A sense of place…

Project management is a term that makes me shudder – I imagine ‘suits’ (or ‘salarymen’ as they are known in Japan) sweating & then feeling like they have done their days work after juggling a few assignments & shouting at a few people in the process of delegating. Even’ delegating’ is a term that makes me uneasy – it evokes feelings of handing off menial work that is unimportant. But with soundtracks we all know EVERY element is important & will get its chance to contribute…

All of this is the dichotomy of large scale film projects. The sheer amount of work involved means it must be spread amongst a number of people & that process is far from arbitrary, simply because assigning it to the wrong person will mean the supervisor will end up spending as much time checking, advising & then fixing work than if they had done it themselves…

Accordingly independent film is closer to my heart, where necessity means that one is involved in every aspect of the soundtrack. And having recently finished a large scale project it has been refreshing to get back to a comparatively independent project. And the most present joy thus far has been getting to record & cut ambiences.

And so I scheduled myself to spend a few days revisiting locations from the film, recording & experiencing the ambiences of the scenes I had been working on. And I got to thinking how important this process is. It goes beyond the necessities of a technically functional soundtrack – it is about a sense of place.

I cant speak for anyone but myself, but from my point of view New Zealand is a place where the environment overpowers the humans. While I believe this to be an intrinsic part of being a New Zealander, when I travel this sense remains with me and I do not think it is solely a kiwi trait. Take one of my literary heroes, Aldous Huxley: “My father considered a walk among the mountains as the equivalent of church going”

So when it comes to building & layering the sonic elements that comprise the ambiences for a film, where do we turn for our inspiration? Our sound library? Other peoples libraries? Well I know the only answer that means I don’t lie awake at night, worrying about the authenticity of the sonic environment in which the films I work on exist: we revisit those locations, preferably at a similar time of year as the shoot, and capture an extensive library of material…. as both source elements & as reference.

See one of the locations in the film made me stop & think: what does it sound like in there? ‘there’ being a series of tunnels linking gun emplacements in the now laughable quest of protecting our borders from foreign invasion… Dripping water? Scary draft winds? But the tunnels are surrounded by ocean, so how does that filer into our senses? And how does it vary relative to where you (and/or the scene) are located?
The two answers are (1) we can try to ‘fake’ or recreate it or (2) we go do our homework, in person, to both listen/experience & record…. I sure know which I prefer and some sounds when taken out of context may well have none of features required to evoke the reality of being there, and so the memory of how it felt is every bit as important as any recordings…. And thats why I believe it essential to visit the locations, to establish a personal reference that will be relied on when editing, premixing the ambiences & final mixing the film….

The same often applies to specific sound effects. As a good example I will always remember recording Burt Munros Indian motorbike for World’s Fastest Indian. I had read of how it was loud, due to the exhaust acting as a trumpet…. but when I heard wildtrack recordings from the shoot I had no personal point of reference. But whoah when I stood in front of it! 15 seconds and I knew EXACTLY how physically loud it was!! Ditto for the feeling a doppler pass created….. ditto for the way it sounded from the distance…. Those memories were a very important part of being able to hold an opinion as to how the mix was sounding, months later….. and DITTO for every location I visited recording ambiences….

ps: if you are planning a visit to North Head in Auckland, this PDF map will be helpful….

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