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Aural Fixations: Creating Sound and Music for Docs

By Tom White

Front row: sound supervisor/mixer James LeBrecht. second row, left to right: filmmaker Alex Rotaru; editor Pedro Kos; Ken Jacobson, IDA's director of education and strategic partnerships; Glenn Kiser,  Dolby Institute; filmmaker Lucy Walker; IDA executive director Michael Lumpkin. Photo: Humberto Mendes

This past fall, IDA presented a daylong Doc U at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: "Creating Sound and Music for Docs: From Location to Final Mix." The best and brightest sound mavens—recordists, mixers, designers, composers and filmmakers—shared their experiences, wit and wisdom throughout the day—and provided valued inspiration for the theme of this issue of Documentary magazine. What follows are some of the prime takeaways from the many panels that enlivened the day. Think of this article as a multi-voice fugue, which informs the rest of the articles that tackle the theme of sound and music.

Sound Acquisition

The first panel, on sound acquisition, featured Bess Kargman and Eric Thomas, director and sound recordist, respectively, of First Position, which follows a selection of dancers preparing for a ballet competition; and Tim Kitz, sound recordist on Marta Cunningham's Valentine Road, about a hate crime in a middle school in California. Karin Stellwagen, a documentary filmmaker and educator at the Brooks Institute, moderated.

Bess Kargman, on recording a scene in which one of the dancers returns to his home in Cali, Colombia, after a year away: "Do you introduce yourself first and [attach lavalier mics to the parents], who haven't seen their son in over a year? There's the risk of losing all of that: They're not actors, and I would have to risk the sound to not miss out on drama, so we laved Joan, but the parents were not laved. All the sound was captured through Joan's lav and my camera. I stayed in the corner; I wanted to do a fly-on-the-wall approach. The parents didn't speak English, so introducing ourselves would have taken time."

Eric Thomas, on working with the cinematographer: "Documentary shoots are approached from a visually centric position. Use audio on the camera, but if the DP is not headphoned and if the soundman is not monitoring the wireless, we don't know if we got good sound until the edit. A DP with headphones who is listening critically is so much better."

Kargman, on the director's role: "Especially if we're shooting vérité, if the director is listening, that's a huge asset. Sometimes it's better to not have the director in the room so people can fill empty silences or just live their lives."

Tim Kitz, on recording interviews for Valentine Road:  "I used both lav and shotgun mics. Arlene Nelson, the cinematographer, had a tight relationship with Marta in terms of two cameras. With kids [in the film] I had to be sensitive; they were minors, so we had to be careful whom to mic. We would plant the mic on them and follow them around. It was fairly fluid in that sense. Some parents were very emotional with the lavs planted on them. You're dealing with a variety of individuals, and recording them both indoors and outdoors."

Kitz, on handling location sound and dialogue: "We had to mic specific people and catch any kind of ambient audio and catch kids you had broken off. I had to mix two locations at the same time. Being present with the DP and director and having an understanding of what they're trying to get kept me informed about what would be happening the next day."

Kitz, on handling multiple feeds: "It has to be small—a three- or four-channel mixer if there's a DLSR breakout with separate recorder. You're splitting tracks; you want to make sure you have people mixed to the right track, and then you have one channel for the boom. We had to have a sense of who we were going to mic and how we were going to cover them."

Sound Design and Sound Mixing

The next panel took audiences to the sound design and sound mixing stage. Glenn Kiser, director of the Dolby Institute, moderated the panel, which included sound designers/mixers Lora Hirschberg (How to Survive a Plague; Girls Rock; Paragraph 175) and Skip Lievsay (It Might Get Loud; The Fog of War; The Unknown Known) and sound supervisor/mixer James Lebrecht (The Kill Team; We Were Here; The Waiting Room), all of whom regularly crossover between fiction and nonfiction.

Skip Lievsay, on working on Davis Guggenheim's It Might Get Loud:  "It was about the guitar, rather than the best players. Jimmy Page picked the two other guitarists, and it was about how they approached their work. The core is about this moment; everything else is documentary tidbits about how we got to this place. As a mixer, dealing with loud music intercut with talking was a challenge—loud, make room for talking, then loud again."

James LeBrecht, on working in both the narrative and documentary worlds: "With documentaries, we're adding in a bit. You have style, emotion and message; we need to make this neighborhood feel a bit more dangerous, for example. In narrative, your dialogue has to sound perfect all the time. In documentaries, it's forgivable if things don't sound perfect; it adds to the legitimacy of the doc. My job is to know what people are saying and what people are supposed to be listening for. The audience learns to trust the sound mix as they get acquainted with the film."

Hirschberg, on working on David France's archive-heavy How to Survive a Plague: "As soon as I know that I'm going to be working on film, I get the cut and I go through all the audio. With How to Survive a Plague, they sent archival stuff. I knew they had multiple cameras at events, and multiple soundtracks going at the same time, so I added car horns and sirens. Sound editing is cutting the pieces together to make us feel like we were in the environment. Most of the archival footage was shot with VHS camcorders in the late 1980s, so to clean up the dialogue, I took from other sources—there was no sync sound from some images, so I had to find other pieces from other sources."

Lebrecht, on talking to filmmakers about sound: "It's not tangible; you can make references. It's hard to talk about sound and music; it comes down to emotion: What's the function of any sound I'm going to put in here? Before the spotting session, I ask them, ‘Why did you make this film?' I glean really important information from that question. Once I understand where they're coming from, it helps guide the decisions."

Scoring Your Film

Composer Peter Golub (These Amazing Shadows; I.O.U.S.A.; Countdown to Zero), director of the Sundance Film Music Program, led this discussion with composers Miriam Cutler (Ethel; Desert of Forbidden Art; Vito) and Mark De Gli Antoni (God Loves Uganda; Into the Abyss; Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired), filmmaker AJ Schnack (Caucus; We Always Lie to Strangers; Convention) and Ken Nelson, senior vice president and executive producer of FirstCom Music.

Miriam Cutler, on the creative process: "I'm really into collaboration. I'm there to offer suggestions. My favorite approach is immersion in the vision of the film. I try to incorporate that into my own process, listening to music that's like the temp, listening to what they like. I'm stimulated by external forces. I try to be extremely open and flexible."

Mark De Gli Antoni, on scoring Marina Zenovich's Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired: " I tried to score the film as if I was writing concert music; I wrote short orchestral pieces, eventful of [Roman] arriving on the scene."

Peter Golub, on scoring Kurt Norton and Paul Mariano's These Amazing Shadows: "The film takes you through the National Film Registry, and is about film preservation. There was a section about To Kill a Mockingbird in which I had to rescore scenes to create theatrical material that would be the score of this movie. I wanted to pull on language Elmer Bernstein used for that score and character. I was trying to establish thematic material, trying to place markers that would come back later."

AJ Schnack, on the soundtrack for We Always Lie to Strangers, about Branson, Missouri and its musical character. "I do different things in different films; I also edit my films. I love working with composers, and I'm always thinking about music-where it comes in, what kind I want to use. With We Always Lie to Strangers, I decided to use existing music. Focusing on different families in the town, how do you link all those shows together with music? I thought about the Ozark Mountains and its history of Appalachian-style music. We wanted to do something like that: do we use older songs? We went to see a band in Lawrence, Kansas, called Mountain Man [a female singing trio with an Appalachian folk style]. It was a relatively unknown band. They've encouraged downloads. It's perfect for film to work with something that's existing. We said, Let's use their album to score the film."

Golub, on spotting sessions and temps: "In a spotting session, you go through the film scene by scene. Ask [directors] to verbalize what it is about that piece of music that's working. I find something that they were hearing that I wasn't hearing at all. Ask them, ‘What are you going for in this scene?' It short-circuits a lot of missed connections. Directors don't have to say right away, Thumbs up or thumbs down. But they have to get over the temp and listen to the score as a clean slate."

Golub, on working with directors: "If you react to what you hear, it's the composer's job to interpret it. You need to react to what the music is doing to the film. Our job is to interpret reactions. Composers have an uncanny ability to read a film and see what it needs and how music can support a film."

Schnack, on working with composers: "It can be really intimidating because most filmmakers aren't musicians; language can be an obstacle. The more the composer knows what's in your head, the more you can have a dialogue. It's important to verbalize intentions."

Filmmakers on Sound

Glenn Kiser of the Dolby Institute spoke with filmmaker Lucy Walker (The Crash Reel; Wasteland; The Tsumani and the Cherry Blossom) and Alex Rotaru (Shakespeare High; Kids with Cameras; They Came to Play), editor Pedro Costa (The Square; The Crash Reel; Wasteland), and sound supervisor/mixer James Lebrecht.

Alex Rotaru, on sound mixing: "All film is mixing. The idea is, you're always pushing things to the foreground. It isn't just sound and music; it's the cinema aesthetic. Sound is the best investment you can make in your movie; the audience will absorb it."

Pedro Costa, on working with the sound mixer: "Allow your sound mixer as much time as possible to work his magic. Whatever we can do to hand him the cleanest and best possible work will expedite the process. Opening the line of communication is crucial, given the limited time and budget."

James Lebrecht, on his process: "I'll have them listen to the first few minutes, then work through whole film, then we'll do a run-through and take notes. Then we'll prepare the master."

Lucy Walker, on sound for The Crash Reel: "We cut the picture to music. Sound and music help create that seamlessness. Music is hugely important to me; I used to be a DJ, and Pedro can edit sound and music. I try to take tracks I love and mess with them, take existing materials and remix stems, and make the picture and the music work together."

Costa, on working with Walker on The Crash Reel: "We're listening to music in general, then we hone in on tracks for scenes from the story. We hone tracks to certain sections to capture an essence and feeling that we're trying to get at."

Lebrecht, on what makes a successful sound mix: "If you're not sure where the music ends and the sound design begins, if you feel like they're cut from same cloth, than I as a mixer have done my job."

Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine.