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In the first of a series of articles on sound design in documentary, Peter Albrechtsen – a sound designer himself – focuses on the visionary sound design of Zidane, A 21st Century Portrait. The film’s sound designer and mixer reveal the stories behind the extraordinary soundscapes in the alternative portrait of the soccer superstar ZinОdine Zidane.

“Football as never seen before. Mesmerising.”

“The greatest film about football ever made.”

“A hypnotic experience.”

These are some of the ecstatic reviews of the film Zidane, A 21st Century Portrait (original title: Zidane, un portrait du 21e siècle). And it truly is a football film like no other. It was released back in 2006 and has since then achieved almost cult status with its extraordinary vision of the stadium experience.

Great movies about soccer are actually quite rare, maybe because soccer is all over the media all the time and we’re very used to experiencing soccer in a certain way. Pretty much all TV transmissions depict the average soccer match in the same way, with aerial shots of the field combined with a few close-ups now and then. Even most of the people who hate soccer are very used to this kind of visual vocabulary.

Zidane, A 21st Century Portrait is doing things a lot differently. It’s focused purely on Zidane during a game between Real Madrid and Villarreal CF and was filmed in real time using 17 synchronized cameras, supervised by the highly acclaimed photographer Darius Khondji, most famous for his work on David Fincher’s Se7en and Michael Haneke’s Amour

In the visual sense, the film actually bears a similarity to Football As Never Before (Fußball wie noch nie), a documentary made in 1970 by acclaimed German filmmaker Hellmuth Costard about Manchester United footballer George Best. In the experimental film Costard used eight 16mm film cameras to follow Best, in real time, for the course of an entire game. But there’s one specific, major difference between the two: the sound design.

To really utilize the full potential of the soundtrack you need directors who are aware of how sound and music can enhance the experience. And when talking to the French sound designer Selim Azzazi and the Oscar-winning mixer Tom Johnson, it’s evident that the directors, Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon, who are both visual artists, were very aware of the significance of sound and music – the sound editing process lasted almost four months, as there’s very little left of the original location sound. Zidane himself is actually looped afterwards.

“We had deaf-mute persons come and try to analyze on screen what Zidane and a few of the other players were saying. Then we had Zidane say the spotted words and a few others,” Selim reveals. And that was just a small part of Selim’s work, as the sound design process also included several special recording sessions to record crowd and football sounds.

The ocean of voices surrounding Zidane is mind-blowing

“We went to Madrid in order to properly record another game and hoping the final score would be about the same as the Villareal game and thereby getting corresponding crowd reactions – and fortunately it did”, says Selim Azzazi.

“We were three recordists recording various crowds – medium perspectives, close-ups, singings etc. The night before that we even had access to the empty stadium for an hour to record shouts, applause, whistles, plastic seats, all with the real acoustics of the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.”

“The day before that and the day after we wandered the city of Madrid recording various chatters from every place – parks, university, bars, streets. The next day we also had the opportunity to record a training of the Real team and there we got the real players shouting, running and all that. And of course, we also used the recording of the original game.”

The ocean of voices surrounding Zidane is mind-blowing and a long way from the recordings you usually hear on a TV transmitted soccer game – the amount of detail is staggering. The film also has occasional subtitled thoughts from the soccer icon himself.

“When you are immersed in the game… You are never alone”, and quite a lot of these are actually about his sonic experience of the stadium.

”When you step on to the field, you can hear and feel the presence of the crowd. There is sound. The sound of noise.”

In a film, when a character is listening, the audience is listening as well. Sound is usually not something we’re aware of but when we feel the main character focusing on the sound, the immediate, natural reaction is to do the same. And when we sharpen our sonic senses, it usually means sharpening all our senses – we become more aware and alert, and in a film like Zidane, which is based on atmosphere instead of plot, this kind of awareness is mandatory in creating a hypnotic, mesmerising, immersive experience.

Doing this kind of abstract storytelling isn’t easy though, as Tom Johnson points out when talking about the mix of the film:

“The film really has no scenes to speak of – it’s really one 90 minute scene separated by a half time montage. In most films, you develop a scene and then move to the next one. The breaks allow one to move forward with a sort of conceptual sense of how the whole mix might be developing. In Zidane we had to develop the mix over 90 minutes, and this could easily take us days, if not weeks of work – we needed some kind of plan. Our first rough mix was kind of abstract, but not very interesting. To me there was no development; neither intellectually or emotionally.”

“The one thing we learned was that we really had to try a stick closely to the reality of the piece. The glue that would hold it all together would be making the football match itself feel as real and exciting as possible.  If we could do that, then perhaps we would find places to be abstract – and this would include ideas of where to introduce the music.”

When a character is listening, the audience is listening as well.

The music does indeed play a key role in the film. Douglas Gordon specifically requested the highly acclaimed Scottish post-rock band Mogwai to write the score and the atmospheric shifts and enormous dynamics of their music really shapes the film’s flow.

“Mogwai gave us 90 minutes of new music – we just had to decide where it should come in, what it should sound like, and when it should leave,” says Tom Johnson and goes on to praise the guitarist and producer Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine, who helped out during the mix.

“By the time Kevin came on, he could see that I was happy to play around with the music and so from there he really encouraged me to be more radical. There is a section where Zidane remembers his childhood.  We tried to make the music feel like it was a memory, like a piece of music being played by a neighbour in his boyhood neighbourhood.”

This sequence is one of the absolute highlights of the film – the stadium sound disappears and suddenly you hear kids playing, dogs barking and it feels like Zidane is becoming a child again, just having fun doing what he loves. It’s an emotional experience, entirely because of the playful sound design.

Tom Johnson concludes: “I think the important thing is to say, one shouldn’t be afraid of unexplainable things.  If it seems to work, stand by it.”_

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