THE SOUND OF THE GRANDMASTER: JIFU LI

The human experience is diverse and complicated. There are layers upon layers of emotions that make up the life of every individual on the planet regardless of their experiences and their point of origin. This complexity can sometimes go unnoticed in the din of so many people. The beauty that makes up each person’s life is a story in itself. This concept goes overlooked by many but is always present in the mind of Jifu Li. As a Sound Editor, Jifu spends his time ensuring that the voices and sounds present in a film weave in and out of presence in the story as the filmmakers see fit. One might not think of sound in terms of color but it is precisely this perspective that allows a contouring of the experience by the audience. Jifu uses his talents in a wide variety of films ranging from Oscar nominated to independent productions, proving that those of great talent seeks to collaborate with great storytellers regardless of the price tag…because that’s what they must do as committed artists.

Creating any film is a massive endeavor. The Oscar-nominated feature film The Grandmaster was almost hyperbolically so. The footage was extensive, twelve reels by the time that Jifu began his work. The production’s shooting cycle had lasted four years. Li’s previous work on five films had convinced Wu Ling (general manager of the China film post Company) that Jifu’s talent and propensity to work long hours without complaint made him ideal for the position. The Grandmaster is the story of the martial-arts master Ip Man, the man who trained Bruce Lee. While it’s a gripping drama, the film is an obvious action story as well. The picture editing and audio editing of the film were done synchronously, which meant that getting the final frame version in perfect sync was an intimidating proposition. Altogether there were fifteen versions of the film. If an action scene changed, all of the effects and Group ADR required recutting by hand, sometimes even redesigning or rerecording.  Describing what he does in a very literal sense, Jifu states, “If you cut from a punch to a slow motion reaction, the sound pacing should be fast to slow. I might add in some ‘Bass Drops.’ The hit should appear to the audience as it ‘feels’ to the characters, like you can hear the fist beat from the skin to the bones, all the texture and details. What happened a lot in The Grandmaster is that they would then change it on the other side; cut to the fighter’s slow-motion movement first, and suddenly speed up, hitting the others person’s face. The sound design will then change a lot. Sometimes there were voices and sometimes just music and sound effects. There are so many of these sonic aspects in modern films and in particular action films. My job is to make sure these subtleties are executed perfectly and to the desire of the director. It can be arduous but it’s always gratifying.”

A consummate professional like Jifu was necessary for The Grandmaster due to one technique which was employed during filming for the benefit of the action sequences. In this film (as in many action films) the director used music to aid in the fight sequences. This type of choreography is always about timing and music greatly aids in this. Quite often, the music used during filming is not the same that is used in the final edit (sometimes the music is altogether discarded). This results in extensive ADR (automated dialogue replacement). Even beyond the main characters, Li worked extensively on Walla Editing (the background character voices), Wild Tracks (sound effects which are recorded on location by the production sound mixer and then later edited for use), and Foley.

The Grandmaster is a beautiful film, visually and audibly. In addition to its 2014 Academy Award-nomination, it also received the Best film at the (2014) Asian Film Awards, Best Film at the (2014) Hong Kong Film Awards, as well as a Golden Horse Film Festival Audience Choice Award & Best Feature Film nomination. Most meaningful to Jifu was the Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing in Foreign Feature Film that acknowledged his skill on The Grandmaster and which he credits for inspiring him to continue to excel in the profession.

Though he enjoys the challenge of a huge budget feature film, Li also welcomes the opportunity of smaller films and the methodology they require. His work in Editing for the film “Love is Color Blind” helped to create the mood for a very different type of adversity and combat between the film’s main characters. The film, which won a host of awards at the London IFF 2017 and the Los Angeles Cinema Festival of Hollywood, is the story of an American woman who adopts an orphan from China and has brought it back to the United States. With adolescent rebellion, the child begins to gradually question the authority of her mother. Teen angst ensues and a rift is created between child and parent. As life educates the daughter, she prepares to sincerely apologize to her mother at her 18-year-old birthday party but the mother faints from weakness due to late stages of cancer. At the last moment of life, the mother and daughter finally understand each other.

Jifu had extensive conversation with director Liu Jiaqi about the emotional shading of the tone she wanted in the film. In creating the sound design for “Love is Color Blind” he used Avid Media Composer  and Protools HD. The program creates sound Design effects and allows them to be categorized and moved around as per the director’s desire for subtle differences. These type of modern tools are equally applicable in major studio films or smaller indie productions. It’s a fact of the modern filmmaking era that both the tools and the skilled professional like Jifu who use them often work in both situations. The key factors in either are talent and hard work, something which Li is always mindful of. He reveals, “I remember when I worked for Kar Wai Wong the director and he told me an idiom which inspires me to this day. Everyone knows that the most valuable part of a toad is the toad oil but do you know how the toad oil is produced? The toad is placed under a light and is scorched by the light. It produces this oil, a process which takes about twenty hours. When I heard this, I thought ‘sometimes inspiration comes from dogged pursuit.’ The best thing/essence occurs at the moment when you feel you reach your limit and want to give up. If you persist, you might be surprised by your achievement. This is what keeps me working as hard as I possibly can.”The Grandmaster -MPSE best sound editing

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