"A Sound Idea:
"There is no separation of state between the production microphone and the loudspeaker in the theatre. It is all one act."
Portman's words point to an ideal unity in film sound. In reality, a soundtrack is created by a team--a production mixer, post production sound supervisor, sound effects editor, composer and re-recording mixer, to name just a few - that often resembles a patchwork rather than a unified chain of command. Unlike cinematography, there is no one person who sits at the top of the pyramid. But what if there were?
There was a time, in fact, when the making of a movie soundtrack appeared to be heading in this direction. This was back in the 1970s when one solitary, but powerful figure in the postproduction world tried and failed to introduce the position of "sound designer." By the late 90s sound design has come to mean something smaller, a little less reputable, and even a tad controversial. Today there are a variety of interpretations of what "sound designer" means. In many cases, the term makes professionals queasy.
"It is a controversial term," admits Gary Rydstrom, one of the reigning gurus at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch and someone who can wear this title more comfortable than most. "Some people started using it and then stopped. It's a cross between someone who makes sound effects but also supervises the soundtrack. It is someone who the director turns to as being in charge of the soundtrack. "It sounds damn pretentious." So says Skip Lievsay, co-founder of C5, one of the larger postproduction sounds facilities in New York. He narrowly defines the term. "If you are making sounds that you can't afford and have to create, you are a sound designer." For veteran production sound mixer Chris Newman ("The English Patient"), sound design connotes something different. "It is the way the space of the movie will sound to the audience," he says.
The idea Á"the way the space of the movie will sound"¤was the notion that animated the pioneer of sound design. Walter Murch, some 25 years ago. Murch occupies a singular place in feature film postproduction, having acted as both picture and sound editor, as well as re-recording mixer. He has been the director's eyes and ears for a small but seminal group of films, starting with Francis Ford Coppola's "The Rain People" (1969) and running to Anthony Minghella's "The English Patient" (1997). In each of these films, sound has been used subtly and evocatively to create texture and meaning. "I am unique," Murch proclaims, "in that I am the only film editor who is also a feature film mixer. I both edit the picture and come up with a concept for the sound and then mix the final result. I have been doing this since Francis Ford Coppola's ‘The Conversation' in 1974." At the mix, he explains, "I balance the original dreams of the director, the needs of the studio, my own hunches about things, and the voices of everyone else working on the film."
"From the late sixties at Zoetrope, we were trying to create the sound equivalent of a director of photography Á somebody whose responsibility was for the total sound of the film." Murch had hoped that his work on "The Conversation" would lead to the creation of a sound designer credit on future films. And at the same time it appeared that Murch, with his already impressive track record of Coppola films, would blaze a path that others would follow. But he remains an anomaly in the film business. No one else at his level cuts picture and mixes sound. No one else has his orchestrating abilities. Quite likely, no one else inspires the same kind of confidence among world-class directors. But he remains a solitary figure, a veritable cottage industry on the outskirts of the film industry. (Murch lives and works in northern California, not too far from his friend, George Lucas, whose Industrial Light & magic connotes the kind of high-tech, action filmmaking that Murch eschews.) Sadly, the concept of sound designer¤someone who takes responsibility for the sound from beginning to end, just as a director of photography does for the image¤never took hold. Why? Was it the drag of powerful work habits? The introduction of digital technology? The long-established hierarchy of film production? The refusal of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognize the term? Or was it just not necessary?
One part of the answer can be traced to a transforming technology. In the early 1980's, a company called New England Digital created a machine that could sample sounds for the pop musician. Called a Synclavier, this was the foundation upon which contemporary audio facilities have been built. So powerful was it as a tool for editing sound that the manufacturer, who went bankrupt twice, was resuscitated twice. Synclaviers can still be found in active use in audio post facilities, especially on the east coast. "C5 evolved almost exclusively from the benefit of having Synclaviers. The Synclavier defined what we do," says C5's Lievsay.
We now take for granted the extraordinary capabilities of digital media, but 15 years ago the Synclavier was truly a revolutionary device Á the progenitor of what we now know as the audio workstation. Lievsay describes a Synclavier as "an analog-o-digital converter. I store the data in random access memory." Using time code and a sequencer, he continues, "you can replay the data to picture. You can also manipulate the data by varying the rate at which you play it back and convert it to analog. "In a Synclavier you have a recorder and a sequencer which tells the Synclavier when to play back the sounds. You get digital signal processing. You use digital media to manipulate the sound, to play things backwards, to speed things up, and to layer." With its keyboard, the Synclavier is operated like a musical instrument rather than a computer, which may explain the affection people still lavish on it. "I still use a Synclavier," says Paul Soucek, one of the imaginative younger members of the sound postproduction community and partner in the audio post facility Planet 10. He touchingly admits his love of the Synclavier. "It's my friend in a way a lot of systems are not. The Synclavier was like a Macintosh computer; I was user friendly before anyone knew what the term meant."
The Synclavier embodied the technology that transformed the audio landscape, marking the transition from analog to digital sound. Even at the onset of the digital era, Bernard Hayden of Sound Dimension, a boutique facility in New York catering to independents, foresaw the implications. "With analog sound," he recently said, "you laid down one brick at a time. You had to visualize the entire building. With digital sound, you have full sight of the building all of the time." This ability to visualize a multiplicity of audio possibilities and keep all the elements perpetually at hand would seem to enhance the viability of a sound designer, but in a curious way, it did the opposite. Why create this all-powerful job when digital audio workstations could replace so much human labor? Why pay for a sound designer when you already have a machine and a skilled technician? The Synclavier and succeeding generations of audio workstations have produced a level of technical schematization that tended to obviate the need for a sound designer.
On a film set, sound is the step-child to picture-making. Likewise in post, sound remains secondary to picture editing. This can be partly explained by the nature of the filmmaking process. Postproduction sound work comes at the end, when money is short and the pressure to release the film is greatest. With money running out, according to Planet 10's Soucek, "the insecurities set in. If you make an analogy between filmmaking and medicine, sound is in the proctology area. It is the last step in the chain." Then there is the prominent place the composer occupies. "If I could change one thing in the way films are made," Walter Much ruefully confessed, "I would change the way music is done. I believe a composer should be in the film from at least the end of shooting, and should be working continuously with the filmmakers during the whole post production phase.' But that is not a normal composer/filmmaker relationship. Usually the composer arrives late and leaves early. His work often plays a prominent role in shaping the final film, yet he remains within his own domain, commonly with only a passing connection to the other sound workers. In the best of situations, the composer works in a collegial manner with the postproduction sound team. In the worst of situations, his work becomes one more competing element that must be resolved at the mix.
If neither technology nor work habits nor tradition have encouraged the role o the sound designer, the rise of the action fantasy film has. These films often crave unusual sounds from the creatures or situations within them that don't exist in the ordinary world. These sounds must be composed. So instead of a sound designer being responsible for the creation of a film's sound space, as Murch originally envisioned, we have a model more in line with Lievsay's definition of someone "making sounds you can't record" in the real world. That individual is only another technician, albeit a very important and creative one. (Significantly, Lievsay did the sound design for "Men in Black."
Full-fledged sound design also does still occur, sometimes in unexpected ways and places. Every once in a while a film emerges, often at the margins of the business, with a "sound designer" credit attached, and one that actually describes significant work. Atom Egoyan's Canadian film, "The Sweet hereafter," is an example of low budget commercial filmmaking in which an audio team was led by a sound designer (Steve Munro) working in tandem with a composer (Mychael Danna). Together they created a soundtrack that is not only striking in of it self, but drives the film to deeper meanings.
The film's style is illustrated by its opening sequence, a montage of scenes that crisscross time and place. As we move from past to present to future and back, sound and music are often the means by which we comprehend the temporal shifts, and constitute essential components of Eyogan's complex story telling technique. That he achieved work of such quality illustrates how the camaraderie of Eogyan's tight-knit group manages to raise the level of each individual's effort. As Munro says, "We (went) through the films, screening it many times and talking about it. I also like to work very closely with the composer, Mychael Danna who happens to live nearby to my studio." That physical proximity, Munro argues, heightened the creative intimacy between sound and music in the film.
"The Sweet Hereafter" is a unique hybrid of dialogue and fantasy film. There are naturalistic, dialogue films, "where the sound designer title isn't warranted," Munro claims. "But at the other extreme, with "The Sweet Hereafter," where the sound gets pretty funky in a lot of scenes, there is an overall concept of design and flow. If you have the opportunity to work on the overall concepts as we did in ‘The Sweet Hereafter' then the term is justified."
Munro's work provides a model of creativity at the periphery of commercial filmmaking. It suggests a sound design that is very forward-looking by utilizing creative and cost-saving techniques, and at the same time harkens back to the groundbreaking work of Murch in the 1970s in its fullness and complexity. Costing no more than $5 million, "The Sweet Hereafter" is a powerful statement about communityÁboth the one within the film, which is being torn apart by greed and sexual conflict, and the film production community centered around Egoyan. Its technical accomplishments are considerable, as great as anything to be found in big-budget films, and within those accomplishments reside a very important lesson. Cost-wise, computers and digital technology - the tools that have created "The Sweet Hereafter's" soundtrack - are available to all of us. These tools have democratized post production, so now anyone with talent or knowledge can do sound design.
But that brings us back to where we started. Why, then, aren't there more thoroughly sound-designed films like "The Sweet Hereafter?" Why aren't there more people who can legitimately call themselves sound designers and be recognized by the industry? Maybe the answer lies in an accretion of small reasons: inertia, he reluctance of technicians to sit under the control of a supervisor, money, the importance of MPAA- recognized credits, the absence of a powerful advocate. Maybe a sound designer just isn't necessary. Evidently it isn't in Hollywood. But that doesn't mean it's not a good idea. Because audio workstations and sophisticated audio editing applications are available to anyone making films, the idea of a controlling audio sensibility shaping a project remains good one. That individual, who can wear many audio hats from postproduction sound supervisor and sound editor to sound designer, can play very important and cost effective roles in the making of a low budget film or video. As we saw in the making of "The Sweet Hereafter," where comity rather than conflict exists, creativity can stretch a low budget a long way.
Larry Loewinger is a sound mixer, producer and a member of the Cinema Audio Society. He was a 1997 C.A.S and Emmy Award nominee for "Stomp Out Loud."