I got the chance to talk with him about the vital role of sound in documentaries, his creative process, his favorite projects – and how you strike a balance between realism and storytelling in documentary sound:
Hi Peter, please introduce yourself and some of the projects you’ve worked on:
I’m a sound designer and sound re-recording mixer based in Copenhagen and I’m working both in fiction film and documentaries, both Danish and international productions. I’ve been working on a lot of different movies since I graduated from The Danish Film School in 2001 and some of the most well-known documentaries are probably The Queen of Versailles, Putin’s Kiss, The Immortalists, The Miners’ Hymns, The Ghost of Piramida and the Antony and the Johnsons film Turning.
How did you get started doing documentary sound?
At the Danish Film School there’s both a fiction and a documentary department and the sound students get to work with both of them. So working in documentaries is something I’ve done from the very beginning. At the school I learned that you could approach the sound for documentaries just as creatively as a fiction film – it’s all about telling stories with sound – and it’s really inspiring to go back and forth between the two. The first feature length film I did when finishing film school was actually a documentary, Stargazer, by the director Christina Rosendahl who I’ve been working with for 20 years now – she also does both documentaries and fiction. We just finished our second narrative feature together, the political thriller The Idealist – my first mix in Dolby Atmos.
What’s been one of the highlights for you doing doc sound so far?
Several people have asked me what my favorite project has been through the years and I really can’t say. It may sound a little corny, but for me, doing sound is a very emotional process – the best soundtracks for me make the picture an emotionally enveloping experience and I really try to make each project as personal as possible. Picking a favorite among the films I’ve done is just as impossible as deciding which of my two kids is my favorite child.
Having said that, though, I’ve been enjoying several very extraordinary working experiences throughout the years. Stargazer – as I’ve already mentioned – was very special because it was my first big project going to the cinemas and for everybody involved it was a true labor of love. My approach to documentary sound design was pretty much all present in that film – we went all the way from abstract sound montages to very raw, rough, realistic sound moments.
Going to LA to mix with Pete Horner on The Queen of Versailles was a blast – and not just because it was almost surreal for a pale Scandinavian like me to have lunch outside in January wearing only a t-shirt. Pete is an amazingly talented sound designer from Skywalker Sound who also goes back and forth between docs and fiction and high budget and low budget projects – right now he’s working on Jurassic World. He also has a background in music just like me and we had a lot of fun mixing The Queen of Versailles – a very subtle soundtrack but done in a quite musical way, I think.
The doc White Black Boy was also special for me as it was a film where my basic principle of getting involved early on in a project really paid off big time. I was part of the project for three years – Danish director Camilla Magid contacted me about the project when she started shooting. The film is taking place at a boarding school in Tanzania and the main character is the albino boy Shida. The albinism means that he can’t handle the intense sun and his eyesight is getting worse and I think this is what inspired Camilla to talk to me: she wanted to make the sound reflect Shida’s way of experiencing the world – when you lose eyesight, the hearing often get more alert.
It was evident that Camilla was really listening while shooting the film. She was actually operating the boom for much of the shoot and put a lot of effort into getting the best production sound possible – like every filmmaker should. We also wanted to work with the sound in a more specialized, subjective way and for that we contacted the wonderful Danish sound artist, Jacob Kirkegaard, who agreed to go to Tanzania for the last period of shooting. I wanted him to record the ambiences of the place, the nature, the kids, the life at the school but also dig deeper sonically and use his specialized “accelerometer” which translates vibrations in different material to sound.
It turned into a very emotional scene and it would never had happened if the sound wasn’t such an integrated part of the shoot and the whole creative process.
During a classroom scene, Jacob noticed that there were bars on the windows and did an evocative recording of how the sound of the classroom travelled through the bars. The cinematographer noticed what Jacob was recording and shot a close up of the bars and thereby created an image for the sound. Usually it’s the other way around, the sound is dictated by the image, but by recording these sounds on set, the sound and image were equal from the beginning. It turned into a very emotional scene and it would never had happened if the sound wasn’t such an integrated part of the shoot and the whole creative process.
Of course, we shouldn’t forget that documentaries are about real people and the human stories can be very special in themselves – the last time I cried was actually because of a doc I worked on. Three years ago I did a film called The Kid and the Clown about a hospital clown’s moving friendship with a six-year old boy with cancer. The film had a quite positive and upbeat ending as it seemed like the boy got cured but just a few months ago he suffered a relapse and died. When I heard this terrible news I shed a few tears. I didn’t know him personally but having worked on the film it felt like we were connected anyway. It’s such a tragedy.
Let’s say a new documentary project lands on your desk. What’s the creative process typically like for the sound from there?
Well, hopefully I’m contacted early on during the process as I really like to be part of the film as soon as possible. First thing I’ll do is to talk with the director about his or hers vision of the film and look at some of the material, however rough it might be. Of course the story is important, but usually during these early talks we discuss the atmosphere and mood of the film, about how the film is shot and told, and if there’s some special considerations regarding music and sound. It can be very difficult to talk about sound very specifically early on and instead I might ask the director if there some specific movies or records have been inspirational. By sharing examples of sound and music with the director I find out which style we’re aiming for and what kind of sonic quality we should aim for.
Sonic research is extremely inspiring and it has a big influence on the work I do
When I’ve talked to the director I start doing research on the subject myself. Visual research is part of pretty much every film out there and I think sonic research is also extremely inspiring and it has a big influence on the work I do.
For example, when I did Putin’s Kiss I got hold of a lot of different sound recordings and music from Moscow, and this really gave me the vibe of the place. I then shared these sounds with the picture editor so that my sounds became part of the movie as early as possible – already during the picture editing we discuss the use of sound and music.
For a politically and emotionally complex film like Putin’s Kiss it was an invaluable help to know the film very well early on – the film contains both fragile, quiet sequences and long stretches of big, big dramatic crowd moments. Sound budgets for documentaries are usually quite low, and because I’d been part of the process for so long I knew pretty much exactly what to do when the sound editing process started. Otherwise, I would never have been able to do the film with five-six weeks of sound editing and four – very long – days of mixing.
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How do you balance things when it comes to realism vs storytelling? How far can – and should – you go in altering the soundscape? And do you see opinions differ on this within the sound community?
There’s certainly a lot of different views on how much manipulation you’re allowed to do with sound on documentary. In my opinion, the director has chosen to point the camera in a specific direction and prioritize the material and edit the story in a certain way and this means that reality has already been severely manipulated. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to manipulate the sound, then?
What is objectivity? No film is objective. It’s always a filmmaker’s personal vision.
This doesn’t mean that I’m going to do a big action slam bang soundtrack for a small quiet documentary. Of course, I spent a lot of time on create a sonic world that feels right for the film and true to the story, the environment and the characters. Because of my extensive sonic research I pretty much know how the actual locations sound and I always utilize local recordings as much as possible. But at the same time I often have several subjective sound moments in the documentaries I do – we all listen to the world in a subjective way and why should we try to be objective when telling stories? What is objectivity? No film is objective. It’s always a filmmaker’s personal vision.
You often work with a team of recordists for your projects – are they involved in documentary projects as well? If so, what’s your relationship on these doc projects (and in general)?
Social networks like Facebook and Twitter have really opened up amazing opportunities for collecting sounds from all around the globe. I write a request on Twitter and in just a few days or maybe even a few hours I’ve got sounds in my inbox. It’s amazing how sound people from the whole world are connecting – that’s why so many different people have helped out on different projects and I always want to credit them properly as their input is so important to me.
My main sound effects recordist is still Mikkel Nielsen from Sonic Salute who is helping me out on every project. We talk about projects as soon as I’m part of them and he collects sound with endless energy and enthusiasm. The kind of effects we collect are always very different – sometimes very specific ambiences and effects but sometimes more abstract sounds.
To get some proper sounds of internal organs Mikkel placed a mic inside a dead fish
For the US indie doc The Immortalists there were several animated sequences showing scientific experiments with human cells and to get some proper sounds of internal organs Mikkel placed a mic inside a dead fish – also because the animations had a bit of an underwater feel.
In the film I Am Fiction – by the very talented Danish director Max Kestner – we needed a lot of lo-fi camera noises as the film was shot on different cheap video cameras operated by the main character. Mikkel recorded lots of cameras from the inside and we got all these amazing noisy textures which were used both to help some of the bad production audio but also in several subjective sequences as the sounds had all these wild, weird layers. Believe it or not, I was actually a bit inspired by the sonic approach of found footage horror films like Rec and Cloverfield.
Mikkel and the Finnish foley artist Heikki Kossi are my closest collaborators – I wouldn’t want to do a film without them.
And yes, I always use foley in documentaries as well – just often recorded “badly” so that it fits with the rough and dirty production sound.
And yes, I always use foley in documentaries as well – just often recorded “badly” so that it fits with the rough and dirty production sound. Place the microphone like a bad boom operator would have done it and it usually sounds just perfect.
What are some of the essential things for a great-sounding documentary, in your view?
What is a great-sounding documentary? Great sound can be achieved in many different ways – to me it’s important that sound supports the story, hits the right emotions and creates an atmosphere that sucks you in as a viewer. A soundtrack can be very lo-fi and rough but still be very emotionally satisfying.
To me it’s important that sound supports the story, hits the right emotions and creates an atmosphere that sucks you in as a viewer.
To me, some of the most amazing film sound experiences these last years are actually documentaries: Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel’s Leviathan and Douglas Gordon & Philippe Parreno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. Those three movies all contain really original and visionary sound design as an integrated part of the storytelling – every filmmaker and especially all film sound people should watch them. Truly remarkable stuff.
Documentaries are getting a lot more attention these days, at least in Scandinavia. Why do you think this is – and is that something you’re seeing as well in terms of projects that come in?
It’s a wonderful time for documentaries! I actually think what’s happened is that documentary filmmakers have become much more aware of film language these last 10-15 years and this has included much more focus on sound as well. Here in Copenhagen there’s a big, annual documentary film festival in November, CPH:DOX, and a lot of the films at the recent festival had sound design done by some very well respected sound people from around the globe. For instance, several of the US productions were mixed at the world’s maybe leading film sound studio, Skywalker Sound.
A lot of the film sound people I respect the most go back and forth between fiction and docs – Skip Lievsay, Randy Thom, Lora Hirschberg, Pete Horner, Coll Anderson, Paul Davies, Joakim Sundström, Nicolas Becker and recently Tom Tykwer’s terrific sound designer, Frank Kruse, did the film on Edward Snowden, Citizenfour – a really intense and highly recommendable film that had me at the edge of my seat in the cinema. Nowadays, there’s quite a lot of documentaries you need to experience in the cinema or at least in a big, well-aligned home cinema setup. It wasn’t like that just a couple of decades ago.
Have you noticed any trends when it comes to doc sound? And with quality recording equipment becoming cheaper, is it making your life easier in post production?
It’s so wonderful that it’s now possible to buy a pretty good recorder quite cheaply – it’s really made a big difference both for us sound people and for low budget filmmakers. I’ve got a couple of these handheld recorders and I usually borrow them to the directors I work with and they’ll bring them to the places where they’re shooting. They may not even record that much but it’s still a good way to make them listen for sounds and not just look for pictures.
I’m not sure about trends. A great trend is that documentary filmmakers evidently are more and more into sound, and it’s not just the music doing all the work and underscoring all the emotions.
Generally I don’t want music to create the emotions – I want the music to underscore an emotion that’s already established in a scene.
Music is a wonderful thing but I really don’t like if it pushes the feelings too much. Of course there’s exceptions, but generally I don’t want music to create the emotions – I want the music to underscore an emotion that’s already established in a scene. When watching TV documentaries they sometimes get so reliant on music that it actually feels a little distancing. Sound is a much more secret weapon which can be extremely emotional but in more subtle ways.
If you were to give one piece of advice to documentary makers out there when it comes to sound, what would it be? And what’s your best advice for sound designers working on documentaries?
I highly recommend all directors to think about sound during both preproduction, production and postproduction. Use your ears while shooting and editing.
ADR is not an option in a documentary so the production sound needs to be as good as possible.
Think about what your characters are hearing and listen to what’s being recorded on set. ADR is not an option in a documentary so the production sound needs to be as good as possible.
And another thing – never shoot anything mute! It happens all the time: The photographer or the director shoots pictures of extraordinary landscapes and key locations to be used as establishing shots or cut-ins. Don’t do these without sound and do not talk while doing this – the audio from these shots is a great way of picking up local ambiences. Please be quiet – the sound people will be very grateful.
My advice for sound designers? That’s way more difficult as no film is alike. But maybe this: Maintain an open mind, open ears and stay true to the emotions of the film. Don’t be afraid of noise – use it creatively instead. I usually say that if people hire me just to clean up the audio then they shouldn’t get me but get a garbageman.
Sound is the most invisible part of the film but we’re all storytellers and sound is making the story, the environments and the pictures all come to life.
Sound is the most invisible part of the film but we’re all storytellers and sound is making the story, the environments and the pictures all come to life. Make sure that you involve the director from early on – perhaps by making sound design sketches for a couple of key scenes first. That’s usually a good way to start the creative communication with the director – and filmmaking is all about collaboration. As the composer John Williams once said: “None of us can do anything in life alone”.
Any exciting projects on the horizon for you?
Plans constantly change in the film world but it looks like I’ll be doing a US project later this year with some of the filmmakers behind The Immortalists which was a pure pleasure to work on. We might be going to Skywalker Sound to mix that one, but that’s not certain at all. At the moment, I’m doing a Finnish doc by the director of the global festival favorite Steam of Life, a very ambitious new film called Mother’s Wish. The Finns have a strong doc tradition – one of my all time favorite docs is The 3 Rooms of Melancholia – and my amazing foley artist, Heikki Kossi, is also Finnish. I love Finland! I love documentaries!
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