Ann Kroeber is this month’s featured sound designer here at Designing Sound and this opening interview introduces several different aspects of Ann’s impressive and wide-ranging talents. On a personal note, I’ve collaborated and met up with Ann a few times during the last couple of years and her energy and enthusiasm is always infectious and inspiring. Hopefully, this shows here:
Designing Sound: How did you get started in sound?
Ann Kroeber: I started in sound quite by accident. I was working at the United Nations and was asked by my boss to record outdoor Chinese New Year celebrations. As a girl, I wasn’t allowed to touch any of my father’s records and was strictly forbidden from even turning off his stereo, so it seemed like this guy was asking me to do astro-physics, but, well, he persisted. After meticulously writing down the rules I nervously trudged down to Chinatown with expensive mic and Nagra in hand. I put the headset on, turned on the recorder and a world of fascination and beauty opened to me. I was so excited that I just followed my instincts and captured what sounded cool too me. My boss was delightfully impressed. I was hooked.
DS: What do you love most about sound?
AK: I love the emotionality and musicality of the sounds around us, that you get to hear when you really stop to listen. It’s a kind of listening where you quiet your mind, become all ears and just focus on sound. For example, right now, as I’m typing there is a gentle breeze wafting off my patio that’s making the blinds tinkle. My little dog is under the table by my feet, licking himself to the cadence of the blinds. I wouldn’t normally notice this, but I stopped thinking about what I’d write for a moment and now I simply hear it.
DS: You’ve been active for more than four decades now – very impressive! Has time changed the way you think about sound and the film industry in general?
AK: Three Peter! Three decades. I look forward to a fourth.
There are many, many changes and I’ll talk more in detail about this later, but one of my favorites is being able to access and share sounds so much more easily now. I love the interconnectivity and ease of sharing across the planet. Being able to call someone in Mumbai, talk with you in Denmark, send sound files to Moscow, download film clips in a matter of minutes that would have taken an eternity not too long ago, and been impossible when I started.
DS: What are your biggest influences inside and outside the world of sound?
AK: My biggest influence inside the world of sound was my late husband, Alan Splet. His attention to detail, nuance, perseverance, ability to vastly influence the mood of a scene by the choice and placement of sounds will always be with me.
Outside the world of sound is possibly what I learned from Anna Halprin, after my husband, mother and father had all died, all within three years. Six months later I was diagnosed with breast cancer (this is 16 years ago). It was the most challenging time of my life. Anna was a very famous dancer and choreographer, that had suffered from the same form of deadly cancer as Alan, but survived. She taught a class at Marin General Hospital for people with life threatening illnesses. In her class we screamed and danced our fears and anger, and drew pictures, found our animal guides, visited a group of Pomo Indians, and so many other things that many scientists and doctors would scoff at – but we healed! Of the 65 or more people that went thru Anna’s course, I know of only four that have died. That is incredible odds. I have a friend who was in a group of 15 then, and only two are alive now.
DS: I know that you’re doing a lot of sound effects recording, especially recording lots of animals. Any special tricks, tips or methods?
AK: I’m going to tell you more later about how I’ve found how much smarter animals are than most of us think and how easy it is to record them if you respect them, but what I’ll say briefly here is the most important tip is to leave your expectations and prejudices behind and simply “talk” to them. I’ll tell you how to do this and share some of the amazing experiences.
DS: You’ve also released the Unusual Presences library, highlighting your recordings with the special FRAP microphone. Could you talk a bit about the FRAP – it’s a type of contact microphone, right?
AK: Discovering the FRAP was, again, a serendipitous experience. I’m going to talk in detail later about my discovery of recording with this contact mic and the amazing worlds and new possibilities of sound that it opens up for sound designers. These are sounds that you can’t hear with your naked ears or any regular microphones.
Briefly, FRAP stands for “Flat Response Audio Pickup” and was invented by Arnie Lazarus. He customized one specially for me, but now there are several other brands available on the market. Trance Audio, for example, makes a contact mic that sounds fairly close to mine.
DS: How has it influenced your thinking about sound?
AK: It opened up a whole new world for me. The incredible tones, musicality and textures of sound inside just our everyday appliances, not to mention a myriad other machines, offers such a rich palette for sound design.
One of the most incredible discoveries was fairly recent when I heard NASA recordings from outer space and much to my astonishment, realized that they sound just like what I’ve been hearing in inner space,
inside machines, etc. The expression “so above so below” really hit me. We were unwittingly making outer space in Dune sound like it actually DOES sound.
DS: Otherwise, which are your favorite tools?
AK: If I weren’t, alas, still such a blooming technophobe, I’d have a far greater list. My favorite “tools” are very simple, Pro Tools, my custom made contact mics, Pitch ‘n Time, Izotope Rx, and my precious Schoeps, with exchangeable heads, it’s identity type number still escapes me.
DS: What are your favorite films for sound?
AK: There are many. I’ll leave out the films that Alan worked on (to keep from puffing and muffing). Well, a few that just happen to pop into mind are Once Upon a Time in the West, Atonement, anything by Tarkovsky, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, Mulholland Drive, Saving Private Ryan and two recent ones: The American and Super 8. I loved the quiet elegance, imagination and way sound and music played together in The American and when I saw Super 8 I was stunned by the sound design. I was so fascinated by the way sound was used in this movie that for the first 10 minutes I didn’t have a clue what the characters were saying because I focused intensely on the sound effects and how they worked with music. I didn’t realize until the end credits that Ben Burtt was its sound designer. Every film that Ben has made has amazing sound in it but this one has a slightly different style and I thought it was stunning.
DS: What has been your most challenging project and why?
AK: It was a fairly low budget film that I thought had tremendous potential, called American Gun. James Coburn and Virginia Madsen thought so too, and starred in it. It was my first “Sound Designer” position. The director hired me because of my work with David Lynch and his admiration of David’s soundtracks. I worked with a terrific team and I was really proud of our work. We were working in Berkeley and the director was in LA and he didn’t hear enough of our work during the process. A huge mistake on my part! When I took the film down to LA for the mix he switched and became, for some reason, very literal minded (the opposite of Lynch) and took out many of our evocative backgrounds and mood elements that danced with the music, simply because they weren’t “natural”. He said, in reality, ”you wouldn’t actually hear that”.
I had communicated quite extensively with the composer and had designed sounds to work with his music. It was sad, at the time, I didn’t have Randy Thom’s words (or confidence) to explain how sound effects can show and amplify a character’s mood. I just knew it by instinct and had been doing it for years. When the composer and other members of the film crew heard the mix they howled because they’d heard quite different temps of our work. Some of our tracks went back but nothing like the design we had imagined. He admitted later that he was sorry and wished he’d done it differently.
DS: What would be your advice for any sound designer out there?
AK: My advice is to work as closely as possible with the Director all along the way. If you can talk about the sound before even shooting, all the better.
The second is to try and work with the composer. So much time and money can be saved if each knows what the other has in mind and a much richer soundtrack can be had. Also if there is any way you or someone on your crew can convince the producer to record sound effects on the set, everyone will be delighted, including him (eventually).
DS: What have you been working on recently? And what’s next for Ann Kroeber?
AK: Earlier in the year, I taught a master sound class at Gothenburg University in Sweden (wonderful time, I may have learned as much as they did) and gave, as you know, a delightful two day symposium with you in Copenhagen. I’ve worked on several fun (because of the sound people I dealt with) games, including the new World of Warcraft, Ripper, and Dragon Age II. I worked with Pavel Dorueli, long distance, in Moscow on Alexander Sukurov’s new film, Faust, that just won the prize over lots of big names films in Venice. (Bravo, Alexander and Pavel!) I really enjoyed working with Pavel, think he has a terrific sound sense and am looking forward to seeing the finished movie. And, of course provided sounds for you, which is always a delight. I also provided some “little bear sounds” for the new Kinectimals II game, including recordings of my little “bear” who is doing some great whining, that I could have used, right now because he wants to go for a walk. Next, is another game that I can’t talk about and advisory work I’m doing on a feature called Us.