Sound design doesn't need to be literal. If you've made a film about scientists trying to change the future of humanity, like The Immortalists for example, you needn't be confined to futuristic beeps and bops -- you could explore an entirely different approach.
Directors Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado described to No Film School their process working with reknowned sound designer Peter Albrechtsen (Putin's Kiss, Queen of Versaille) to create the metaphoric, organic sound design behind The Immortalists, using anything from using a stereoscopic mic on a fish to complete silence.
A year after we first had this conversation at the SXSW premiered, The Immortalists is now available on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and more, so check out the film, and read a sound design-centric excerpt taken from our original interview below.
NFS: Peter, what was the process like coming up with the design for The Immortalists?
Peter Albrechtsen: Just process wise, the great thing was that David and Jason got in touch before they were picture-locked, which meant that I could see the film, and provide some feedback, some ideas for sound before they closed the picture. This meant that they could change the timing of scenes, talk about ideas for how to approach the elements in the film. And then I just started collecting sounds for them, for the different elements that needed sound. We really worked with having some key elements of the sound, like water. Water was a big thing -- and clocks -- clocks ticking. And then there were all the animations.
So, these different elements, we collected sounds for them, and one of the things was, "How should these animations sound?" They were such a big part of the description of all the science in the film, and I had this idea that I really wanted to use organic sounds. And actually, I preferred that it was internal organs. We had this idea of getting -- well we couldn't use the sound of human internal organs. Then we had this idea of getting a fish and using the sounds of its internal organs. So, we recorded different sounds of this different fish, which is actually a lot of the sound you hear in the film, just treated and synthesized.
Jason Sussberg: I have to say, I didn't know this until yesterday!
David Alvarado: I knew about the bugs, because he had recorded bugs in the window sills.
Jason: And your grandmother's clock. I knew all these details, but not the fish!
Peter: The clock in Bill's father's house is actually the clock of my grandmother, my late grandmother.
David: Part of Bill's quest is he's trying to save his 80-year-old father who has Alzheimer's disease, and one of the opening scenes is about being there with him and experiencing his father's longtime disease.
Jason: And the sound design is really rich in that scene with a clock ticking. It's almost like death knocking at your door.
Peter: The whole clock thing -- this idea seems like destiny coming, but it's also like the race against time. It was this great process, because I was working in Copenhagen and sending things over to them, and there's a 9-hour time difference between California and Copenhagen. So, usually I could work during the day and then send over sketches, and the next day when I got up, there would be a lot of really good feedback. So, we were sending things back and forth all the time. And then at the end, David came over to Copenhagen for a week and a half to mix. So, it was a really nice process. It felt like we were very close during the process even though we were thousands of miles apart!
David: And sometimes with me in NY, Jason in San Francisco, and then the Executive Producer in Los Angeles --
Jason: -- the graphics guy is from Sweden. It was a global story for sure!
NFS: To achieve high quality sound, what did you use during interviews?
David: Wireless mics, a really good shotgun, and a backup mic on the camera. And then the post production media management making sure everything's organized.
NFS: When you talk about getting in to do the sound design before picture is locked, what do you mean? Like, do you ask to extend a clip so you can put sound in there, for example?
Peter: It's very much about timing, and it's very much about when you add sound to a scene, it suddenly feels like the scene is going faster, because the sound is filling out all the spaces. There's a lot of moments where there wasn't any production sound -- apart from all the talking, of course. A lot of the more atmospheric images were without sound, or very, very little sound. And then when we added sound, it just felt like we could keep an image a bit longer. So, a lot of the atmospheric sequences were extended to make space for sound.
David: And also, this is the first time I've worked on a film where we had a foley artist. And, literally everything -- somebody puts down a cup or moves their arm, there's a sound produced in the studio in Denmark.
Peter: Actually, produced in the studio in Finland! My foley artist is from Finland. But yeah, it also created a lot of intimacy -- I really loved it -- there's a moment with Aubrey where he's in an interview and he's just sitting quietly, just creaking in the chair. Small, small sounds can make quite a big difference.
Jason: It got a laugh line, too! Nobody would say, "Hey that squeaky chair scene is hilarious," but it got a laugh. And that's all sound design.
David: All subconscious sound design. People are like, "Aubrey is crazy," and are just trying to deal with that I guess!
Jason: The squeak is a release.
Thank you Jason, David, and Peter!