Sound works at a more subconscious level than visual – Dileep Subramaniam
[dropcap] “O[/dropcap]f all the aspects of film making, sound has undergone the most drastic change“, says Dileep Subramaniam, the ingenious artist behind the brilliant sound for a variety of Hindi films. From Bandit Queen and Earth to Guzaarish, Rockstar and more recently Jab Tak Hai Jaan, his decision to pursue sound may have been instinctive but his talent is exceptional.
The maestro takes Pandolin into the world of sound through his acumen, technical proficiency and years of experience. He tells us about the difference in doing sound for television and films, his approach towards various movies, the challenges faced, technological improvement and how India differs from the western world in its approach towards sound.
How did your journey into sound happen?
It was purely by chance. I finished my graduation in Chemistry majors and worked with Asian paints thereafter. At that time, I came across a newspaper advert for the entrance exam to FTII Pune and went ahead with the process. I got through the film school in 1983 and finished the course in 1986. The choice of pursuing sound was purely instinctive as being a science graduate I felt I would be able to do well in it.
Can you tell us in brief about the difference between sound designing/recording/editing?
Sound recording is the process of recording voices, music, ambiences and effects on any recording device. Currently the devices in vogue are digital non-linear recorders.
Sound editing is the process of fitting the audio recorded either to a given picture or to a predefined length. This involves cutting, tweaking the frequencies, pitch, volumes etc.; mostly done nowadays on a digital audio workstation (DAW).
Sound design is the overall creative process of putting together the recorded audio which has been edited to picture. It is now that elements are added or changed to suit the overall soundscape of the film. This culminates in the final mix or re-recording of the film.
[pullquote_left]One thing that has made the whole post production process less time consuming and infinitely flexible is the Digital Audio Workstation. It has been the quantum leap for audio post.[/pullquote_left]
As you have moved from Television to films, what are the key differences in sound for both these mediums?
I actually started with doing several documentaries, and then television. Sound for television in India involves a much shorter process of recording the audio on the video recorder itself and the post production and re-recording happens in edit rooms that are equipped to do a basic stereo mix. Most of the transmission is in mono audio. With the advent of HDTV more audio channels are being broadcast but most of the audio work has time and deadline constraints. Recording engineers are rarely involved in the post production as the shooting of episodes is back to back thus the edit room engineers function as audio post supervisors as well.
Audio for film on the other hand is more structured and a time consuming process. Usually a sound designer is associated with the whole process in various stages. Audio is recorded independent of the picture. Audio post production starts after the film has been edited. The background music in most cases is scored to the picture and simultaneously dialogs, effects, ambiences are laid in to the same picture on various tracks. The creative decisions are taken to highlight a particular section or to change the basic way the scene currently sounds. Re-recording and mastering completes the process leading to a married print.
With your expertise in the field, what are the changes that sound recording has witnessed over time? From your films like Bandit Queen and Earth to a more recent Cocktail or Jab Tak Hai Jaan, how has sound evolved?
Of all the aspects of film making, sound has undergone the most drastic change, both in terms of the cinemas which have improved delivery systems from mono to stereo to the current multi-track audio playback capabilities and the initial recording/ editing chain which has gone the digital non-linear route. All the location audio in Bandit Queen was recoded on mono ¼ inch analog tape Nagra4.2 machines. Post production was on analog magnetic multi-track machines. Contrast that with Cocktail or JTHJ, they have all been recorded on digital non-linear multi-track location recorders. Post production for both films was on Digital Audio Workstations. Audio entered the analog domain only when it played back in theaters! Our hearing process mercifully is still analog. The films I do tend to use dialog recorded on location. It is true of these films as well. Even though technology has changed, the basic philosophy of using the actors voices as spoken on location in the final audio has not changed at least for me.
What are the challenges you faced while working on a film like Bandit Queen, which is largely shot in exteriors?
Most films I have worked on have a sizable portion that involves shooting exteriors. It always presents a unique set of challenges. Bandit Queen’s terrain was hostile as you were rarely on a firm footing. Access to locations involved a walk with equipment sometimes for 45 minutes. The advantages were that there was little disturbance by way of traffic or humans. It remained physically challenging through the film. Dust, winds and terrain were our main worry for the audio. Mercifully lack of power in the surrounding villages meant not having to combat the omnipresent loudspeakers![pullquote_right]One very important aspect is the recording of Foley or incidental sound. It’s a make or break moment as it has to match the audio on location or else the whole process sounds as an extra unwanted layer.[/pullquote_right]
What are the challenges that you experience while shooting on sets and while on real locations?
Every aspect of the filming process involves planning. I am involved with the principal crew from the initial discussion on the set. If the floor is to be shown as marble tiles it can’t sound like wood flooring. Care must be taken to avoid artifacts like reverberation and hollowness as these can be added later in a controlled manner. Depending on how the set has been built and lit, microphone techniques vary. For outdoors, the more controlled the location is, the better it is for audio. India is one of the noisiest countries so as far as possible I tend to keep a calendar with me on all schedule discussions. Ganesh festival, Navratri etc. unless shown actually in the film are nightmares to be avoided. Technology has given us improved tools to eliminate unwanted audio but only to a certain extent.
You have provided expertise to varied romantic films. What are the elements that go into the making of the sound design for these films?
The basic connection of an audience is always with the actor’s performance on screen, if something strikes a discordant note the audience senses it. Sound works at a more subconscious level than visual, which is there for all to see. If an actor is unfamiliar with a language and in the film another person dubs his voice in the correct language and inflection, the result is an unconvincing performance. Though the audience may not be able to technically tell you what is wrong they will come away unconvinced. In romantic films or films with intense interpersonal interactions I again try and make sure to use the location audio as far as possible as its tough for actors to go through the same emotion again while dubbing.
What was your approach to a film like Rockstar, which traversed across various locations in India and even international destinations?
Rockstar had two main challenges, one was the fact that the lead actor (Ranbir) goes through major changes physically and mentally as the film progresses and his voice must mirror what is seen. The second aspect, which is more specific to sound mix was that, the music concerts should sound real and not like a played back song which the actor was miming. Most concert sequences were sent to the Computer Graphics suites for adding crowds or for scaling up the venue sizes. Crowd cheers or sing-along could not be generic as crowds and venues were unique geographically for example, Dharamshala monastery crowd. I tried to record cheering on location but without the actual song reference beat to cheer the crowd, it sounded dead. The solution was to get people into the studio and give the song feeds on headphones and to get them to cheer. This was time consuming but thankfully the final result bears testimony to the effort. We did the film in the then newly launched DOLBY 7.1 with additional rear surrounds to give an all round arena feel to the concerts.
Can you tell us about the workflow of your award winning film My Name is Khan?
MNIK was shot mostly in two or three large schedules. The long American schedule, the interior house and the salon which were on a set in Mumbai. Audio was recorded on Deva five hard disc based recorder (8track), all audio was backed up on other discs and DVD RAMS and sent to the edit suite in Mumbai. Once the final edit was ready we got our location audio from the edit suite as edited file with handles and the original time stamp. Care had been taken not to alter either the sampling frequency or the bit depth. Cleaning, changing unacceptable audio and ambience lying was next. Simultaneously my Foley team started work.
What are your main tools to work with sound on film? Any techniques or processes most essential to you?
My essential tools are similar except for configuration which changes for most films. Essentially a disc based non-linear recorder and my selection of hyper-cardioids and wireless microphones along with a multichannel mixer for location recordings. Post production is a Pro-Tools based platform, which carries edits and processes, audio till mix and mastering stages. One very important aspect is the recording of Foley or incidental sound. It’s a make or break moment as it has to match the audio on location or else the whole process sounds as an extra unwanted layer.
How has Dolby changed the potential of sound? Which are the recent technological developments that have proved to be a boon for sound in India?
Dolby for the uninitiated is a Theater Delivery System for sound in cinema, there are other systems like the DTS etc. but the fact that many theaters are equipped with Dolby processors (at least in theory) ensures that a film mix sounds as it did in the mix room which is similarly calibrated. It has ensured a great improvement from the mono sound days of cinema. The use of the potential is always in the creative realm. It’s a technological improvement but the use to which it can be put is left to your imagination. One thing that has made the whole post production process less time consuming and infinitely flexible is the Digital Audio Workstation. It has been the quantum leap for audio post.
[pullquote_left]Depending on how the set has been built and lit, microphone techniques vary. For outdoors, the more controlled the location is, the better it is for audio.[/pullquote_left]
How heavily is the director involved in the sound design/editing process?
It depends on the individual. Some wish to have great control over spoken lines. Some are really careful with ambiences and the mood we set for the scene. Some others without getting into the process just give you an overall picture of like, dislike or mark areas for improvement.
According to you, what is the difference in approach to sound in India as compared to international countries?
The main difference is their budgets and resources. The amount of money allocated to sound as percentage of film budget in India has actually declined in real terms since the film budgets are higher now than at any other time, yet the studio charges, technical fees have not kept pace, in real terms it’s a decline. The west has new investment in equipment and people coming in so that gives them an edge. The need for better audio in cinema is not as strong here as it is in the west.