TheOutrun_sound-01 Asbjoern Andersen


Director Nora Fingscheidt explores addiction and healing in her film The Outrun which had its world premiere at Sundance 2024. Here, re-recording mixer Gregor Bonse talks about the sound team's involvement from pre-production through post (including the sound mixers staying on as designers and editors), how sound was used to connect the past and present, how they created the sound of 'tremors,' how they got creative during the mix, and much more!
Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of StudioCanal; Brock Media; Florian Liedel
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Director Nora Fingscheidt’s The Outrun is an adaptation of the bestselling memoir by Amy Liptrot. It just had its world premiere at Sundance 2024 on January 19th. The film tells the story of Rona, who lived a life on the edge in London and now hopes to find healing by returning home to the wild beauty of Scotland’s Orkney Islands where she can come to terms with her troubled past.

Here, re-recording mixer Gregor Bonse talks about creating a subjective sound for ‘tremors’ that represents Rona’s craving for alcohol and also ties the story to the folklore of her homeland on the Orkney Islands. He talks about the sound team’s involvement during pre-production, the production sound mixers carrying on into post sound as designers and editors, and how that helped to achieve a more cohesive overall sound. He also shares details of using sound to bridge the past and present, getting creative during the mix, and much more!

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How did Director Nora Fingscheidt want to use sound as a storytelling tool for The Outrun? What were some of her initial ideas? What were some creative sound ideas your team wanted to contribute to the film?

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Re-recording mixer Gregor Bonse

Gregor Bonse (GB): Nora is a very sound-driven storyteller and she writes many of her sonic ideas into the screenplay, the most prominent one for this film being the sound of ‘tremors.’

Tremors actually exist in the Orkney Islands’ folklore. They are supposed to be this low rumble that locals claim can be heard from time to time, as protagonist Rona explains in one of her narrations throughout the film. Orcadians have found various explanations for the sound – some say it’s military experiments, others say it’s the sound of waves caught in caves below the land, and yet others believe it’s the sound of the burning liver of a sea monster killed thousands of years ago.

Rona returns to her home on the islands to embark on the road to recovery from alcohol addiction. In simplified terms, being addicted to a drug can be divided into three states: the first state being the high, the second state being the withdrawal, and the third being the craving to get high again. I think the first two are somewhat easier to relate to for anyone who has ever had a drink, but the third one – the craving – is perhaps the hardest to narrate to an audience who we can assume doesn’t fully understand what it feels like to be addicted to alcohol or to crave in a way that you have to have a drink unless they happened to have experienced it themselves.

So here is this sound that actually happens, but cannot logically be explained, and as such, becomes the perfect metaphor for the crushing force of Rona’s urge to drink. I didn’t see it at first but then realized it’s exactly the kind of stuff we rack our brains to come up with as sound creatives and Nora just hand-delivered that to us.

We all talked about what this film could sound like…it was a very early cross-collaboration among departments.

We were brought on as a sound team early in the writing phase, me as a re-recording mixer, Lajos Wienkamp Marques for dialog and a team of three sound designers (Dominik Leube, Oscar Stiebitz and Jonathan Schorr) who all ended up designing effects for different parts of the film. The screenplay hadn’t been written, but we had an early scriptment (a mix of a treatment and script that’s written out almost like a novel). The first sound meeting involved us sound creatives, but also the editor, the cinematographer, and the composer. We all talked about what this film could sound like, which I thought was beautiful because it was a very early cross-collaboration among departments. Everyone vomited out their ideas for all kinds of scenes, a lot of which ended up being written into the screenplay.

 

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Boom Op Felix Kaufmann capturing Saoirse Ronan

What went into the sound of the tremors, into this feeling of craving?

GB: We initially felt they should have a rumbly low-frequency quality to them, not like an earthquake, but more abstract so you can understand that it’s maybe not actually part of the world.

While there are always certain hierarchies in sound teams – Dominik, for example, ended up as supervising sound editor, accompanying Nora and me during the mix – I think it was crucial that key sounds were never left for just one person to design. Instead, we agreed anyone should spend time on their own in their respective studio, exploring what tremors could sound like. That gave us a lot to work with in the mix.

One element I was particularly fascinated by is a wind-like sound that is unnaturally processed and distorted. It had way more high-frequency content than originally anticipated for the tremors and that’s partly why it was so effective.

…three S6 faders corresponded to intensity and three knobs corresponded to frequency of a tremolo modulation on all mono tracks combined for either dialog, effects, or music.

Wind is mostly low-frequency infrasound that cannot be heard by itself. What we hear are the systems it disrupts: we hear the trees with their rustling leaves, we hear the wooden fence, the wind whistles around and yes, we hear the microphone membrane that is distorted by it too. It’s a sound we all know from cellphones or vacation videos. But we also know that it’s artificial, caused by tech and not by nature. And that’s exactly what happens in the film: something low (the tremor) disrupts a system (Rona) and the result is this crushing, trembling sound. We hear it and immediately know it’s not part of the nature around her, but part of something in her head, a feeling or in this case, an urge.

Another element is a low throbbing pulse, similar to a rotating helicopter blade, which is also connected to one of Rona’s first traumatic childhood memories.

My idea was that when Rona is in this state, she won’t just hear a tremor, but everything she hears will tremble.

We all interpreted tremors separately in the ideation phase and, as a mixer, one of my earliest thoughts was to look at them not just as created sounds, but as a way of treating other sounds in the mix. Although we mixed in Dolby Atmos, I came up with a workflow where three S6 faders corresponded to intensity and three knobs corresponded to frequency of a tremolo modulation on all mono tracks combined for either dialog, effects, or music. My idea was that when Rona is in this state, she won’t just hear a tremor, but everything she hears will tremble.

I suggested this during the screenwriting process and I think everyone might have forgotten by the time we started mixing, because I just dialed it in for the ferry scene and everyone’s like, “What is going on?” because the effect makes you feel nauseous sometimes. We used that in moments when Rona felt the urge to drink, but also sometimes when she was drunk as a non-cliche way to warp reality.
 

Does the sound of the tremors evolve throughout the movie? Or are there variations of the sound?

GB: The sound of the tremors isn’t the same throughout the movie, otherwise it would be too obvious. At some point, you’d just get tired of it and it would lack power as a storytelling device. So we used different layers of different sounds to achieve the effect we needed for each particular scene. And since Dominik, Oscar, and Jonathan could come up with sounds on their own, we had many options and could layer and change them.

His idea was to have the bottle speak to her in a “pick me up” way – a type of bottle whistle sound…

The composer John Gürtler also had a way of portraying craving. His idea was to have the bottle speak to her in a “pick me up” way – a type of bottle whistle sound that ended up being very effective for when Rona is thinking about drinking.

What’s cool about the way John works is, yes, he’s a composer and he writes cues wonderfully, but he also works closely with us in sound, sometimes offering us small tonal textures we can play with and which you wouldn’t perceive as music. Vice versa, he sometimes weaves snippets of organic sounds from the sound editors into his cues, so that it all becomes one thing in the end.

 

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Sound intern Johanna Sutherland with surround tree

That’s so great that the sound team and composer were able to work with the director during pre-production because something like this tremor sound might be difficult to just plop in during post – to take an abstract sound and try to attach that to someone’s experience of reality…

GB: Sound design has to come from within the story rather than being layered on top in retrospect, which is why I’m so adamant about getting involved early on. Usually, that entails reading screenplays and thinking about how sound can be used to narrate the story and then maybe offering ideas of sonic storytelling devices to write into the screenplay. Filmmaking is audio-visual art, so how can we use both picture and sound?

Sound design has to come from within the story rather than being layered on top in retrospect…

And while my usual workflow involves offering ideas, with Nora, it’s quite the opposite. She comes in with those ideas and she thinks in a very sonic way. That was also the case for our previous collaboration, System Crasher (2019). Back then, I was like, “This screenplay is such a gift for anyone working with sound because it offers so much for us to work with and really dives into the story.” I thought, wow, this maybe happens once in 10 years. Then four years later, she came with The Outrun. She also fights for our craft and wants a lot of time on the mix stage, which makes a huge difference.

The other advantage of getting those sound ideas in early is that it can affect other departments. Since post sound typically happens at the end of everything, I think I’m often inspired by, say, the costumes of a film or the cinematography that we react to in sound. But what if they knew what the film will sound like and how will that change their work?

I mentioned three stages of alcoholism. When looking at the next one – the actual state of drunkenness – I think sound notes affected the picture editing side of things a lot. Being drunk has been told so many times in film history and we didn’t want it to be cheesy or to throw you out of the story. We wanted to come up with interesting, authentic ways to show it as an experience you can still relate to.

We had this idea that asynchronicity could be in play, where you’re so out of it that what you see is not related to the sound you hear.

One of those ways was to use fragmentation and asynchronicity. Some people might have experiences where, in a state of drunkenness, they will perceive reality as snapshots of what happened. It’s as though the actual real-time experience is more of a memory of what happened the next day: one image, then another image, then another.

Obviously, it doesn’t work the same way with sound, because if you cut sound like that, especially if it involves source music, like at a bar, it becomes very intense right away. But we did want to highlight sounds one after the other in her state of drunkenness. That also affected the way the edits of those scenes were made. We had this idea that asynchronicity could be in play, where you’re so out of it that what you see is not related to the sound you hear. Then the sound comes a moment later when you’re already seeing something else.

This was something that had to be done during picture editorial and Stephan Bechinger did a terrific job. In fact, they ended up chopping up and fragmenting other drinking scenes that had originally been written in a linear fashion, which added to the feeling of them being haunting memories that Rona tries to escape from.

 

Were there any other visual cues that you could tie sound to, to help the audience experience what Rona is feeling?

GB: As a sound creative, you work with what ideas are given in the screenplay, but you also work with what the actors do. If something is happening in the character’s face or expression, you can use those movements for sound design to connect to what she or he experiences. This is indispensable.

If something is happening in the character’s face or expression, you can use those movements for sound design to connect to what she or he experiences.

I recollect one moment in The Outrun when Rona is sitting in a rehab session, and is asked to share with the group. She takes a very long time to start her story. And there’s so much going on with her mentally. There’s a lot of subtle sound design happening in the world outside and things start to change ever so slowly.

Now when I watch the movie, I react very strongly to it because there’s so much and so little going on. With every gasp in trying to start her story, one sound after the other is dying away. We dive into a memory that’s stripped of music or drones or anything that would be pushing her performance. It’s so subtle and works beautifully.

Any sound creative would read the screenplay and give the note that during the shoot they’d hope to see something in the acting or a change in the face of this character that they can connect sound to. It’s so essential, but it rarely ever ends up as powerful as Soirse performed in this scene.

 


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It’s easy for an audience to recognize overt sounds – magic spells or superpowers – but subtle sounds can be just as effective for supporting the story. What advice would you share on using subtle sounds as effective tools of storytelling?

GB: You have to use the whole spectrum. If I had to give just one piece of advice, it would be that.

Loud and soft, for instance, can be on a scene-by-scene basis. In my mixes, the loudest scene of the film often sits right next to the softest. Or it can be explored throughout a sequence: try to explore the whole spectrum of what’s possible, question yourself why this change is happening and when you feel good about it, pursue that direction more courageously. If you have something to say, say it.

One of my favorite moments in the film is when Rona is at a crossroads, deciding whether she will keep walking the path of healing or return to the world of fun and binging. She just went through an episode of intense craving, a very loud and wild moment with the tremors at their peak. Just before making the decision, a sonic curtain falls and everything gets completely silent.

And the end result is so simple: sound design, silence, music. Sometimes that’s all it is!

For me, this is the most painful moment as you can feel what her decision will be. It couldn’t be done by any loud sound. It has to be the complete opposite of what we just experienced. It’s so simple and yet beautiful how that works. First, there’s extreme noise and chaos by the sound design, then complete silence, and finally music, which completely takes over.

It’s a truly heartbreaking cue and as much as it’s crucial to wait with it – not start it too early, wait until the audience can really grasp the emotion on their own – the more one has to sometimes sweep the screen with the score when it’s there. Then it’s crucial to resist the urge to weave in any other sounds that would diminish its impact. And the end result is so simple: sound design, silence, music. Sometimes that’s all it is!

 

Tell me about the sound of the setting – the Scottish Orkney Islands. How does the sound of this location reflect or relate to the main character Rona and her mental or emotional state?

GB: On the Orkney Islands, Rona’s home, she is faced with nature’s aggressive natural forces of gales and waves, the complete opposite of her urban past in London. Coming back to nature and immersing herself in it is part of her quest for healing. So working with wind and wave sounds had an immense metaphorical meaning to the story. I will say though, that Nora wanted nature’s forces to have an evolution throughout the story too and for them to only fully develop when it corresponds to specific plot points in Rona’s journey.

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‘The Outrun’ Director Nora Finscheidt

On one hand, Nora wanted to play with the sonic contrast of Scotland and London but at the same time to build transitions between the two, so that one sound would lead us into a London memory and another back.

She had already written some of these transitions into the first scriptment. As a sound team, we made suggestions for almost all other transitions for the screenplay, which turned out to be more of an exercise to get the ball rolling.

Later, in editing, the order of scenes changed (of course) and the sound editors, who worked in parallel to picture editorial, went through so many reconforms that by the time we got to the mix, the scenes were quite advanced in itself but the interrelations and especially the transitions weren’t really there anymore.

So, we developed many of those ideas in the mix: like a tea kettle whistle of Rona’s mom in Orkney that turns into a police siren at a London park. Then later in the scene, the hissing of London leaves rustling turning into the hissing of an old coffee machine in Orkney’s Pomona Café, where Rona is sitting and thinking.

The cool thing was that all three sound designers were also the production sound mixers…

Again, you can see in her eyes that she was thinking about her past, which is always the door for these types of sonic transitions.

The cool thing was that all three sound designers were also the production sound mixers, doing the location sound recording for different stretches of the production. Since they were out there, they collected lots of authentic sounds. It was important for Nora (and for Amy Liptrot, who wrote the autobiographical novel) that all sounds were authentic, including the birds and there were so many of them.

One of my favorite transitions is when Rona walks over to some cliffs and she’s swarmed by all these Arctic terns and skua birds. In the Dolby Atmos mix, we’re totally enveloped in these birds flying all around us. The birds’ screams then morph into the shrieking and chatter of girls, which takes us into her first London flashback of Rona having fun, going clubbing, and falling in love.

 

That’s so interesting to have the production sound mixers stay on for post sound and handle the sound design and effects…

GB: It’s important to get the sounds on location, and it’s important to have that time during production to develop your thoughts and ideas. Sometimes when you’re hired for the mix or as the sound editor for a film, you feel tempted to just open the timeline and start throwing stuff in there. But the most valuable time you spend working on a film is before you do anything – the time you spend developing ideas. Being on location offers a lot of that time because you are constantly confronted with the story and you constantly have moments where you think about what the heck you’re going to do later.

But the most valuable time you spend working on a film is before you do anything – the time you spend developing ideas.

That’s true for editing and I think it’s true for mixing. If you don’t have any clue what sound can do for the story, it might be best to not touch any faders just yet. My personal approach as a mixer is to, yes, get involved early by trying to develop ideas and to have those ideas heard. But to also not limit the creativity of sound editors by being in their grill. They should have their sound design time early, just as mixers will have their sound design time later. If beautiful ideas pop up in the process, they will definitely stick.

 

TheOutrun_sound-07

The mixing stage of post sound can be as creative as editorial. What were some creative decisions you made on the dub stage? What were some different options you tried and how did they change the experience of the film?

GB: I think of it like the editorial stage of a newspaper; you have all these articles written and you have to decide which ones make it into the issue. During the mix, you have moments when everything is playing together and it’s chaotic. But you also have moments where you’re very convinced of what’s happening already.

I don’t like to take credit for the moments where the sound designers nailed it before it got to me. That scene I talked about earlier, where tremors come very strongly before it goes completely silent, was a moment that Dominik, Oscar, and Jonathan had designed perfectly. In those cases, it’s really just leveling effects against her dialog, her breathing, her foley, and then pushing things to exactly where they need to be, tweaking how we transition into complete silence. It’s important to have these scenes when you come out of sound editorial. It doesn’t all have to be perfect, but as a mixer, I want to see a few incidents where I think, “Here, the sound design nails it!”

During the mix, you have moments when everything is playing together and it’s chaotic. But you also have moments where you’re very convinced of what’s happening already.

I ended up working backwards from that scene, exploring how and which tremors should be used in the earlier scenes so we land here organically. We reworked a lot of them and we could only do that with Nora. The mix is perfect for these types of decisions.

As far as more challenging scenes go, you can usually spot them by seeing a vast array of sounds layered on top of each other, without hearing a clear vision. In those cases, the right sound might be buried underneath all that or it might not be there altogether. That would be a perfectly normal mix situation and it happens in every film.

But as a mixer, you have to counter that with strong, sometimes crass decisions. Because oftentimes simplicity will throw the audience a lifeline. For us, perhaps the scene in which Rona explains the tremors was such an incident. The reason for that was that many of the tremor design ideas I spoke about earlier were all used in this first incident and they were competing to be heard.

And on top of that, we had sound effects for all the natural, non-tremor sounds that corresponded to the image: the waves, seagulls, and wind.

And finally, there’s Rona’s narration. Simplicity, in that case, meant: 1) letting Rona tell her story, 2) ridding us of the burden of having to narrate in sound everything that the picture was narrating already, which eliminated a huge bulk of sound, and 3) combining Rona’s narration with the tremors that we felt really told the story.

Oftentimes there’s an organic pingpong happening between voice and sound effects, always just one sound playing at a time – it’s extremely simple, but the result of so much trial and error. That’s mixing in a nutshell.

But I don’t hold back to fix a scene that isn’t working, which can be difficult to watch for those who’ve worked before me. Sometimes, I prepare the room by telling everyone who’s there that I’m “going to do terrible things to their stuff because… I just have to try this out.” We have to get there together. It sounds counterintuitive, but if I have too much respect for the work of others, then I can’t do my work properly. I have to read it as material that we can work with, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t value what they’ve done.

It sounds counterintuitive, but if I have too much respect for the work of others, then I can’t do my work properly.

Oftentimes, that has been rewarding for the people I work with – sound designers and composers too. I take their material apart, touch every element, throw it around, or distort it – whatever the situation calls for. More often than not, they might say “Hey, I thought it was ready, but now it’s actually where I wanted it to be.” Or, “I never knew what to do with it and now I’m glad I left it in there.”

You think of mixing as tweaking things so they all sound balanced, right? But it’s more of a last step of sound design. Anything that has worked until then, great. Anything that hasn’t worked – including any problems in acting, image, or plot – mixing is the last chance to somehow find a solution.

I love doing that. I love how people come onto the mix stage, whether it’s directors or producers, they exhale and say, “Oh, this is the most fun part.”

As a mixer, you should be careful not to fall for the DJ effect though: when the crowd is cheering, but the two tracks you just blended were actually produced by other people. It’s super important to extend any praise you get towards the crew behind it. So here we are… that was dialog editor Lajos’s work; he saved all those lines we thought we couldn’t use and still changed three words with ADR which no one even noticed… Or, that was foley artist Luis Schöffend whose performance we just heard while we thought we were following our protagonist. Not to mention all the engineers who keep this epic mix stage running at Rotor Film for us. They allowed us to work creatively in the first place.

If all goes well, we all go unnoticed in all the best ways and the audience goes home not thinking about tremors, music, or footsteps. Sound is a hidden craft that often doesn’t reach our conscience, but that’s precisely why it’s so immensely powerful for storytelling.

And just so the sound (team) doesn’t go unnoticed, here’s our crew:

Sound Creatives

Re-Recording Mixer: Gregor Bonse
Supervising Sound Editor / Sound Mixer: Dominik Leube
Sound Designer / Sound Mixer: Oscar Stiebitz, Jonathan Schorr
Supervising Dialog Editor: Lajos Wienkamp Marques
Dialog Editor: Tobias Mahlstedt
Foley Artist: Luis Schöffend
Foley Editor: Volker Armbruster
Boom Operator: Felix Kaufmann
Sound Intern: Johanna Sutherland
Mix Tech: Anton Dillinger

 

A big thanks to Gregor Bonse for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the sound of The Outrun and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!

 

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