In 1999, Chen Xu dedicated himself to watching approximately 1,000 movies in order to absorb as much information as possible about sound design and sound mixing within the film industry. Interestingly enough, the overwhelming lesson that he learned was that regardless of a film’s genre or budget, a good sound design could always supplement a film’s visual stimuli and boost the viewer’s imagination beyond this imagery. Sound design has the ability to change the entire viewing experience and Xu felt confident that he possessed the skill set and creativity to be able to take any visual film component and take it to the next level with the addition of his sound design. Since then, he has earned a substantial amount of recognition for his talents, not only in the form of awards, but also in sheer demand for his work. Fortunately for Xu, sound design and sound mixing are a lifelong passion and he is one of the few people in this world who can say that they get to do what they truly love and call it “work.”
“Sound is not as specific as the film’s picture; however, it tends to be integral to our subconscious mind. The delicate organization and arrangement of sounds can greatly enhance a movie. On the surface, it appears to be a mere aid to the picture but in reality, the space and importance of the sound creation typically accounts for over half of the film. This gives me a sense of freedom in my work to express my own creativity. That’s where I really like sound,” said Xu.
Throughout his remarkable career, Xu has used his sound design and sound mixing expertise to enhance the scripts of a number of renowned films such as A Simple Goodbye and The Wasted Times. For his work on The Summer Is Gone, Xu received a nomination for Best Sound Effects Award at the 53rd Golden Horse Film Festival. For Xu, however, receiving awards and nominations are simply a bonus to being able to mix and design sounds for a living. In fact, the true highlights of his career come to life when he gets to work on projects enriched with culture and meaning. This is why, in 2015, when Xu was approached about working on The Shaft, he could not refuse.
The Shaft, which has earned over a dozen international awards, follows three intertwined stories of a father, a son, and a daughter fighting to hold onto hope and family as they face the harsh realities embedded within life in a poor Western-Chinese mining town. The story illuminates a number of complicated relationships hidden beneath the community’s hardened exterior and when Xu first read the film’s script, he knew it was something he had to be a part of. Xu credits the film’s realistic script as being the main draw to accepting this challenge. This meant that for the film, Xu would be in charge of all sound-related work, from production mixer to sound design to final mixing during the film’s post-production phase.
What Xu hadn’t necessarily anticipated when accepting the opportunity to work on The Shaft, was just how harsh the conditions would be. Due to the fact that the film deals with miners, many scenes were shot deep underground and as a result, Xu was tasked with ensuring that the film’s sounds remained as clear as possible given the setting constraints. In addition, the actors insisted on shooting their own scenes despite dangerous conditions, and therefore, Xu had to accompany them in the mines to shoot their scenes. Oftentimes, he would be covered in particles of soot at the end of a shoot. To his director’s appeal, Xu masterfully captured the realistic texture of the town and the state of those living within its conditions through his sound mixtures. In addition, he chose to enhance the importance of the film’s sound design by only using music at the conclusion of the film. In addition, he managed to capture the unique, untouched atmosphere of Guizhou Province in China. Given the fact that Guizhou Province has not yet fully integrated into the fast-growing Chinese economy, he knew that it would be extremely important to ensure that audiences could grasp the authenticity of the film’s location.
Where some sound designers may have found themselves intimidated by the challenges presented when working on The Shaft, Xu found himself energized by the opportunity to experiment in new areas of his art form and to help his colleagues tell this story in the most interesting fashion possible. The film’s director, Zhang Chi, requested that Xu stray away from the typical, clear-cut sound design principles and create a more “dirty” sound arrangement. This, however, did not require Xu to simply arrange the film’s sound elements, but to do so in an intentionally disorderly manner. Chi felt as though this would help to enhance the film’s objectivity. He did not want to criticize the characters, nor did he wish to sympathize with them. He wanted to present the world with an understanding of the social realities embedded within the Chinese culture today and to do so in a way that would resonate with his audiences.
In the coming year, Xu will take charge of the sound mixing and design for two feature length films and hopes to continue spreading his talents throughout the sound editing industry for years to come. To anyone else looking to pursue a career in sound mixing and sound design, Xu offered the following advice:
“Sound design and mixing is a very creative but oftentimes relatively boring job. If you want to become a good sound designer, you must first be able to endure loneliness and genuinely love movies, so that you can always maintain the vitality of your creation,” told Xu.
Written by Sean Desouza