This is a guest post by Sound Designer Kathleen Burrows in which she discusses her work on the unique short film and research project, “Does Love Last Forever?”. I suggest you quickly check it out that link before reading on.
This isn’t just a short film about love, music and a relationship evolving through time. It’s a public service announcement. It’s a way to reach out to the 85% of Australians that don’t realise they are struggling with hearing loss. In an effort to create public awareness of this issue, Cochlear, via CHE Proximity, created a hearing test in disguise.
To create this film required not only the expertise of a great filmmaker (big shout out to Pete Baker of The Glue Society), but also a range of people who understand sound and it’s relationship to the human ear. Any sound designer would agree that the earlier they’re brought onto a project that requires integral sound planning the better, and we’ve never found that to be truer than with this film.
Stage one of this project was to really understand and then emulate hearing loss. I consulted audiologists and sound technologists to learn the main factors (both environmental and physiological) affecting those with a hearing loss. Using audiograms from previous Cochlear patients, I was able to emulate the three most common stages of hearing loss (mild, moderate and severe).
The next stage was to use this information to flesh out the audio visual elements we could use to create the hearing test. I worked with Pete (scriptwriter/director) and advised him on the frequencies of dialogue that are often a struggle for people with hearing loss to hear (e.g words with T, S and F) so that he could incorporate this into the script. This, along with location and story element ideas, meant we could incorporate atmos and frequency manipulated sfx to create an effective hearing test soundtrack.
One of the most challenging parts of the project was finding the line between shaping the frequencies within the audio so that it was hard for those with hearing loss to hear, while still keeping it sounding filmic and pure to those without hearing loss.
At mixing stage, I set normal hearing as 0db at my stereo bus. Then using eq & filter plugins, I could create the frequency and db deficit of people with hearing loss to reference throughout the mixing process (the emulations). As the story progressed, we needed it to become more challenging for the viewers with hearing loss to hear and understand. When mixing the film, one of the ‘tricks’ was having the film start in a normal film context. Clean dialogue, normal/predictable soundscape, and edited like a film would normally be. This drew people into the story without being distracted by unusual sound elements.
This is where the intentional unintelligibility started to appear. Manipulation of the dialogue was key. I used Eq’s and filters to roll off some of the mid to lower frequencies in order to thin out the dialogue (taking away the audible frequencies of a person with hearing loss) and added in low frequency sound design elements and interruptive sounds to create confusion, filling the environment with sounds from real life scenarios that are difficult for people with hearing loss to communicate within.
There was a lot of experimentation required and the emulations I created proved really helpful in guiding the level of manipulation needed. We also tested it along the way by holding hearing tests with people who covered the full range of hearing loss. The participants watched the film and answered questions at the end about what they were and weren’t able to hear and how difficult it was to decipher the storyline and the characters feelings. Having them there to do real-time testing and manipulation meant that by launch we had the film in a perfect place to be as effective as possible.
The film was launched in cinemas so I had the opportunity to further explore and push these hearing loss challenges in the surround space. We were able to recreate the scenes, having dialogue in the centre, and the surround speakers creating the immersive sound environment to as close as a real life experience as possible. I was able to take advantage of some great 3D sound plugins in the same way when creating the online or headphones mix.
For me, this project was quite a journey. Initially it was a real challenge having to let go of the ingrained instinct to create a stereotypical film soundtrack, but once I embraced the concept of crafting these ‘mistakes’ for a distinct purpose it was great to really explore the options I had available and a different way of thinking.
Kath has amassed an incredibly varied and awarded portfolio working for sound houses, recording studios and TV stations all over the world. She has created sound & music for a myriad of mediums…Feature length and Short Film, TV, Digital, 3D sound, interactive… the list goes on. In the process, her dedication and the unique environment she creates for clients has seen her produce a reputation as one of the leading sound designers in the industry.