We’re getting very close to the end of 2012 and there’s been lots of brilliant sonic experiences in the cinema throughout the year. One that really stood out, though, was the latest adaptation of Wuthering Heights by the English director Andrea Arnold with wonderfully textured soundscapes created by the French sound designer Nicolas Becker. Nicolas has worked as a foley artist for several years and among his collaborators are prominent directors like Roman Polanski, Danny Boyle and David Cronenberg. During the last few years, though, he’s been much more of a sound supervisor and designer. In this interview he discusses working methods, how music inspires him and the exquisite sound world of Wuthering Heights:
Designing Sound: Could you describe your sound design philosophy? What’s sound design for you?
Nicolas Becker: I don’t have a particular sound design philosophy but I think each film should be taken as a prototype, fitting the entire sound process to each film. Working with conceptual artists was and still is very important for me in my approach. For them the artwork itself is not the only target, building a process, designing a trajectory that makes sense with the meaning and the artistic field of the artwork is their main concern. In the movie business the way the budgets are made, and the way the films are made is very industrialized; very normalized.
Generally my process is to read the script, meet the director, find some artistic ideas, validate some of the ideas with the director, meet the producer, work on a budget to fit the expenses with the needs, create a team, organize some preproduction meetings with the picture department (picture editor, CGI, DOP) but if needed also meet the 1st AD, the set designer and the costume designer.
These pre-production meetings enable me to see if there are any special opportunities for helping the process of the production sound as well as the post production sound. I then make a schedule starting right at the start of the shooting until the end of the sound deliveries. Then I have meetings with the team to organize the way we are going to share the work and meet the special consultants if needed; for example, scientists, musicians, software designers, etc.
But the most important is the fact that I really try to create the sounds the directors have in their minds. I am lucky because most of the directors I am working with really like to work with sounds. Personally I always try to use only real sounds and I try to get all I need directly during the recordings, my foley experience helps me a lot.
DS: Has this philosophy and approach to your work changed through your career? From IMDB, it looks like you’ve been active for 20 years!
NB: Of course, little by little you get more and more experience and your network gets bigger… My trajectory from foley to sound design comes mostly from the fact that some directors pushed me to be more more and more involved in their projects. But foley work is a very good school because it’s a short working schedule so you accumulate a lot of different experiences.
DS: Do you have certain working methods you prefer as a foley artist?
NB: I like to combine 3 different techniques , classic foley in studio, fx foley (to record sound textures in a music studio which will be used for sound design and be integrated in the sound design tracks), and foley on location (during the shooting, or later, in locations which are matched acoustically to the shooting)
DS: And how do you prefer to collaborate with both the sound team and, if that happens, the director?
NB: I believe that in order to do good work, the whole team must get involved. All the members of the sound team need to enjoy what they do. For example, if I have a film with a lot of gunfights, I will ask a sound editor who loves to do that to join the team. If we have a lot of conforming I find someone who love to conform etc. I want to create a happy team – and this has been possible because I have always been able to choose the entire sound team.
DS: How much experimentation is present in your process on a film? Do you do a lot of effects recording on location?
NB: A lot. I use a lot of different mics set up, a lot of different kind of mics like DPA, Schoeps, Neumann, Sennheiser etc. and contact mics, geophones and hydrophones. Using lots of different softwares, working with software designers from Flux or Ircam to create special algorithms, I even used to create my own presets for Altiverb. I have a company called HAL created with a bunch of friends which are all leading re-recording mixers, production sound recordists and sound designers so we share our experience and invest money in R&D. 95% of the sound material I edit is specifically created or recorded for each project. I do a lot of recordings on locations, ambiences, effects, foleys and even now and then some ADR.
DS: Do you have any kind of musical background?
NB: Yes, I play in a band called Manasonics with Benoit Delbecq at the piano and Steve Argüelles at the drums. It’s totally improvised music, I play with real prepared objects and sound textures and I use a lot of analog treatments to play with. I also continue to compose some music for films with this band or with other musicians like Noel Akchote, Arto Lindsay and Lichen. With the members of Manasonics we have a music studio in Paris. Steve, who is the owner of the studio, installed for me a video projector, a screen and a 5.1 monitoring system. So I m spending a lot of time in this studio. For sound design I’m doing most of the job with Pro Tools. I record all the sound material I need for each project so I can control the quality, I just allow myself some basic treatments, low cut, hi cut, reverb and a pitch if I really need to tune a sound with music. Of course for dialogue editing there are now several incredible plug-ins available, but I’m not specialized in dialogue editing. I prefer to work with a great dialogue editor like Linda Forsén who did the dialogue editing on Wuthering Heights.
DS: Your sound design in Wuthering Heights was very musical – actually there was almost no music, and no score, in that film, which must have been quite a challenge.
NB: Yes, from the start that was the most important challenge of the film. Andrea wanted to create a operatic kind of sound track but only built with natural sounds. She wanted to invent a poetic use of the natural elements. I spent two weeks in the Moors with my assistant Alex Horlick to record ambiences and foleys on location, catching the acoustic signatures of the indoor sets etc. Afterwards, I worked with a great sound editor and friend called Raphael Sohier, and we both spent a lot of time editing the animal sounds and the natural ambiences to recreate this particular auditive sensation that Andrea had in mind. We worked with an ornithologist in order not to mistake the bird songs. Together with Andrea, we also decided to record some extra musical elements to be played like if they were part of the production sound. We went back to the Moors to record on location the little Cathy singing and the song of the men building the wall. It was recorded six months after the shooting, but you don’t even think about it because it’s recorded on location. It seems real.
DS: The ambience sounds of that film were wonderfully rich and textured. How did you approach that part of the soundtrack?
NB: That’s one of my favourite parts of work. I spend a lot of time on real locations to record sounds and I have a special setup of mics to record ambiences which permit me to go from a very “classic movie sound“ to something much more immersive and close to what you hear in real life. In the movie business most of the people used to record ambiences or fx with the same mic they use for the boom. Working with music is very interesting because the recording culture is much more open and it’s easier to experiment with new mics or preamps and transpose the results for the movie world of sound.
DS: How do you start up a project as sound designer? Do you build a sound map from the script, storyboard or any early description of the project?
NB: I work with the script, and then I spend time with the director to define the artistic approach. I’m doing a list of notes from the script, and I try to rank them from the more to the less important. From this list I write a kind of sound bible. If I have the green lights from the director, I give this bible to the sound team with the schedule we have defined with the picture editor and the post-production supervisor. Depending on budget and schedule we try to do the most we can on the list.
DS: For quite a few years now, you’ve been an integral part of the sound team on Roman Polanski’s movies. He seems to be very knowledgeable about sound and almost always have very interesting soundtracks in his films. What’s it like working on his movies?
NB: Roman is an amazing technician, he is a guy of few words but his movies speak for him. Once, though, he spoke more than ever: During a sound session with the sound designer Gérard Hardy (the greatest French sound designer in my point of view) Roman told us all his visual and sonic memories from the time he was a kid in the ghetto of Kraków. It was very moving and very accurate for our work. Roman loves foley. He started to do movies in the 60’s, and he still has this old school way to build a soundtrack with dialogue, music and FX. It’s very graphic and very cinematographic. I love it.
DS: You’ve worked on both small art films and enormous blockbusters – all the way from Zidane (a personal favorite of mine) to Harry Potter. Which kind of qualities do you look for when you pick a project?
NB: For Zidane it was the start of a great artistic collaboration and a great friendship with Philippe Parreno – we are still working a lot together. I’m doing all the soundtracks for his films and exhibitions. I learn so much with him. We experiment all the time with everything which is possible to experiment. We use crazy P.A. systems for his exhibitions, and we do very experimental sound work for his movies. In general, a director, a sound supervisor or a producer calls me because he has something special to be done. They know that there is a challenge, a monster voice to find, a futuristic world to create or an underwater world to bring to life. Most of the time people call me when they don’t know what to do or how to do it, and I love this position because I like to experiment.
For example, I’ve just finished work on Gravity which was a great challenge, as all the sounds were heard by the character through the contact of his space suit so I used some contact mics and geophones. Just before for a film made by Parreno about a garden from an exoplanet we used seismometer recordings transposed into the audible spectrum with a Max patch. For another film, we recreated the voice of Marilyn Monroe working with mathematicians from Ircam. I like these kind of projects where you have to recreate an entire sound world. On one hand, I try to continue to do foley or sound design for a bunch of directors I love, and on the other hand I still want to keep some free time for new collaborations and interesting projects.
DS: You live in Paris but work in several different places – both the US and around Europe. Does this influence your approach to sound design – isn’t the process quite different in different countries, on different continents?
NB: The culture of work and the sound approach is very different in each country. I try to adapt myself but the fact is that you always learn. Now the way I work is a kind of mix of ideas or techniques I learned during my experiences in other countries. A dream would to be able to create an international sound team with all the great sound people I’ve met, but it would cost too much … I hope to do it one day, though.
DS: What are your biggest influences? Which are your favorite films for sound?
NB: Nature – I’ve spent a lot of time in nature since my childhood. Music – even if I discovered it too late to become a good instrumentalist. And first of all films – I knew that I wanted to do sound for film when I was 14. My favorite films, 200, Le Mépris, 8 1/2, Stalker, Shadows, The Big Sleep, Chinatown, Dodes’ka-den, The Night of the Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, Vertigo… 1000 other films could be in that list.
DS: Finally, what would be your advice to any sound designer who wants to find/enhance his artistic vision and personal creative approach?
NB: See thousands of films, read books, listen to music, walk in nature, stay curious, work a lot, practice a lot, learn a lot of different techniques in order to be able to forget them. But the most important thing is to be able to understand the people you work for. The sound vocabulary is very poor, so it’s very important to find a way to communicate using equivalent ideas with the picture, the music or the literary world.