DCU 2013: Sound Advice – Moving Beyond the Picture

One thing that was clear at the February 6 Director’s Close-Up panel discussion on sound design with Behn Zeitlin and the Beasts of the Southern Wild sound team — sound designer & re-recording mixer Steve Boeddeker, supervising sound editor & re-recording mixer Bob Edwards, re-recording mixer Zach Martin and co-composer Dan Romer — was that the clarity of Zeitlin’s vision for the film’s sound was as strong, sharp and determined as his vision for the story and its look.

By Pamela Miller / Grants Coordinator

“Most of the time they say, ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘I gotta poop,’ but sometimes they speak in code.”

Spoken by Hushpuppy as she listens to the heartbeat of a baby bird near the beginning of Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, that line is one of the film’s few voiceovers that wasn’t recorded in the final narration sessions at Skywalker Ranch. Zeitlin admits he was “psychotic” about preserving the muddier, original version because it was early on in the filmmaking process, when actress Quvenzhané Wallis was 6. When final narration was recorded a year and a half later, she was nearly 8, more skilled as an actress and wiser and stronger all around.

Zeitlin was particularly attached to the way, at age 6, she sounded when she said “I gotta poop.” “We couldn’t find that innocence again,” he said. He also admitted that no one in the audience would hear the difference, but he insisted on keeping the original version, recorded on a cellphone. It mattered because it mattered to him.

As Smithsonian magazine wrote: “Zeitlin made the movie on a $1.8 million shoestring in southern Louisiana with hand-held 16-millimeter cameras, jury-rigged sets, untrained actors and a grass-roots collective of artists from around the country. By ignoring received wisdom and gambling on his own powers of invention, he offered further proof that innovation is about breaking rules.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild sound team with writer/director/composer Benh Zeitlin via Skype.

Supervising sound editor Bob Edwards shared the hand-written notes he made on one page during his very first meeting with Benh: “This place is raw, realistic, gritty.” (all three words underlined three times). “Sound should be guided by Hushpuppy’s anxiety and fear.” (anxiety and fear: underlined). “It’s a dire place with magic moments.”

Also: “Hushpuppy’s heightened reality should be exaggerated and surreal.” Then a list of words and phrases: “chunky, chaotic, messy, surreal, vaguely out of control, don’t clean up.” This kind of direction, said Bob, “is a feast for sound people,” adding that “sound people know that subjectivity is a filmmaker’s invitation to do experimental things with sound.”

Using Sound to Sell an Illusion

Another theme of the evening was the way that a filmmaker with a low budget can, as Benh put it, “rely completely on sound to sell an illusion.” The prime example from Beast is the storm scene. The idea of an indie movie on this budget centered on an apocalyptic hurricane would be “implausible” as Benh put it – were it not for the resourcefulness and creativity of the sound team.

“99 percent of the footage during the hurricane is inside dark houses with a tiny bit of rain coming through a tiny hole.”

Without a budget for visual effects, the filmmaker and his sound crew relied on crashing thunder, whipping wind and driving rain to convey the terrifying, earth- swallowing storm. The same was true for the Aurochs. The loathsome beasts were actually baby Vietnamese pot-belly pigs (no bigger than a cat) in costume, made fearsome by a combination of strategically low camera angles and relying on sound to make their footsteps sound like an elephantine Jurassic tribe.

What’s Next at DCU 2013

DCU 2013 continues tonight with Ben Affleck: The Road to Argo. Having moved with ease from acting to screenwriting to producing and directing, Ben Affleck has established himself as one of the most versatile filmmakers of our time. Tonight, he’ll share his insight on directing and discuss his evolution as an artist. A limited number of day passes will be available at the door. Get more info at filmindependent.org/dcu2013.


February 13th, 2013 • No Comments

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