The ‘hidden’ art of sound design, from an award-winning Malaysian

  • Malaysian sound designer wins Golden Reel Award, her team up for an Oscar too
  • Sound design a critical part of film industry, but no getting its dues in Malaysia

The ‘hidden’ art of sound design, from an award-winning MalaysianTHERE was a mix of moods, between ‘don’t jinx it’ and the sheer exhilaration of having been nominated for two Hollywood awards: The Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) Golden Reel Award, and that other one, you know, the Academy Awards.
 
Sound designer Axle Kith Cheeng (pic) met with Digital News Asia (DNA) just a few days before she left for Hollywood, the excitement and trepidation in her palpable: She had the chance of becoming the first Malaysian to step up to the stage to collect an Oscar award with the rest of her team.
 
Axle was the sound designer for Head Over Heels, nominated for Best Short Film (Animated) in the 85th Academy Awards, which will be decided on Feb 24.
 
While not immune to the glamor that is the Oscars, she admits that she was actually more excited about the Golden Reel. “It’s by my sound peers; it’s really the Oscar equivalent for sound people.”
 
She needn’t have worried. On Feb 17, Axle became the first Malaysian to win a major Hollywood prize when she received the Verna Fields Award for Best Sound Editing by a student film-maker.
 
Head Over Heels, written and directed by Timothy Reckart, has already won the Annie Award for Best Student Animated Film. The movie itself is a project from students of the National Film and Television School in the United Kingdom, where Axle had been studying.
 
In between, she has had stints with Imaginex Studios, the audio post-production team from Tripod which made War of the Worlds: Goliath, and has worked on the International Emmy-nominated Saladin animated TV series.
 
Head Over Heels is a bittersweet movie about an old married couple, Madge and Walter, who have drifted so far apart they live in two distinct gravity wells. One’s ceiling is the other’s floor. They live together, but barely co-exist. Much like many long-married couples, truth be told.
 
It is about reaching out, despite years of distance, of being rebuffed, and of reconciliation and romance.
 
All this in 10 minutes or so. As with many short films, it is fraught with symbolism where every element is painstakingly thought out – note that even the first letters of the protagonists’ names (M and W) are inverted versions of each other – and sound is pretty critical.
 
The ‘hidden’ art of sound design, from an award-winning MalaysianUnsung heroes
 
Sound. You don’t think about it much when you go to the movies, except in terms of special effects and music. But there’s more to it than that, says Axle.
 
Film may be primarily a visual art, but the other parts work subtly to build up an immersive atmosphere and to convey emotion and communicate a subtext that really just settles within the viewer’s subconscious.
 
It’s one of those unsung hero disciplines – done well, you don’t even think about it. Like so many of the other disciplines of movie-making, it is part art, part science.
 
“People forget or don’t know how important sound is to a film. They think that sound is just the press of a button, but it is not.
 
“They may watch a movie and come out knowing they didn’t like it, but not realizing why,” she says. “I can’t watch a movie with bad sound design,” admitting it is an appreciation she did not have before she studied sound engineering.
 
Head Over Heels is a pretty good example of what she’s talking about, and also of the difference between a sound engineer and a sound designer.
 
“Sound engineers work more towards the technical side, like patches and plug-ins, and making sure everything is working when you want to do a show or make a recording,” says Axle.
 
“Sound designers work on the whole feel of the soundtrack,” she adds.
 
In most animated films, there is nothing for the sound designer to work with at the start except for the dialogue. In the case of Head Over Heels, because there was no dialogue, there wasn’t even that.
 
“We have to convey emotion and feeling via sound. You start with zero. You have to build up the atmos (atmosphere), the feel and the mood, together with the music,” says Axle, adding that the music is handled by the composer, in this case Jered Sorkin.
 
The head members of the Head Over Heels crew were involved from the pre-production stage onwards, when the director and producer laid out the idea.
 
The sound designer gets to give input at just about every stage. “Like when Madge is upside down, I suggested wood creaking to suggest that she’s on the wrong side of gravity, to differentiate between her side and his side of the house,” says Axle.
 
Director Reckart told Sorkin and Axle what kind of feel he wanted for the movie, breaking it into three parts.
 
“The first was about the married couple, living together although they can’t stand each other. The second part was the eruption (the house coming to the ground), and the third was the reconciliation,” says Axle.
 
“For me, the first part had to be chaotic, so you can hear wood creaking. It is floating, so you can hear wind, to convey an unstable marriage. When the house lands, after such a long time just floating, you can hear birds chirping and even a distant vulture – it’s new territory for Madge and Walter. Everything is weird.
 
“Madge walks out of the house and to lake, in a melancholic mood, so you hear the water lapping softly. She feels uncomfortable in these strange surroundings, so you hear the squishing of the mud she’s stepping through.
 
“Back in the house, when Madge picks up a broken picture frame, you can hear glass falling and tinkling; and that’s when her feelings are tender and fragile, and that’s when she decides to reconnect.
 
“When the two finally get together, a low-rumbling room tone conveys warmth and everything going back to normal,” adds Axle.
 
Being involved this way also comes from the unusual structure of the National Film and Television School, she says.
 
“Every year, they only take in a set number of people from each discipline, like eight sound designers, four composers and eight animating directors, and so on. From there, you choose your groups to collaborate, with one person from every discipline to work on the final-year project,” she adds.
 
“Sound designers have three final-year projects – one documentary, one live-action and one animated film.”

Sound career
 
Axle speaks with great passion of the work she gets to do, so it comes as a surprise that she was no big-time movie buff when she first embarked on her sound career.
 
After her SPM exam (O Levels or Grade 12 equivalent), she worked for a short time at a bank in an administrative capacity, where she felt bored and realized the corporate world was not for her. Not that there were other options.
 
“At that particular time of my life, I used to listen to radio a lot, though I am not musically talented at all. I was wondering what I could do with my life when I came across a brochure by the School of Audio Engineering (SAE) in Subang Jaya.
 
“They had pictures these huge mixing consoles, and I don’t. it just looked very appealing to me,” she laughs.
 
SAE Malaysia was established in 1992 as a training institute covering fields such as creative media, digital film-making and audio engineering. She did a 10-month diploma program there about seven to eight years ago, and then came a series of lucky breaks, combined with Axle making her own luck.
 
While most of the other students had some kind of musical background, she was interested mainly in the technical side of things. “If there is a problem, I want to solve it – for example, why am I not hearing anything even though I am recording; it could be something about the signal flow,” she says.
 
She did her three-month internship at audio post-production house AddAudio, which hired her on. At the time, AddAudio was only doing radio and TV commercials. “I didn’t mind because I was learning a lot,” she says.
 
But one day, her boss came over and said they had a low-budget movie they were working on as a favor, and they needed someone to do the audio post-sound. Since AddAudio had to reserve use of its facilities for its commercial activities during business hours, any volunteer would have to work the ‘ghost shift’ – 8pm to 8am.
 
“He asked me if I wanted to work on it, and I said, ‘Sure, I’ll give it a try’,” said Axle.
 
“At that time I was clueless about doing sound for films. They just wanted someone to clean up the audio and make sure the dialogue was in synch, and to lay in a bit of atmosphere. It was mainly technical stuff,” she recalls.
 
Still, it was her first film and was none other than James Lee’s The Beautiful Washing Machine, which won an award at the Bangkok International Film Festival in 2004 and given a four-and-a-half star rating by The New York Times.
 
“There was just this one scene where there’s just this washing machine, and they told me, ‘see what you can do with that’. Suddenly, I was on my own; I could do whatever I wanted.
 
“So I took the sound of a washing machine, I pitch-shifted it, I slowed it down – and that was the sound design for that part. It was fun, not like doing radio and TV commercials, where you’re just a sound operator.
 
“I realized I could be a lot more creative. I decided I wanted to do full-length movies, so when my stint at AddAudio was done, I went over to the United Kingdom to get a degree in sound design technology at the University of Hertfordshire’s School of Creative Arts.
 
She also worked on Bernard Chauly’s futsal-themed 2005 rom-com Gol & Gincu, where the grueling on-location shoot would hold her in good stead, as she later found out.
 
The ‘hidden’ art of sound design, from an award-winning MalaysianLucky breaks, making luck
 
At Hertfordshire, she felt she needed to expand and gain new experience, so got involved in another low-budget independent film, 2010’s Do Elephants Pray?, even if it was only as the boom operator.
 
“Yeah, that’s the poor guy – or the poor gal, in my case – who has to hold the huge boom microphone,” she says.
 
They were shooting in France, and on the third day of production, while she was on a train on the way to the set, she got a call from director and producer Peter Hills, who said, “Look, Axle, do you think you’re capable of doing the location sound recording for the whole film?”
 
“I went, ‘What? What’s going on’?” she recalls. Apparently the original sound guy had bailed, taking all his equipment with him. Axle took on the role, and almost paid for it with her life.
 
They were shooting outside in a French countryside for about a month, and it was very cold. “So cold that one night, I walked out of the van to throw up, and the next thing I can remember, I was in a French hospital with a doctor tapping my forehead, going, ‘Miss? Miss?’
 
She was suffering from hypothermia and had become unconscious. The film crew thankfully managed to rush her to a hospital.
 
After the movie, she approached the director and asked if he had anyone doing the audio post-production, and he said, “You know, I hadn’t thought about it.”
 
“I told him I could do it if he wanted, so I ended up doing sound design for this film on a laptop in my room in university,” she says.
 
It was all volunteer work that paid off – she was told that the sound was going to be mixed in a proper production, by none other than American sound designer Nicolas Le Messurier, who has been nominated for an Academy Award three times and has worked on more than 150 films since 1968, including Superman (1978), A Passage to India (1984), Aliens (1986), Die Another Day (2002).
 
“I went, ‘Holy crap, this is why I wanna do this!’ You never know your luck, you just have to stick at it,” she says.
 
That work led her to learning about foley techniques, where everyday sounds are recreated in post-production to enhance the movie. “It is where you recreate every little sound you see on the screen, like the slurp as someone drinks,” she says.
 
“The director told me that we had been given a week to do foley recording in Universal Studios in London, and I was like ‘Hell, yeah!’.”
 
She was very impressed with the techniques they used, like using leather bags and belts to recreate the sound of a horse carriage.
 
“I started to really take note of foley – it is very important in enriching the immersive experience of the film. I really love the problem-solving aspect of it, and how you have to think outside the box,” she says.
 
Le Messurier was especially helpful, and started giving her career advice. He was impressed enough to have told others of her talent, as she would later find out.
 
After Do Elephants Pray? was finished around 2009, Bernard Chauly of Gol & Gincu told her about the National Film and Television School, and a possible scholarship she could apply for. They had 100 sound designer applicants that year, and were only taking in eight. She was invited for the interview, and the guy who interviewed her knew Le Messurier. She was accepted.
 
But she didn’t qualify for the scholarship. Although the school was quite accommodating, telling she could wait a year to save up for the fees, she realized she would never be able to afford it. That’s when her parents stepped in.
 
“My mom said, ‘if this is what you want to do, then do it’,” she says. “The course started in January, but I finally made up my mind to do it that month, so by the time I joined, it was February. I had missed the foundation workshops and orientation, and thought I would never catch up.”
 
The ‘hidden’ art of sound design, from an award-winning MalaysianBut catch up she did, attributing it to the support of her course-mates and the collaborative environment of the National Film and Television School.
 
“Unlike university, everyone there came in with experience and accomplishments, so we didn’t compete,” she says. “The whole idea is to cooperate and work together with those of other disciplines too.”
 
It was also then that Axle distinguished herself because of her foley work, and thus won her way to the Head Over Heels team. And, of course, her award.
 
Local industry lagging
 
When asked what advice she could give other Malaysians wanting to follow in her footsteps, and if there were such opportunities in this country, Axle’s enthusiasm becomes uncharacteristically dampened.
 
“Sound involves a lot of other disciplines, like dialog editing, foley, sound editing and mixing,” she notes. “To be honest, I don’t think the film industry here is generally aware of these disciplines, and how they are all put together.”
 
“It’s not just sound as a single whole; you have to break it down. You have to work on the atmos (atmosphere) first; then the dialog editing, next the foley, and finally the sound editing. That’s why you see so many sound credits in a Hollywood production.
 
“I don’t mean to denigrate the local film industry, but I think they don’t generally use sound designers, just people from a studio or recording background,” she adds.
 
Perhaps an award-winning Malaysian may inspire a change, then.
 
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