Paradise

Film Score & Sound Design

Paradise - 15'15" 16mm stereo mix © Ilana Shulman 1998

Background

Paradise is a short film funded by the Australian Film Commission and developed by writer/director Ilana Shulman and producer Lizzette Atkins. It stars Angie Milliken in a highly stylized symbolic tale of domestic discord and female estrangement. A woman appears to be in a relationship with a man; maybe the child is hers, his or both. They form a family unit of sorts, albeit a disembodied one. Just as the man seems to have come from nowhere, that is where the woman eventually goes.

Paradise is either too oblique to consider in narrative terms - or it is a simple story of familial structures viewed through a complex metaphorical prism. A sumptuous visual veneer and gestural performances devoid of dialogue render the film opaquely poetic, yet the sexual tension hums in each and every scene.

Paradise premiered at the 47th Melbourne International Film Festival in 1998. The score to Paradise appears on the CD Filmmusic Vol.1, released by Sound Punch Records in 2002.

Credits

1997

Engineered, produced, processed & mixed by Philip Brophy
Samples & prepared guitars - Philip Brophy
Sound design - Philip Brophy
Sound editors - Craig Carter & Livia Ruzsic
Source sound effects recorded by Philip Samartzis & Jennifer Sochackyj

Overview

When Ilana Shulman first approached Philip Brophy to do the score for Paradise, the previous director had left due to feeling that "a woman should be doing the music to the film". Clearly the film has a poetic feminist bent, but Ilana did not feel this required a speciously 'feminine' approach to the music. Ilana also was deliberately oblique about what she wanted from Philip - highlighted by the fact that the during the edit with Mark Atkins, she decided to remove all dialogue from the film (except for one word: "miaow"). This meant that the final cut Philip received was an entirely foreign and near-impenetrable text - which is exactly what Ilana wanted to Philip to work with.

This provided Philip with the rare and fantastic opportunity to build a sono-musical world for the film from the ground up. This process of entirely shaping the aural reality to the visual/on-screen symbolism of Paradise allowed for a heightening of the psychological mechanisms operating behind the characters, their actions and their emotional composure. The symbolism evident in the film is that of a woman being a 'fish out water' when firming up a relationship with a man once a child enters the picture. Once a siren or sexual mermaid, she is now displaced, and yearns to return to the oceanic depths of freedom prior to becoming a mother and wife. So throughout the film, the woman performs in an entirely displaced manner - always desiring to be somewhere else beyond the hermetically sealed domestic domain of her life.

This yearning allowed for the sound and music to be greater than the contents of the frame, in the sense that it was designed to beckon and push the woman beyond her environments. The overt tactility of the sounds and musical motifs is this a heightening of the woman's desire to touch something beyond her current placement. The high-symbolic nature of the film allowed a comfortable and effective audiovisual embrace of this strategy.

Technical

Pre-production

Philip first produced a series of sketches for the Paradise. Not working to image, he developed a series of themes which matched the near-lurid symbolism of the film's dense and baroque visual veneer. This set of sketch themes were based on digital editing and transformations of fragments of 'light classical' recordings - deafeningly rich in their high-quality and bordering on the melodramatic. The resultant sketches as developed by Philip though drained these fragments of their kitsch affects and in place created a series of lush abstracted soundscapes - simultaneously archetypal yet noticeably distended and contorted.

In order to afford Ilana a deep familiarity with these sketch themes prior to her having to commit either way to them, Philip provided Ilana with a written breakdown of the archetypal references he was working with. Putting things in words he has often found helps in the director/composer dialogue as it facilitates a common vocabulary between the two. Philip's written documentation to Ilana follows - a breakdown on each track, a score concept, a list of the musical iconography employed, and notes on both the compositional technique and the sound design proposed for the film.

Track components

1. a. bass thud echoes - a crunchy sound with occasional hissing texture; they occur every once in a while, but with no rhythmic shape.
b. wall of distant singing - a disembodied wash of operatic drones containing the suggestion of orchestral activity; dense and thick, they breathe in a series of long waves.
d. slowed-down slide guitar - lazy, laconic, it builds and bends in a series of single and double notes.
c. high pitched ringing - softly yet firmly, it announces itself but with a jittery hesitancy.

2. a. high oboe - a soprano instrument with a flute-like resonance; cellos subliminally murmur underneath.
b. orchestral bubbling - a surfeit of grandeur contorts uncontrollably as frenetic strings try to gush forth; the 'bubbling' suggests pressure that builds up and eventually is released, allowing the strings to return to their deeper, sedimentary layer of sound.
c. sheet of low-pitched noise - it rises very slowly; like a giant sheet of sandpaper gently touching the skin.
d. deep boom - a subsonic explosion, but with a quiet power; the depth of the boom is combined with a breathy crash, like a sheen of dust thrown up from the force of the explosion.

3. a. a woman's voice - a standard but effective device; she sounds erotic but trapped, allowed but a moment's detached glory.
b. contorted bass drone - like a sick but pleasurable swelling, this drone swirls like oil on water: bright, rich, icky.
c. high-frequency tingle - like a cymbal or triangle 'ting'; a perverse mutation of Tinkerbell's wand and Sam's (Bewitched) nose.
d. cut-up saxophone solo - a lazy, sexy drawl of a solo; the sax breath is overt and recognizable, but the performance of the solo is fractured and radically awkward - the breath patterns are inhuman and impossible.
e. electronic zap - a deliberately synthetic occurrence: inappropriate, misplaced, texturally displeasing.
f. alpine trumpet drone - signalling the arrival or departure of something grand, but carrying with it a melancholic and even morbid edge.
g. low clang - indifferent to the pomp of what precedes it, these clangs are lumpen and dumb; they suggest finality, inevitability.

4. a. cascading harps - excessive and lurid, these harps verge on the hysterical as they flow forth for no apparent reason.
b. symphonic drone - providing a counter-undercurrent to the harps, this drone likewise withholds a hysterical aura, but is more muted in tone.
c. double bass riff - a plodding, nonchalant walking rhythm starts up; whimsical, non-committal, detached.
d. percussive crackling - like a slight short-circuiting of the track, this underplayed noise peaks through the plodding bass.

Score concept

These sketches are based on a sense of hearing music from a distance - as if it is somehow outside of one's defined listening space. Not unlike how the wind carries the sound of an outside concert across fields, or how the calliopes of a seaside carnival float across the bay late at night. Some parts of the music - the odd oboe, the harmony of a vocal fragment - rise up and above the other parts. Always, there is a constant sediment of musical activity: vaguely outlined but distinctive in its aural blanketing.

As the visuals of the films are so overt and present in their symbolic language (ie. the narrative accruement of costume, set, lighting, camera and even performance are far from 'naturalistic'), there is no need for the music to operate as an interiorization of the characters actions. Clearly there is 'something behind' their mysterious relationships and haunted dynamics. Whereas music traditionally renders the psychological complexity of character motivation 'sonically visible' (ie. we can 'hear' that which we cannot 'see' on screen), PARADISE could benefit from a reverse strategy. If the music attempts to 'reveal/suggest' psychological nuances when they are already evident through the visuals, the resulting audio-visual combine could be melodramatic and gratuitously arty.

The hermetic world of the characters in Paradise keeps them somewhat trapped or locked in their space. The music is presented thus as always coming from outside their domain - as if it is some force they either keep at a distance, or struggle to prevent from coming into their world. The effect of hearing the music from a distance then symbolizes this psychological measure. Dramatic tension is then less a matter of 'musical language' and more an effect of psycho-acoustic manipulation.

Musical iconography

To blend in with the aquatic rendering (implied and evident) in many of Paradise's scenes, a 'seaside' vocabulary was developed as materials and symbols during the compositional process. Not only do some of the music's processing suggest the acoustic sensation of being submerged under water (the muted, low-frequency rumbles, the 'wah-wah' modulation of tones, etc.), but the instrumentation evokes cinematic conventions of the sea.

Ulysses strapped to the mast pole as the sirens call; harps that swirl as divers descend to the ocean floor; rising and swelling sheets of noise which mimic the crash of waves; the erotic song of the mermaid combing her hair as she sits atop a rock; deep guitar textures which heave like a galleon ship; the gaudy instrumentation heard at seaside attractions and fairs; subsonic booms which wrack the ear like tidal dumps on the sand. Sailors, sirens, fishermen, nets, hooks, beards, hair, combs, skin, breasts, boots, rope, masts: these are the musical icons connoted in sharp contrast to the suburban visual icons of washing machines, baths, laundries, fabrics, etc.

The 'processing' of the sounds is based on this idea of "hearing music from a distance": hence the way in which the musical components sound altered, transfigured, modulated.

Sound design

Just as the music provides a sense of sound occurring outside the space, the sound effects which occur in the space should be crisp, clear, solitary, isolated. In this sense, music is behaving like atmosphere, while sound is behaving like solo instrumentation. This relation between the two is crucial in adhering to the 'sonic logic' of the film.

Production & post-production

After Ilana spent time with the tracks, she then had a very clear idea of what was required and indeed decided on all cue placements. This even went as far as Ilana sitting in with Philip at the computer and muting and unmuting different components of the tracks once the cue placements had been decided.

Also at this stage, the sound design was completed - a complete restructuring of all foley details as well as Ilana directing actors for the recording of a 'breathing track' for the woman in the film. This was always audible when playing with the music components.

After testing different sections, Ilana decided on having some more tracks with the textures of guitar strings. Philip then produced another suite of tracks which emphasised these textures through extended technique performances recording on a semi-acoustic guitar with multiple microphone positionings. These textures were then malleably formed into tracks which were then placed and smeared onto the film soundtrack. The final mix was thus not something that was induced and assigned at the end of these compositional processes, but rather something that was organically grown throughout the compositional process.