So this week is the New Zealand Film Awards, and while it could appear as blowing my own trumpet (I am nominated as a member of all three groups of finalists for the feature film sound award) I figured maybe its actually better to celebrate the essence of the idea, ie the films themselves, and more importantly the small group of people who made each soundtrack happen.
While the outcome is a great honour and mildly newsworthy, the reality is that the decisions sometimes appear arbitrary; film, thank god/jah/buddha, is not a competitive event, and it is worth bearing that in mind with any awards, no matter how big or small. When I look back over a year (or a decade) at the films I enjoyed most as an audience member, and think about the films that stayed with me for weeks, months & years, the truth is that many/most of them are not populist films. And so, the greatest reward, for me, is in the creative pleasure of collaboration and appreciating the gravity of that feeling at the time – assigning significance in the moment, especially when that ‘moment’ lasts 3 months.
When 2009 drew to a close, my dear friend & co-conspirator/collaborator/dialogue editor-extraordinaire Chris said something along the lines of “we’ll be lucky to have another year like this one” and truer words were never spoken. The more work you do, the more you learn to stop & appreciate when you are up to your neck in a film that is a beautiful, personal expression of its author, and which requires the same of everyone involved: total commitment, and total openness. We had many moments like that in 2009. The three films we are all up for as finalists were ALL like that, each in their own way. And we are all blessed to have been party to them.
Anyway, the nominees for Best Sound in a Feature Film are:
“The year is 1984, and on the rural East Coast of New Zealand “Thriller” is changing kids’ lives. Inspired by the Oscar nominated Two Cars, One Night, BOY is the hilarious and heartfelt coming-of-age tale about heroes, magic and Michael Jackson.”
Director: Taika Waititi
Nominees for best sound: Ken Saville, Tim Prebble, Chris Todd, Michael Hedges, Gilbert Lake
BOY is Taika Waititis second feature film, and my cohorts and I worked on the sound design for the film starting in mid August 2009, with a ten week sound edit period and then a four week mix at Park Road Post in December, with a print ready in time for screening in competition at Sundance, and soon after at the Berlin Film festival where it won the Grand Prix of the Deutsche Kinderhilfswerk for the Best Feature Film.
The film is set in the 1980s in Waihau Bay, East Cape, & here is what the Berlin Festival Jury had to say about it: “With a genuine voice and a remarkable spirit, the winner is a film with bold direction, a fearless risk-taker. It tackles difficult subject matter not with preaching, sentimentality or self-pity but with humour, often treating tragedy and comedy simultaneously. Because it’s so enjoyable it is easy to underestimate the depth of this film. It is a rich mix of ideas which strike and collide to create poetic moments that speak, despite the remote location, to all of us today. With fantastic charismatic performances all around, including a striking moustache on the director.”
One of the best aspects of being confirmed on a project early is it means you can start thinking about the creative challenges & what will be required long before officially starting work. When I first read the script I tagged one location as critical for sound, a corn field, as I knew by the time we were working on the film the corn would have been harvested & long gone. So I decided to visit Waihau Bay while they were shooting, and I am so glad I did. It is such a beautiful part of the country and while I have driven through there before I never had time to stop & explore it. And while my primary intention was to record ambiences I soon realised it made sense to try & capture as many of the vehicles in the film as possible, since they would all be there, available for the shoot.
Another bonus of visiting the shoot was getting to sit beside Ken Saville, the production sound recordist, and listen as he & his boom swinger Jo Fraser worked. After seeing some of the difficulties they have to overcome to record good sound I said to him, “Everyone in sound post should have to come visit the set & see what you guys go through” and he smiled wryly and replied “I think everyone in production should do the same with post!” Ken did a brilliant job on this film, recording genius multitrack coverage to an 8 track recorder and also providing a huge range of ambiences & FX. I was so impressed when I listened to a dawn chorus he recorded; about six minutes into it I heard the rooster wake up & start crowing. I surmised this was no accident, he knew what time the rooster started crowing & planned to get both a clean dawn chorus AND the rooster in one go!
It was unreal to walk 100m into this corn paddock – the corn was 8 foot high, and when there was a wind gust you could hear it travelling through the corn….. I must have spent an hour or two in this paddock – it was like an ocean of rustles – this recording doesn’t do it justice…
Waihau Bay Corn by timprebble
This bridge & riverbed were a location in the film, so I did quite a bit of recording here, from many different perspectives & also walked up the riverbed to get near rapids… Later when I edited the ambiences for these scenes I of course used recordings from a dozen different rivers, but one wide recording I did at this river I really liked for its ‘thin-ness’ and used it in wide shots & as layers in the surrounds, have a listen:
WaihauRiver ws by timprebble
Way further up the river I came cross this stand of Toitois so I recorded a lovely ambience of rustles & crickets
WaihauToitois by timprebble
With regards to vehicle recording, the above car was one of the meanest sounding V8s I have ever recorded & I would have liked to record for hours with it & get complete coverage for future use, but this car only featured in one shot in the film and it had an over heating problem so the vehicle wrangler wasn’t keen for us to use it too much before they got the scene shot…. but just listen to it:
BOY V8 by timprebble
This Valiant Charger V8 appeared in the film a lot, so I did quite a bit of recording with it, onboard and exterior moves – you can see my exhaust mic gaffer taped to the rear bumper…. It was a far more ‘normal’ sounding V8…
The picture editor for BOY was Chris Plummer so I output versions of all the ambiences I recorded and sent them to him for use as they cut the film, as well as any other temp FX they needed. The cut for the film was not locked until week seven of our ten week of our sound editorial period, so I also output versions of my effects as I worked; one of the joys of working with an unlocked cut is that sound can influence picture, so it is very worthwhile sending work-in-progress effects to picture editorial.
The film is scored by The Phoenix Foundation – a great Wellington band who have scored a number of films now including Taikas first film, and who impart such a lovely idiosyncratic feel to their work. We started sound editorial quite a few weeks ahead of them and they really worked hard finding the right tone for the film, and in hindsight the resulting score is so perfectly suited to the film, its almost iconic! It was a real pleasure collaborating with The Phoenix guys, especially Sam, Luke and Conrad – you can have a listen (and buy) the soundtrack here
What other unique challenges were there in the film? Some of these will be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film yet maybe you should skip this part!
In one scene Boy tries to use a microwave oven to melt down some door knobs from his house – there are some electrical arcs which escalate until the microwave finally blows up. This scene I would have done six or seven versions of before Taika was happy with it, and the end result makes me smile every time I watch it. One of Taikas briefs was to not focus so much on the electrical arcs but to mess with the microwave motor. So I hunted for an appropriate motor sound to use and ended up using an electric pencil sharpener, which when played at half speed had the right pitch to be a 50Hz motor hum, but as pencils were fed into it, the motor made great straining sounds. The overtones of the motor under duress actually made me think of filtered squarewaves, so I started syncing these gentle swells to Boys reaction – at one point he blinks so I swelled the motor groan up to the eye blink & then stopped it, and it works a treat, because you believe Boy is actually reacting to the sound. I quite like cutting sounds on eye blinks – try it sometime, clap your hands unexpectedly & see if your friends blink!
One aspect of sound design that deeply interests me is the idea of overt vs subtle sound. When people have seen the film BOY and commented to me they enjoyed it, some always comment about the loudest, most overt sounds eg the microwave or the cars. What interests me though is that they are really commenting on where their own attention is most fixated. When I was young I was more easily impressed by loud overt soundtracks but those aren’t where my natural sensibilities lie – I like quiet subtle, engaging soundtracks and I take the most pride in contributing complex & highly evolved quietness to films… Two examples in BOY involve the pet goat. At a certain point the goat dies and the two young boys arrive back late at night, to the scene of the accident that kills their beloved goat. During the spotting session we discussed with Taika whether the goat was already dead when they arrive – I had presumed it was – but Taika asked for the goat to keep breathing & to die while the boys held him. Consider the emotional difference between these two scenarios: the boys finding their goat dead is sad, the boys finding their goat almost dead, and holding him until he dies is truly heart breaking. Such small details illustrate why Taika is such a great director, but the question for me was how to record the dieing breaths of a goat? How would you do it? From working on the film Black Sheep I learned quite a bit about how sheep breathe – having a much longer nose means the breaths are quite different to a humans, so I set a mic up in my little record room and had a go at performing the breaths myself. The goat is almost dead so its breaths needed to be short gasps of air, but through the nose. I did a few takes and the best one was when I squeezed my nose so it was almost blocked. And the real test? Edit them into the film and play them to the director, without saying anything at all about how I recorded them. Were they believable? You bet! And if you can watch that scene without getting a tear in your eye, then you are a tougher person than I!
The demise of the goat is a turning point in the film for boy and it may actually be the end of Act 2. As I worked on the ambiences for the film I came up with an idea: from the start of the film we experience the world through boys eyes and ears – he has a rich, vivid imagination and the ambiences of his world are full of life. But I thought, what if when the goat dies, the world kind of dies around him. Up until that moment the daytime ambiences are full of birds and insects and night has night crickets, distant farm dogs etc, but when that goat dies I suggested to Taika that we kill all sounds of life in the ambiences. No one who has seen the film has ever commented to me about this, but I know how dramatic a shift it is because the film suddenly starts to feel cold, which makes dramatic sense as the tone of Boys reality becomes harsher…
The other quiet moment in the film that I am proud of, is when Boy falls off the bridge. At the time he is in a weird psychological state, and he falls off by accident, but again it was through removing sounds that we made the scene dramatic, slowly removing ambiences of the river, then just wind, then almost nothing, just the last foley sounds of his hands & cloth… Later Boy slowly wakes up, lieing on the river bed and the world is out of focus, so at first all we hear is a very subtle musical tone from the composers, and then slowly the river ambiences gently return, seeping back in as he fully regains consciousness… I love creating moments like that, and its one thing to do them using ProTools volume automation in my edit room but it is really a joy to hear mixers achieve the same result on a far larger scale using all of the resources they have available….
BOY sound crew:
Tim Prebble – sound designer
Chris Todd – dialogue/ADR editor
Matthew Lambourn – sound effects editor
Jason Canovas – ADR editor
Nigel Scott – ADR recordist
Emile de la Rey – assistant dialogue editor
“A film memoir based on filmmaker Gaylene Preston’s interviews with her father about his World War II experiences”
This is Gaylenes second feature film that I have worked on, the first being Perfect Strangers back in 2003. Chris Todd (dialogue editor) and I met with Gaylene early on in the development stage of this film, as Gaylene had a box full of cassettes of interviews she recorded with her Dad that she wanted transcribed. Chris arranged to digitise them for her and while those cassettes are the origins of the film, to call it a documentary is misleading. We had many discussions with Gaylene throughout the process of making Home By Christmas about the approach to sound, as the film is part period drama, part recreation, part archival footage & partly the director interviewing her father, restaged. As her Dad tells stories Gaylene was keen for us to hear the memories and so a technique of sound not following picture evolved, which meant even throughout the final mix we were constantly assessing & reassessing the implementation of this approach.
A lot of work was done with loop group, recreating crowds & specific lines, and when these were playing at the same time as the interviews the mixers tended to treat them & keep them away from the centre channel, clarifying memory versus actuality…. Each occurrence of archival footage also required individual consideration – sometimes it actually was archival footage & other times it was recreated archival and we were conscious of not creating a ‘modern’ soundtrack for old looking footage, although that was tempered with what dramatically served the story the best.
Recreating warfare is difficult, detailed work but recreating the feelings of the memories of war is another whole process again – at times we were literal and other times purely evocative…. And it was partly this film that motivated me to do the HISSandaROAR fireworks library, for example it was fireworks I used as the source material for a scene where Gaylenes Dad is describing the fizzing, spinning sound of an incoming mortar….
Again two of my favourite sound elements in the film are very quiet, the first links two hugely powerful memories – early in the film Gaylenes Dad arrives home from work to tell her Mum he has signed up to the army. Her Mum is incredibly upset, and there is a quiet scene of the couple in bed, spending their last night together.
Later in the film Gaylenes Dad receives word that he is a father, and a photo eventually arrives. There follows a scene in a noisy bar where he is surrounded by his army buddies as they play cards & get drunk, but he is lost in thought staring at the photo of his baby. I wanted to find a way to link these two scenes with sound, and although we don’t see them onscreen I tried using gentle windchimes in their bedroom, to implant the sound so that later as we track in on the photo of the baby, we could remove the sound of the bar and drift back to the sonic memory of the last night he spent with his wife. I explained this idea to Gaylene and played it for her & she loved it… Its a subtle approach but it strongly internalises the emotions and the role of bittersweet memory in the film.
Another quiet moment that I love in the film was one that I also had to fight for a little. Late in the film Gaylenes Dad is reflecting on what it was like to be in an active battle zone, and the horrors that are experienced but never discussed – haunting memories that war veterans often take to their grave. The scene cuts to archival footage of distant bombs exploding at night, and we discussed that this scene was not about making the audience feel like they were in a war zone – we did not want huge, dynamic explosions – we wanted distant haunting explosions, and I spent a lot of time developing these. The scene then cuts back to Gaylenes Dad standing in the garden of his house for a few moments, before we cut back inside & the interview/conversation carries on. When I was editing this scene I deliberately didnt use any ambiences from the garden in that transitory moment, and left the echo of the distant explosions hanging across into the garden – linking the archival footage with his moment of reflection. I reintroduced interior ambiences once we cut back inside, but again holding reality off from the garden meant you internalise what he is thinking & his memories – a far more powerful approach than following the reality of the picture cuts…
Gaylene liked this approach and in the final mix we treated it this way, but after our first mix screening Gaylene asked to change it – to reintroduce ambiences much sooner. I quizzed her as to her motives and we changed it, despite my feelings about it, for two reasons: we knew the way we originally had mixed worked very well, but we also knew we were going to have a second mix screening and there was time to make further changes, so I put aside any feelings of attachment to the original approach & tried to keep an open mind about it. As it turned out everyones first note after the second screening was to change it back! It might be a subtle thing which an audience doesn’t even notice consciously, but sub-consciously it was contributing a lot. The process of arriving at the conclusion of that scene is also an important aspect for sound editors to remember: just because you have tried ten things and arrived at what you think is the best solution, does not always make it right. You obviously have to care about your work, but you cannot be so attached to it that it blinds you to other possible solutions. And sometimes the director needs to go on that journey with you, to see for themselves what works, and so they know that you have all arrived at the best solution, collectively. Fait accomplis are sometimes not the best approach!
As a film Home by Christmas was a family affair, both in subject and through its contributors: Gaylenes daughter Chelsea is a very talented young actress and plays the role of her own grandmother in the film, and Gaylenes sister Jan is an established composer based in Sydney, who contributed a great score for the film. Somehow I inherited the role of music editor on the film too, so cut in all the source music as well as placing the predubbed music stems and making any edits required. The side benefit of this was I got to work against the score of the film for my last week of editing, which helped enormously when working with any pitched tones etc, but also meant Gaylene heard the soundtrack in context for run throughs… We had a six week sound edit period (starting with a locked cut) followed by a four week mix at Park Road Post…
HOME BY CHRISTMAS Sound crew:
“When teenage twins Rachel and Theo investigate the creepy old house next door, they discover the Wilberforces – shape-shifting creatures that lurk beneath Auckland’s ring of extinct volcanoes.”
This is the second feature film of Jonathans that I have worked on, the first one being the riotous Black Sheep, and as with that film the creature effects for UTM were the work of my Miramar neighbours WETA WORKSHOP. Under The Mountain is adapted from a well known book by NZ author Maurice Gee, and back in the 70s was adapted for TV and managed to successfully scare a generation of kids, myself included!
In the film, the first event that makes you start to wonder what is awry is an earthquake. As I’ve described elsewhere, I created a lot of elements for this by playing pure bass tones on one of my analog synths and lieing my subwoofer on its back and putting objects on top of it (eg wood, metal, glass etc.) By doing pitch bends & varying the frequency I could find & pass through the resonance of any object! So apart from various rumbles, I also synced a lot of these resonating objects so as to make the earthquake appear to pass through different parts of the house eg the lounge to the kitchen, the hallway etc…
The bad guys in this movie are the Wilburforces, dangerous slimy looking shape shifters. During the first spotting session Jonathan said he wanted their vocalisations and movements to always have a wetness to them, so we did a lot of work recording elements like mud, kelp, seaweed etc. I also did a number of passes of syncing & shaping wet vegetable movement to their dialogue
After the twins have their first dangerous run in with the Wilburforces, they meet Mr Jones (Sam Neill) who has had previous experience with these creatures before and he teaches the twins how to use special stones, which glow with some kind of psychic energy. In my hunting for some unique sound sources I came across a blue hose that whistles when its swirled around – a nice harmonic resonating tone, heres a recording of it at half speed:
I developed this sound and synced it with moments where the stones glowed strongly, and at times pitched it to be in key with the score, heres an example of it in context:
Another challenge was creating sounds for Mr Jones means of travel – he is able to summon energy & essentially disappear in a vacuum of fire… While thinking about the physicality of this I came up with the idea that the movement was so extreme as to make the ozone crackle, so whenever he used this form of travel, I layered in trailing elements evoking my theory – thunder crackles and the distant echo of rifle fire…
Under The Mountain was scored by Victoria Kelly, and recorded with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. I’ve worked on three or more films with Victoria before and she is such an awesomely talented composer. You can check out the opening credit music for UTM on her website or audition (& buy) the full album of the score here
Apart from recording the epic score, Victoria also created some unique sounds collaborating with the NZSOs percussionist. She gave me a copy of them to work with and one in particular turned out to become a signature sting for the Wilburforces! It was created playing a timpani in a very unusual way, have a listen (this is at half speed)
The following slide is from a Keynote document I made when doing a talk at the Dunedin University Film Department last year – I found it interesting to actually count up all the people involved in creating the soundtrack and reminded the students how important the production sound recordist is on a film set: there may well be 50+ people there for image, but only two dedicated to sound!
UNDER THE MOUNTAIN Sound crew:
And the winner on the day? Well next is my confession: I’m not actually attending the awards ceremony. Back in 1997 when I did my first feature film as sound designer, we won the award that year for best sound and at the time it was a momentous occasion – the excitement was palpable! Thirteen years & a bunch of other awards later, I still totally appreciate the honour but, as I said previously, it is not the main event – that occurred back in 2009 when we made these films… And thankfully a member of each team IS attending so they can handle making a speech & the general bizo. I don’t want to sound ungrateful because that isn’t the case – I’m not making some kind of statement through not attending (eg Nick Caves letter to MTV) Relatedly a few years ago the NZ film awards were split into two parts: the craft awards and the gala awards. Guess which one sound is in? But the slightly annoying thing is that the craft awards are held on a weekday lunchtime, in Auckland. So if I was to attend, it would mean a whole day off work and as I am only three weeks into a new film & busy as all hell, I cannot spare the time….
And the craft awards are tomorrow so I guess I’ll get a txt (or find someone tweeting the results) & update this post, but I think I can speak for all of the team that made these films when I say thank you to Taika, Gaylene & Jonathan for the incredibly inspiring shared experience of helping to make your films!
We won for HOME BY CHRISTMAS!
The Phoenix Foundation won for BEST FILM SCORE for BOY
Steve Finnigan, James Hayday and Tom Miskin won for BEST TV SOUND for Kaitangata Twitch
Rhian Sheehan won BEST TV MUSIC for The Cult