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Mike Hopkins


After Mike Hopkins died in a rafting incident in the closing days of 2012, director Peter Jackson described him as both a caring, warm-hearted man, and "an extraordinarily talented sound designer, editor and supervisor".

Filmmaking is a complex team sport, in which the sound designers are typically players pottering anonymously in a darkened studio. But Hopkins' talent, humour and straight-talking style helped win him both Oscar fame, and friends wherever he worked. Within days of his death an online page was packed with dozens of tributes— from newbies he had taken under his wing, to actors he'd cajoled and inspired during recording sessions.

The screen career of Michael Alexander Hopkins began a decade before he first worked with Jackson — the half-hour long Pheno Was Here (1982) marks one of his earliest sound jobs. But it was his collaborations with Jackson that brought him Oscar glory. After scoring Academy Awards for The Two Towers and King Kong, Hopkins worked overseas on a number of projects; he and his Lord of the Rings colleague Ethan Van der Ryn were Oscar-nominated again as joint sound editors of blockbuster movie, Transformers

Though his CV is heavy on fantasy and the darker end of the storytelling spectrum, Hopkins worked on many projects that didn't involve screams and flying creatures — his long list of screen credits includes comedy Via Satellite, Barry Barclay's Te Rua, documentary (Punitive Damage and John A Lee) mini-series (Typhon's People and The Chosen) and many well-regarded shorts (Thinking about SleepSnap).

Hopkins — or Hoppy to his friends — began his screen career in 1981 with Erebus documentary Flight 901, fresh from working shifts at the freezing works. Producer John Keir mentioned to editor Simon Reece that he had a cousin who might be able to help Reece in the editing suite. An assistant editing gig on 1983 tele-movie Nearly No Christmas was one of many projects for Wellington company Gibson Group; in 1985 Gaylene Preston signed Hopkins on for his first big movie job, on Mr Wrong. He can also be spied in a sound studio, recreating the sound of footsteps for Wal, in this documentary about animated hit Footrot Flats (see start of clip two).

In 1988 Hopkins won his first award for contribution to a soundtrack, after working with sound mixer Gethin Creagh on Leon Narbey's evocative goldmining tale Illustrious Energy. Another followed in 1993 for Alison MacLean's gothic drama Crush, a film whose offbeat soundscape included Rotorua mud pools and musical contributions from The JPS Experience. On Crush Hopkins worked under Australian Greg Bell; the same year he stepped forward with Sam Negri to command the sound for arguably his most ambitious project to date, Peter Jackson's Braindead.

From an NFU studio in Lower Hutt they masterminded noises for frightened zoo animals and zombies, changing the pitch of voices to make them deeper. One scene in the basement combines a recording of Tibetan monks, Negri making a low 'omm' sound, and Hopkins hitting a steel plate with drumsticks covered in pink bats. Hopkins argued that Jackson was excellent "in that he knows pretty much what he wants ... and yet he's very open to new ideas".

In 1995 Hopkins won awards in both TV and film sound categories for his work on Gibson Group thriller Typhon's People, and for helping create the soundtrack for Heavenly Creatures respectively; Creatures was the film which marked Peter Jackson's move from splatter-king to critical darling.

By now Hopkins was working with Hollywood sound designer Randy Thom, as Thom, Hopkins and American Phil Benson rushed to meet an accelerated release date for the most expensive film yet shot on New Zealand soil, The Frighteners. The Oscar-winning Thom later described Hopkins as world-class. "I'm a better man for having been around him, and a better sound designer too".

Over the next few years Hopkins commanded the sound edit for historical drama Greenstone, worked on East Timor documentary Punitive Damage and was one of two sound editors on Once Were Warriors sequel What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? In 1999 he was nominated twice for sound design in the same category (for Via Satellite and Heaven).

Then came the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. Hopkins came to the fore with his work on the second and third films. In 2003 he and American Ethan Van der Ryn won their first Oscar, for their sound editing on The Two Towers, with Hopkins — a longtime stutterer — gracefully accepting the gong. The pair won again in 2006 for King Kong, and were nominated in 2008 for the carnage-heavy Transformers, the first of three Transformers movies they collaborated on.

Numerous further American projects ensued, including Michael Mann gangster tale Public Enemies and the animated Kung Fu Panda. Most utilised Hopkins' skills in Automatic Dialogue Replacement, the deft art of re-recording dialogue to match material that has already been filmed, but which for varied reasons is unusable.

But Hopkins wasn't lost to Hollywood, and the purchase of a Wairarapa lifestyle block saw his attention increasingly drift south. Homecoming projects included sound designing cannibal comedy Fresh Meat, and engineering the sound on Mark Albiston's and Louis Sutherland's Kapiti Coast-set debut feature Shopping (selected for Sundance in 2013). His final project was working on the restoration and re-edit of Geoff Murphy classic Utu. Murphy paid special tribute to the project's much improved sound, describing Hopkins' work as "particularly brilliant". 

Hopkins drowned after a rafting accident on the eastern side of the Tararua ranges, when the Waiohine river rose suddenly on 30 December 2012. Fresh Meat director Danny Mulheron recalled his sense of humour, calling him "one of the best sound engineers in the business and a really good guy". Hopkins' longtime colleague, American Ethan Van der Ryn, wrote the following on his tribute page:

"I will miss hearing you sing a rollicking sea shanty after 48 straight hours at work. I will miss your brilliance and command on the ADR stage. I will miss the courage you displayed to speak live in front of an audience of a billion people, knowing that your words might not come easily. I will miss your integrity in difficult and stressful situations. I will miss your crazy cackling laugh."

Profile originally published on 8 January 2013; updated on 8 April 2019 

Sources include
Simon Reece
Ian Pryor, 'Giving voice to zombies, zoos and xenophobic aliens' (Interview with Mike Hopkins and Sam Negri) - The Evening Post, May 1992
Rebecca Quilliam, 'Sir Peter Jackson pays tribute to drowned award winning sound editor' - The NZ Herald, 1 January 2013
Randy Thom, 'In Memory of Mike Hopkins'. Designing Sound website. Loaded 1 January 2013. Accessed 8 January 2013
'Tribute Book for Michael (Mike, Hoppy) Alexander Hopkins' website. Accessed 8 April 2019
Danny Mulheron Facebook page. 3 January  2013. Accessed 8 January 2013
Unknown writer, 'Interview: 'Utu Redux' director Geoff Murphy' Flicks website. Loaded 16 July 2013. Accessed 26 May 2020