Sound Designer Veronica Li Completes the Vision Behind Alexandre Peralta’s ‘Looking at the Stars’

Final Mix
Veronica Li brings the sound design to director Alexandre Peralta’s “Looking at the Stars.”

The award-winning sound designer Veronica Li has proven herself as a talented and invaluable individual when it comes to the art of storytelling through sound. Her knack for effectively enhancing a film with her sound work is showcased throughout her most recent success, the short film, “Looking at the Stars,” written and directed by Alexandre Peralta.

Originally from Changchun, China, Li was first introduced to her craft while attending school at the University of Southern California (USC), where the art of creating sound design initially sparked her interests. “I remember when I first started doing sound design, there was a scene where a woman walked out of a hospital very upset, and my professor told me that I should make the sliding door close behind her sound like a sigh,” Li recalled. “That was the moment I fell in love with sound.”

Li’s time at USC provided her with many opportunities to collaborate on several strong, student projects. One of her earliest works titled “STAND,” consisted of a documentary about Krump Dancers in Southern LA. “It was very successful at several film festivals, and also won the Outstanding Achievement in Sound Award at the First Film Festival,” Li said.

By way of excellent recommendations, Peralta connected with Li after making contact with her during his search for a post-production sound designer for “Looking at the Stars.” Even before seeing the project, Li was enthralled by the story on its own, and also noted it as a great opportunity for sound design. “When Alex showed me the first cut, I was so moved by it,” said Li. “I loved the characters, their stories and the look of the film and thought, ‘I have to work on this project.’”

The film takes place in São Paul, Brazil, and follows the lives of extraordinary ballerinas who attend Fernanda Bianchini Ballet Association for the Blind, the world’s only ballet school for the blind. Peralta, a Brazil native, read about the ballet school one day in a magazine. After reading up on the school, Peralta said, “I realized that I lived two blocks away and would walk by the school almost everyday. Everything started out as a curiosity; I wanted to know how they were able to teach something so technical and visual like ballet to visually impaired people. When I visited the ballet school for the first time, I was even more fascinated. It was a lively and inspiring place, and I learned that ballet played and even bigger role in these girl’s lives. I needed to tell some of their stories.”

“Looking at the Stars” was aimed at inspiring a visually impaired audience, ultimately making it so that having, “A great sound design was almost more important than having a beautiful picture,” Peralta said. From the beginning, he knew that having a sound designer who understood this idea and possessed a unique talent would be essential in ensuring the film’s success. “We wanted it [the sound] to be immersive and poetic like the images that we captured. Veronica brought even more than what I expected. It became a much better movie after her amazing work.”

Li sound designed the short on her own with the help of two Foley artists. Said artists aided in capturing mainly dance moves, footsteps and other various close touching sounds.

The majority of the editing process took place over a holiday break when Peralta and Li were apart from one another, Li in China and Peralta in Brazil. “We thought the distance might create some communication issues, but it actually went very smoothly,” Li commented. “I sent him every path and he would give me clear feedback. He was also always very helpful with anything I requested of him, like recording more ADR or helping me gather Brazilian ambient sounds.”

Despite the extensiveness of the project, the team was given the same amount of time as other USC student thesis films to complete the mixing of “Looking at the Stars.” However, unlike the other student theses, Li had three different versions of the short film to mix. “It was very challenging just to get the work done,” Li said. The final product included the completion and delivery of a normal mix, a mix with English description for blind audiences and one with Portuguese description for the Brazilian release. “I’d never mixed a film with audio description before, and in order to fit the description, we had to adjust a lot of our original dialogue and sound design,” Li explained.

While perfecting the sound design for “Looking at the Stars” came with challenges, the project also allowed Li to showcase specific skills in addition to acquiring new ones. Not only did the short feature Li’s dialogue editing abilities, it also provided her ample opportunity to implement her own unique creative design.

“The sound design of the film is subtle and very effective emotionally,” Peralta explained. “You are not necessarily aware of the sound work, but you can feel it, and that’s how good sound design should be. I really like the little details that came from Veronica’s work; some of the memorable moments are in the dance sequences. When we were picture editing these sequences, they used to be like music videos. After the sound work, they became much more emotional and you could feel them in a totally different way.”

The short was awarded the Documentary Gold Award in the 42nd Student Academy Awards, one grand achievement out of many for Li. Regarding the award, Li said, “Winning the Gold Award means the project is a great film as a whole, including all aspects of filmmaking. The Student Academy Awards is one of the biggest student film awards in the world. Being a part of a team whose project won a Student Academy Award is definitely a great honor for me.”

While Peralta and Li were new to collaborating with one another prior to “Looking at the Stars,” their partnership will continue to grow throughout a second rendition of the short, as a feature film version of “Looking at the Stars” is currently in the works. “I felt the short was like a simple melody where we just follow the arc as it builds up to the end climax. The feature is more like a polyphony where we have to balance several different melodies and make them work well with one another,” said Li. This new interpretation will introduce another main character, while the stories of the short’s current characters will undergo an increase in complexity.

The release date of the feature version of “Looking at the Stars” is still to be determined, however, the post-production sound mixing is set to begin in April of 2016.

When it came to Li’s contributions to the short style of “Looking at the Stars,” Peralta commented, “I can say that there was a movie before and after sound design. She definitely took the movie to another level. I am so glad we are working together again on the feature version of “Looking at the Stars.””

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