Photo by Alessandro Laroca
1927 Audio is one of the most successful post production facilities in Brazil with numerous national awards, one MPSE best sound in a foreign film award for City of God and a MPSE nomination for Elite Squad 2. In this interview, Alessandro Laroca and Eduardo Virmond, the two creative minds ahead of the studio, recall their professional paths: a learn-by-doing experience with its fare share of mistakes and wrong turns. According to both, these were the necessary educational steps towards what 1927 Audio is today.
How did you end up working with sound for film?
Alessandro Laroca – I started as a musician. Since I was 16, I wanted to be a musician. I was in college, in Curitiba, studying Architecture when I quit everything and decided to go to São Paulo, a much bigger city, in order to try to make a living as a musician. There I found out that film schools actually existed. As I was also interested in cinema, I applied for one of those schools and got in. This was in1993.
How was film school?
Alessandro Laroca – Soon I began to write and record music for our student films using the technology that was available at the time. Protools was only beginning, there was already something like Digidesign’s Audiomedia. I also did production sound for a few shorts and very basic editorial stuff. But the early 90’s were not the best time in Brazil for film schools and cinema in general. We were moving from analog to digital and my college wasn’t keeping up with the times. Our teachers were mostly from an older generation and weren’t into the new digital technologies. The situation of brazilian cinema was also maybe the worst in its entire history. When I started college, only three Brazilian films had been produced that year. Actually, I learned very little about sound at film school. It was good because I studied film theory and history, learning things that I carry with me up to this day. One important thing that happened soundwise was a lecture given by legendary production sound mixer Chris Newman. That was the day I really I felt I had a specific interest in sound. Nevertheless, it was hard for me to translate it into action. I had a hard time finding internships during college mostly because I didn’t have any focus yet. My biggest mistake was not knowing what to choose at that time: I wanted to be a director, a screenwriter, a musician… everything. So, when I finished college I didn’t have any job and I went back to Curitiba.
Did you manage to work with film there?
Alessandro Laroca – No, not at first. I found a job as a technician in a music studio. One day someone invited me to do production sound in a short film. Since I had already done this in college I accepted the job. To my surprise my boss insisted that we should do the sound editing and mixing of this short at the studio as well. I honestly told him that I had no idea about how to do this, but, as he insisted, we ended up building a small 5.1 room there. The first thing I did was buying a bunch of dvds, bring them to the studio and listen. I listened to these films very carefully, soloing each channel. The majority of these films were American. During college, I haven’t had much interest in American cinema; I preferred European films, filmmakers like Tarkovsky, whom I admired even before film school. Nevertheless, soundwise, Hollywood films were the most appealing to me. It was through these films that I started learning what postproduction work was. I started researching a lot as well over the internet. I did this short film in 1999. Other shorts followed it. I think that there are things that you only learn by doing. I could teach you how a compressor works in a few minutes: what is a threshold, attack, release, etc. But learning how to use a compressor properly, this is something you might take years to learn. By that time, I still knew very little. For example, on this short I worked the same way we did in music. In a music studio, you generally have the band with you all the time, even while you’re editing. So, I had the director of the short I was working on sitting just behind me while I was editing the dialog, for instance. There I was working while this guy impatiently turned the pages of his newspaper making all kinds of noise!
And, after these shorts, the first feature you worked on was City of God, right?
Alessandro Laroca – Yes. I had this friend that worked at O2 (the producer company of City of God) and she recommended me for editing the dialog. The director, Fernando Meirelles, already decided that he wanted to do the sound editing and mixing of the film abroad with the sole exception of the dialog, which he thought should be done by a Brazilian. So I met Fernando and got the job. It was a great learning experience for me, specially because Fernando asked me to join him during the mix. We mixed the film in Los Angeles at Todd-AO. There were a lot of things to observe there, a lot of them I even had trouble understanding at the time but they ended up making sense years later. In LA, I bought Tomlinson Holman’s book Sound for film and television. Only if I had read that book years earlier, during college, my life would have been a lot easier! Back to Brazil, Fernando told me that there was more work to come and, in fact, there was indeed. In 2002, I worked on a TV series with the same people involved in City of God and that was set in the same environment of the favelas called City of Men. There were only 4 episodes and I was assigned to do 2 of them. I was working by myself so I was doing very basic editing: dialog, a few effects, backgrounds. Foley or field recording were distant thoughts at that time. During City of Men I met Armando Torres Júnior, who became the re-recording mixer of most of my films. After City of Men, another feature produced by O2 came, called O preço da paz. That’s when I met Eduardo.
What about you Eduardo? How did you end up in cinema?
Eduardo Virmond – I was already a film buff when I was 11. I had this older friend that was allowed to watch the movies I wanted to watch but couldn’t because of my age. I remember, for instance, trying to enter the cinema to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and being stopped at the box office. Things changed when my mother bought a VCR. I would spend a lot of time watching these movies. I think I watched Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom every week or so. When I was a little older I also wanted to become a musician and joined a band. Soon I realized that I was much more interested in recording the band than in performing or composing. The time came when I had to go to college and I went to Business school. I wasn’t happy with that and that’s when I heard from a friend that had gone to Los Angeles in order to study recording engineering. I sold my car and went there to do this course. There I had one class about film sound. Our assignment was to do the foley and to dub one scene from The bride of Frankenstein. I remember they put me to do the voice of Frankenstein’s assistant because of my crappy accent. My colleagues loved when I tried to pronounce electricity which I had a hard time doing. But overall I loved the experience and started looking for an internship in that area. Finally, I got one in this small music studio that was starting to do some film work, mostly shorts. On my first day already, I was already editing dialog. I was thrilled! I loved this internship and already knew what I wanted to do when returning to Brazil. I went back to Curitiba, where I did a little bit of sound work on advertising, which I didn’t like much, and after a while I had the opportunity to work on my first feature, O Preço da Paz. This was a period drama shot in Curitba, which is one of the reasons why they wanted a local crew for the post production work. At first, the producers wanted me to do the whole film by myself, but I knew I couldn’t handle it. That’s when Laroca entered the project and we first started working together. We did the foley and the dialog here in Curitiba and a third sound editor located in São Paulo, Beto Ferraz, was held responsible for the sound effects and backgrounds.
Alessandro Laroca – We didn’t have much of an idea on how to do foley properly by then. We didn’t perform in sync with the picture for example. We recorded footsteps, props as we were building a sound library and then we edited this material in sync with the picture. I know this sounds funny, but that’s the way it is when you don’t have any references to start with: it takes much more time to learn things that otherwise would be given to you as basic principles at the very start. People who work today at our studio and are somehow guided by us don’t suspect how their lives are much easier than ours when we started at this business.
And what followed O Preço da Paz?
Eduardo Virmond – After O Preço da Paz, we did another feature, Nina. On this film, we did everything: dialog, sound effects, backgrounds, foley. After Nina, we did foley work for other three features. In 2004, we did Olga, a period drama about a brazilian woman sent to a concentration camp during World War II. This was a great challenge for us! We have moved to the studio where we are located up to today and we had a first draft of our crew structure on this film as well. We had one person doing only the dialog so Alessandro could focus on supervising; we had a foley crew; I was in charge of sound effects and background. We were a 6, 7 people crew and we worked on this film for about 4 months until the final mix.
And how do you evaluate your work on Olga?
Eduardo Virmond – It was an important experience because it was the first time we used a workflow similar to what we have here today, only in a smaller scale. Nevertheless, we failed in some aspects of it. First of all, we took a lot of time to finish the film, which means that at the end we were almost paying to work. Secondly, there was something regarding the aesthetics of the film that we were not able to grasp yet. We didn’t know how to use off screen sounds in an effective way. Before Olga, we had done three features where all we did was foley work. Believe it or not, for us foley was like 80% of the film. Nevertheless, during the mix, the director kept saying things like: “I only shot 30 people in this concentration camp because I didn’t have the money to shoot 300, but there were 300 and I want to hear 300.” or “You don’t see at the picture, but there is this train at the distance bringing new prisoners to the camp everyday.”
Alessandro Laroca- So we started adding these background effects during the mix of the film only because the director was asking for them. At first, we didn’t believe it would work. We thought they would sound fake. But it turns out that the director of Olga was right and we were wrong! These new offscreen sounds worked fine and added a lot to the film.
And how was the feature that followed Olga?
Alessandro Laroca – After Olga, we did this other feature called Two sons of Francisco. For this film, I did very little editing and worked mostly as a supervising sound editor. I was also in charge of following the mix of the film in São Paulo. But as a supervisor I was making the mistake of evaluating the work of each department separately. So if I was revising the dialog, I only listened to the dialog, if I was checking the foley, I only listened to the foley and so on… I only perceived how these things interplayed with each other during the mix and, of course, there were conflicts and gaps. As a result, we had to fix a lot of stuff while the film was being mixed.
Eduardo Virmond – I think one third of the film was done like that. This problem came up again on our next feature, The year my parents went on vacation. There were a lot of ADR for this film due to changes in the dialog. I only knew that happened during the first screening. That’s when I realized that I didn’t have a clue of what was going on with the film as a whole. I was sitting there with my sound effects and backgrounds unaware of what was going on next door. So, Alessandro would call me during the mix saying my ambiences didn’t work and I was clueless why they didn’t. When we finally realized what was going on, we started to regularly exchange bounces with each other during editorial and that improved a lot our work here.
City of Men, the series in which Alessandro worked at the beginning of his career, became a feature film in which you both worked on. How was to get back to this same universe?
Eduardo Virmond – We felt at ease because we already knew how to do this. We had done a lot of films that were set on favelas. We knew how to depict it sonically and we had built a fine sound library through the years with a lot of typical favela sounds. By the way, there is a funny story regarding the field recording work we did specially for this film. It was the first time we decided to record gunfire for a movie. We researched a lot, read a lot articles, things from Charles Maynes, etc. After all the study and preparation we went for our first day of recording in a base camp next to Curitiba. We arrived there, were received by this soldier, we stood there looking to each other when he finally said: “Go ahead, shoot”. I didn’t quite understand him and replied: “No, you’re the one supposed to shoot”. The soldier told us that this was a vehicle maintenance base camp and that there weren’t any guns there. I insisted and pointed out to another soldier holding a rifle a few meters from us. To my surprise, the soldier replied: “This is just for showing. There aren’t any bullets in that rifle”. I couldn’t believe in what I heard! Finally, we ended up discovering another location with real guns, including guns with bullets, and everything turned out just fine.
Alessandro Laroca – City of men was also the first film where I started doing some of the premixes. It was a good experience also because we had learned how to optimize things here at the studio. We didn’t have to work 24/7 as it was the rule for most of the things we did here.
So, you had finally arrived where you wanted?
Alessandro Laroca – Not exactly. When I watched the film at the premiere I thought it didn’t sound very interesting, it was somehow a flat experience. Everything was ok, the sounds themselves were good, but there was no punch, no dynamics whatsoever.
Eduardo Virmond – Our sound editing was too realistic. We didn’t know how to lie. We didn’t know how to exaggerate when we could and how to be simpler when we should. There was no emotion. It lacked proper sound design.
Alessandro Laroca – We were only worried about the sound, not the story.
Eduardo Virmond – We would only get that right on our next feature, the first Elite Squad.
So, that was it? That’s when you finally got it?
Eduardo Virmond – Not quite. Elite Squad was above all a humility lesson. I don’t know if you remember, but a pirate copy of the movie leaked before its release…
Alessandro Laroca – This illegal copy made something like 10 million spectators, it was a real phenomenon. And this illegal copy was taken directly from AVID, it didn’t have yet any of our work on it! Yet, 10 million spectators. We realized that our job is important, but there are certain things that come first. José Padilha, the director of Elite Squad, once told me that the two most important things in a film are the actors and the story. Everything else, cinematography, sound, special effects… comes in second place. Once again, we realized that our work should be built around what’s most important, the story. We finally got that on Elite Squad 2, which I consider our first mature work. Elite Squad 2 is a much more sober and intimate film than the first one and we got that from the start. We knew that we weren’t facing another favela movie and that we should pay attention to everything that was unique in this film.
Eduardo Virmond – In the second Elite Squad, we learned how to tell the film’s story in a more efficient way using less but more focused sounds.
Elite Squad 2 was nominated for best sound for a foreign film at the MPSE awards. How did you feel about this nomination since you grew up with this model of the American way of doing film sound ?
Alessandro Laroca – City of God had won a MPSE award, but I had a much smaller role on this film. So the nomination of Elite Squad is felt as more important to me.
More recently what changes have you experienced in the workflow of 1927 Audio?
Eduardo Virmond – Brazilian films have changed a lot in recent years. The budgets dropped drastically. Another film like Elite Squad would be more difficult to show up. So we decided that it was best for the studio do diversify its line of work. We now work over multiple projects at the same time (something we didn’t do in the past), there is this new market opened by the growth of television series, which we have been exploring as well. So, the most recent challenges have to do with learning how to face this simpler projects in a way that is also simple and efficient, since we have less time now. There is also the managerial aspects of the studio that we’re always improving.
Alessandro Laroca – We don’t stop changing things here. We’re always learning.