De-sign

Film Scores & Sound Design

Background

Under the title De-sign, Philip Brophy presents an overview of his work in combining film score and sound design to create immersive surround-sound designs for films & videos. This event is a formal and public condensation of the presentations Philip did when teaching the Soundtrack course at RMIT Media Arts, Melbourne, plus as components of short courses he has presented at the Australian Film TV & Radio School, Sydney.

For De-sign he focuses on demonstrating scenes from his commissioned film projects in order to guide the audience through the technical, creative and collaborative aspects of working in this sono-musical mode. Formulated for those wishing to know the methods and processes that can be used for film scoring and sound designing, De-sign is particularly focused on how one can be attuned to the psychological and narrative effects of audiovision when engaged in doing the sound and/or music for a film.

Credits

De-sign was first formally presented at the Australian Centre of the Moving Image in 2004, and was an event supported by both ACMI and Arts Victoria (Music for the Future).

2015

RMIT School of Art
Monash University School of Music

2014

State Library of Queensland, Brisbane (part of the Experimenta 5th International Biennial of Media Art)

2013

Keynote presentation for Cinesonika 3, University of Ulster, Derry, UK

2011

VCA Film & TV School, Melbourne, Australia

2010

VCA Film & TV School, Melbourne, Australia
Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

2009

VCA Film & TV School, Melbourne, Australia

2008

VCA Film & TV School, Melbourne, Australia

2007

VCA Film & TV School, Melbourne, Australia
AFTRS, Sydney, Australia
AFTRS, Melbourne, Australia
Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Perth

2006

University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
AFTRS, Sydney, Australia
VCA Film & TV School, Melbourne, Australia
Tokyo National University of Fine Arts, Tokyo, Japan

2005

University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA
University of Iowa, Iowa City, USA




Introduction

While the term 'sound design' is still struggling for acceptance in a global film industry that is attuned to the sonic as much as a slug is attuned to contemporary art, there is a growing rationalization of sound design that is not helping its more creative aspects to flourish. 'Sound design' is struggling for respect as a craft - as a begging discourse which seeks compensation for being belittled by the deaf brethren engaged in everything but sound post-production. While sound designers are rarely if at all acknowledged for their contribution to the cinematic event of audiovision we call 'movies', the recourse - particularly voiced by American/English-speaking film culture - is to make heroes out of sound designers while conservatively affirming that they are under contract to greater forces to service the industry diligently and intelligently.

But this modern consciousness of sound design has done little to change the deafness in cinema. Nor has it forced American/English-speaking film practitioners out of their narrow frame of reference. Worse, most sound designers voice altruisms about narrative, drama and myth which speciously sound like the retarded rhetoric employed by script doctors worldwide.

Sound design need not be hemmed in by these conservative channels of expression. Sound design can actively contribute to the creative shaping of a film as both a modernist and post-modernist amalgam of mediarized voices and effects. It can foreground psychological, psycho-acoustic, phonological, acousmatic and sono-iconic aspects of the cinematic experience. And it can do so in subtle 'naturalist' ways as effectively as it can unleash wild and bombastic cacophonies of sono-musical collapse.

These ideas - voiced in numerous published articles - form the crux of the various experimental applications I have been fortunate enough to develop with willing directors on the range of projects for which I have been engaged. The De-sign presentations show how these seemingly 'radical' or 'problematic' notions can very easily and positively be incorporated into industrial practice without destroying the original integrity of a film and the director's sensibility.




Technical

There are 2 De-sign presentations. One focuses on 3 films directed and produced by industry professionals, and discusses ways in which innovative procedeures were implemented in their production and post-production. The other focuses on a trilogy of shorts by more experimental/independent filmmakers, and discusses how the score and sound design for their films were produced in pre-production, prior to the shooting or editing of the films.

De-sign: scoring/designing in Post-Production

Introduction

a. the state of the film industry and its general resistance to experimentation
b. the communication breakdown at the director/composer nexus
c. the fusion of 'film score' (music) and 'sound design' (sound) in the film soundtrack
d. methods of integrating the soundtrack into the filmmaking process effectively, economically and imaginatively

Paradise

© Ilana Shulman 1998

Paradise - Film score & sound design for 16mm short directed by Illana Shulman & produced by Lizzette Atkins - 1998

a. Invitation to provide score after original composer resigned
b. Challenge of composing music for a highly symbolic narrative as opposed to naturalist drama
c. Recognising the film's Baroque detailing, sensual density of film & reference of high-icons
d. Developing idea of sono-musical icons of poetic metaphor to match film's highly iconic style & composing sketches accordingly
e. Presentation of sketches to director with annotated description of sketches + allowance of time for comprehension
f. Importance of finding common ground for understanding = ease of dialogue
g. Allowing director to decide on placement of sketches
h. Working with director in multi-track environment to refine sketches and their placement

Blow

© Marie Craven 2001

Blow - Film score & sound design for 16mm short directed by Marie Craven & produced by Lizzette Atkins - 2001

a. Discussions with director on cinematic references >> John Hughes 80s teen movies and their use of 'pop song scoring'
b. Development of sketches to provide director/editor during fine cut
c. Director's selection of sketches + problems in refining placement of music
d. Solution in refining sketch selection through combining two songs into one >> creation of a single track/theme for the whole film, but one which is broken down into separate components at different points/stages of the story
e. Symbolic function of using the 'single track/theme' to convey central theme of teen sexuality in film's story

Whispering In The Dark

© Inca Films 2002

Whispering In The Dark - Film score & sound design for 16mm short directed by Lynne B. Williams & produced by Aida Innocente - 2002

a. Original commission based on providing a sound design with no music
b. Importance of voice-over monologues throughout film >> importance in recording these monologues before shooting so as to provide actors with frame of reference for their 'thoughts' while performing on camera
c. Viewing of fine cut suggests completely new approach as timing of performers' movements and the editing of images/scenes imbues film with balletic/choreographed tone
d. Composition of 3 sketches based on breathing rhythms of performers + testing timings against film edit
e. Due to rhythmic continuity through film by director, music sketches can 'breathe' on screen while the performers and narrative unfolds


De-sign: scoring/designing in Pre-Production

Introduction

a. the importance of working with directors with shared sensibilities
b. reverse-engineering experimentation by having 'experimental' concepts welcome narration and characterization

Messed-Up Pop Song

© Cassandra Tytler 2012

Messed Up Pop Song - Film score & sound design for HD short written/directed/produced by Cassandra Tytler - 2012

a. Script assessment - a series of fragmented moments with no linear connections
b. Discussion of characters with director
c. Discussion of Pop music styles/genres for each character
d. Establishing relation between characters and director >> music as scenography for their performances
e. Development of sketches prior to shooting
f. Assemble edit based on sketches and original script
g. Re-editing of film to intercut all characters' performances >> complete cut-up of original music themes
h. Re-structuring of music themes to match new shapes/durations
i. 'Vertical spacing' of music tracks to create space around voice-over narration >> music functioning as backing tracks to 'singing'

The Man Who Folded Himself

© Johann Rashid 2012

The Man Who Folded Himself - Film score & sound design for HD short written/directed by Johann Rashid & produced by Lizzette Atkins - 2012

a. Lateral discussion of narrative shapes and forms for the script's original 'triple-layered' narrative which takes place in three 'environments'
b. Establishing how the central character is placed within each layer/storyline of the narrative
c. Conceptual construction of a character inhabiting/roaming the three different environments
d. Production of music themes and supplying in-time for initial editing
e. Synchronicity of music themes to the pacing of the performers in the edit

Jack

© Emile Zile 2012

Jack - Film score & sound design for HD short written/directed/produced by Emile Zile - 2012

a. Script as a series of notes, moments, actions - for a central nomadic character (a dancer)
b. Familiarity with the spatial environments envisaged for the shoot - composing music for locations rather than character
c. Recording a set of musical themes based on drum improvizations 'imagining' those locations
d. Supplying rough mixes of drum recordings for editing
e. Musical compositions overlaid on drum tracks based on harmonic tuning of the drums and cymbals >> extracting melody from the rhythms
f. Re-positioning new tracks in place of original drum tracks >> final mixing




FAQs

This section is deigned to answer some of the general questions I've received by students and journalists via email. Thanks to Rachel Elberg for formulating the initial batch.

Q. Firstly, what led you initially from your solo music practice to pursue composition and sound design for film?

I think I got into music around the time I realised the any form of sport was ridiculous - so that was probably when I was 11 or 12. At that time, I got into movies too. But my interest in both fields was naïve and not especially focused. I only became more seriously interested in the two once I was expelled from a college and commenced a TAFE course when I was 15. The teachers there were inspiring, and within a very short time I realised that the arts was something more than mere entertainment. This is a long way of saying that because the importance of art crystalised for me all at once and with such intensity, I perceived all arts as vitally interconnected. This is in contrast to the notion that one embarks on some sort of grand journey for a professional career since a young age. So to me, music encompassed all its manifestations - from Gary Glitter to Stockhausen to Blaxploitation scores (to take things rattling around my head at that time). Once I started 'doing art stuff' with the art group TSK-TSK-TSK, there was no clear distinction as to what was music and what was film. So after about some years working in that area (1977-1982) I had intuitively formed quite multi-lateral ideas of how sound and image could work together. It wasn't till much later that I 'reverse-taught' myself the more conventional building blocks for what passes as sound design.

Q. You have worked consistently as an academic. What role does theory play in your practical work as a composer/sound designer? Do you seek consciously to put your ideas into practice, or do you work more intuitively?

I've never distinguished between theory and practice - between making/doing something and talking/writing about something. I think the opposition between the two is what makes most academic writers (as well as general writers and journalists) disconnected from the materiality of the world they describe, and makes most professional craftspeople tediously precious about their own work. Both streams end up hedged into defensive corners, each flanked by the various anti-intellectual ideas that especially in Australia separate the two. The most important role theory plays in my work is precisely that I don't separate it from my practice. Every score or sound design I do is a theoretical proposition as to what a score or sound design 'could be'. I never want to define anything in the field: rather, I want to ponder how it might be. Similarly, anything I've ever written about someone else's film score or sound design is like a learning exercise for me in that I view their work as a manual for how one might try out making something along those lines. So when I write, I write as a composer and designer; and when I composer or design, I do so as a critical writer. All of it contributes to the pool of ideas for the possibilities that one can do with film scores and sound design.

Q. What elements of film do you believe make it an important contemporary medium?

I hate to appear avoiding answering questions directly, but I do believe that film is at once a most contemporary medium and the most conservative of industries. Its contemporary veneer comes from its grounding in 20th Century modes of collage, deconstruction, multiplicity, mediarisation, and so on. This means that film in general is a hybrid, a chimera; something I've often referred to as being 'Frankensteinian' in that it is an impure assemblage of parts functioning in an entirely new way. Still today, notions of truth, purity, beauty, harmony, and so on, define the dominant definitions of art. Those terms are not part of my vocabulary, and film is a beast that in my view does not endear those terms - even when the film tries hard to do so (be it Love Story or Babel). The most amazing thing, though, is that the forces that are pulled together to make a film seem bent of restricting any artistic integrity. Its financial investment, its exploitative prerogatives, its authorial supremacy, its factory demarcations, its industrial guilds, its commercial marketing (especially art houses and festivals), its nationalistic dogma, its humanist altruisms - these all are modelled on the production of a Wagner opera rather than an exposition of Frankenstein's monster. This, however, is the crux of film: that such forces can end up producing unexpected results which go against the very grain of their creation and production. In the end, the visceral, material experience of a film becomes its own life force despite all that occurred to make it and what myths are claimed of its 'auteur'. This is the heart of 'film as Frankenstein's monster'. It's an enigma that continues to make film contemporary.

Q. You have a strong background in sound design and composition. To what extent do your thoughts on sound affect the directorial decisions you make for your films?

As suggested earlier, it's hard for me to separate the soundtrack from the image track. I've used and abused various terms for this molecular merger of the two - 'audiovisuality, 'cinesonic', etc. - and they're all attempts to highlight the inalienable fusion of the two. I've been fortunate to have perceptually developed this 'inability of separation', because it helps me never forget the act of listening while watching, and vice versa. When it comes to making my own films and videos, I think my background in sound design and composition affects my directing in terms of rhythm and space. When working with an actor, for example, I am probably more focused on the performance of their voice - its presence as an instrument - than I am with their face alone. And when I'm working with an editor, I'm very conscious of what's not in the frame and how space is conjured by the image. Having said that, I think that I generally do better scores and sound designs for other people's work rather than my own - which is why I maintain working in this field. This is because there's something that happens when you're setting up a dialogue with someone else which is akin to being in a band. You contribute something based on your response to someone else's contribution, and the spark for that is something that's hard to generate on your own.

Q. In your sound design/composition practice, how does your work process affect the product?

I think my work processes are very influential on my outcomes - mainly because I'm trying to be as lateral and open-ended as possible. This is not to say that what I do is 'radical' or 'avant-garde'. In fact I quite oppose those notions, because to be 'radical' or 'avant-garde' is to be quite historically determined by arguments and debates that were important prior to WWII in Europe. Being 'lateral' and 'open-ended' means that one has to be quite conventional sometimes. The critical divisions that currently exist to prop up 'high art' films against 'low art' films, or 'mainstream' versus 'independent', or 'commercial' versus 'avant-garde' are all specious divisions based on unimaginative surface readings of films. This is especially so when it comes to considering the soundtrack, which is why many of the films I write about come from both sides of those divisions. What's most important, though, is the whole context that enables a particular process. Sometimes the most 'radical' thing for a film might be to score it with cover versions of Spandau Ballet songs. Or maybe the best thing for a children's cartoon series would be to score it with Penderecki. A film is capable of taking on such unlikely contributions to its final form. The hard work is finding directors, producers and writers who wish to explore those options. Fortunately, they're around. One just has to be patient in finding them.