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The sound of success


Sunset graduate and Oscar nominee looks forward to Sunday's ceremony

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO  - Ron Bartlett, third from left, poses with the technical crew behind 'Life of Pi,' the Ang Lee-directed movie for which Bartlett is nominated for an Oscar in the Best Sound Mixing category.Beaverton native Ron Bartlett started on the drums at 5 years old.

Performing as captain of the Sunset High School marching band drum line, he went on to major in music at Portland State University. When he was barely 20, he moved to Los Angeles, set on “making it” as a rock drummer.

His dream of pounding skins and living on the open road didn’t pan out.

As he takes a seat to watch the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday night, however, it’s highly unlikely Bartlett will be looking back with regrets. Being an Oscar nominee for one of the past year’s biggest, most endearing movies simply doesn’t lend itself to wondering what might have been. by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO  - Beaverton native Ron Bartlett and his colleagues who worked on sound for 'Life of Pi,' are looking forward to attending Sunday's Academy Awards Ceremony.

Nominated for Best Sound Mixing in the Ang Lee-directed “Life of Pi” — his first Oscar bid in a 150-film career — Bartlett will watch the Oscars at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre with his wife, Nattee, his brother, David, and his father, Jim, by his side.

In a Monday night phone interview from his Studio City, Calif., home, the affable, unassuming 49-year-old remains baffled how his fancy stick work somehow led to an Oscar-caliber career as a cinematic sound mixer.

“I did not expect to be in the film business at all,” he admits. “Ask anyone in Portland, they all assumed I’d be a drummer of some kind. (Mixing) was something to do between gigs. But it started to take over. And I’ve used so much of my musical background in my work.”

A 1981 Sunset High graduate, Bartlett says he harbored no fantasies back then of the transcendent reality he’ll likely experience on Oscar night.

“No way,” he says. “I grew up watching the Oscars on TV and said, ‘Wow, look at them! That was really cool.’ I didn’t think I’d be anyone like that. I’m not an actor. It just ended up that way. But there’s been a big buildup to get to that level. You work crazy hours.”

Going to the dogs

Bartlett drifted into the world of Hollywood sound through his brother, David, who got him a gig as an assistant on a few editing projects. After several years, he got more into sound mixing. The painstaking process involves adjusting myriad instrumental, vocal and other sound elements through elaborate digital control boards to balance the sound and accentuate individual elements to enhance what’s happening on screen.

“I didn’t go to school for any of it,” he says. “I was a music major. I learned composition and music theory, but mixing, I learned all that hands on.”

His first job in the specialty was with an audio-visual services department focused on image and sound setups for large corporations such as Microsoft. Bartlett would help set up gear in hotels for conventions and industry gatherings. Learning by watching others as well as trial and error, he landed at a “boutique” company called Weddington Productions.

“We were like one of the top sound editing companies,” he notes.

Mixing sound effects for short films in a laboratory-like space, Bartlett will never forget what would be a pivotal moment in his career development.

“Someone said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this low-budget film if you want to mix it,’” he recalls. “This very exuberant, crazy young director walked into the door and said, ‘I really want you g uys to help me with this project. I hope you guys give me a break.’”

The “crazy young director” was none other than Quentin Tarantino. The film? “Reservoir Dogs.” Considered a modern crime-noir classic, the minimalist semi-spoof helped launch the career of one of Hollywood’s consistently hottest directors.

“He was so on fire,” Bartlett recalls of Tarantino. “He’s a great guy. We had a fantastic time doing that. Four of us stuffed in a little room, shoulder to shoulder, mixing the film by ourselves.”

“Dogs” was launched at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, and the rest, Bartlett says, is history.

“That put me on the map as a mixer,” he observes. “That was really a good calling card and opened a lot of doors for me.”

Bartlett’s next break came through what he calls a “little film” called “Heat,” starring Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro.

“It was a very busy time in town,” he says of the mostly freelance-based work he did in the late 1990s. “(‘Heat’ director) Michael Mann comes right up to me and says, ‘Are you in or are you out?’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ I came in a few hours later, and we started mixing. It was a feather in the cap as far as working with A-list kinda guys.”

Tiger by the tail

Working most recently with FOX studios, Bartlett has found himself in rich company, collaborating with Director Ridley Scott on “Prometheus” as well as on Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought a Zoo.” Still, nothing compares to his experience with Lee on “Life of Pi.”

“What a fantastic dream gig to get, to work with a guy like that,” he says. “I couldn’t ask for anything better. He’s one of the greatest filmmakers I’ve ever worked with.”

“Life of Pi” revolves around a 16-year-old boy, Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, who survives a shipwreck that claims his family’s life, stranding him in a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger. Premiering in New York City last September, the movie was a critical as well as commercial success. “Pi” has grossed more than $500 million and earned 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, as well as winning three Golden Globe Awards, Best Picture among them.

“A lot of people didn’t think this movie could be made,” Bartlett confesses. “It’s about kids, animals, the ocean, the meaning of life. Everything you should never do, he put it all in a movie, and it became a huge hit.”

Bartlett recalls a moment as he played Lee a sound mix for a striking scene when the sun rises over the Pacific, revealing the isolation of Pi and his furry, striped boat mate.

“It’s a very sensitive moment. I said, ‘What do you think?’ (Lee) was very quiet. He stopped and looked at me and said, ‘It’s great, but can you give it a little more choir in this one spot, to give it a little more emotion?’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s so much better.’ The guy is so finely tuned.”

Face of success

Nominated for sound mixing along with his partners-in-sound Drew Kunin, Eugene Gearty, Philip Stockton and D.M. Hemphill, Bartlett says he’s determined to enjoy the entire Oscars odyssey, regardless of whether he wins or not.

Accompanying him to the ceremony will be Nattee, his wife since 1993, brother David and his dad, Jim. The longtime Cedar Mill resident will ride down with Bartlett’s sister Marsha Kelly, who will watch the ceremony at Bartlett’s house with his son James, 16, and daughter Pailin, 13.

“I can’t wait till they pan the audience, zoom in on the table, and show the guys nominated,” says Kelly, a Hillsboro music teacher. “That’ll be pretty fun to see that. There’s my brother up there on the screen. He better get up there and say, ‘I want to thank my sister.’”

Bartlett is still overwhelmed by the response on his Facebook page the day his nomination was announced in January.

“I got, like, 150 emails in one day,” he says. “I sat down and answered every one of them. It was so overwhelming.

“Forget the gold statue, this is where gold really is — people pulling for you and wishing you well.”