– A guide to documentary sound

In the final article for our series on sound for documentaries, designer Peter Albrechtsen shares some of his thoughts on sonic storytelling with examples from The Queen of Versailles, White Black Boy and The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song. Sound is the invisible part of film but its affect can be amazing.

”There is only one difference between fiction films and documentaries: in fiction films the actors get paid.”

I vividly remember hearing those words from the late, great Danish scriptwriter, Lars Kjeldgaard – they still resonate with me. I work as a sound designer for both fiction films and documentaries and I often get asked what the difference is between the two. For me, there’s not really any difference since it’s all about telling stories with sound.

Here I present some of my thoughts on sound design for documentaries where I’ll explain some of my methods and talk a bit about my work process on some of the movies I’ve done. This is by no means going to be The Ten Commandments of Documentary Sound, but some guidelines on how to use sound as a storytelling tool. It’s really important to remember that there are no rules – so don’t pay too much attention to what I have to say. But maybe these words can be inspiring, somehow.

  1. Start collaborating early:

For me, great filmmaking is about collaboration. Of course, a film is very much a director’s vision, but the best films, in my opinion, come from strong collaborations, between director, cinematographer, editor, composer – and sound designer. By incorporating all the different aspects of film language, a movie becomes much more enveloping, compelling, sensuous, rich, poetic and alive. For me, being part of the process very early on is an invaluable inspiration and also makes it possible to integrate ideas for sound design very early on, sometimes already during the shoot.

Let me share an experience from working on White Black Boy (2012) by Danish director Camilla Magid. I was part of the process for three years, as Camilla contacted me about the project when she started shooting. The film takes place at a boarding school in Tanzania and the main character is the albino boy Shida. Like most children with albinism in the country, Shida was taken away from his parents to be protected from the witchcraft related killings. The albinism means that Shida can’t handle the intense sun and his eyesight is getting worse. I think this is what inspired Camilla to talk to me, as she wanted to make the sound reflect Shida’s way of experiencing the world – when you lose eyesight, the hearing often get more alert. Very early on we decided to create a soundscape that reflected the way Shida experienced the world.

It was evident for me that Camilla was really listening while shooting the film. She was actually operating the boom for much of the shoot and put a lot of effort into getting the best production sound possible. But we also wanted to work with the sound in a more specialized, subjective way and for that we contacted the wonderful Danish sound artist, Jacob Kirkegaard, who agreed to go to Tanzania for the last period of shooting. I wanted him to record the ambience of the place, the nature, the kids, the life at the school. But apart from these natural recordings, the idea was also that Jacob should sonically dig deeper and use his specialized accelerometer, which translates vibrations in different materials to sound. During a classroom scene, Jacob noticed the bars on the windows and did an evocative recording of how the sound of the classroom travelled through the bars. The cinematographer noticed what Jacob was recording and shot a close up of the bars and thereby created imagery for the sound. Usually it’s the other way around, the sound is dictated by the image, but by recording these sounds on set, the sound and image were equal from the beginning. It turned into a very emotional scene and it would never had happened if the sound wasn’t such an integrated part of the shoot and the whole creative process.

2. Sonic research

Visual research is pretty much a part of every film out there. Still pictures are taken of locations, of characters, of paintings, of colours and much more. I think sonic research is also extremely inspiring and something I do a lot – it always ends up having a big influence on the work I do. If, for example, I do a film that’s shot in Moscow, I get hold of a lot of different sound recordings and music from Moscow, and this gives me the vibe of the place in a wonderful way. But I also try to share examples of sound and music with the director to find out which style we’re aiming for and what kind of sonic quality we should aim for.

One of many examples of sonic research that really made an impact was when I did the American doc The Queen of Versailles (2012). The film depicts a billionaire couple as they build the most expensive single-family house in the US, and the crisis they face as the economy declines. The house is built in Florida and therefore I got hold of a lot of different ambient sound recordings from the area. What’s special about The Sunshine State is that because of the hot, almost subtropical climate there are lots of insects in the air and a vast amount of frogs and other amphibians in the swamps. We didn’t play these sounds loud in the mix – the sound design of The Queen of Versailles is quite subtle – but the background ambience still create this uneasy feeling of humid decay. When adding these sounds to the picture it made the Versailles house even more bizarre: a big luxury building built on a swamp – it was destined to go wrong!

3. Never shoot anything mute – and be quiet

It happens all the time: The photographer and/or the director shoot pictures of extraordinary landscapes and key locations to be used as establishing shots or cut-ins. Please do not shoot these without sound and do not talk while doing this! If no other sound recordings have been done, the audio from these shots is a great way of picking up local ambience. Please, be quiet – the sound department will be very grateful!

4. Be honest, be emotional – and don’t get too technical

Sound in film is regarded, by some, as extremely technical. In the US, the sound crew is credited at the end, rarely in the main or opening credits. When sound for documentaries is all about cleaning up the dialogue track and nothing else, the sound editor is almost degraded to the role of garbage man. A terrible waste of opportunity, I say. Fortunately, there are so many amazing examples of great sound design in documentaries and there are more and more coming – the films I’ve previously discussed in this column are just a few great examples.

Talking about sound is quite difficult. There are lots of words about visuals but not that many about sound. That might be the reason that sometimes talking about sound becomes a more technical exercise – sound engineers infamously talk a lot about software, gadgets, machinery. But the tech talk also happens when a director and sound designer talk about the sound in the film – very quickly, the talk might be all about the obvious sounds that are needed: a slam for the door or a passing car for the highway. The most important thing, though, is to discuss emotion and feeling – the main character’s feelings, the director’s feelings, and the sound designer’s feelings. What’s the dramaturgy of each sequence? What kind of emotional trajectory should the sound help establish?

Sound is the most invisible part of the film but its affect can be truly incredible. At screenings for The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song, the director Christy Garland often gets asked about the approach of the sound design. People note that it seems to have more in common with the use of sound in a fiction film – a heightening of the location sound that brings the audience as close as possible to the characters’ inner lives.

The film is set primarily in a cockfighting ring that is inside the main characters’ home. There was non-stop cock-a-doodle-doing while Christy was shooting.  Not only was it psychologically battering, the chaos of the caged birds, but she knew she’d be in trouble with the sound designer when the dialogue edit rolled around.  But for me the location sound was a gift, and the birds were used to create an inner life of the film that I think reflects the horror hiding in the back of the main character’s mind. Location sound can be gritty, distorted and rough around the edges but if you let the texture of the sounds guide you then you can create something that expands the environment. That’s why it’s important to talk about emotions. With modern software you can clean up a lot of distorted dialogue but no modern software will tell you how to feel about a scene, about a character, about a story, about a film. You have to listen to each other, listen to the film and listen to yourself.

5. Experiment

The soundtrack is a playground with amazing possibilities. Be serious, be emotional, be dedicated, be alert, and make sure that each sound you pick for a film tells the right story. But don’t ever forget to have fun.

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