This wasn’t my first time seeing this film – had I actually made it to the screening it would have been closer to my 3,000th I suspect, as I was sound designer on the film… Voices of the Land is a documentary focused on the work of Richard Nunns who has devoted his life to music and specifically Taonga Puoro, the traditional instruments of the Maori.
Conceptually the film was a joy to work on as sound designer, as the premise was essentially a musical conversation between Richard, the instruments, his musical collaborators and the New Zealand landscape, beautifully filmed by Alan Bollinger and sympathetically edited to allow room for the music & sound to fully engage. And thanks to a beautiful mix by Mike Hedges & Tim Chaprione at Park Road Post, I think the film achieves the admirable goal of experiencing the world of its music, rather than just observing it.
If you have any form of interest in Taonga Puoru I highly reccomend catching this film, and also highly reccomend a book Taonga Puoru – Singing Treasures by master carver Brian Flintoff who also appears in the film and creates many of these beautifully ornate instruments (the book also comes with a CD with examples of the instruments being played)
Documentaries are a fascinating creative challenge; often filmed in uncontrollable situations they make serious demands on the dialogue editor (skillfully handled here by Emile de la Rey, especially considering a lot of the film was shot during cicada season!) and of the re-recording mixers. But as a sound designer they also provide ample opportunities to question the ‘normal’ role sound plays in film making, especially with regards to the idea of the documentary form and authenticity. One simple example: the idea of having music performed in the landscape is potentially rich, but nature does not always cooperate or match the expectation or concept. The opening shots in the cave are a good example of this; when you think of wind instruments (especially the trumpet like Pukaea) being played in a cave you instantly imagine beautifully complex echoing resonances, and while that was defintiely the intention the cave the filming was done in was almost anechoic, with little to no sustained reverb. So when I started work on the film I followed my instincts and edited some of the best cave interiors I’ve recorded (Taya Cavern in Japan, Honeycomb Cave in Karamea & Tunnel Gully in Upper Hutt) and layered them to build a 5.0 evocative environment for the music to exist in. And then printed each of the multitrack location recordings of voice & instruments through TL Space using IRs from caves & other spaces that I felt evoked the right feeling for the scene… I played it to the director in rough form in my studio & he loved it, and we refined it a lot in the final mix, but my point: if we had used only the production audio from the location, an audience would very likely feel VERY underwhelmed and some would question if it was even real, had it all actually been recorded in a studio? My feeling is that the aim is to be authentic to the meaning of the documentary and the intent of the scene/moment, rather than be dictated to by reality. Story is king.
One other small point to make: I was invited to a couple of early screenings of the cut (thanks to a very wise producer being involved) and while I wasn’t familiar enough with the evolution of the cut to have much input on the overall narrative of the film, I did manage to make a few suggestions which after considering them the director & editor chose to implement. So one little example, about ten minutes into the film there is a shot of Richard Nunns standing in a clearing in a forest, again playing a Pukaea. Either side of the shot in the cut were interviews in Richards house, so the forest shot stood alone, as a moment of Richard playing in/to the landscape. I instantly started to think about the beautiful forest reverb/slap echoes that would exist, with the sound of that instrument bouncing around in that clearing. But then I started to imagine how it would sound, hearing that instrument from a distance – imagine going for a walk in dense bush & suddenly hearing a trumpet from across the valley, it would be magic! So I asked them to cut away from the close up shot of Richard and give me a shot of unrelated forest, carrying the close up sound across the cut so that when we got it, we could play it for perspective. They did, we did and it worked a treat and rather than showing someone simply playing in a forest, the cut away to bush where you could not see Richard means this: the audience get to experience that moment like they are actually there. Small poignant moments equate to small victories.
So for any film makers reading this, please remember: it costs nothing to invite your sound designer or sound editor or re-recording mixer along to a rough cut screening, but it may just make your project better in ways the director or picture editor themselves may not be able to conceive of. That is why you have a sound post team after all!