Coll Anderson Special: Documentary Sound
It’s still June and the gifted Coll Anderson is still the sound designer of the month here at Designing Sound. Among many other things, Coll has done a long list of impressive documentaries and doing an interview focused on this part of his work was an obvious choice.
Among many award winning documentaries, Coll has worked on Restrepo (2010), Catfish (2010) and the Academy Award winning The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003). For this interview, he shares some thoughts on all these films and about the general collaboration with documentary filmmakers.
Designing Sound: In the interview earlier this month, you mentioned how you really love documentary filmmaking. Could you elaborate on that?
Coll Anderson: I became interested in making films through the School of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard (I knew a girl who went there, go figure…). VES has really strong roots in documentary film making and through the people who I met there I fell in love with these films that studied life, real life… Sure we can all understand that having a film crew around affects the life of any subject and thus “document” is a bit of a misnomer, but the work of people like Dick Rogers, Robb Moss, Ross McElwee, not to mention the filmmakers of that community, naturally has an affect on you, and regardless of its ultimate truth, I started to love creating that seamless believability of documentary film in its most Wisemanesque form.
DS: It seems like there’s generally way more focus on documentaries now than, say, 15 years ago. Do you feel the focus on documentary sound has changed during that period, as well?
CA: Sure, ever have to deliver a fully filled M&E for a doc…? Viewers become more sophisticated, more aware, every year. That just naturally feeds into the stories documentaries tell. It becomes so important to keep the interaction between viewer and film on a subconscious level and sound is to me the plane where that connection happens.
DS: How is your usual workflow on a documentary? What’s your typical schedule? And do you have any specific sound design philosophy for documentaries?
CA: Find me a typical doc and I will try to answer that one… Really, they are all different shapes and sizes.
Usually I try to watch the film on my own, and then again with the director… I have been doing this long enough that most directors let me go off on my own. I try to get a few weeks to find bg’s and efx that fit the story while giving it additional depth. I like to deal with the film on two distinct levels. First the surface reality, that which is so “real” it is just assumed it is fact… If you have no idea what I have done or who I even am, then I am doing a big part of my job well. Then I also like to try and explore some more emotional and subconscious aspects of the story… To sort of find and make sounds that might be in your dreams if you were to re-live the film in that state of mind… For instance, imagine you watched a film and had dreams about it. Then if you told someone about those dreams, with all the emotion and flow that dreams imbibe, what kind of dreams would that person have about what you told them… Well that is what I imagine I want to hear, that third person’s imagined experience. It is a sort of way of finding sonic irony in extending the real…
DS: Realism, authenticity and location or time specific sound effects can be quite important to documentaries, I guess. Do you do a lot of research about the sonic palette of the film?
CA: I used to do more… Yes, authenticity is fantastic but we are still telling stories and that means what works for the story is often the most authentic thing. People go crazy over two and three axle trains or the right motorcycle sound… but in the end, in real life, guns just go pop really loud. Rather what I love is when you have no idea I did anything. Seamless interaction between sound and story will always be the most authentic thing we can so.
DS: How do you prefer to work with directors? How early are you usually involved in documentary projects?
CA: This often comes down to trust… Most of the directors I work with trust me enough to give me their thoughts and notes and then let me go to work. That usually gives us enough to do before the mix. Really when the cut is right we all know what the film needs… The road map is there, sometimes I just have to open my eyes and follow it and the directors that I like most, know that and let me do it. I like to get through a pre on my own and then have them chime in. That seems to work. Plus it keeps them from having to bring up all sorts of little things that I am in the process of working on… Like a scriptwriter, I need a little of my own edit time, a small draft or two before it is ready for peoples notes. Which is not to say the notes are not super important and an essential part of the process, but I would rather help the director keep focused on the big stuff. I think we sometimes forget that is an essential element of the job.
DS: You’ve worked with Errol Morris several times, both on the TV series First Person and on the Academy Award winner The Fog of War. How would you describe Morris? Is he very focused on sound?
CA: It has been a little while but what I remember is Errol loved irony. I enjoyed that about his sense of what worked. Always finding sounds that were more than what was on the screen and never what was expected… He always encouraged me to design, make and find things that went past predictable. No hits or tones or “trailer” sounds. Instead, he let me get into more “evolveative” things. I remember I found this child’s toy… Mr. Microphone. I got it to do this wonderful feedback loop thing that when you pitched down became really measured in tempo like a dream click track… Whop whop whop whop… Very dark but not at all what you would think would work for dropping napalm. He was always good with letting me paint with sound what I was hearing in my head.
DS: You also did the sound for Catfish. Whereas Fog of War is quite stylized, Catfish is much more rough around edges but also quite emotional. How did you approach that film? Please share some stories…
CA: I love Catfish. I mean love… First of all, great crew, one of the best. Zac is a great editor. Henry and Ariel are amazing and their sincerity is so refreshing. We actually did a lot of design for Catfish you just don’t know it… We went to great lengths to make sure that the process was never too fluid. It is already very hard to believe the story and because they are so understated with the drama and how they handle it, my crew had to go to great lengths to do the opposite and actually keep reminding you that the story is real. We made sure you noticed cuts in the BG’s, made sure the phone conversations sounded gritty, made sure that the cars were loud enough or there was enough noise on the track. Zac set up cuts that we could augment as being rough… There are even places where using wireless hits and noise, really helped us feel the filmmakers process, how far away, the characters were from us, making us all the more aware of how much closer “they” were to the unknown elements of the story.
DS: Another recent documentary you did was Restrepo which was nominated for an Oscar. The film is portraying a US Platoon in Afghanistan for 14 months. What was it like doing a war documentary?
CA: That is a tough one, as you must know one of the directors, Tim Hetherington, was killed in Libya this year and that was a huge loss. Tim touched so many people and his loss is a great weight… You know this thing, going about documenting some of the world’s darker issues, is a calling that for the betterment of the greater good, some people have to do… We as a society need people to do this for us. The problem is that to report the world’s truths, not to over dramatize or sensationalize, but to tell of events with the most honesty that humans can muster, is a very dangerous position for any reporter/filmmaker to submit to. With that in mind, the goal with Restrepo was really to be true to the film Tim and Sebastian made. They did not get into the political issues of war, but instead told the story of what happens when simple men fight. What the reality of that mix between mindless boredom and pure violent chaos does to people. I think we wanted to use sound to help you the viewer understand the serenity of the quiet moments, to hear nature and the world continuing on, and then at the drop of a hat, hear the chaos and distortion of total violence…We tried to make sure you could understand the geography of what was going on, where shots were coming from or going to… Even as simple as where the soldiers were at every particular moment. I have to say, I think the real good stuff is in the Ambiences Matt Snedecor cut. I think he did a great job of connecting the war to the physical place and that for me makes it so much more of an experience.
DS: Do you have any advice to sound designers working on documentaries?
CA: Write, read, love what you do, love people around you… In the film industry it is hard to have a life… Make sure you don’t make that mistake. No one ever said when greeting Death, “golly I wish I worked more…” We enrich ourselves and our work when our lives are deeply filled with experience and understanding… Go and make some shit, break some shit, record some shit and laugh doing all three. Promise it will do more for you than any plug–in on the planet.