Peter Albrechtsen Special: Exclusive Interview
Welcome to the first installment in a series of articles featuring our amazing guest Peter Albrechtsen. This one is an interview I had with him, where we talked about several things, including the evolution of his career, influences, creative methods, techniques, and more. Hope you enjoy it.
Designing Sound: How did you get started in sound design? How has the evolution of your career been?
Peter Albrechtsen: As a kid, I loved two things: movies and music. My dad had an enormous collection of classical music and I was trained in classical piano for ten years – without ever becoming a virtuoso in any way. But it meant that music was all around, and when I got into movies – I was a big, big fan of Hitchcock – I also listened to soundtracks. It wasn’t until I attended the European Film College in 1995/96 that I had this epiphany that sound for film was the way to go, the way to blend music and movies. It felt like entering a new world that I wanted to explore infinitely.
I got into The Danish Film School in 1997. I was still very much a youngster, but during those four years I learned a lot of technical skills and met a lot of inspiring people. My graduation movie had a pretty crazy soundtrack – it was my attempt at saluting Rumble Fish, one of my all time-favorite sound design movies. One of many wild ideas was to put some of the dialogue on vinyl and get a dj to scratch the lines into the film. Some people thought we went much too far, but a lot of people loved it as well and it meant that I got this reputation of being ’the crazy sound guy’. And it got me working with a lot of people who really wanted to explore what sound design could do.
I’ve been working as a professional sound designer and re-recording mixer for 10 years now and I’ve had the good fortune of working with a lot of wonderful directors and being part of a young generation of skilled sound designers – and at the same time learning a lot of tricks from local veterans of the game. Here’s some shout-outs to Kristian Eidnes Andersen, Peter Schultz, Nino Jacobsen and especially Kasper Val, who’s one of Denmark’s most experienced mixers, lately he did The Killer Inside Me – I’ve worked with him on 10 feature films. Thanks!
I simply feel very privileged to be able to do this for a living. It’s very rare that people’s greatest passion is also their work. It’s amazing.
PA: As far as I know, The Danish Film School is one of the very few film schools in the world where sound people are trained both in production and post-production sound. This means that you’re learning the needed professional skills not only as a boomer and a production sound mixer but also as a sound designer and sound re-recording mixer.
For the first couple of years after the school I went back and forth between production sound recording and sound designing and that taught me a lot about the whole film process. Of course, I got to know about the technical issues about production sound and how much skill it takes to capture clean dialogue on set. But just as important, I got to know a thing or two about what happens on set: How is the interaction between the director and the actors, and what does it take for an actor to create a believable character? These are valuable lessons for everyone working in post-production as so much of our work is based on the performances captured on set and we need to know how to enhance them and tell the story.
No matter what your job is on a film it’s important to remember that we’re all storytellers and the more we know about all the elements of a story, the better storytellers we become.
I love to work abroad, but generally I just feel very lucky to be part of the Danish film business at the moment as there’s so many gifted directors working here right now. Denmark is a very small country – only 5 million citizens – but the movie business is pretty healthy and several Danish films are travelling the world on the international festival circuit. It feels good to know that someone out there is watching. And hopefully listening, as well.
DS: What are your biggest influences inside and outside the world of sound?
PA: I will evaluate on this in one of this month’s articles but music is really a key inspiration for my work. I’m a big fan of the music magazine The Wire, and each month when it hits my mailbox I always get new amazing input for my work – it’s filled with brilliant articles on modern music, all the way from electronica and sound art to noise and pure avantgarde. Reading about the musicians’ working methods and their use of sound manipulation is immensely inspiring. And it’s so well-written that it doesn’t even matter if I know the musician in advance. Quite a feat!
Generally, though, there’s so many fantastic sources of inspiration out there. The internet is filled with great sites dedicated to movie sound design and it’s so cool how the net has made the global sound community come together. I’m in touch with a lot of sound guys and girls on both Facebook and Twitter which has even made it possible for me to travel around the world and meet foreign sound designers. I’ve met several of the sound people that I admire the most, and who have been a big influence on my work. I’ve even been able to collaborate in some way with a few of them – an amazing privilege!
Biggest influence outside the world of sound? Well, is there a world outside of sound? I think it was A Guy Called Gerald who once said that the world is built of atoms revolving around each other and these create waves which basically are sound. This means that the whole world is actually built upon sound. But joking aside: It’s worth remembering real life now and then – it can bring some awesome gifts and input.
DS: What do you love most about sound design?
PA: It still feels unexplored. There’s still so much to investigate and so many possibilities which haven’t been tried out yet. You can keep on recording sound and own the world’s largest sound library and still you won’t necessarily have the appropriate sound for a certain moment. If you think about it, it’s a bit nervewrecking as you can never feel safe. But I love that there’s no definite answers and so many unique ways of playing around with sounds, on several levels and at several levels.
At the same time, I love that sound has such an incredible influence on us and we’re not really aware of it. Of course, this means that sound is now and then the neglected part of filmmaking because people aren’t really aware of its indescribable impact. But it also means that we can get away with amazing things: When I see a door getting slammed in the picture I quite often cut in a frame of a hand grenade exploding to make the slam seem bigger and give the door a bit of personality – you can feel that the person slamming this door is really angry. It’s a subconscious way of telling a very basic story. But you would never be able to do something like that visually – obviously you couldn’t cut in an explosion visually without everyone noticing it. But when you’re in the audience and see a door getting slammed, you automatically reckon that the sound you’re hearing is the actual door. That for me makes sound the most powerful and incredible part of the movie experience.
DS: How has been the evolution of you as an artist of sound? How is the balance between craft and art in your career?
PA: I am a craftsman, of course, but I try to avoid getting too caught up in all the technical issues. I think there’s too much focus on the technical stuff in the sound world. I love finding a new plugin that can inspire me creatively, and I try to stay in sync with all the technical updates I need for the work I do. But at the end of the day, those things are just nice gadgets.
Last year, I did a documentary about a couple of wounded Danish soldiers in Afghanistan, and the thing that inspired my work the most wasn’t a new sample package or a new hyper-advanced digital tool. No, I had the fortune of talking to a soldier who had been part of the war and his stories were really inspiring – he told me about how he heard the war and this experience I tried to channel into the sound design I did.
Generally, a lot of our work as film sound people is about communication. It’s important that we’re able to communicate with producers, picture editors, composers, other sound editors and, most importantly of all, directors. I’ve actually argued that communication courses should be a part of the training at the Film School.
I’d say that a big part of my evolution as a sound artist comes from me getting wiser, older, more experienced and a lot better at communicating with people and understanding what a director wants. And yes, I’ve also learned a lot from just goofing around with weird sounds and working on lots of very different projects with so many inspiring and talented people. Of course you have to learn the craft – but there’s many ways of getting there. And would I really call myself an artist?
Nope, not really. I’m a sound nerd who loves to tell sonic stories.
DS: What would be your advice for any sound designer out there?
PA: I guess the above covers a lot of my answer for this one: For me it’s important to be creative, experiment and challenge yourself. Be brave and have fun. I don’t think I’m in a position to tell people what to do, though. I just hope my upcoming articles this month will be a bit of inspiration for someone out there. Otherwise, my advice would be to read some of the other articles on this wonderful site. Miguel, keep up the great work!
DS: How do you deal with writer’s block? What kind of methods do you have for getting ideas?
PA: Once again, this really links back to my previous answers. There’s many, many ways of getting inspired, and this site is filled to the brim with inspiring input. Indeed, the web is a wonderful source of inspiration, including all the brilliant personal sound effects libraries that are popping up at the moment. Music is often my way out if everything fails, though, and just taking a walk with my invaluable iPod can be a real eye-opener. Or ear-opener.
DS: You’ve worked as both editor/designer and mixer. What is the relationship you find between those crafts?
PA: I really love going back and forth between supervising, effects editing and mixing. Supervising a movie is a lot of fun because you oversee the film from beginning to end – I often get involved at the script stage when I’m supervising. It’s also a lot of hard work, though, because there’s so much logistical stuff to take care of and sometimes it can be a bit frustrating spending all day on the phone and writing mails instead of playing around with sounds. That’s why it’s nice getting hired as a sound effects editor now and then – I don’t have to worry about any practical issues and I can just play around with sounds and be creative. Being a mixer, on the other hand, is a very demanding job as you’re finalizing the whole film – but it’s also a very fascinating process as it feels like you’re sculpting the whole soundtrack and making the film come fully alive. I think you become a better sound editor if you know a lot about mixing, and vice versa. These crafts are closely connected and for each project I learn new tricks for one of them which inform the other: Both on a creative level and especially when it comes to organizing the sessions and sounds. No wonder that more and more sound designers and supervisors in the US are mixing as well – it just feels natural.
DS: What are your favorite tools?
PA: I’m sorry, but I haven’t found a secret tool that no one else has told you about. I use Pro Tools. I use a bunch of plugins which aren’t that fancy. And I record lots and lots of sounds on my recording devices: a Sound Devices 744T, a Schoeps MS set and three small handy recorders, both Edirol, Zoom H4 and M-Audio Microtrack (yes, I’m a fan of those small devices as it’s now possible to do quality recordings of all the amazing sounds you stumble upon each and every day). It’s a cliché, but it’s true: It’s not about the tools, it’s about who uses (or abuses) them.
DS: You’ve tasted several flavors of sound design. From feature films, to short films, documentary, TV series, etc. What things you find interesting on each of those? Any favorite and why?
PA: I really like going back and forth between these different formats and categories. It’s inspiring. When I’m in the middle of my work, I’m not really thinking about the genre or the format, though. Of course there are some pratical issues regarding the sound mix that makes, say, a tv series and a feature film very different – and I really miss the dynamics of the cinema when I’m mixing for tv – but basically it’s all a question of how to use sound as a storyteller. I couldn’t really say that I have a specific favorite format. I hope that I can keep on working on all of them.
DS: What has been your most challenging project and why?
PA: For me, every project is a big challenge: The challenge is to stay creative and not just fall back on your usual bag of tricks. Evolve, improve and tell stories which will hopefully touch or affect people in some way.
Being a bit more specific, though, it felt like quite a challenge to work on Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. Trier’s brilliant sound supervisor for many, many years, Kristian Eidnes Andersen, hired me to do ambiences and supervise and record the foley. For me, Trier is one of the most interesting and original filmmakers alive today and of course I wanted to do the best job I possibly could. And I think the hard work paid off.
Generally, though, I get closely attached to the work I do, and I can’t really highlight one project at the expense of another – it’s like having to pick the favorite between your kids. It’s. Just. Impossible.
DS: What are your favorite films for sound?
PA: For me, Apocalypse Now is really the film. It’s a mindblowing masterpiece that keeps on inspiring me and the sound design has all the qualities I love: It’s deeply subjective and highly creative, dynamic, wonderfully textured and very, very musical. But of course there are lots and lots of movie soundtracks that have inspired me during the years. I already mentioned Rumble Fish and generally Coppola’s films from back then are mesmerizing: The Conversation, The Godfather etc. He even produced another sound classic, The Black Stallion. The sound designer of that one, Alan Splet, did so many amazing tracks in collaboration with director geniuses such as David Lynch, Carroll Ballard and Peter Weir. Other milestones of sound design history are of course the works by Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom. And, in my opinion, Ren Klyce is now continuing that impressive Northern Californian legacy.
But besides all the US stuff there’s so much great sound being made around the world. Mexico has the wonderful sound designer Martin Hernandez, in Argentina Lucrecia Martel’s movies utilize sound in extraordinary ways, and here in Europe I love the sound being done for the films of Dardenne brothers and Michael Haneke – both aren’t using any score. In the UK there’s also great stuff going on, and sound designers such as Gleen Freemantle, Joakim Sundström and Paul Davies are doing awesome things. Davies’ collaboration with Lynne Ramsay and his work on Hunger has been a significant inspiration to me. As I said, there’s so much good stuff and I didn’t even make place for film history giants like Sergio Leone, Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson, Andrej Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick. The list just goes on and on.
DS: What are you currently working on? What’s next for Peter Albrechtsen?
PA: At the moment I’m in Norway mixing a film called Babycall. It’s starring the wonderful Noomi Rapace who played Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo which I also worked on. This new film reminds me a bit of Roman Polanski’s great work – it’s a fascinating movie with lots of great sound opportunities.
2010 has been an incredible year for me: I started a sound studio in Copenhagen with five other Danish sound designers, tonemasters.dk, and I got to sound design a US indie film, which is something of a dream come true – and, most amazingly, I became a father. I agree when people say that having a kid just gets more and more mindblowing for each day and I actually have the same feeling about doing sound for movies: it just keeps on getting more and more interesting for each project as you learn new skills, get new ideas and uncover new sound secrets. It’s a wonderful ride and I hope it never stops.