When we talk about creativity and sound, it’s usually in terms of sonic creativity, or the actual act of doing sound design. Why do we not talk about creativity in terms of how we work? I asked this question during a recent project, and what I didn’t expect was that challenging those “rules” would completely change the way that I view sound for picture.
The project was a documentary called Hot Sugar’s Cold World, directed by Adam Bhala Lough. The story follows Grammy-nominated musician/producer Nick Koenig (aka Hot Sugar). Nick samples everyday sounds and room ambiences with a Zoom recorder, manipulates his recorded sounds (with Ableton Live), then uses those samples to write music. The documentary follows Nick through his process, capturing Pop Rocks, Beanie Babies, and even the room tone of a funeral. In the Hot Sugar song “Trauma,” Nick recorded sounds at the Catacombs of Paris, and used them as melodic, percussive, and ambient elements:
Another technique Nick uses in his music is incorporating natural ambiences into songs, like “Everyone’s Parents Will Die,” which was recorded at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris:
When Adam came to us with the film, we recognized that this unique music style would have challenges with picture (The sound team was myself and Shaun Cunningham; we shared sound editing duties, mixing, etc). If there was a sound effect in a music track (like night crickets) when we saw something different represented on-screen (daytime), could we alter the song, like using Spectral Repair to remove confusing sounds? The fx were written as part of the music, so we decided that what we hear doesn’t have to be a literal interpretation of what we see on-screen. That decision set the tone for a lot of creative sound design in the film, because we had the freedom to add sounds that were completely out of the realm of what’s on-screen. There’s goat sounds in an office, Pop Rocks for footsteps, elements in stereo or surround that might “normally” be mono, and all sorts of effects we wouldn’t have considered if we were working with our old set of rules.
In the film, Nick says he doesn’t like stock synth sounds because there’s nothing unique about everyone using the same sounds. Since Nick took this approach to his music, could we integrate this idea into the film sound? We decided to avoid library sound fx (when possible), and to record Foley, but for different reasons than ‘normal’. With indie films, we tend to do Foley if it’s practical, like if there’s room in the budget, or there’s elements that could be covered easier in a Foley session (vs sound fx editing). For this, we wanted to add Foley for an artistic reason: it was adding a unique experience to the sound, just like Nick’s approach to the music.
Adam gave us direction to try moving or dropping interviews if helped the scene. This is pretty unique – normally, I wouldn’t consider moving interviews or dialog (more than a few frames) without asking permission first. As I started experimenting, I was surprised how often I could remove interview bites and didn’t miss them. Sometimes it helped the flow of the scene because it made room for sound fx to set the mood, or to tell the story.
The freedom of working without our normal rules made it easier and simpler to solve problems. For example, when I was editing dialog, there was a bite that I didn’t understand. Normally, I would contact a director or editor and say, “What does this bite mean?” Together we would have to try to interpret as best as we could. Instead, I just contacted Nick directly, asked him to clarify, and then re-edited the bite.
After a while, it seemed like all those rules I had learned over the years about “how post works” just didn’t exist. We didn’t have to schedule or supervise ADR sessions cause Nick recorded himself. When we needed city background sounds, Shaun thought out of the box (instead of recording something himself or referring to a library) and he asked Nick: “Can you stick your Zoom out your apartment window and get a couple minutes of ambience?” It was elements like that which added authenticity and uniqueness.
Working in an environment like that, you sometimes catch yourself doing something ‘normal’ and asking, “Wait, do I have to do it this way?” I definitely found this in my approach to sound design. I enjoy doing sound design, but I admit I lean on sound fx libraries because I’ve never been interested in field recording. The closest I’ve gotten (outside of engineering Foley or music) is recording my cats on my iPhone, and slipping them into projects for posterity. Nick said something in the film that really hit me: “It’s always been reassuring that I can record something and then listen back to it. I’m literally playing with the universe and molding it to my liking. So that’s why I do it: it’s a sense of ownership and control.”
A sound fx library doesn’t have to be like a baseball card collection or music collection where we stockpile and trade for what we don’t have. Sound fx libraries can also be a scrapbook of our own auditory experiences. Field recording isn’t just about capturing sounds that we’re missing, but our memories and perceptions of those sounds. When we worked on “The Motivation” (another of Adam’s documentaries), I kept a lot of the production skateboarding sounds from the film for my own sound fx library. When I hear them now, I don’t just hear a skateboard grind or a rail – I hear Chris Cole’s grind or Paul Rodriguez’s rail. I’m sure every time I hear those New York backgrounds from now on, I’m going to think of Nick’s apartment. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m looking forward to getting a recorder so that I can try adding my own “experiences” to the next project.
Working without our normal rules gave the film a life of its own. I used to think of the process of film sound like Ikea furniture: We see the pieces, basic instructions, and have a general idea what it’ll look like. It’s a matter of process and assembly, which can be fun and creative along the way. After this film, I see that post can be a creative evolution, if we allow it to happen. I have to give a lot of credit to Adam, because it’s not often a director will encourage you to break rules. As Nick says in the film, “There really are no rules. The people who wrote the rules are just playing it safe.”
The reason it all worked isn’t just because we broke rules. It also worked because we didn’t put rules on each other. Creativity happens when we feel safe to try new ideas and experiment, but also to share those ideas without judgement. It’s hard to be in a creative space when you’re asking, “Are you sure a music guy can do film sound design?” or “I’ve never met a female mixer – does she know what she’s doing?” At the end of the day, uniqueness and creativity not only works best for the film, but it works best for us.