POP AYE has been making headlines with its groundbreaking wins at various international film festivals. Directed by Kirsten Tan, this is her first debut feature film and she sure is making all Singaporeans really proud.
Making a full-length feature film is never easy, especially with the need for a bigger budget, crew and equipment to do it well. The final product is only the tip of the ice berg in terms of all the labour put into it. One aspect that we might not always give a second thought about, is sound design.
How important is sound design, and what sort of work does that pertain?
Popspoken interviews Lim Ting Li, the sound designer of POP AYE as well as Apprentice, to learn more about the sound design that went into the film(s) and how under-rated this specialised craft is in Singapore.
Popspoken: What is the biggest misunderstanding about sound designing for films?
Ting Li: That we’re able to fix everything in post! Technology has advanced so much through the years and there’re indeed many things we can achieve in audio post production now that wasn’t possible in the past. But no amount of sound design can save badly recorded dialogues or a bad film. With proper planning and a ‘fix-it-in-pre-production’ mindset, there’ll be more attention dedicated on the creative aspect of the film.
PS: Do you think it is an under-rated craft, especially in Singapore?
TL: Sound design, like many other specialised crafts, is definitely underrated in Singapore. While there’re many who’re employing it to great effect, sound design is still an afterthought for most filmmakers in Singapore. We’ve received many “rescue mission” jobs where they only came to us because the dialogue was inaudible. Most directors are converts once they’ve gone through the sound design and mixing process so we just have to keep doing what we do and change one mind at a time.
PS: What are some challenges you faced coming up with the sound design for POP AYE and Apprentice?
TL: For POP AYE, one of the biggest challenges was to create the voice of the elephant. With the exception of instructed calls, Bong (the elephant who played Popaye) was very quiet on set. And while this gave us a blank canvas to work on, there was a need to give him more character with vocalisations. Bong was an Asian elephant, but we used a combination of different sources – grunts, growls, breaths, squeals from recordings of Bong, African elephants and even seals – to achieve the sound of Pop Aye that you hear in the film. As the film takes place from the streets of Bangkok to the countryside, we also researched the different kinds of birds and insects that inhabited each of the towns so the soundscape could change as Thana and Pop Aye ventured away from the city.
For Apprentice, the challenge was to add life to the location as the prison was shot across 3 locations and in a defunct prison. Using sounds, we linked the 3 locations into one vicinity and added human presence behind the empty prison cells. The key scenes in the gallows were shot in one entire shot and the source recording had a lot inherent noise like crew footsteps and instructions given on set. For these scenes, we decided to recreate it completely from scratch. We got the actors in to rerecord the lines and breathing sounds, all the footsteps and doors were replaced and we added a bunch of different room tones so that we had the freedom to maneuver the sound however we want in the mix and we could really feel the denseness of the air as the characters move from room to room.
PS: Share with us a bit of the process on POP AYE, working with the creative team and director Kirsten Tan to make this film become a reality?
TL: Kirsten and I started working together from her short film Dahdi and working with her is a really fun, easy and enjoyable process. She’s one of the very few directors who visualize sound when she writes. In fact, POP AYE’s script was written with a lot of sound notes that I could ‘hear’ the film in my head when I first read the script. Rather than giving specific notes about the sound design, she’d give her thoughts on the identity and motivations of the film and characters and let us interpret and run wild with it.
I also worked with long time collaborators of mine, composer Matt Kelly and tag teamed with Nikola Medic to sound design and mix the film. Working on a feature film is like running a marathon and it really helps when your companions are easy to work with and motivating.
PS: How do you draw inspiration and exploration for every film you work on?
TL: My inspiration for the film starts from script stage. That’s when I picture the film in my head and imagine what kind of soundscapes would work in it. I also respond very much to the imagery and mood of the movie. I’d lay in different sounds almost intuitively until the energy of the scene starts to take shape.
PS: From conception to execution, which is your favourite part of the process and why?
TL: To be honest, I find joy in every part of the process from dialogue edit, to sound design to the mix. But if I had to choose one, it’d be foley. Foley is the reproduction of sound effects in a recording studio, like footsteps, cloth movements, keys jangling and so on. It glues the film to realism and is probably the only process in the entire sound post production that doesn’t require one to sit down.
PS: What genre of films would you love to experiment sound design on? Why?
TL: Animations are definitely my favourite to do. It requires a lot of work as every single sound in an animation has to be created from scratch but the possibilities are also limitless.
POP AYE is currently screening in Singapore at most Golden Village cinemas.
Photography credits to POP AYE’s Facebook page.