Designing Sound: Would you mind giving our readers a little bit about your background and how long you’ve been working in audio post?
James LeBrecht: I’m the owner of Berkeley Sound Artists, and we’re located in the Saul Zaentz Media Center in Berkeley. We’re kind of a small company. I think the term “boutique shop” would sound little bit pretentious, but we’re kind of the right size to feel personally involved in projects. We primarily focus in sound design and mixing, and our prime emphasis is in documentaries. I started the company in 1996, thinking that maybe we’d be doing a lot of multimedia work, CD-ROMS, etc.…and we did do some of that. We did some work for a now defunct educational software company called Theatrix. But very early on Patti Tauscher, who worked with me for many years, she came to me and said, “I met this guy. He’s got a documentary, and I think we should do the sound on it.” So we wound up doing this film for Steven Olsen, and it immediately became apparent to me that…here’s a niche that people weren’t really focusing on. A lot of houses do documentary work as “fill-in” work. Some people are really kind of dedicated to it, but that’s our prime focus. Plus, being in what is known as the Fantasy building…
DS: I was gonna say that Berkeley is kind of known as a hot-bed of documentary work, right?
JLB: It is. Saul Zaentz, when he built the building, wound up opening up offices to a lot of independent filmmakers in the area; who for many years enjoyed very reasonable rates. We still have a lovely community of documentary filmmakers there, not quite as many as before, but what a rich community the Bay Area has…in San Francisco, Mill Valley and in Berkeley…of people who are at the leading edge of documentary work. So, for me, this is wonderful; the level of back and forth that you can have when you’re nearby. If you’re working on a sound design section, certainly you can make arrangements for your client to, “Come by at 3:00. We’ll have coffee and go over this,” but you can also say, “If you’re free this afternoon, come down and take a listen to this.”
For me, it’s…I came out of theater. I came out of doing sound for live theater; doing effects and such. I was the in-house sound designer for the Berkeley Repertory Theater, 1978 to ’89. Theater was just an incredible training ground of creativity. You’re working on six, seven or eight productions a year…different directors for just about all of them…different genres of realistic, expressionistic, minimalist or cinematic sound designs. It also just really trains your chops. I was really fortunate to have that as the basis of my work ethic and my creativity. From there, I got on crews at the Saul Zaentz Film Center, I’ve done some work up at Skywalker over the years, and eventually the Saul Zaentz Film Center closed…and Zoetrope wasn’t working anymore as a post house. I moved my offices up to where the Film Center had been, expanded a little bit, and now between myself and Dan Olmsted, Jamie Branquinho…we’ve got a nice team of people.
DS: So you opened your service in ’96. Did you start off doing doc work right away?
JLB: The early days of the company we were really doing some CD-ROM projects, documentaries and independent films. We continued to work with the Saul Zaentz Film Center. [ed. James founded Berkeley Sound Artists before the Film Center closed.] It was kind of a grab bag of all of that, and I was still also doing a bit of theater work on occasion. Over the years, we’ve transformed.
We have one client, Actual Films. We’ve done the prep and mix for a few of their feature docs including “The Rape of Europa” and “The Island President.” They have gone on to, besides doing their own film work, some really amazing corporate pieces for places like Apple and Google. We’ve gotten a chance to mix these things, some of them a lot like mini-documentaries, but at the level of finish when you’re not simply saying, “Well, we can just mix this in the Avid, right? We don’t need to go out and have somebody do this.” No, actually you do. It really pays off in the long run. Plenty of people do take that approach, but we know how to make it sound right. We know how to take the Frankenstein sentence and make it sound more natural…more than any conscientious editor has the ability to do. We’re fortunate to have clients who understand that, and that provides a pretty good mix of work. So with the documentary work…which, typically, the margins are much smaller on…we’re able to afford to do that.
With documentary work, these are films that so often…to me personally…are important films. Social justice is usually the central theme of most of these; be it a seven part series about the global anti-apartheid movement and South Africa…
DS: With Connie Field, right?
JLB: Connie Field, yeah, “Have You Heard From Johannesburg“…to Leah Mahan’s “Come Hell or High Water – The Battle for Turkey Creek,” which is about one guy pulling for the town in the South, that he grew up in, to not be obliterated by a shopping mall development; in fact, using greenway and ecological arguments to improve the area…and save it. I’m always taken with the fact that often it’s one person…one man, one woman, one or two children…that decide that they’re going to do something, and that they really affect a change that is positive for themselves and/or their communities. If you look at Nicole Newnham’s “Revolutionary Optimists,” it’s a wonderful film about these children living in the slums of India, but doing a mapping project to help prove that there was an immediate need for closer clean water taps in their area. So, I find that personally this work is, not only am I having a good time, but I’m working on something that is meaningful.
DS: The subjects of these documentaries that you’re mentioning are one or two people, but the people that you’re working or collaborating with…the people who are making these docs…there’s often also just one or two people who are the driving force. These are personal stories, and the filmmakers also have a personal investment in seeing this story told. What’s that dynamic like for you?
JLB: First off, nobody makes a film completely on their own; that’s taken for granted.
DS: Of course.
JLB: Sometimes, like in the case of Steven Okazaki who did “White Light/Black Rain” and “The Mushroom Club”…he edits his films, and he’s really hands on. When I’ve done the sound design on a number of his projects, I become, really, the other team member., But typically we’ll have a director/producer…sometimes there’s a director and a producer…and often the other person that’s there is the picture editor. It’s really the collaboration between the picture editor and the director that shapes the film. There are also producers that have artistic input as well.
So when we hit the mix, which is maybe jumping the gun in this whole conversation, my job is to make sure that the levels are right and everything is there, but it’s also about managing the room. It’s making sure that people are getting heard, that they’re getting what they want. It’s never about, “Here’s what you should do.” It’s you’ve done some pre-mixing and say, “Here’s the direction I’m going in,” and you make sure you get a sense of who’s the final arbiter. Occasionally, that’s really difficult. .
I think that the process of how you arrive at your final mix is important. I’ve always been a big believer that everyone gets heard. They may not want their intern to have much say in something, but just make everyone in the room feels like you know that they’re there.
DS: You talked about discussing the mix as jumping the gun here in terms of our conversation. I don’t really see that we’re on a timeline where we have to hit “A” to “Z” in order, but I’m curious about shifting further back into the process. What has your experience been as far as collaborating earlier in a film. During sound design, or maybe while the picture editor is cutting, do you have opportunities to go back and forth with sound ideas…or ideas for the sound track…as the film is being developed?
JLB: You know, in an ideal situation, you’re consulting with your sound designer from the beginning. “Look, we’re interested in working with you on this thing in two years. We’re going to the Amazon. Here’s what the story is going to be. What should we be thinking about?”
At that point, you’re probably providing some real basic information about making sure that you get coverage; making sure that you get wonderful recordings of ambiences…those sorts of things. When it comes to sound design, maybe you’re a little bit further along in the edit. Being able to see things ahead of time, and react and have that discussion about the final edit can really be a benefit. Because here’s the thing, sound can really change the length of a scene.
When you’re working along, a scene that feels like it’s dragging a little bit…and you’re cutting half a second here, half a second there, to make it move…you may be making it more difficult to establish the location. Where are we? To have a shot of an exterior of a house that we’re going to go into, to people that may look really boring. If you’re hearing a lawnmower off in the distance, or the sounds of dogs barking chained up in the yard next door…you’re helping to set the place that the visual isn’t completely telling us about. The fact of the matter is maybe there weren’t dogs barking that day, but you really want people to know that this isn’t the best of neighborhoods. You can say it so quickly with sound, but not if the shot goes by so fast that you don’t have the time to establish the ambiance of the location. That makes my job a bit tougher. I’ve seen this time and time again, where you can dial in the perfect feel or pace for a scene by adding in sound, trying things, pulling it out, changing the sync. You’re kind of saying, “Here we are.” Then you can start irising in with your audio. You start peeling those layers of sound away, and it’s like you’re getting much closer to your subjects.
Now, a documentary…”What do you mean you’re adding in sounds?!”
DS: Anyone who works in audio post for docs knows that that’s the worst kept secret.
JLB: It’s the dirty little secret! I was working on what was one of my first docs many years ago, and I realized that the director had constructed a sentence for somebody to say…off screen. I was like, “Wait a second! You made that sentence!” The director said, “Yes, but that’s what he wanted to say.”
“Oh right. OK. Break it to me easy…what about the Easter Bunny?”
You know, he was right. It was really what the person wanted to say. I won’t argue with that. But the fact of the matter is, when you’re editing any film, documentary or feature, you have a point of view. You have a message that you’re trying to reveal and create with the footage you have. So, I look upon this as supporting the cut and the intentions of the film, and indeed some of it is more dramatic. I really want to set up something that gives a specific feel of danger, comfort, happiness or sadness in the moment…and some of it is basically, “Oh, whoa! This ambience in front of the house is nothing but wind noise on the mic. I don’t think so! Let’s get rid of that.” You ask yourself, “What’s appropriate? What makes sense?” You take it from there.
DS: Before we started joking about constructing sounds that weren’t there, you were touching on the idea of the opportunities that sound presents in docs. What are some of your strategies for talking with directors early on in the process; To sell them on the idea of at least having a conversation before they show up on your door ready to mix the film?
JLB: A lot of folks don’t really contact me until they’re ready to lock picture, and they realize, “We have to mix this!” I’m being a little facetious there, but some folks…especially if I’ve worked with them before…will talk to me early on. Sometimes they’ll invite me to a rough cut screening; where they’re screening for other filmmakers and people to get some feedback. I’ll talk about sound. I’ll also talk about story and a few other things, because that’s the kind of feedback they want.
Like I said, in an ideal world you’re brought in pretty early; just to point out some things or make suggestions. The earlier you go in, the more malleable certain things are. There are things that are just as simple as, “This dialog edit that you’re trying to have us do from three different interviews, back to back, is going to be really difficult.” But if the subject is available, and this was being used as “voice-over” anyways, “Can you ADR this? Can you go back and get this?” Often people just don’t have the foresight or the budget to bring people in early on audio. When they do, there’s a certain back and forth that is really beneficial. And it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or time.
DS: So you’re finding that those opportunities to be brought in a little earlier, even just on a conversation level, are coming from people you’ve already worked with.
JLB: It tends to be. I don’t think that people who are doing it for the first time immediately see the benefit of it, but occasionally some people do. Sometimes I’ve even gotten calls from people saying, “You know, I’ve got some really bad audio. Do you think this is salvageable?” I may wind up doing a noise reduction pass on it. If it takes me an hour, it takes me an hour. If it gets me the job, so much the better! It’s great to help them figure out what they’re going to be able to use.
But this artistic back and forth…
I’ll go on a limb and say it’s probably not necessary for some films…but it will be much more important for others. When I worked in the theater, we talked things to death. You read the script. You talk to the director multiple times. You’re starting to put things into rehearsal; building cues and sounds. So you’re constantly working on this thing that’s malleable right up until opening night; and sometimes even past the opening. I like that process, but I don’t see it that often. You probably will find it on higher end Hollywood narratives. I can only imagine the conversations that Ren Klyce and David Fincher have. I wish I was a bug on the wall for that. You look at someone like Walter Murch, who has his hands in the sound and the picture. How ideal is that?! One has to learn from those people, and how they work, to show an example of how you can be working better…or just taking better advantage of your audio.
DS: So shifting back to working with the clients in the sound design phase…I’m gonna stumble my way through figuring out how to ask this question.
What kind of conversations do you have with directors about making a scene work the way they want it to? For example, my buddy Coll Anderson, one of the stories he tells is about a documentary that he worked on called “Catfish.” It was this series of events that the filmmaker was just documenting, moments in his life, just for the sake of doing it. These things occurred, totally unscripted, but he had the skills to capture them in really high quality…including the sound. When they put it together in the doc, it didn’t give the impression of being unscripted. It felt staged, and nowhere near as natural as he’d experienced it. One of the things they did was put in mic bumps and noise to dirty it up, making it feel more “realistic.”
Do you find yourself having conversations with directors about the verity of what’s being presented vs. the craft choices that go into constructing it to present it the way it’s intended?
JLB: Yes, we do. [Laughs]
DS: Long question short answer. [Laughs]
JLB: [Laughs] Yes we do, young man!
Before we start our work, I would have looked at a cut, or close to locked cut. We come up with a budget. We come up with a plan; for this amount of money, on this schedule, we’re gonna do this, that and the other thing. I think we to need this many days for production audio edit…what you’re giving me in the OMF. A certain amount of time for sound design…sound effects editing. We really talk about the film’s needs and what it’s going to take to do that.
Then the next step is our first day of work, which is a spotting session. We sit down and go through the film with the director/producer, or whomever, and with my crew. Often, in dialog let’s say, the question comes up, “Well…we’re hearing…mmm…a lot of [sigh]…uhhhh…pauses…and so on off camera. Can we tighten that up a little bit?” I’ll say, “Yeah, but you don’t want to get rid of all of that.” It’s part of that person’s character. If they’re not talking like they’re stumbling for words, when they are stumbling for words, you’re kind of changing what’s happening for that character at that moment. But you certainly look at: “Is it better for the flow of the film, and the audience that’s hearing this film, to remove some of those?” You look at things like that. During the mix, the director might say, “You know, I really don’t think we need that sentence there in voice-over,” but it’s going to produce a hole now. So we’ll look at that, and I might even suggest, “This sounds a bit unnatural. Let’s cut out these two words.” You may shift things around a little bit, you may change how you mix things…I kind of love that back and forth. You’re like the final ear on voice over and those kinds of things.
So, I don’t say that, “My job is to clean up your audio.” I say that, “My job is to make it effortless for your audience to hear your film.” That indeed, if there’s wind noise, and there’s mic bumps in the way, we certainly want to do everything we can to remove them as best we can. If there’s a doorbell, or a microwave beeping off in the distance, that I can get with some noise reduction software…and it’s not intrinsic to the scene…we’ll get rid of it. But you don’t want to remove everything. It’s a document!
When you clean everything up too well, then it does sound a little bit fake, or that there’s something artificial about it. It’s finding that right balance in there. I’ve worked on films where the whole thing was on a handheld HD cam, a nice consumer…or even not so nice consumer…camera where you hear the motor; like on an old Hi-8 camera. Especially right at the beginning of the film, we might leave in that noise or a couple of mic bumps, just to sell the fact that this is real footage. This was captured at the time. You get a little bit more fastidious about removing that stuff later on, because you’ve already established the aesthetic. That way, it can be a little less distracting later.
One of the great things in working on documentaries, especially historical documentaries…like the “Rape of Europa,” which was about how Hitler was plundering all the great artwork in Europe, is that newsreel footage is often full of narration. They love the footage of the tanks rolling through or the flamethrowers, but there’s some guy in the background going, “AND the Nazi’s rolled into….” So we can’t use that. We create the sounds of the flamethrowers, or the buildings collapsing, or the canons going off. I’ve got a wonderful library I’ve collected over the years, and I can make those things sound shockingly real. But then they wouldn’t sound like they were 16mm films from the 40’s.
So we’ll distress the sound. We’ll distress it by rolling off some of the high end, some of the low end…we’ll fit it right into what an audience will perceive as being what was actually recorded at that time. Those are really the kinds of cheats that I love doing. There is a craft to selling these things, which I enjoy.
DS: It’s a little bit sleight of hand, and it’s fun!
JLB: Is that a slight of ear?
DS: It is. It’s the magic tricks…our version of David Copperfield.
JLB: But it’s also, just like a magician will have…they call it a diversion, or distraction, or a misdirection. Occasionally, you’ll have a dialog edit that you just can’t work. But if it’s outside, and you put a little car honk right at the edit point…so they know what the person says, but that awkwardness that you just couldn’t fix all of a sudden is obscured enough that nobody ever knows there was an edit there…let alone that it really sucked! So those misdirections, at times, come in really handy.
DS: I’ve had to do that myself in a couple docs that I’ve worked on over the years. It’s always great when they work, but then you still have to get them passed the director. A lot of times they recognize that you’ve added a sound, and it becomes, “Why did you put a car honk there now?” Have you had to deal with that on those occasions, or have you been able to explain the process and how it’s helping?
JLB: Usually, and especially in those instances, typically I’ve had the dialog editor work on it. Dan often does some pre-mixing on films. It get’s to me, and I’ll hear it thinking, “God that’s close, but can I make it better?” I’ll pause and try to massage the edit a little bit more, because sometimes in the mix…setting volumes…you can fix it. When it seems like it’s not gonna work, I’ll even joke that we maybe we should put someone coughing right on top of that. We’ll giggle or laugh a little bit at that, but I’ll say, “Actually it’s a misdirection, and it often works.” It’s not like I’m setting it up for them, so that they can hear my miraculous fix. I’m not really clued into that moment until I get into the mix. I’m not going over each and every track before we get into the final. I delegate that to very smart people.
So often it will be, “Here’s the deal. We’ve tried this edit differently, and it’s not working. Let’s throw in a rooster crowing in the background as a bit of misdirection.” They’ll understand that this is a difficult position. If they hear how it’s improved, then great! I think that you can prove to someone, if you already have the rooster or the car in there, that it’s necessary, but I like the process of us coming up together with what the solution will be. I would love nothing better than to have everything be just perfect when we’re working, but it’s not always the case. I think documentaries have a bigger challenge in a lot of respects. But at the same time, I think audiences with documentaries…
DS: They’re more forgiving.
JLB: They are! They are. They don’t want this to be a Hollywood film; where it’s recorded on a sound stage, or it’s extraordinary ADR. They want it to be real, and they will forgive it. If somebody’s voice is a bit off-mic for the first half of a sentence, because the boom operator wasn’t pointed in the right direction…sometimes I’ll give a little lift to that, so that they can still understand what the person is saying. If you hear the perspective change, so much the better if the camera does the same thing. They forgive it. It’s natural; it’s not jarring.
You just don’t want to have something in you film that pulls the audience out of it. I swear to goodness that bad sound will pull you outside of the film faster than an arrow to the forehead. You know, it’s just like…BAM! I think sound can make a soft focus sharper. I think that if people are hearing things clearly they’re going to forgive certain anomalies in the picture. And I think that using sound, and working with a clear understanding of what it can do…thinking about it, as you’re in your editorial process, is something that every good filmmaker learns to do. It takes time and experience to know how.
You can find James at BerkeleySoundArtists.com, and follow him on twitter @JimLeBrecht