In a candid rendezvous in his mentor and now associate, Resul Pookutty’s studio, Amrit Pritam gives us an insight into sound design, his passion and profession.

Amrit Pritam

Amrit Pritam

How would you tell a layman what sound design exactly is?

If I had to put it simply, imagine watching television on mute or a film in the movie hall with no sound. You would never have a complete wholesome experience. How would you experience the emotions or react to a particular scene? Would you know whether to cry or get excited or angry? All these aspects will only come in once there is an audio medium. A film may be shot beautifully with fantastic visuals but until we add sound to it, it won’t have the desired impact. Sound design completes the mood of a scene. Sound design is what creates a connect between the film and its audience. When the film comes to us, it is like a dead body. We have to put life into it. And we do that through sound design.

If we had to go a step further, how would you introduce sound design to someone who is studying cinema?

For instance, the visual shows us a girl standing in front of a mall, waiting for a bus. This scene has no sound whatsoever when it comes to us. So when the bus comes and halts at the stop, there is no sound. When the driver blows the horn, there is no sound. When people are getting in and getting off, there is no sound. There is a crowd waiting for the bus but there is no sound. So like I said, the elements are all there. Great camera shots, good editing and the works but how will there be any impact without these sounds?

To make this scene alive, here’s what we do. First, if there are dialogues, we add those. Next, we add the sounds of the bus arriving, maybe stopping with a screech and then racing out. Then come the crowd reactions, ambience sounds like maybe some vendors on the road, people chattering. The shot is supposed to be in front of a mall, so to create the impact of a busy street, we add sounds of cars passing by, honking etc. Once all these layers come together and we balance the sounds, you would know that here’s a girl at a crowded bus stop, waiting for a bus in front of a mall, on a busy street. All this is a very basic level of sound design.

Another quick example could be a shot at a beach. The sound scape of a beach is different at each time of the day. We have to keep that in mind and add sounds accordingly. We need to know whether it is a morning shot or an evening shot to fill up the sound space.

So to do complete justice to this and know the scene better, do you need to read the script? At what stage of filmmaking do you actually get involved?

Sometimes we do read the script. The film usually comes to us post edit. We watch the entire film and then take it scene by scene.

How do you approach a film that comes to you? Is there a creative philosophy you follow?

Each film works differently. When we read the script, we decide in advance how we want to approach the film. However, there are times when filmmakers do not share their scripts or come to us only during post production. So we can get involved at any stage. For any film that comes to us, it is important to watch it from start to finish very carefully. Then we try to understand why the film was made, what it is trying to say, who is its target audience, what is the core theme etc. Next we break it down scene by scene and take it one scene at a time.

Though everyone has a different approach to sound design, we normally work on ambience first unless the film is shot in sync sound. In that case we prefer to do the dialogue editing and cleaning first. Next, we move on to the FX, for instance, vehicles, helicopter, fight sequences, bomb blasts, floods, heavy action scenes, bullets hitting walls etc. We usually lay these tracks by sifting through our library where we have a stock of all these sounds. While we are working on the ambience, simultaneously, in another studio, we have foley artists creating foley. By the time we are done with the dialogues, ambience and fx, the foley comes to us and we create one music track.

Receiving IIFA Award Singapore 12

At the IIFA Awards Singapore 2012

Any specific reason why foley is done in a separate studio?

Foley means any live sound created by the artist while performing. It could be footsteps, sounds of the artist keeping something, his clothes rustling, bangles jingling or any sounds made unknowingly or while he is acting. The artist concentrates on getting his expression and dialogue right. Once the footage goes to the foley studio, they watch each scene and observe where these sounds need to be added.

So what is a simple step-by-step process of Sound Design?

Briefly –

  1. Dialogue cleaning and editing
  2. Ambience
  3. FX
  4. Foley
  5. Sound balance

From the creative team of the film, who usually calls the shots on sound design?

The Director is our Supreme Commander. He usually gives us an independent job of commanding sound design. We get complete freedom on the execution front. We have a creative meeting to understand how the actors and director are thinking, how they see it turning out and then we run with it. We usually have a review with the Director post reel 1 to make sure we’re all on the same page before we proceed. Fortunately, most of the times, our work has been liked.

What are your deliverables to the studio? Where does your work end?

When we work on a film, we may have more than 300 to 1500 tracks to work on. Once our job is done, we get the background score and, in case of Hindi films, the songs, composed by the Music Director. Once the music comes in, we send the tracks to a mixing theater. Now here, depending on whether the film is 5.1 or 7.1, it will have 6 or 8 tracks respectively. Mixing engineers are extremely respected and they work in collaboration with us. We need them to take our work to the next level.

How was your experience working on Highway? Is it challenging recording sound on location?

I was not on location personally. We have a separate team for locations. In India, normally the same people work on location sounds as well as sound design. However, in European Cinema, we have sound recordists who work purely on location and are not really involved in the post-production. We follow the same method of working. Location sound recording is an extremely challenging and intensive job. There are no second chances there.

Amrit Resul Pookutty with Oscar Award

With Resul Pookutty and the Oscar

Which has been your most challenging project so far.

The most challenging film would have to be the Tamil film, Enthiran (Robot), directed by Shankar. Ninety percent of this film was based on visual effects. When it comes to VFX, they are all new creations, which were non-existent while shooing. If they have created a Robot, there is no real previous reference of how a robot sounds. If there are some rays being emitted on the screen, it’s all somebody’s imagination. Though it is fantasy, we still need to make sure that it’s believable for the audiences. After Enthiran, would be Ra.One for similar reasons. We spent almost six months on each of these films. Visual effects will have no impact without good sound design.

Another film I cannot miss mentioning is Highway. It is the first Hindi film that is dominated by sound design. We hardly hear ambience sounds in Hindi cinema. This was one film where we used ambience as a separate character altogether. Silence was an important part of the background score. All credit goes to director Imtiaz Ali for giving us complete freedom to treat the film the way we wanted. I have also worked on the Marathi film A Rainy Day. This was extremely interesting because one, this film was shot completely in the rain, and two, it had no background score. Fortunately, Resul and I won all the awards for that film. Films like Highway and A Rainy Day have something that we call ‘abstract sound design’. What I explained before was realistic sound design where we create what we see.

Tell us more about abstract sound design.

Imagine a girl standing in the window and staring out. There are no real sounds here. We need to create sounds which will actually communicate to the audience what the mood of the scene is, what is going on in the character’s mind, what emotion she is feeling. When there is music, it is much easier. What do you do without music? Apart from live characters, every other element is a character of the film, which takes the story forward. I can choose to use silence in that particular scene to convey that her world seems to have come to an end. To decide not to use any sound is also an important aspect of sound design.

Having said that, one cannot play the abstract card just for the sake of it. It’s unfair to leave the audience confused. At the end of the day, it needs to be believable.

How did your association with Resul Pookutty happen?

I joined a studio called Fireflies in the year 2003. Resul used to do his films in that studio. I was just a beginner then. My first film with him was Kaizad Gustad’s Boom. After that we ended up doing more than 50 films together. Initially, I worked as a Foley Editor, then Assistant Editor, then Sound Editor and finally I graduated to an independent editor. When Resul started his own studio, he asked me whether I would head the studio for him. After working together for five years, we knew each other’s style. Since 2008 we have been working in collaboration with each other as Sound Designers. Ghajini was officially my first film as a Sound Designer.

You have worked on a couple of films in the south too. How different is it working with Bollywood directors?

I wouldn’t be able to generalize them as ‘South Indian Films’. Working on a Tamil film from Chennai is completely different from working on a Malayalam film. Tamil films are usually high on action and loud. Malayalam films, on the other hand, deal with issues and are part of more meaningful cinema. We approach each film accordingly. It’s difficult to point a specific difference. For me, each director is different and comes with a different mindset and brief.

What are the changes you have seen in the field of sound design over the last decade?

The biggest change is constantly advancing technology and innovations. We have moved on from huge mixers to software-based mixers. You can do much more in a small space today. In fact, basic things can also be done at home. Tapes don’t exist any more. Even the DVD is on its way out now. One has to be up to date and be open to learning. Apart from technology, the kind of movies that are being made are different. We have more independent films, which gives us the scope to experiment. A decade ago, we would never have had movies like Queen, Aankhon Dekhi, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy and so on.

What is your advice for aspiring Sound Designers?

There is no course as such for sound design. I don’t think it is a technical job, to begin with. However, anyone who wishes to pursue this field must first learn sound engineering. That’s a basic requirement for a Sound Designer. After that one needs to learn sound editing. I have seen a lot of youngsters who are just out of music school or sound recording schools and call themselves Sound Designers. Sorry to say, but just studying these courses doesn’t make one a Sound Designer. Sound design is like painting a picture with sound. It is a much more creative job than just recording or editing. It is something that one learns over the years with experience and practically working on projects.

Since sound design is directly related to films, one needs to have basic knowledge of films. It’s a combination of technical knowledge and creative ability. Where you study doesn’t really matter. Once you are in the market, it’s all about how you deliver within the given deadlines. Last but not the least, this is not a nine to five job. This is a full time profession, which will need much more time, commitment and passion. You have to love sound and movies to stick around in this field.

– Ashwini Kulkarni