Tag Archives: Sound Design

Chen Xu gets his hands “dirty” while creating sound for ‘The Shaft’

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

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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.

LOOKING AT THE STARS WITH DIFFERENT EYES: XIAO’OU OLIVIA ZHANG

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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.

 

 

 

Sound designer Veronica Li’s work takes a STAND

Every film tells a story. Every person that touches that film contributes to telling it. For a film about music and dance, the sound often replaces speech. The sound tells the story.

Sound designer Veronica Li knows this better than most. Her innate talent of working with sound compels audiences, which earned her the Faculty Award for Outstanding Sound at the 2014 First Look Film Festival.

STAND is a documentary about a Krump dance group in South Los Angeles. The subject of the film that discuss social problems through an art form and explore how art can affect people really attracted me.

Full of stomps, jabs, and something called ‘the get-off’, Krump is a cathartic release of emotion. It’s a dance form that is aggressive and loud, but can also be an intimate portrait of individual struggle. As an alternative to the rough streets of Los Angeles, a Krump group called Demolition Crew offers the youth a safe haven to express themselves.

STAND follows one of the crew’s leaders, ‘Krucial the Liberator’, a 24-year old South Los Angeles born and bred Krumper, as she uses her love of Krump to build a safer community in an area known for its history of violence.

“It was a wonderful experience working on STAND,” said Li. “Every crew member on the team was great. And since I also recorded production sound on the project, I got really close to the characters and the story.”

STAND has been recognized continuously for its powerful story and filmmaking. Originally released in July of 2013, it has gone on to receive several awards and nominations. These include the 2013 Director’s Guild of America (DGA) Jury Award for Latino Filmmaker, the 2014 San Francisco Dance Film Festival for Best Student Film, Indiefest’s award for Best Documentary Short, and nominated for Best Documentary at the 2014 First Film Festival. It also was an official selection in in 2014 for ONE LENS Film Festival, Pan African Film Festival, Beijing Film Academy International Student Festival, Chicago International Social Change Film Festival, and the SOUQ Film Festival in Italy.

Melanie D’Andrea, the director of STAND, attributes much of the film’s success to Li’s work.

“Veronica has proved herself to be masterful through an impressive variety of successful projects,” said D’Andrea. “What I love about working with Veronica, besides her respect to the material and her attentiveness to detail, is that she always pushes the soundscape of the film and presents very bold and emotive choices. Veronica’s talent and dedication to the art of sound design has no doubt opened many opportunities for her career. She has rapidly grown and evolved as a Sound Designer and Sound Editor and I am proud to see her credits expanding. I am eager to see her vision continue to be a part of Hollywood.”

Since working together on STAND, D’Andrea has reached out to Li to work on many projects.

“The director Melanie takes sound design very seriously and willing to experiment and explore with sound,” described Li. “It was an luxury as sound designer to have a director who is very creative and open to suggestions.”

Because STAND is truly a film about social problems, there were challenges that came along with properly telling the story.

“We tried to combine signature sounds in South LA sound scape into the sound design and also tried to make it work with the dance and music rhythms, which is quite challenging,” described Li. “There was scene when Krucial, our main character, was dancing on a overpass above the railway. The sound design of train, siren, metal sound elements from jail and ambiences worked so well. I feel it’s a scene that tell story and convey emotions purely through cinematic language without words. It’s very powerful.”

The sound is it’s own character in the film, and Li is the creator of that. She managed to tell an important story using no words, and allowed herself to be impacted by the work she was doing.

“There was moment that as the filmmakers we got so moved by our characters and situation that we had to hold our emotions in order to capture those moments perfectly, and those kind of feelings helped a lot when I started to design sound,” she said. “I felt I really connected to the characters, I was with them, I was one of them. STAND is not just a project, it’s such a unique life experience that I’ll always remember.”