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Some sound advice for aspiring audiophiles

Tom Heuzenroeder is an award-winning sound designer based in Adelaide with over a hundred credits to his name on IMDb. Some of his more recent credits include I Am Mother (2019) and Pitch Perfect 3 (2017). I interviewed him at work to learn how he got started working on sound for the film industry.

Tom Heuzenroeder | photo by Jennifer Trijo

INTERVIEW

Thanks Tom for agreeing to talk about what sound designers do. How long have you been doing this for?

I basically started when I was leaving secondary school. In fact, I knew that I wanted to get into sound while I was still in my secondary years, and there was another student there who I was friends with who also had a very keen interest in film-making. So we kind of used each other as a bit of a springboard to launch ourselves into that direction.

Did you have any idea how to get there?

I guess we knew about the ‘in’ studios, like the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC) and we knew that’s where all the Australian films got made, even some of the eastern states’ films came to have their sound done here in South Australia. At that stage the film corporation was run by the government but it had just come out of a period of time where it was an actual studio and the tactile aspect of film-making was what it was about, as well as film finance.

These days that physical aspect of film-making has dropped off. Now it started to [decline] back in the early 90s but luckily I caught the tail end of all of that. I met some people [at SAFC] and did work experience there which then paved the way for me to continue on and seek out a career.

So work experience actually eventuated into a career for you!

Yes! That’s right. Well I was very specific about the work experience I sought out, you know… things that were relevant.

A lot of people have no idea what to do for work experience

Well that’s right and I think that I am probably in a minority that know what they want to do early on in life. Work experience, for a lot of people, comes at a time when they still haven’t really considered what it is that they might want to do or even know what they’re good at, or where their passions lie.

Do you think it’s important for a career in the arts to know that you want to do this at a young age?

Not necessarily. I think that creativity can come later in life and even if you’ve got a sense of what it is you want to do early on, you might only hone that or distil that into something more specific later in life. For example, I studied music all the way through [school] and after school at tertiary level. The course that I did was a music course and I did music composition.

My interest in sound for film and my interest in music were parallel things that would eventually either converge later down the track, or else one would become the focus. They were two very important things at the time and [were given] equal focus at that stage. It’s only later on that I chose one over another. One facilitated the other. The sort of music that I got into – electronic music and experimental music, which my tertiary course was enthusiastic [about] – led to audio engineering. Once I was in that, I wanted to do a very specific bit of it [which was] film sound; it all just crystallised.

It naturally flowed. That sounds pretty cool how that all formed for you. So what does a sound designer do?

The term ‘sound designer’ is something that these days gets used in quite a few different contexts and generally covers a few bases. Fundamentally, it is overseeing the soundtrack of a film and bringing all the various components together [based on] an overall plan for what the film is going to sound like. They’re very much in consultation with the director and then there’s a management component with the various other practitioners – sound editors, mixers, and Foley people – but in an ideal world a sound designer would be able to flesh out a bit of a plan quite early on in the film-making process.

‘In an ideal world’ sounds like it doesn’t always happen

No. By all means it doesn’t always happen that way. There’s a sound designer of great note in the American film industry, Ben Burtt is his name. He was tasked on the Star Wars films with recording various sounds they could use to develop a fresh palette of things so they didn’t draw upon their age-old libraries of sound that have been developed over the years and recycled. So Burtt became synonymous with the term ‘sound designer’ in that process.

There are different responsibilities a sound designer could have [from] physically creating interesting sounds [to being] a person who has the overall plan for what a film is going to sound like and is the conduit between the sound department and the creative vision of the director. These days the term gets used more loosely because it packages it up nicely, particularly when one person is doing the lot; It’s an umbrella term. I know that some of the sound designers in Hollywood have a love/hate relationship with the term. They take it so seriously. They kind of herald that term as the creative guru in a sense. The term is sometimes flippantly applied.

At this point in your career, how many films have you edited?

The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) is a loose guide for that. I try to keep it up to date but I think it’s at 115 now. Not all of them are feature films [there are] TV documentaries and a couple of short films way down at the bottom when I was still cutting my teeth. Short films still come up now and then but the majority are feature films.

Barry the Koala (muse) | photo by Jennifer Trijo

What’s your favourite one that you’ve edited sound for, for whatever reason, it doesn’t have to be because of its popularity?

Every film brings something different, something I can take away from it. To say what a favourite would be, would be really hard. I’d have to go through and relive my memories of each of them to be able to come up with an answer. There have been a lot of films in the last ten years that I’ve really enjoyed working on.

Name one

Charlie’s Country. That was good because I had quite a lot of creative freedom. I had a great palette of sounds to work with. The sound recordist, co-sound designer, [and me] just had a lot of fun doing it. It was fantastic. Most days are a joy to come to work except for the end of [a project] when you begin feeling the pressure but I never really did with that film and I was very happy with the result. If other films could be like that then, great!

When you say you enjoyed the film, is it more about the process rather than the actual film?

Well, that’s right. I think the film itself is also enjoyable and it’s certainly a very well made film but yes I guess I am speaking more about the process whereby you see the film come to life at your hand. You are editing and creating a sound palette for it and bringing it to life in a sonic context. It’s a very rewarding process.

I know it’s a long process – hours, sometimes days, or weeks – what’s a brief description of your work flow?

Well if I’m a part of a standard feature film, often there will be a small team: the sound mixer, sound editors, dialogue editor, and I’ll be the sound effects editor, for example. We’ll all view the film with the director, and probably the picture editor as well. We’ll go through the film scene by scene and we’ll discuss what it is the director wants to achieve soundwise, what is the sonic trajectory of the film, where the pitfalls are, where did the edit or coverage of a film not quite tell the story, and could sound extend that and complete the picture.

Basically, [we’re determining] what the dramatic and emotional arc of the film is and how sound could help that. So that process will probably take the best part of a day and then we just get given hard drives of the pictures and all the raw sound that we’re supposed to work with and away we go! Initially, it’s plotting things out and not much sound editing takes place in those first couple of days but it’s about finding the sounds that you’re going to use.

Do you use a program for that?

There’s a program that I use that gives me access to my database of sounds and I can audition sounds through that. If the production has allowed for it, often there will be sound specifically recorded while the film’s being shot, that would be a good reference point upon which we then find other sounds to augment and basically just digest everything that we’ve taken from the sound spotting session. Usually, you’ve got about six or seven weeks which is not a lot of time to cover a whole feature film; that’s probably the bare minimum. I wouldn’t want to work on a film for any less amount of time than that because you do need to step away from it sometimes for perspective and [to] reflect on things.

What’s an average work day in hours?

It’s often between an eight and ten hour day for editing, it depends on the film of course and what the demands of the film are. So at the end of that six or seven weeks, what we’re all aiming for is to get it into a shape where the sound of the film can be mixed and taken out of our sound edit rooms and assembled in the sound mixing theatre, which is basically like a cinema without the seats and just with a mixing console in it. You get to see it in a cinematic context then it’s more about broad strokes and shaping the film with moves on faders.

That sounds like a cool process

It’s a fantastically cool process! It’s the one time a director will start to see what they’ve got. They’ve spent all this time capturing and editing and then they start to bring all these components together in this room which is basically a cinema.

What’s that process called?

That’s called the mix. In America it’s called the dub stage or re-recording stage. There’s different terminology depending on where you’re from. Often it’s referred to as the final mix where you’ve got everything basically in shape and it’s more about dramatic effect and, for the story, finding the right blend of music, sound effects, and dialogue. Dialogue’s always got to be heard and intelligible and so that sets the framework.

As a sound designer where does your relationship with the film’s music composer intersect?

It depends on the film and the composer. Some composers work in isolation to the sound department, which is not ideal. There needs to be at least some communication between the sound department and the music department. At the end of the day you’re both occupying the same sonic space and so there’s no point in editing a big explosion for a battle scene if the director says ‘I just want that to be a music-only moment’. Sure, we’ll still edit one up because we might get to the mix and the director will say ‘oh, the music’s not really working… what have we got in the sound effects?’. Generally, the way the music’s going is a good informer of the density for which we lay sound effects and vice versa. If there’s a lot of very percussive sounds in the soundtrack, say an artillery, then a military snare might not work with that so it’s got to be one or the other or there will be sonic confusion.

What are the perks of the job?

For me personally, and I suppose for others as well, we’re our own boss. To a degree, we can define our own existence and working hours. I work with a lot of people that I really like and, having worked with them for years, developed some nice friendships. To revel in the artform of cinema and be exposed to some interesting creative projects as well as great cinematic experiences I find that you become more interested in what other film-makers are doing and you get exposed to a lot of other types of cinema you wouldn’t otherwise get in the mainstream.

I understand that you have a lifetime of movies card? That sounds like a really cool perk

[Laughs] Yeah, that is a cool perk. I’m a member of the Australian Cinema Pioneers Association, an association that was set up by projectionists and film exhibitionists back in the thirties and pays homage to the presentation of cinema. After twenty years of screen credits you can be nominated [to receive the card] by existing members.

What are the challenges that come with the profession?

Often it’s to do with scheduling. It seems like the days are gone when there used to be complete overall management, [for instance] a visual-effects-heavy movie will have an elongated schedule and knowing when to jump in from a sound point of view [is difficult]. There’s no point putting any sound into the film when all you have is a placeholder text card saying ‘spaceship blows up here’. Generally speaking you can try to guess these things until the cows come home but it will always end up looking different to what you would expect. It seems that there’s a real artform in aligning the schedules so that departments get what they need when they need it or things are done in a timely fashion, that’s one big challenge.

[Another one is] on a film set more and more they say ‘we won’t worry about hiring hundreds of extras for this big crowd scene because we’ll put it all in through visual effects. So the shoot’s condensed but then it puts a lot of pressure on visual effects and the very first cut of the picture that’s turned over to the sound department is usually pretty vacant. We can edit to a point but it’s only in the last few days of the post production process that the visual effects start, it takes them a long time to this. Then the editing department has got to stay around so that they can take the completed visual effects shots, put them into the cut, and turn over a new cut to the sound department. Sound is usually much shorter in terms of what there is to do but we need to pander to the visual effects schedule and there might be two or three of us whereas there might be thirty or forty people on a render farm.

You’re outnumbered

Yeah. [laughs]

Can you just sit through a film and watch it?

Yeah. I get asked that a lot actually. Certainly I will analyse it as I go but I don’t do that consciously. It’s only as I’m walking out of the theatre and then if I speak about it to a friend or someone whose had that same movie experience with me then the discussions will start. Generally films are done to a standard these days where you’re not distracted out of the suspension of disbelief.

Great! That’s a good thing because it’d be sad not to enjoy it

I think it’s an important part of me being able to my job properly. When I’ve been working on a film for ages and then the director says well ‘let’s see what I’ve got’ I need to get into the head space of a regular cinema-goer because how else would you gauge what it is that you’ve got? Let’s say, you put on your consumer hat but your hair’s still sort of the shape of your film-maker hat [laughs].

If someone wanted to get into this industry what would be your advice for them?

I regret to say that the types of pathways that were available to me, when I was getting into it all, now no longer exist. I believe it’s a lot harder now for anyone who has an interest in this kind of thing to get into the industry. It’s not impossible but I think more than ever before they need to be politely persistent and find opportunities to be able to prove themselves, their enthusiasm, and passion for it but not be over the top in the respect that they annoy people. There are so many people who are trying to get in that if you put a foot wrong then established people in the industry don’t really have time to do much nurturing these days as was the case back when I did it.

Well thank you for the insight into your profession Tom!

This article was first published in The Serenade Files Magazine Issue 2 (April – June 2019). Visit the Members Magazine page to read more features like this.

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