmaker. So I moved to NYC, went to NYU film school, and studied audio and filmmaking. And then I moved to San Francisco which where I still live.
For people who maybe don’t know, how do you explain what a sound mixer does?
You can use a food analogy, which are my favorite analogies to use. The sound mixer is basically the cook. You take all of the different ingredients: the dialogue, the music, the sound effects, all those different sounds. And it’s our job to put it all together, blend it, and present a balanced, interesting and tasty meal out of the ingredients.
I sit in a room that’s basically the size of a movie theater in front of a big piece of equipment which is a mixing console. And I press play, the movie rolls, and I have all the sounds come up. And it’s my job to make the ballads louder, or turn the sound effects down, or raise the music, or pan things around the room so it feels like you’re moving to the different speaker channels.
Basically, I create the final sound that you hear when you sit down in that theatre or you sit at home and you watch it, all those different elements and how they balance together.
Hollywood is known to be notoriously tricky for LGBTQ+ people in front of the camera. How is it in the world of sound mixing?
It’s actually great. Here in San Francisco, we have a really great community. There’s nothing that feels uncomfortable or uninviting. It’s an open and supportive community. In the sound world, there’s a very healthy representation of lesbian and gay men. Probably 50% of the people I work with fall into that category. A lot of the producers I work with, a lot of the post-production men and women as well. The representation is definitely there.
Do you wake up in the morning–and I mean every morning–jump out of bed and yell, “I totally have an Oscar!”? Because in my head, that’s literally how you wake up every morning.
<laughs> I have two teenagers, so they humble me to that.
But, yeah, I do. I’m very blessed that I had an opportunity to have worked on a movie that won that award. And it was super fun to get it. But I have to say, the movies I’m most proud of are often smaller ones and documentaries. I’m working on a documentary right now about Taylor Mac, a fantastic performance artist. He did a 24-hour show in New York a few years ago. and he is definitely queer history writ large. I also do documentary work for David France. The film Welcome to Chechnya, about the gay purge of men and women in Chechnya, is playing on HBO now. Those are the films that honestly I think about the most. Those are the ones that stick with you. It was wonderful to win an Academy Award, but your heart is where your heart always is.
Did you quickly get the sense that your acceptance speech went viral?
Oh, it did, didn’t it?
Yes, it sure did!
<laughs> I was there with my wife. And I we got to kiss each other on camera. And it’s funny because that’s just normal for us. I got a lot of great responses from people across the world and it was wonderful.
I’m embarrassed to tell you, I have not yet seen Inception. But I am watching it this very weekend. What should I be listening for?
It’s a pretty dense soundtrack. All of Chris Nolan’s movies have a lot going on all the time. He used a lot of cinematic techniques of slowing the speed of the image down and slowing the speed of the sound down to represent different levels of time. So it’s a pretty heady story.
There are dreams within dreams within dreams and time slows down the deeper you get into the dream cycle, so he uses sound and image to represent that. You’ll hear there’s an Édith Piaf tune in there—”No Regrets”- and he takes that piece and slows it down from one level of the dream to another.
It’s an iconic sound in that movie that was picked up in a lot of trailer houses. It’s a piece of that Piaf tune slowed down 100 times so it becomes this downbeat that lasts for like three or four seconds. It was a cool trick he used and it was fun for me to play with.
But that’s the part I can where I can turn to everyone else and say, “I totally know the person who worked on that”?
<laughs> There you go.
Finally, if you were to sound mix the state of Ohio, what would that sound like?
We lived by a river and so many of my memories of Ohio are based in the park system and nature. It’s very bucolic and quiet. I live in the big city now. So I appreciate those small town sounds that I don’t get to hear anymore: crickets, and cicadas, and nature stuff. And also the sound of the high school marching band and those small town sounds that you remember from your childhood. That’s how I would do it.
Ken Schneck is the Editor of The Buckeye Flame. He is the author of Seriously, What Am I Doing Here? The Adventures of a Wondering and Wandering Gay Jew (2017), LGBTQ Cleveland (2018), LGBTQ Columbus (2019), and LGBTQ Cincinnati (2020). In his spare time, he is a professor of education at Baldwin Wallace University. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.