Sometimes, in order to do your job to the best of your ability, you have to change the manner in which you perform your role. This is not done for the sake of ease or to be lazy, it’s quite the opposite. Taking the normal or more obvious path does not always lend itself properly to the presentation. It can be frustrating and taxing but in the end, it becomes quite gratifying. Xiao’ou Olivia Zhang understands this only too well from her experience working on the film Looking at the Stars. The ironic title of this movie about blind ballet dancers challenged Zhang to come up with many new approaches to grant an empathetic ear to relate the tactile experiences of the dancers. Ultimately, it was a requirement for Olivia to put on her Foley hat and go about discovering augmented sounds to give the audience a better idea of what it felt like (literally) to understand the experiences of these dancers. The work on this film was a far cry from her normal sound designing experience on a film, and yet…Zhang states that she was thrilled to be forced to come up with new sounds that would have the greater impact of what the characters in the film were experiencing. With celebrated films like Lost City of Tomorrow, The Hunt, Thunderstorm, Los Villanos, and others…it’s encouraging to see that a professional with so many achievements, like Olivia, is excited about finding a creative solution for the productions in which she is involved.
When Veronica Li (Supervising Sound Editor of Looking at the Stars) was looking for someone to work with her on the film, she approached Zhang because she wanted someone with strong Foley abilities and an extremely discerning ear. Li explains, “The sound design of Looking of the Stars depends a lot on the Foley. Olivia was one of the most important parts of the sound design team. Her work brings us as an audience a lot closer to the character. We feel what they feel through the detailed Foley sounds, and thus, we become more involved in the story. She had a very good understanding of the characters and the story, and the Foley she recorded brings the movie alive, which is the essential part of the sound design of this movie.” The excellence of both Zhang’s work and the entire production was proven by the achievement of Looking at the Stars being awarded a USA Student Academy Award, an Urbanworld Film Festival win (the Documentary Prize), and a nomination from the International Documentary Association. Zhang admits that receiving accolades is never an unwelcome gift when it applies to your work but she also feels that this production was especially meaningful as she shared a common trait with the subjects of the film. She notes, “The degree of us focusing on sound in life connected me in a significant way to the dancers. I would often close my eyes to hear the sound of the materials I had selected, attempting to get into the subject’s mind and test out if I could imagine what thing I’m holding in my hand from the sound it makes. Moments like this made the story somehow personal to me. Of course, I couldn’t understand the depth of the courage of the dancer’s but, this small attempt to relate to them with a common sensory focus and application, it raised my appreciation for the way in which they ‘see’ the world. It’s an amazing audible environment which they appreciate that I think many people might overlook. That was an unexpected gift I received from working on Looking at the Stars.”
Looking at the Stars is an intimate glimpse into the lives of the extraordinary ballerinas at the world’s only ballet school for the blind; the Fernanda Bianchini Ballet Association for the Blind. The story of these dancers goes beyond the challenge of learning to dance without a visual reference. Like many of us, these women want to be good professionals, partners, & friends. They want to be relevant and self-sufficient. They work fiercely to become the best versions of themselves. One of the dancers, Geyza, is the school’s prima ballerina. She is an example of grace, strength and determination. She began studying ballet with Fernanda Bianchini after losing her sight at the age of nine. In the film, Geyza arrives at a crossroads. Like many women, she feels pulled in two directions, between her family and her career. Preparing to get married, Geyza believes that in order to be a good wife she must dedicate herself to her family. She is also determined to not let married life end her aspirations as a ballet dancer and instructor. Whereas the obvious focus of the movie could have been overcoming a physical situation (blindness), Looking at the Stars chooses to instead focus on the heart and strength with which the dancers approach their entire lives.
While the film focuses on the dancers lives and interaction with the outside world, Zhang focuses on the sounds which helps the audience understand what is going on with them at a personal level. One scene in particular is a prime example of this work. Veronica Li recalls, “There was one scene in which the main character (who is blind) is touching her wedding dress. The movement of the character’s hand across the material and the sound Olivia recorded was so detailed and believable that it not only gives an enhanced sound but, it conveys the essence of that emotional moment.” Olivia continues, noting, “One of my most fond memories was re-creating the sound of ballet movement. I’m not a ballerina myself and my size is very different than the dancers. Half of the time the sound of ballet movement was made with my hands wearing the ballerina shoes to create swift jumps and slides over the dance floor. It was a fun day trying to be a ballerina who dances on my hands. Sometimes the great sound you are hearing in theatre was not made in the way you would imagine. That’s movie magic!” That makes Xiao’ou Olivia Zhang fall somewhere on the scale between scientist and magician; which sounds like possibly one of the most unusual and fun careers in the world.