Here’s starting off this month’s special with an exclusive interview with our guest David Sonnenschein.
DS: In addition to being a sound designer, teacher and musician you are also a writer, director, producer, painter and sound therapist with research in neurobiology. That’s quite a list! How has your experience in these different fields influenced you as a sound designer?
David: I entered all these arenas because of my curiosity and enthusiasm for discovery and creativity. Effortlessly, my experience of the world seems to center around my senses, in particular sight and sound. I’m a visceral being that has been lucky enough to live in an era of audiovisual expression and make a career from that. Parallel to that, I have a streak of the scientist in me, exploring and testing theory with application, specifically in neuroscience, psychoacoustics and sound therapy. For example, the area of binaural beats and brainwave entrainment is so powerful and still at the beginning of application within the area of sound design. I like to find cause and effect, isolate principles and then use those for the job at hand, whether it is for teaching, therapy or entertainment. And yet I’m also into musical improvisation as a totally different way of expression, very spontaneous and playful. This trait I have of pulling together diverse elements into a whole enables me to be the kind of sound designer that asks first and foremost, “What is the intention of this scene or project and how can I best express this through sound?” With this in mind, I have a very large tool kit to draw from.
DS: The tools you teach like sound spheres and visual mapping are extremely powerful and also unique when analyzing a script, film or design piece. How did these ideas evolve and what influenced them?
David: When I read the works of Michel Chion and Walter Murch, for example, which laid out very clear principles of how sound works in film, these brought up more questions for me. In both film and real life I was experiencing phenomena that certainly confirmed their ideas (like diegetic and non-diegetic sound), but I wasn’t totally satisfied with these models. Visual mapping, which charts the dramatic curve of the story over time and relates it to sound design, came out of my training as a screenwriter, neuroscientist and natural tendency to make things graphic. It helps me and others to get an accurate overview of where the whole film collaboration is headed, all on one single page. You can zoom in and out, and see relationships very easily throughout the entire storyline. In developing the sound spheres model (which we’ll get into more detail in one of the next articles on the website this month), this came from my direct experience, kind of like a meditation form, observing how my mind, body and sound interacted on an everyday basis. Film is a medium that attempts to create a life-like experience, immersing the audience in something that will feel like it’s really happening, so it makes sense to study and draw from our real life and apply it to the audiovisual medium. I explored this for several years with my students, asking them to experiment with the sound spheres model outside of class, then share with us so that we could develop their personal experience into a film scene. In so doing, we would discover more universal principles and then I would feed that back into the model, which continues to evolve as I write. My next theoretical work will be presented at a conference in June in Konstanz, Germany, analyzing how the human voice fits into the sound spheres.
DS: You studied at the USC film school and began your film making career as a writer, producer and director. Did you have any mentors or early influences?
David: My first extreme audiovisual impressions came from “The Wizard of Oz”, which as a kid I watched every year on black and white TV, then finally on the tenth screening at a movie theater, and was shocked to see for the first time Dorothy’s door opening and everything transforming into color. The music, images and story felt like part of my psyche and how and what I wanted to create as an artist. I have a wide taste in film, from epics like “Lawrence of Arabia”, to Kubrick’s groundbreaking “2001”, to Nicholas Roeg (“Walkabout”, “Man Who Fell to Earth”) who intrigued me with his break from traditional narrative structure and experimentation with sound and image. After being immersed for years in the traditions of Beethoven, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov and Gershwin who all lent themselves to pure music storytelling, John Cage, The Beatles and Pink Floyd liberated my concept of what music could be, especially since I’d been trained as a classical clarinetist to produce “proper” sounds in a symphony orchestra. The psychedelic expression of film, music and artwork the 60’s and 70’s opened the possibilities of rupturing time and space in a way that was liberating, playful and surprising, and this influenced me more in spirit than style, allowing a sense of freedom to try things out with no fear of failure. USC was about working my butt on a ton of productions, super stimulating film theory and history, and learning how to function in a mini-studio system. Ken Miura was the sound teacher, who had also nurtured Walter Murch, Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom, so he helped me solve problems and grease my creative juices.
DS: While a lot of directors and producers talk about sound being as important as the visuals, in reality its a very small percentage of them who actually give sound the importance it deserves. Having played the role of a director and producer do you think that increased communication from the sound team and using tools like ‘visual maps’ can bridge this gap?
David: That has been one of my political agendas for a long time, and I applaud Randy Thom for all he’s promoted in this area regarding the shift of perception of sound in our industry. It’s very slow progress, but if I can influence one person at a time through my books, classes and tools, then at least I feel like I’m contributing in this way. Having been on the other side as a producer, I know the pressures of time and budget, and these can be rather cruel to the creative side. I encourage the sound person to offer him/herself as a consultant to the production from the very earliest stages possible, so that without increasing the budget there can be more consideration for how sound can play a bigger and more integrated role in the film. An example would be to include a closeup shot in a storyboard that would justify a specific sound source, that could later be used without the image as a motif for that emotion or story element on the soundtrack. It might take a few minutes on the set to grab that shot. If the idea comes up after the film is shot, it might not work without the closeup, and even if the director likes it, the producer will nix it because it costs too much to hire the crew and get that as a pickup shot. Visual maps can be made from the script, and are even helpful for analyzing the dramatic curves for problem areas that might only be discovered later when the picture is already been cut. These maps are applicable for structuring not only the sound design, but also production design, costume, casting, camera movement, editing style, etc. They help glue all the filmic elements into a cohesive presentation. So I’ve seen this be one of the ways for sound design to be better integrated than simply as the last step in the postproduction process.
DS: How do you overcome creative blocks? Any special techniques?
David: Sometimes I work on more than one project at a time, which allows me to be in a useful production mode and at the same time to be taking a break from a place of being stuck. It can help to be at different stages, for example working on dialogue, then working on sound effects. That isn’t always the case, as the work flow may require completing one thing at a time, so then I usually will impose a break, go into passive receptive mode, watch a short video or listen to music, or go for a walk in nature, restoring my batteries. I also find that an idea can come from seeking one specific sound effect with a keyword search, opening up the file folder and noticing something else nearby that may be related alphabetically or thematically, and listening to an unexpected sound that fits amazingly well. Sometimes I might even close my eyes and click a folder randomly, see what it brings up, just to get out of my own box. I also like to switch expressive modes and will open Photoshop and play with a visual project, experimenting with filters and layers to relax my auditory input and stimulate a different part of my brain. Another way is to take out one of my musical instruments and improvise sound making with no direct connection to the film project, record it, and process it with some plugin I’ve never tried before. Sometimes I like to talk to a collaborator or friend about what’s happening in the film and describe how the sound is going to enhance the story, and my verbal brain will kick into gear to break some creative block.
DS: The film ‘Dreams Awake’, which you designed sound for released a few months ago. What was it about? Were there any interesting experiences through the course of the project?
David: It’s a story of a woman discovering her family’s past as she makes a spiritual journey climbing Mt. Shasta. She has to face childhood fears, traumas that she has blocked out, as she awakens to a specific “mystery tone” that emanates from the mountain which only she can hear. We mapped out this journey dramatically and use the sound design to take her from one stage of her “hero’s journey” to another. We experimented with lots of different sound sources, chimes, cymbals, gongs, Tibetan singing bowls and sine waves, and ended up using various harmonics and beat frequencies in the tone to signify the different stages of her emotional and psychic development. Along the way, she enters a kind of magical portal where the trees, rocks and flowers can talk directly to her as guides. This was a challenge to make the voices understandable and otherworldly at the same time. I designed the tree voice to include wind and birds, using a vocoder and several layers. The rock voice seemed like it should come from deep inside the earth, so I used a pre-delay and spread that in the surround channels, so it felt like it was coming from all around, then up to the center speaker as an intelligible message.
DS: Your book ‘Sound Design..’ has a become a must read for anyone interested in sound design. Did writing it change your perspective on sound and inspire your work differently?
David: The book came out of teaching a 60 hour course at the Cuban film school outside Havana. I made up the curriculum from my own experience, since I couldn’t find any book to use, then submitted a proposal to my publisher based on that. The process of teaching and writing has encouraged me to integrate the theoretical models with the practical applications, as I don’t want this all to languish in a classroom. I believe that this has created a set of very powerful creative tools that are based on how our brains work and how story has been told for eons. Nonetheless, every project has it’s own challenges and I often will throw out all the theory and just dive right into the act of spotting a film and creating sounds that just feel right for the scene. Having learned and taught all that theory, I probably use it more intuitively now, as do many great sound designers who never studied this stuff but just know it from practice. My hope is that the book will offer each person insights and inspirations for them to up their game as a sonic storyteller.
DS: You had mentioned that the second edition would also include a section on interactive sound. What are your views on this medium and do you find it influencing/changing your present ideas on sound?
David: As an improvisational musician and sound therapist, I am very involved in the interactive, real-time use of sound to communicate and affect other people. The principles of film sound laid out in my current edition can be applied to interactive media, but there are so many more elements that I want to cover that are unique to this area, like procedural audio which involves the real-time creation of sound based on changing parameters of the medium and the player. I want to incorporate some of these interactive elements in my own creations, making more sound-based games that are both entertaining and educational. I have one on my website called Animal Sounds Memory game, which I’ll talk about in a later article this month. My hope is that film and game sound designers will both learn useful skills and ideas from the integration of the material presented in my book.
DS: Does the second edition have a release date yet?
David: I can’t give a date because the manuscript is not complete, but I anticipate in the latter part of 2012. It’s a labor of love, and I keep finding more and more to put in. Besides interactive subjects, I’m including the entire article on Sound Spheres recently published in The New Sound Track from Edinburgh University. I’ve got incredible interviews on specific topics with several of my compatriot Featured Sound Designers on this website, including folks from games, sonic branding, mobile media and old fashioned radio dramas. Actually those last ones are with a few of the guys from Firesign Theatre, quite a treat to get inside their wacky creativity.
DS: The ‘Sound Design for Pros’ and ‘Secrets for Great Film Sound’ webinars have a been quite a success and I personally learnt a lot from them. What’s next on the education front?
David: I’m expanding this knowledge base into other fields besides film sound, like games, mobile media, sound therapy, film music composition, and anything that really has an audio component in service of entertainment, communication and transformation. So one way is to reach through the internet to all the individuals in their respective industries, another is through schools and institutes where I continue teaching in a classroom setting, virtual or real, and another is to reach the many many cellphone movie makers who are having fun creating something audiovisual and would like to discover their talent in sound design. For those in this ever expanding YouTube galaxy, I’d like to give it away with a sponsor supporting this freebie. And for those who want more inspiration, there’s plenty to be had from my webinars. I imagine a whole school of sound design with a game based platform, something for everyone to play with. My next 6-week series “Secrets for Great Film Sound” with Ric Viers (author of “The Sound Effects Bible” and another Featured Sound Designer) starts the first week of May, details at www.sounddesignforpros.com.
[Registration for ‘Secrets for Great Film Sound’ series is till open, late registrants can access the recording of the first class. Visit www.sounddesignforpros.com for more details]
Related Post: Exclusive Q&A with David Sonnenschein