Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 6, nr. 1 (January 2014)Isabelle Delmotte: TUNED IN AND HANDS ON: SOUND DESIGNERS BEYOND TECHNICAL EXPERTISE
Sound design: sharing trust and space
It would be presumptuous, and unnecessary, to generalise about Western professional practices because of the contextual particularities and the evolving identity of each project, as well as the galloping technological changes inherent in the industry. Each professional generation is associated with technologies that inevitably modify the phenomenology of human involvement in cinema sound creation. Nowadays, with the use of digital audio workstations allowing for fast sound manipulations and experiencing of sensations, the process of "mixing in the box" allows cinema sound professionals to pre-mix while watching footage, but also while reading script. The chronology of their sonic experiments and creative sensitivity can also then be conveyed, and approved, at an earlier stage by the director.
Technique and experiments reflect on a collaborative creativity emerging out of industry necessities, human physical interactivity and the sharing of life experiences. Chion writes that "Audiovisual relationships are largely cultural and historical but, in everyday life as well as in the audiovisual arts, they rely also on relatively 'little-known universal psycho-physiological phenomena'" (Chion 2000: 205). Innate and immanent knowledge of the self in the world can depart from cognitive intentionality, and at times this phenomenon demands the sharing of the same place and atmospheres. Vibrations provide the flow that attests to "the permeability of individuals in their environment as they selectively transduce and amplify its energetic patterns – that is, propagate affect" (Henriques 2010: 84). Transmitting and sharing states of affect with creative collaborators is as important as invoking cultural or commercial assumptions. Could the physical collaboration of sound women and men, directors and producers, through sharing of common space and transmission of affect influence the overall narrative prior to any visuals being shot?
For the film The Hurt Locker (Bigelow 2008) director Kathryn Bigelow, writer Mark Boal and sound designer Paul N.J. Ottosson worked together, sometimes in the same space, from the pre-production stage. Ottosson mixed The Hurt Locker (Bigelow 2008) himself and "in the box", only getting into a mixing theatre to adjust tonal balance. He won two Oscars for his editing and mixing of this particular feature film. Ottosson, Boal and Bigelow re-iterated their successful collaboration with Zero Dark 30 (Bigelow 2012) and, yet again, Ottosson won an Oscar for best sound editing. Kassab says that Ottosson’s work process, technological use and creative involvement from start to finish "sent shockwaves throughout the sound community" (Kassab 2010: 13). The validation of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark 30 soundtracks suggests that successful sound design can be a phenomenological process between writer, director and sound designer as technology allows a blurring and intertwining of production roles.
The technical process and consequences of "mixing in the box" from pre-production on, independent of the signposting provided by moving images, suggests a re-mapping of the experiential and chronological process of sound creation. For writer-director Rolf de Heer, imagining sound is a physical part of writing. During an informal conversation with this article's author, de Heer made a gesture with his two hands near his head to indicate that, while writing, sound sits "next to him, just there" (personal communication, September 1, 2012). Writing with sound and for sound has also been central for Australian writer-director Matthew Saville. His collaboration with sound designer Emma Bortignon on Noise (Saville 2007) started from pre-production onwards, a long time before any visuals were shot. Their exchange of ideas and Bortignon's experiments resulted in a movie that literally and metaphorically resonates with the sounds and silences that suffuse the lives of the main characters.
This mode of feeling sound is the norm in contemporary animations, and in science fiction films, as their genesis relies heavily on sonic characterisation. John Kassab worked for 13 months on the short Australian animation The Lost Thing (Tan and Ruhemann 2010) that won the Oscar for short animation in 2010. Both sound and animated work were feeding on each other, a process that Kassab qualifies as "a complete technical and creative anomaly" leading to a "completely open beautiful collaboration" (personal communication, July 29, 2011). Regular meetings in the flesh allowed for experiential symbiosis, and online file transfers of drafts ensured constant communication. For a few years Rolf de Heer and sound designers James Currie and Tom Heuzenroeder were working in the same building in Adelaide (Australia). Known as an excellent sound team and long time collaborators, Heuzenroeder and Currie used to ask de Heer to "'come down and have a listen to this', and he'll come down and then we'll play him some things and he'll approve or make a comment" (personal communication, May 1, 2011).
Design can be a bold and spontaneous activity put into motion by affect and multi-sensory experiments offered to directors; mixing entails more moderation and seems prompted by the thought of the potential transmission of affect amongst crowds. There is a trans-situational aspect to these creative events and their affective continuity as they establish a "connecting thread of experience" (Massumi 2002: 217). Environmental and atmospheric sound personifies such an affective thread of experience for all immersed in its presence in post-production or inside cinema theatres. De Heer's long-term collaboration with James Currie starts at location recording, as both privilege the atmospheric truth of the location and understand "an audience's conscious and sub-conscious acceptance of the reality of their movie". In parallel, the inclusion of Westerkamp’s existing acousmatic composition in the soundtrack of Last Days (Van Sant 2005) is perfectly described as "housed within the spaces we see on screen, while continually offering a ladder out of the frame to lands that lie beyond" (Jordan 2007). Although Westerkamp's piece had no physical relation to the movie's location, it is the sonic habituation and coenaesthesia of audiences that validate its ubiquitous presence.
Sound designers and mixers work towards communicating psycho-physiological experiences with directors or producers in order to ultimately gain audiences' acceptance. Tom Heuzenroeder mentioned that because sound has the potential to steer a movie towards different shores, a film sound person needs direction from the director, and their working relationship needs to be "solid" (personal communication, August 16, 2010). In the context of the study I was neither a client nor a director and therefore did not act as "a sounding board". Perhaps if I had been physically in the studio with participants our social interaction would have affected us biologically and physically. A transmission of affect could have influenced the coenaesthesia of both sound makers and myself, and subsequently that the story itself, thus becoming a determinant factor in the production of study participants' sound creations. Instead, the solitary process demanded by the experiment triggered some unexpected reactions from some sound designers.
As a response to my non-sensorial participation and absence of direction, one study participant gave me two different audio versions of the script. The assumption was that the one that I (the "client") would prefer could be different to the one that the creator liked himself. Another consequence seems in direct line with the notion of affect and the creation of silences. At the end of our face-to-face interview, Heuzenroeder said "All along you were after silence, and I didn’t provide you with any!" (personal communication, May 1, 2011). Heuzenroeder sounded almost surprised and maybe a bit disappointed, as if he had missed an opportunity, giving me the impression that he might have "silenced himself". Maybe digital silences would have inhabited the soundtrack if I had been physically in the studio to experience the coenaesthetic sculpting of the script and its story.