Kicking off our series of film crew interviews we have an interview with Sound Designer Paul Carter. Paul has worked in sound for over a decade now and on titles that include Contraband, Kick-Ass, Hanna, Stardust and, recently released, Anna Karenina.
Flickfeast: In your filmography you’re credited variously as sound effects editor, sound designer and foley editor. Are these all one and the same? How would you describe what your job entails?
Paul Carter: The editing process is essentially the same but they are three separate areas of sound editing.
Foley is recorded by foley artists, specifically for a film. Artists will ‘act’ to the picture and record things like footsteps or putting a glass down on a table, various ‘human’ acts. So then a foley editor’s job would be to take these sounds and edit them to the picture so that they are in sync.
The sound effects editor’s role is away from the human element and they’d normally have a library of fx they’ve either recorded themself or from commercial libraries to cover things like wind in trees, atmospheres, city scapes, cars, doors etc.
A sound designer’s role is more about creating sounds from scratch, especially for sounds that don’t exist in reality.
But this is just pigeonholing to try and define the roles. A sound designer and sound editor’s role often bleed into each other – a sound designer could take on a car chase with a shootout, for example, even though they are essentially ‘real’ sounds. As a sound designer on the film Contraband, I worked on a big shootout scene, the guns were built up using several layers of sound, the starting point was choosing pre recorded weapons, then creating other elements of sound using different frequencies such as hi frequency metallic hits and low frequency thuds to ‘beef up’ and make them more cinematic. I made the bullet whizz bys completely from scratch using synth sound generators and putting them through various processes such as Doppler effects to give them the sense of movement, by doing this I found I had more control over the sound and could make each whizz by as harsh or soft as I liked.
So there is no set rule between roles over exactly what type of sound the effects editor or sound designer will undertake, the definitions can be blurred and often depend on the sound team and the film itself.
FF: You started out in sound mostly in TV and have progressed more into film. Was this a conscious move on your part?
PC: Definitely a conscious move on my part. I feel that there is more freedom to have fun with sound working on films, firstly the fact that I have 6 speakers with which to create a soundscape instead of 2 ( generally tv is still done in stereo although this is slowly changing as more channels begin to broadcast in 5.1) means I can think a lot more about what type of sounds I can use to fill up the space and without the need for hard compression to meet broadcasting laws you get to play with more extreme frequencies to make up any given sound that you are trying to create.
My background in sound is writing electronic music (as a hobby) and I’m a big fan of artists like Autechre, for example, who really work the sound that they are using to create their music, quite often I find designing sound for films is very similar to creating electronic music, so it’s kind of like getting paid to do my hobby.. so yes.
FF: What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into the business?
PC: Like many people in the industry, I started as a runner so my personal advice would be to smile a lot and be prepared to work hard. It’s a job you’ve got to love because the hours can be unforgiving!!
FF: What are your main tools to work with sound on film? Any interesting technique or specific process to talk about?
PC: Different people have different plug ins and kit that they like to use. Protools is the standard DAW that the vast majority of people use in post production sound. So I have ProTools running on a Mac Pro which I control using a wacom cintiq 24hd. I use Altiverb 7 for my main reverb, it’s pretty versatile, from adding a reverb to place spot fx (such as a door closing for example) or foley into a chosen room right through to big strange reverbs for creating new sounds. I like to use native instruments tools (absynth, reaktor, massive and battery mainly) to help with sound design, these are great for creating lots of different sounds, anything from low rumbling atmospheres to sharp screeching impacts. Absynth is cool for creating kind of hybrid half reality half made up atmospheres as it allows you to import and audio file into it and then manipulate that, so you could for example load in a recording of birds singing in a meadow and then really mess it up. There are quite a few other pieces of kit and software I will use depending on the what the project requires me to do, too many to name here really but these are the ones I use most often.
FF: Is the sound pretty much indicated in storyboards, or does it emerge from the scenes as they’re shot?
Usually, how heavily involved is the director in your sound editing, or are you mostly left to your own devices?
PC: We rarely have any input pre-production so we don’t see storyboards. We do receive scripts before we commence work so we can get an idea of what kind of sounds the film will entail, so we can arrange specific recording if needed for example a particular car, (we had Bentley loan us a car and a driver that we recorded racing around at Millbrook proving track for the film Doomsday). Dialogue that’s recorded on location would be dealt with by dialogue editors. As far as sound effects and sound design go, once the director has a rough cut, we’ll meet with them, watch the film through together and they’ll give any notes or thoughts they have for sound effects. Eg if it’s an interior location and they want an airport outside , you wouldn’t know that just from watching the visuals. It really depends… some directors like to be involved in the sound more than others or have more ideas. Generally we are left to our own devices after we meet with them. I’ve found it’s good practice to feed sounds to the director as you’re working so they get the opportunity to listen to them and get used to them before the final mix happens, when we all go to the big theatre to mix all the sounds (music, dialogue, effects) together with the director to make the soundtrack.
FF: You recently worked on Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, which is in cinemas now, what was that like?
PC: Fantastic experience. After working with Joe Wright on Hanna, I knew he was really passionate about the sound – obviously a good thing as a sound designer. And he’s particularly keen to include strange and interesting sounds which is the bit that I love.
It was a lot of hard work as we had a pretty small sound team. But everyone working on it was great and we had worked together on Hanna so I was kind of like a reunion.
FF: You’ve worked on some fantastic films and a broad range of film genres; comedy, action, sci-fi, horror and, Anna Karenina included, period drama. I imagine these each present unique challenges when it comes to sound. Do you have a particular favourite?
PC: They each chuck up their own challenge which keeps it interesting, but I do love making dark and weird sounds so horror films are fun. Then again, Contraband and Kick-Ass, being action flicks had the excitement of big shootouts and car chases which is fantastic to edit for. They’re all interesting in their own way, there’s generally somewhere you can squeeze in some of the more interesting design!
FF: With Anna Karenina, did the fact that it is staged in a (mock) dilapidated theater have any bearing on the sound design? What was the most you enjoyed from the film? Maybe a favourite scene? Or are there any sequences that you’re particularly proud of?
PC: Because a lot of the locations were essentially in the same place, morphing one location into the next without it being too obvious was challenging. Otherwise, the main thing was keeping the sound in line with Joe’s vision for the stylized setting of the film.
There are some sound transitions with a train switching from a toy train into a real one which were good to work on. There’s also lots of sound effects that work rhythmically with the music, sometimes it’s not obvious that it’s happening but evolves as the scene progresses; one particular scene in a train carriage interior, the track clatter from outside runs rhythmically throughout and the stamps of the office clerks in the next scene and the music both come in alongside in time.
FF: How long did the sound design take?
About 4 months – doing sound effects as well as sound design.
FF: What’s been the most useful piece of advice someone’s given you?
PC: My dad gave me a great piece of advice, when first starting out in sound and being a bit nervous of working with directors and actors he said “Don’t worry son, they all shit!”
And when working with sound designer / re-recording mixer Craig Berkey and talking of being on the ‘front line’ in a final mix with a demanding director he said “Don’t let them see you sweat”.
FF: Do you think that sound is 50 percent of the experience?
PC: Personally of course! Sound can tell the story just as much as visual. The best animated action sequence without any sound, wouldn’t be half as exiting.
FF: Where do you see the future of sound in cinema?
PC: Dolby have announced a new technology called Dolby Atmos which incorporates lots more speakers in the sound field including speakers above your head which allows for more precise placement and movement in sound but, I have to confess, I haven’t researched into the details of it yet so I don’t know too much about it.
FF: Finally, what are you working on now? What’s next for you?
PC: Currently working on a film adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel Therese Raquin, it’s another period piece set in Paris in the 1800’s with a slight horror twist which takes me almost up to Christmas. And then on to Kick-Ass 2 in the new year.