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Sound Minded: Dolby Institute Promotes Audio as a Storytelling Tool

By Suz Curtis

In 2013, Dolby Labs launched the Dolby Institute, an educational initiative devoted to the use of technology—specifically, sound—as a creative tool. Institute director Glenn Kiser says that the program will "reach out to young filmmakers with an inspirational, educational message about using sound and picture more creatively as storytelling tools."

Kiser, former vice president and general manager at Skywalker Sound, has presented educational panels with working artists and sound experts at Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival and Los Angeles Film Festival. "We want to engage and inspire folks to think critically about sound," Kiser says.

Documentary filmmakers, he adds, can benefit from the institute's work. "Very often, sound for documentaries is given short shrift," Kiser maintains. "What we're trying to do from an educational standpoint is to reach out to a community that's been, for lack of a better term, underserved with professional quality sound."

He is also sympathetic to the challenges often faced by documentary filmmakers. "In the field, on the set or on location with a documentary, you're shooting, and everyone is so focused on capturing the picture; sound is kind of relegated to the back burner," Kiser observes. "It's the same set of issues with narrative film. The important thing is to get good, clean field recordings, and to ensure that your subjects are being mic'd carefully and that those recordings are good and clean."

Using an organic approach to educational programming, Kiser reveals that specific Institute events are an outgrowth of conversations he has with practitioners. "There are some recurring things that we have been learning," he says. "I come from a very traditional, feature film post-production model, where picture editing and sound editing have really been treated as separate disciplines. You have a picture editorial crew, and they cut the movie. And then you hand that off to the sound editorial team. That separation does exist."

And it is this separation, Kiser asserts, that becomes a problem for the low-budget filmmaker wearing many hats—including sound. "Picture editors are doing sound work in Final Cut," he notes. "They don't engage a separate set of tools to do that. And quite frankly, the tools in the picture editorial platform for doing sound work are pretty basic. One of the things we have been hearing is that we need better sound-editing tools for picture editors, and we need them to be simple so they can incorporate it into their existing workflow."

In addition to moderating panel discussions, Kiser has also worked with writers and directors to help them think more holistically about sound. "We can take a look at a script as they are writing it and make sound suggestions," he explains. "But what's really fun for me is that once they've had an experience like that, artists will innately use sound creatively as a way to tell a story."

It is the creative use of sound that makes it such a potentially powerful tool for low-budget filmmakers, Kiser notes. "There's a great example from the independent film Beasts of the Southern Wild. A huge plot point centered on this Katrina-like storm that changed the life of the characters. So the great conundrum for the filmmakers was how would they do that? How do they accomplish that with an independent film budget?

"The solution they hit on very creatively was through the use of sound," he continues. They put the characters in a storm cellar and basically played the entire sequence out on their faces and let the sound do the heavy lifting of telling that part of the story. So that's a great example of really innovative and creative use of sound to solve a production problem."

Kiser can appreciate cost-effective solutions to filmmaking problems. "Back in the day, when we would shoot on 16mm—especially in the independent world—it was just about compromises," he recalls. "You didn't have the resources to do what you wanted to do. Every step in the process was a series of compromises. But for me, there was always a magical moment when I would start to put sound and music on it. And suddenly, things would come to life. To me, that was righteous—a magical moment of alchemy. We're sending you this thing that so far has been a series of compromises; it was a movie, and it worked. And that's when I got really hooked on sound and what could be done with it."

Kiser carries this passion into the film community, maintaining a dialogue with filmmakers about their current challenges. Documentary filmmakers, he notes, bring many different approaches to sound, and as a result, invite many possibilities. "You get filmmakers that are very naturalistic," he explains. "They might have a very light touch. They don't want to be perceived as having a viewpoint on the subject they're trying to impart. At the other end of the spectrum, you've got documentary filmmakers who take a very cinematic approach to post-production and sound. I'm thinking of a filmmaker like Errol Morris, who uses very traditional, almost narrative fiction film techniques to tell a nonfiction story.

"That, to me, is when things start to get really interesting—when you're really trying to engage sound design and music specifically to elicit an emotional response, and you use that as part of your storytelling toolkit."

It is helping young artists build that toolkit that the Dolby Institute ultimately hopes to support. "It's fun to watch young filmmakers light up with possibilities of what they can do creatively, just by using sound in a more thoughtful fashion." Kiser concludes.

Suzanne Curtis Campbell is a Los Angeles-based writer, currently working toward her MFA in screenwriting at the UCLA School of Film, Theater and Television. She has worked with Ladylike Films on the award-winning documentaries Somewhere Between and Code Black, and on PBS' Makers.