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A Brave New World Of Sound: Joakim Sundström Interviewed
Kitty Lester , October 22nd, 2013 07:22

Ahead of his talk at Oval Space Cinema tonight, Kitty Lester talks to sound designer Joakim Sundström about Berberian Sound Studio and the future of cinematic audio

“A brave new world of sound awaits you.” These are the words that greet sound engineer Gilderoy when he arrives at the Italian film company in Berberian Sound Studio, Peter Strickland’s complex and remarkable psychological meta-thriller.

Sound design has long failed to gain recognition in film-making in the same way that acting, directing or special effects have in the past. There have been rare glimpses into the world of sound in films such as Blow Out, the 1981 thriller starring John Travolta as a sound effects technician, and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, which stars Gene Hackman as a surveillance officer who is hired to record people’s conversations. Released in 1975, the film was widely praised for its ingenious use of sound and score as a narrative device – the very sounds Hackman recorded were weaved into the score to depict his psychological decline.

Fast-forward to today and sound design is being brought to the forefront of mainstream film analysis thanks to Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s new film whose audio component is just as crucial as the visual spectacle, and whose use of physics and technology creates a hyper-realistic cinematic experience. Sound is used to both disorient and orient viewers: notably space is depicted in silence and all the dialogue is panned to match the actor’s position on the screen to create a realistic sense of distance and movement.

For close to two decades, Joakim Sundström has been the sound editor/designer behind a string of critically acclaimed films, from seminal music classics 24 Hour Party People and Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, to commercial successes such as The Constant Gardener and Irvine Welsh’s latest adaptation Filth. The New York Times and The Guardian have given him high praise and his work is recognised with numerous BAFTA and British Independent Film Awards nominations – but chances are most people will have never heard his name before.

He sat down with the Quietus to talk about sound design finally taking the lead role, shifting attitudes in the industry and how technology is changing the way in which we hear film.

You made your debut as a sound designer almost two decades ago. How has the role that sound design plays within film-making changed over time?

Joakim Sundström: The DAW [digital audio workstation] era of film sound arrived just as I had worked on my first short and with it came a much greater sense of control and flexibility. The creative potential opened up by the technological advancements was far-reaching, but I think quite a few years were lost in translation from analogue to digital where the creative possibilities of film sound suffered from attempts to resolve the mechanical process of post production. We've now reached a point where dramaturgical thinking and technological precision co-exist on a much more even footing, making film sound a very exciting field to be working in.

While there are plenty of films about filmmaking, very few explore the behind-the-scenes roles such as sound engineers. Why is less emphasis placed on sound, despite it being an equally important process to acting, directing, etc?

JS: Not only is sound twenty years behind its cinematic visual counterpart (historically speaking), it also naturally has more of a subliminal narrative role in the audio visual landscape. That said, I think film audiences are now more receptive to alternative narrative devices, and there is definitely a greater awareness of the importance of sound design in the cinematic experience.

You're speaking at Oval Space as part of their screening of the excellent Berberian Sound Studio. You were Supervising Sound Engineer for a film that's centred around a sound engineer. Pretty meta... Do you relate to the character of Gilderoy at all?

JS: Not at all. For me he is almost a kind of Harry Caul-esque (The Conversation) type personality in that he is totally incapable of collaboration of any kind. When it comes to sound design I really don't subscribe to the auteur theory. The role of the sound designer is to discover, through the process of collaboration, the potential of the soundtrack which, of course, is completely different for each piece of work.

Whilst in other films your role is to make your work seamless within that universe, in Berberian Sound Studio it's brought to the very forefront. Did that affect your creative process and how you thought the sound design should work in the film?

JS: The Berberian Sound Studio was so rich in possibilities for sound that it became apparent from a very early stage that the challenge was going to be how to limit the vast amount of design opportunities available to us, a kind of reductive sound design process if you will. Music and sounds were coming in from so many sources that it became part of my objective to focus on the narrative elements and eliminate as much superfluous material as the director would allow.

You have previously said that you used digital equipment in creating the sounds for Berberian Sound Studio. Being a tribute to 70s analogue technology, were you not tempted to use those same analogue tools?

JS: It would have been amazing if we could have done all mixing and sound editorial on magnetic, but for the sake of time and ease of process we really had to go digital. We did transfer the sound materials for The Equestrian Vortex (the film within the film) to reel-to-reel then re-recorded it to digital, but in the end of the day it was the choices of music and sounds rather than the equipment that gave the piece its retro sound aesthetic.

The sounds within the world of the film are very much intertwined with the soundtrack. How closely did you work with the guys from Broadcast?

JS: I've been a fan of their work since the late 1990s and was really looking forward to working with them. Sadly, we never got the chance to meet in person due to scheduling and geographical constraints, but instead communicated ideas via e-mail and FTP. Although I was disappointed we didn't get any face time, the fact that new technologies have made such a way of collaborating possible is very exciting, and I think this is very much the future of sound.

Does your role change significantly when working with an archive of already existing music, for example 24 Hour Party People or Scott Walker: 30 Century Man?

JS: In projects where the music forms the very subject of the film, such as the two in question, the creative framework within which we have to operate is necessarily much narrower than say, a project where there's the opportunity to work with a specifically composed score. When the pre-existing material is especially well-known, it is difficult to escape the associative connotations that the soundtrack elicits. Though there is always room for manoeuvre, so to speak, and with an experimental approach, one can sometimes get unexpected results.

The two films feature two very different soundtracks. Do you have personal preferences for particular genres, and can these affect your work?

JS: I see it very much as a two-way process. Naturally, what you bring to a project as a sound designer is often affected by your current musical interests but I equally get something from each new soundtrack I work with. I have extremely eclectic tastes and am always open to new music; I relish opportunities to (re)discover artists, and still find myself buying four or five albums a week.

Who would be your dream musician/artist to work with?

JS: I'm currently working with the soundtrack for Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard's upcoming Nick Cave project 20,000 Days On Earth, scored by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, which is something of a dream scenario for me. I'd also love to work with Akita Masami [Merzbow] whose work was a big inspiration for much of the material we created in Berberian Sound Studio.

You seem to have built up a relationship with Warp Films having worked on both Berberian Sound Studio and their new release, For Those In Peril. Is there a benefit from working with an indie company such as Warp and how this can affect your work, for example, in For Those In Peril?

JS: I have always felt that continuity, more than anything else, allows for a rich collaborative process that transcends the difficulties that might be encountered in the course of a film project. To have a continuous and transparent relationship with a producer means that there's an amount of trust already in place which is essential, especially when working with lower budget projects.

As technology advances, how do you see the role of sound designers and engineers evolving?

JS: Technology has allowed us great scope for experimentation and now that we have perfected the mechanics of post production there should be less need to focus on the tools, allowing us to more fully explore the possibilities of what the soundtrack could communicate in its relationship between sound, image and audience. Obviously I can't predict what future advancements will mean for cinema sound, but my hope is that eventually sound designers will have more involvement in the dramaturgical process from an earlier stage, maximising a project's potential both from a budgetary and creative point of view.

And finally, which innovations particularly excite you looking to the future?

JS: There's a buzz around the possibilities of the Dolby Atmos platform at the moment, offering greater definition and precision in the surround mixing environment. But I'm equally keen to see what effect the flexibility of the DCP [digital cinema print] could have on the future of cinema sound. The idea of opening up the mastering process, allowing more of the sound budget to be allocated towards creativity, is an especially exciting one, and will have important ramifications, especially for the independent sector.

Joakim Sundström will be speaking at the Oval Space Cinema Club screening of Berberian Sound Studio tonight; for full details and tickets head to Oval Space's website

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