When watching a movie or television program, it is easy to get caught up in everything and forget about all the aspects that go in to each frame. The rain pouring down on the main characters’ faces may not have been rain at all. The fight scene on top of a moving train was not a raw recording. The leaves crunching underneath feet on a fall day were not picked up by the microphones in the moment of filming. It is all added in to tell the story that the filmmakers want, and viewers become swept up in the magic of film.
Qianbaihui Yang was born and raised in Qingdao, China, a beautiful city on the coast, before moving to Los Angeles to pursue her career as a sound editor. Since that time, she has worked on films such as Disney’s latest blockbuster, The BFG, as well as The Guardian Brothers. She has also worked on hits like Despicable Me 2, Minions, and many more. She is a sound editor for Skywalker Sound, a Lucasfilm Company. Her art has been appreciated by millions of viewers transfixed by what they are seeing on screen, yet they may not have known it.
“If each film is a process of creating a dream, you are trying to make it as believable as possible,” said Yang.
Yang started to play piano at just three years of age, and attributes this to finding her way in sound design. She knows how to recognize perfect pitch.
“Sometimes, I found myself trying to determine tones and pitches for noises that were around me,” she said.
Yang studied Recording Arts at Communication University of China in Beijing, which is a major that studies music recording and sound for motion pictures. There was no developed sound library at her school, so she used to record sound effects and Foley herself.
“In the summer of my junior year, one of my professors asked whether I had a plan for my future career. I told her I wanted to learn more about film sound. She encouraged me, ‘Then you should go to Hollywood,’” Yang recalled.
Since that time, Yang has now worked alongside the most recognized filmmakers in Hollywood. She describes the highlight of her career as the moment when she realized she was working in the same room with Steve Spielberg and John Williams. She worked with Tom Myers (UP, Toy Story 3, Wall-E) on The Guardian Brothers, who believes Yang is a true talent in her field.
“Under pressure, Baihui showed great calm, intelligence and humor,” said Myers. “I've always contended there are three things that make a really great sound editor, designer or mixer. One is technical skills; having a clear grasp of our tools and how best to use them to achieve the goal. Second is an artistic sense of what is the right sound or sounds to fulfill or even exceed the creative intent of the filmmaker. Third is the interpersonal skills needed to both convey and understand complex ideas but also to do so in a way that makes people comfortable and thus allows the process to work smoothly. Most good and successful people have two of these things. Baihui has all three.”
The Guardian Brothers was the first project Yang sound supervised. The sound effects was edited by a Skywalker team and she mixed dialog and Foley at Paihua Studios in Beijing.
“I learned a lot of things for the first time such as making a budget, forming the team, scheduling Foley, editorial and mixing time,” she said. “I was lucky to have Tom Myers on the team who patiently answered all my questions and mentored me through the whole process. Mixing with Tom is like flying a plane with a seasoned pilot: you know things will go well no matter what happens. Since it’s quite an international team, the Skywalker tech team and our local studio tech support helped us overcome the technical challenges. As I quote what Tom said on the first day of mix, ‘Everything is going smoothly just like we walked into a stage next door to Skywalker, but we are half the world away.’”
Yang consistently impresses all those she works with. When working on The BFG, she worked with Brian Chumney (The Revenant, How to Train Your Dragon, Alice in Wonderland) who describes her as a pleasure and a joy to work with.
“We often work long hours, and our crews become more friends and families than just coworkers. It's always great when you can have confidence in someone's ability to get the job done, trust that they will do a good job, and at the same time be able to share a laugh with them. Baihui is both great at the job, and fun to be around,” Chumney described.
“Baihui brings a lot of excellent skill to the job. I am always impressed with her speed and attention to detail. Near the end of a job, time is limited, and you have to be fast and good. Baihui is both, which is always impressive to see. At the same time, much of our job is personal interaction, both within the sound crew and with other members of the production. Baihui is great at communicating and working with both crew and clients. That's something that you can't really be taught - you have to experience it. I think it comes easy to Baihui,” he continued.
Yang describes working on The BFG as a very educational experience. The film was mixed at 20th Century Fox this spring, and she spent almost two months on the mixing stage.
“I watched how our two excellent mixers, Andy Nelson and Gary Rydstrom, worked with Steven Spielberg and John Williams. I got to learn their approach of mixing and how they balanced the three elements of sound-dialog, sound effects and music, which ultimately supported the story,” she said.
Yang is unfazed by her success. She is an award-winning sound editor, having won the faculty award of outstanding sound in the USC First Film Festival in 2013, and was nominated for the MPSE student awards in 2011 and 2012.
“Sound is a very subjective art form. Each of us has our own perception and comprehension of a sound. Besides its subjectivity, film sound requires collaboration. The first challenge of working on film is to make sure your creativity is precise to what’s on screen, or off screen, and can be understood by the audiences,” said Yang.
She also says the key to being successful in sound editing now-a-days is having the ability to adapt to the constantly changing industry.
“Films like Apocalypse Now, which spent two years on post sound, are very rare today. And visual effects sometimes won’t come in until the last minute. Responding fast to the updated picture is quite a fun game but sometimes can be stressful,” she described.
Yang’s goal is to keep working on films and make herself a better sound editor and filmmaker, but her plan for the future is to work on more Chinese films or coproduction that can introduce her culture to the world.
“Each year, there are nearly thirty foreign films released in Mainland China but not as many Chinese films can be viewed on the big screen here. I also hope to share the advanced technology and concept with Chinese filmmakers,” she said. “The film society in China is rapidly growing into the film industry, but the aspects of filmmaking would take more time to be well developed. I hope I can use what I learned to bridge between American and Chinese filmmakers.”
But no matter what happens, she will never get over the high of seeing her name roll past her eyes in the credits on the big screen.
“When I got into USC, my parents started to sit through ending credits when they go to the theater. They hoped one day they could see my name up there,” she said. “And I knew their wish had come true.”