Why Sound Design is Just as Important for Documentaries—and Two Ways to Approach It
The filmmakers behind 'Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable' and 'No Greater Law' discuss the unique challenges of sound design in nonfiction film.
Two documentary films that are premiering at this year's Tribeca Film Festival were featured at a masterclass on Sound and Music Design For Film, moderated by Glenn Kiser, Director of the Dolby Institute. The two couldn't be more different. One is the inspirational tale of a champion surfer who overcame the loss of a limb to a shark bite, the other a sobering look at a community in Idaho where religious faith leads to children dying from lack of medical attention, and state law keeps anyone from intruding on tradition.
One thing that unites the films, beyond their indie sensibility and storytelling prowess, is the imaginative use of sound design and music, something highlighted during the class that featured each of the film's directors, composers, and sound mixers. Kiser opened by saying, “I think most people don’t think of documentary films as having interesting sound and music,” but the filmmakers behind Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable and No Greater Law demonstrated that this wasn't the case, and shared their stories, as well as tips for other filmmakers. Here's what they had to say.
“Mixing is a game of tetris, of constantly trying to find space for everything.” -Jurgen Scharpf, sound mixer, Unstoppable
Unstoppable and the sound of the surf
Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable, is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the story of Bethany Hamilton, a professional surfer who overcame a shark attack that took her left arm at the age of 13 and returned to competition, becoming one of the top surfers in the world through grit and determination. This is the second time her life has made it to the big screen: her autobiography, Soul Surfer, was turned into a 2011 movie starring Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as her parents. Unstoppable's director Aaron Lieber is a surfer, which is how he met Hamilton, and he has also shot his own footage of waves for years. Unstoppable weaves present-day footage of surfing action with interviews of Hamilton's friends and family, footage from an extensive archive of media coverage of Bethany over the years, and pictures and video from her family.
Said Leiber, “A lot of surf films are just about the action, but we wanted the narrative to carry it." Thus he, along with editor Carol Maturi, and sound mixer Jurgen Scharpf (plus absent sound designer David C. Hughes, whose last job before Unstoppable was as sound designer for Black Panther) all worked closely to capture the complicated soundscape necessary to tell the story, modulate the mood, and provide verisimilitude.
A common theme expressed by the three was the difficulty of working with water, which, it was pointed out, is "all over the frequency spectrum," and therefore difficult to tame in a mix. Furthermore, the filmmakers were tasked with recreating the sounds of the ocean, which might seem bizarre until you realize that the cameras being used to shoot surfing footage usually aren't equipped with high-quality microphones, and certainly this wasn't the case when Leiber started the film and spent two years shooting it by himself. However, Leiber said that some of the sounds captured by the GoPros he used were either "tucked in" to the final mix, or used as starting point for augmenting the sounds in the final mix.
The team used several techniques to create what Maturi called "emotional resonance" throughout the film, and many of these were closer to what we think of as narrative sound design techniques than those of documentary. For instance, Leiber revealed that the film had employed a kind of Foley effect, for instance using clothing irons on the steam setting to capture the sound of hissing waves.
Jurgen Scharpf said that there had been "ample use of subwoofer, to add gravitas to these huge waves,” and spoke of how, mixing the film at Dolby in San Francisco, he had used their Atmos(®) system, which enables the mix to be controlled in 360 degrees, with each speaker tweaked to individual specification, and also features speakers on the ceiling, as well (recent films to use Atmos include Ready Player One and A Quiet Place. Only some theaters have the system, though, and the clips shown at Tribeca were in 5.1, but the mix was still impressive.
For Scharpf, "The reason we take these films on is to push the envelope of surround sound, the envelope of photography." He also said that "you lay the groundwork for good sound in the edit room," and that this mix used many narrative techniques to create mood, for instance during the sequence dealing with the shark attack. "The sound mix, in parts, is all about creating tension," he said, adding that a mix is like a game of Tetris, and that you are always looking for ways to fit everything in, without any single element overwhelming the others.
The film, which is 98 minutes long, features, at Leiber's estimate, about 90 minutes of music, some of it in the form of songs that were licensed. Regarding songs, Scharpf gave the following advice: “For all the filmmakers out there, make sure when you get a song, try to get them to send you the stems." Stems are the individual tracks of a song, from bass to guitar and on and on, so instead of getting just the song, mixed together in its final form, a filmmaker gets the components of the song, which makes for a mix over which there is far more granular control; it's possible with stems, for instance, to emphasize the kick drum in a song at one moment, fading out the higher end frequencies in a song.
Said Scharpf, "We could do our own processing in the surround sound space…We spread it around, not just left to right, and that leaves room for the sound effects," all of the work dedicated to achieving "that emotional connection, and feeling it onscreen, but not overdoing it.” As Carol Maturi cut the film, she said that she had put on her own temporary sounds and guides that she felt worked well, and so she said that the process of cutting the film and working with Jurgen and David was like "a conversation between the online and the offline." Scharpf said that they had "probably spent about a month mixing this movie. Three weeks of that was pre-mixing…There’s obviously a ton of work that you never expect, it’s noisy, finding the fine mix...We went really loud, but we also went really quiet. It’s in the collaboration that the mix comes together.”
"It was very important to go into the edit and not use guide music."
No Greater Law takes a cue from No Country
For British filmmaker Thomas Dumican and composer Stuart Miller, the vast and bleak winter landscapes of Idaho, the setting for his film No Greater Law, provided an inspiration all their own. “The Idaho landscape is incredible, and anywhere you pointed the camera became this huge Western scene." It occurred to him that his story, about a community in Idaho ripped apart by the state's "religious shield law" that prevents prosecution related to any death that stems from a faith healing, and which has led to the deaths of up to 183 children since the 1970s, "could perhaps only happen in a [remote] community like that...not in a city.”
The remote starkness of the landscape did more than contribute to the visuals; it inspired an approach to the film's music, a minimalism also influenced by Carter Burwell's score to No Country for Old Men, and even had an effect on the film's sound design.
According to Miller, “We talked tone very early. It was a process of writing before, with concepts but not necessarily individual characters in mind...It was very important to go into the edit and not use guide music. Previously in my career I’d gone into a film with guide music, then had to replace it, and I found it almost ruined my experience of the film.” They both knew that the film, which featured a divisive cast of characters, with the townspeople on one side and a Sheriff dedicated to fighting the law on the other, might provoke a kind of judgment on the audience, and weren't eager to help that along with the music.
Miller recalled an instance where he had worked on a film and felt that the music had done "a sort of signposting with certain characters. I regret that. I don't want to hear anything sinister, I don't want to lead the audience. My note to everyone on the film was to be restrained and respectful."'
"The best noise reduction is often to add noise." -Stuart Miller
Unlike Unstoppable, which has music for roughly 90% of its running time, there are maybe 43 minutes of music in No Greater Law. "We had a quartet," said Miller. "It was going to be minimal." The majority of the score was recorded by the London Contemporary Orchestra, who have recorded Jonny Greenwood’s scores, including those forThere Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread. Miller recalled, "Most of the score is...not meant to sit on top of the story."
Likewise, the sound design for the film was very subtle. “We took a lot away. Anything that caught your ear was almost taken out of the film. We tried to take away as much as we could.” For a scene that took place in a cemetery, there had originally been a lot of wind (captured on location), but even this was pared back, so that the focus was mainly the face of the character.
"In the field, the primary concern is capturing voices," said Dumican, "but in the cutting room it doesn’t give you a sense of space." It was in post, using a combination of location sound, atmospheric music and other techniques, where they crafted a mood for the film. “The first third of the film has less music. We draw you in and then use it for storytelling purposes." Miller also noted an interesting irony: "The best noise reduction is often to add noise, to keep it consistent."
Dumican shot in Idaho for two years, and discussed the trials of not letting the production's energy or discipline flag, particularly when it came to sound. “On a documentary like this, you’re under pressure timewise, none of the crew wants to be out in the snow. But making the decision, to take time [and] get what you need, not be rushing off...Don’t let sound be an afterthought, or say that horrible phrase, 'let’s fix it in post.'”
The idea was to capture it all, and then let the post-production team work out what was needed and what could go (and in this movie, a lot could go.) Dumican said one of the most important decisions he had made was hiring a sound recordist who primarily worked on feature films, since he was very dogged about capturing things like room tone and other snippets of location sound.
"On a lot of shoots, one of the first things to go is the sound recordist…but it's important to have that sound recordist on the set every single day."
The director continued, “When you shoot over two years, there are lot of restraints. On a lot of shoots, one of the first things to go is the sound recordist…but it's important to have that sound recordist on the set every single day. In those stark landscapes and intimate moments, you need that great location sound” in order to get a sense of space. “[We're] trying to put the audience there. Rather than have that distance....Even on a big budget feature, it’s a struggle. A lot of documentary films are a single person running out there and using the onboard camera mics.” They tried to use as much of the location sound as possible, even if it was altered, pared back, augmented subtly, or played straight.
Stylistically, these two films couldn't be more different, but as Glenn Kiser observed at one point, the lines between narrative film sound techniques and documentary sound techniques are growing more blurry every day, which raises interesting issues, both artistic and aesthetic. Both of these films—one set on the beaches of the Pacific Ocean and the other on the flat plains of the frozen West—feature very real stories about very real people, and both engage in a remarkably sophisticated degree of sonic artifice in order to, paradoxically, enhance this reality. The same is true for many documentaries today, and indie films in general; as prices fall and quality of equipment goes up, indie filmmakers can increasingly afford to achieve effects that would have been beyond their reach.
The key takeaway from this class is that as long as whatever is done is done with intent and an eye towards a bigger picture, and an eye on the truth of the situation, it can (and should) be done. “It’s been my experience," said Kiser, "that the brain will accept a lot more abstraction in a soundtrack than filmmakers might think it will," which is, perhaps, the best way to sum up this fascinating sonic look at two new films.