Behind the Art: Pelayo Gutierrez

[Behind the Art is a special section of Designing Sound created with the goal of studying the artistic and creative aspects of sound design, featuring several interviews dedicated to explore the minds and creative approaches of professional sound designers from all sides of the world, with the goal of expand our creative worlds and learn what others do in order to tell stories with sound.]

If we want to talk about the art of fine film soundtrack and its aesthetics, there’s one man everyone needs to know: Pelayo Gutiérrez, a master of film sound in Spain with more than 120 titles on his backs, for which he has got three Goya awards (and three nominations). He has worked on films by directors like Pedro Almodovar, Bollain, among many others, and currently runs La Bocina post audio facility with two other partners.

I personally admire his work so much (Recommended: “Chico & Rita“,”Te Doy Mis Ojos“,”Lo que sé de Lola“, “After“). He’s a true director of sound who likes to get deeply into the smallest detail of the scene in order to enhance the story and create a rich soundscape. He combines the qualities of a prolific professional with a special vision and unique way to live his profession.

Designing Sound: Could you talk us about your philosophy as sound editor/designer?

Pelayo Gutiérrez: It is very interesting. One essential thing that I think is the backbone for any film that I do: the production sound. If I don’t have a clean production sound is difficult to create the atmosphere because they do not hear great in harmony. Then this is the first battle that I have, especially in this country, where sometimes a hard time doing ADR for certain sequences because we work with many directors that put all the production sound dialog in the film, they don’t believe that you can get much more from the actor in the dub, etc.

Luckily I’ve managed to convince many directors to make the actors do ADR, and especially to have this concept of going to the set and already record the dialog in a later stage. Of course that also depends on the actor. I have many excuses to convince a director and tell him how interesting is to do ADR that can coexist with the dialog and live for the film. not direct sound off and live for the film. Because what I do is put myself first for the film and then find is best for it.

Some time ago, there’s one interesting thing happening to me. I see the film as a whole, and the more I work on it, remains a global issue. In other words, there is a separate sequence, it’s all about harmony, about dynamics, which of course depends on the film we are doing. I built little by little, but the final point is when I have everything harmonized, armed in a central scheme.

You always start from a base, read the script and you get the idea. And then there are meetings with the director, who sets one thing or another. But with that basic structure, you can enter every day in the film. That’s why if you come and tell me if I do the sound of a film in 5 weeks, I say can’t, simply because it’s not enough time to get into the film, to dream about the film. I dream about movies. Some nights it takes me to sleep because I start thinking about how I can create an atmosphere and how to keep the film growing.

DS: How has this philosophy changed over the time?

PG: It’ has evolved gradually. And there is something that fascinates me is when I open an session of ten years ago now and I analyze it, or when I see one of my films on TV and wonder, “Why didn’t I do this?”. The thing is that the movies never end. I think it’s a process that we’re constantly learning and experimenting. To me what amuses me most is to experience, and to have narrative points and use them forever. And always look for a narrative point that the director doesn’t see, because it’s not even written in the script.

Something else that really helps is that now I have also a lot more security in my work, myself.

FS: What kind of differences/advantages do you find on the Spanish industry compared to other models such as the American?

PG: We assume that the industry in Spain is weak and America is very powerful. I also think that one of the major differences, without talking about the American independent films. which is very valuable and amazing, is that I think is heavily a industrialized mass production system. I think it’s a very industrial, very hierarchical, etc.

I always try that all the movies I do sound for, have certain level of quality. Obviously is not the same to have a film of 40millions to one of 10millions, but the goal is to leverage and optimize resources, and make sure that people walk out that door unwilling to return to work with me.

In general I think there is one problem, that there are producers who don’t know. There is a difference between those who are filmmakers and those who only think about the money. There’s a lot more than just money. What no one can say is “I struggled so much money that movie” when what should be valued above all it’s the final result.

DS: I wonder how those roles change depending on the industry in a particular country, in this case Spain. Do you find any differences on the different roles you play? specially between sound editing and design?

PG: It’s not my problem. It’s a problem of how this industry is structured in Spain, which may be closest to the approach of French industry where the possibilities are three: the production sound person, the editor and the mixer.

There is a first part, which is the production sound work. From choosing the microphones, to put them on stage, and work, raise syllables, etc, which in Pro Tools is very fine. Also this match flat and even dare to use plugins for cleaning and such. The editor is composing the atmosphere, but there must be a criterion in advance. So I always ask before the script I read it and then I meet with those responsible of the production sound. Even we can’t met for a film it doesn’t matter, since it’s a matter of taste and discretion, because we know where it goes. There are people who know me well enough to know what kind of material I like to receive, and so able to start from their ideas.

I consider myself a sound editor. For one thing, I feel smug  about what sound design is and besides I think it is a misconception, because within what is sound effects design, it’s to design certain sounds for the film. I think in any case would be more fair for me to be named supervising sound editor, a bit similar the Sound Supervisor role in the American model. For this you need to have a crew that can not be here, ie you must have a dialog mixer , dialog editor, sound editor, foley editor, with their assistants, and that would be four times the budget of any Spanish film. Then there is also a point of accountability and involvement as such. Obviously for me the production sound person, the mixer and I are the ones who have responsibility of the sound of the film. Why? because the bases are well marked and cost us a lot to get to this. And if you look at the Goya Awards, and the bases of the awards, the three are responsible for any of these three people.

DS: What do you consider as your basic principles for sound editing and design?

PG: For me there is a basic principle: If your work can be better, then further research is required. You can not always be satisfied with the first thing you find, and what that means is to put no higher bar as such, but put you in a sight of not being satisfied with the first thing you achieve, because that thing you find has an additional value. And that obviously is given by the time when you have the film and check it for one, two, three and four times, you realize what works and what does not, but what you can not ever do is stay with the desire of haven’t tried something.

The first part is a very technical, which you do is solve technical problems on the set as such. That would in itself quite important. In this country the production sound is, as I said, our spine. If you are not well recorded, all that I set will not work. Okay, I can clean it, I can process it, but in that way it lose bright, lose color, lose life.

We must find something that is real and good, something that convinces you, that works. And if it does not work, try to do it better. If you think it might be better, why not make it better? I think that is a part of the research. If there is something I often say to my assistants is please, don’t use the same dog sound all the time! We need to start researching, we need to go out and record your own sounds, and you have to be very critical especially with yourself, because then we would do something mercenary sense, simply standard.

Something interesting is that for example you can have a huge sound library, you can save a lot of noises, but if you don’t know how to articulate them, then you don’t have too much. In the end everything needs to have a reason and I think basically everything has to be lead to a particular site, that this preconception. And of course, new things are appearing but the base is always from the outset how do you want to carry the film, of course, always in the hands of director. Many times it is already written in the script, but sometimes things arise. Above all there is to know is the why of things, everything has to have an argument. I do not put things without knowing why, everything needs to have an argument, a concept, because if not, it’s worth noting.

For example, in the film “Los Abrazos Rotos” there’s a scene where you see one of the characters on a computer, with a special sound treatment. The don’t remember right know what is the noise that I included there, but I know I put it there for dramatic purposes. It’s all about performance and drama. Say, in a scene where you see a guy running, those steps you hear need to be purely narrative. You have to give an intensity, based on a personal interpretation, like an actor. When the actor plays in a certain way, the steps made in Foley also must be interpreted in a way, dramatically. That’s why many times sounds must be installed in a dramatic way, just and necessary.

DS: How do you analyze the material that you are working on and how’s your artistic approach for such task?

PG: I don’t use anything special. What I like is to know all the material. For example, when the editorial stage begins and my assistants start to mount the dialogue, I ask them all the takes because maybe I’d like to change some of those, or just change something in the sequence.

The artistic approach is everything. It’s the end. The profession has led me more to it than to any another thing. Now I’m in all the processes but monitoring people I trust. Then do reach the director meetings where decisions are taken. So I’m in the dubbing, I’m in the final mixes, pre-mixes, but I’m from 7 to 10 weeks depending on the film recent weeks and devote myself to sit with the director and my assistant.

Before you reach the director, I always review the film and I and my four dots and then tune back to him. That’s why I call myself. For those making artistic decisions. An example that I give to one of my partners, which is the part that has more economic, therefore comes from another world and finds it hard to understand this profession. He tells me: “Why is not the sound of “La Bocina”?”. And I say: not, it’s the sound of Pelayo and Nacho. Why? because this industry is very personal. The clients doesn’t call to “La Bocina”, they call the person. It’s very personal.

DS: How you collect your thoughts and ideas? Do you have something that influences you the most?

PG: Honestly no. I always ask for the script in advance, and even if I have much more affinity with the director, I read the script earlier to go bringing my ideas and such. For example, a film by Almodovar had a very special sequence that has been took six months mulling over in my head since I read the script.

It’s something that is a challenge for me, especially something interesting that makes me wonder. Each film is a different story. How do I put it? Obviously reading the script and and creating a history. I usually like to start working when there is a tighter fitting, with thought older versions of things, but I still like to go looking and getting familiar with the film, and thus be thinking, creating, imagining …

What influences me? Well, sometimes my mood, like everyone. Some days you can, others can not. There are days when you sleep better or worse. But, basically there’s one thing that influences me: enthusiasm. For me the work of a director is to know and value the whole team and give the same value to an actor than a technician. I think that gives you plenty of encouragement, good drive and a lot of force to get the most. I think that’s fundamental.

DS: How do you handle your creativity? Is there some habit or something that leads your creative mind and keeps it fresh and “running”?

PG: Dreaming.

If there is something I love about this profession is that my mind never stops thinking, even when I’m in bed, or I sleep badly. It’s something like this: I’m starting a movie, but I’m also finishing another, and also keep another sequence always in the head, so I think how could I approach it and then experiment with one or the other, etc. Then came the next day and continue to experiment, test how it works in one way or the other, or dreaming, always thinking about them. That is fundamental.

It’s about dreaming and storytelling, since the film is a lie after all, and the sound too. It’s very easy to detect a bad sound, but it is difficult to value a good sound. For example, I think it’s much harder to make the sound of a silent film, with lots of dialog and dead times, than making the sound of a warfare movie for example, which is more spectacular to the eye and ear… but I think is much more difficult to achieve an atmosphere that goes unnoticed but ultimately you are leading the audience somewhere. And that is perceived by the brain, and is obtained by dreaming… Dreaming!

DS: Let’s talk about collaboration, specifically exchanging ideas between the sound team you already talked about your relationship with the production sound person, but what about the re-recording mixer?

PG: We begin from the idea of respect. Then once inside the house, I’m probably the most annoying person, since I am one who says “this doesn’t work”, “you need to repeat this”, etc..

With the re-recording mixer, all is based on trust. Depends on how I know a re-recording mixer or another, and how that person can read what I create. The concept is well conceived, but for example, Marc Orts says that I often give him very little room and I give the assembly already very conceived. But of course, I reach a point where I put many intentions on how I edit sound, simply because I can not conceive otherwise, so I set levels of things as they are. Obviously I lower the volume of a dialog if it’s happening behind a wall, but the re-recording mixer don’t do that. He raises the level, uses a reverb and applies EQ. I don’t do that, knowing that Marc is going to do it very well.

For example, I remember I was working a short with a re-recording mixer in a scene where a woman was traveling on a bus and a man had followed he. The re-recording mixer was determined to put the sound of the bus above the footsteps and I said no, it needs to be conceptual. In mean, the narrative element in this case are the footsteps. And of course I also get confused, and I get to the mix and tray and change things I initially build in different way..

Photos: Hector Herrería.

This interview was edited from an article I published at Fotograma Sonoro, also run by me. Special thanks to Pelayo and Oscar de Avila of Geosound, who collaborated a lot on this interview.

3 Comments on “Behind the Art: Pelayo Gutierrez

  1. “You have to give an intensity, based on a personal interpretation, like an actor. When the actor plays in a certain way, the steps made in Foley also must be interpreted in a way, dramatically. That’s why many times sounds must be installed in a dramatic way, just and necessary.”

    I agree completely with his statement. The performance of the sound is just as important of the sound itself.

  2. Hi

    First of all, thanks to you guys for this blog. I recently found myself being a daily visitor.
    However, the grammatical mistakes made me hard to read this post.
    I’m not native English thou, which might also render more difficult to piece it together.
    Anyway, keep up the good work!

  3.  Bravo Miguel y Pelayo, such a great and insightful interview! This blog keeps getting better and better.

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