Sound designer Randolph Zaini talks award-winning film “Paper Tiger”

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Sound Designer Randolph Zaini

Only someone who is truly passionate about what they do can talk about it the way that Randolph Zaini speaks about sound design. He explains the intricacies and nuances to the craft as if they are the elements in his poem. Sound design is more than a passion to him; it is a lifestyle, and it is one that he loves living.

When working on the award-winning film Paper Tiger, Zaini showed audiences around the world what he is capable of. The film went to several international film festivals after premiering at the 2015 New Filmmakers Festival, and won the IndieFeast Award, Award of Recognition 2016. The film is also in discussion of being distributed through SCA channel.

“It is incredibly encouraging that the film has done so well. There were many risks that the director and I took in our approach of creating this movie, and receiving so many accolades and distribution only strengthens our belief that we take risks for the right reasons. Chances were either we’d be received with open arms or shunned out of the gates, but it wouldn’t be anything in between, which would be a more regrettable position. Luckily, we were received with very positive reactions,” said Zaini.

Paper Tiger is about a Shaolin monk undergoing an internal conflict after refusing to help a victim of assault. He is part of a traveling troupe promoting Chinese martial arts, yet at the same time, he doesn’t do anything when witnessing an actual act of violence in front of him. In this film, not only does the main character not have any line of dialogue, but he also doesn’t emote very much, coming from a stoic Shaolin background.

“I wanted to do the project because at the core, it is a story that speaks to me. Not that I am a warrior monk of any kind, but that issues of identity crisis and often feeling as if I don’t belong are two things that keep recurring in my life. I am a Chinese-Indonesian; a Chinese by ethnicity, but an Indonesian by birth and citizenship. The feeling of being displaced has always lingered at the back of my head, as well as the cry for help to be accepted without judgment. These emotions are something that are relatable to what the main character of Paper Tiger is going through. Empathy then became a gateway to my involvement in this project. It is a story, or more specifically a state of mind, that needs to be told,” said Zaini.

As a filmmaker, how do you facilitate a character who doesn’t speak and doesn’t indicate with facial expressions, yet at the same time goes through a difficult time? This is where sound design shines, and Zaini was more than up to the task. He approached this by heavily utilizing ambiance design. Introspective moments, volatile moments, anger, despair and frustration is communicated by what is heard surrounding the character. There was one moment when the monk had just performed a martial arts routine, received by a round of applause. As he walks away backstage, the announcer gives a very commercialized version of the cultural history and the business manager sells the cardboard image of the Shaolin, but slowly all that dies down, and all that can be heard are the monk’s footsteps. He is isolated, if not excluded from this world. He is displaced; a man out of his time. Through such sound treatment it becomes painfully obvious. The entire film is filled with this style of sound design that Zaini accomplished so well.

“When given free rein on the sound design process, I was able to experiment with countless techniques I had never done before. That was such a liberating feeling you don’t find that often in ambitious film projects like this. I was also performing every single sound cue for the foley effects. In that sense, I was able to construct this fully realized, complex character by how I would direct the sounds he would make in the story; be it the movement of his monk garb, his prayer beads, and even his footsteps, everything became an audio cue that I instilled into this character. It was tremendously exciting to be able to have a hands-on approach in the story to such level,” said Zaini.

Zaini’s contributions are directly linked to the film’s success. The director, Marshall “Chu-Jen” Wu knew what the sound director was capable of, and knew there was no other person that could achieve the sound he was looking for. Zaini was given complete creative freedom. As the sound design process is very abstract, many of the techniques Zaini used would usually raise questions from directors who are not experienced with ongoing sound projects, but Wu had full faith in Zaini’s capabilities.

“Throughout the entire production of the film, Randolph was able to bring in references from other films, animation, music video, and concerts. Many of those references are not known to the Western market, yet precisely on the point of the vision that I tried to create. One of the most memorable examples of this was Randolph using Japanese Taiko drum performance as the referential suggestion for the soundtrack during the climax martial arts fight in Paper Tiger. The end product is nothing but phenomenal,” said Wu.

Everyone that worked with Zaini on the film was impressed with his skill and commitment to produce flawless sound. The producer of the film, Alexander Moscato, says that every idea Zaini brought to the film only made it better.

“Randolph is an absolute pleasure to work with. He comes to work with a smile and a great sense of humor, and his dedication and passion are quite inspirational. He truly cares about the projects he works on. He takes great care to understand the director’s vision, contributing innovative ideas and insights. When you work with Randolph, it is a collaborative process of discovery, filled with lots of laughs, new insights, and stellar sound design. Randolph is an artist in every sense of the word. He has an ability to bring you into the world of the story by creating dynamic soundscapes. He knows how to tell a story through sound, as he masterfully uses sound to advance the plot, as well as the emotional experiences of the characters that drive the story,” said Moscato.

For a small taste of why Zaini has such an esteemed reputation, you can view his work on the drum scene from Paper Tiger here.

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