Sound design is an industry seldom talked about, especially when the craft in itself is mainly behind-the-scenes. However, we do realise how important it is and the impact it makes – POP AYE would be one good example. What exactly does it take to be a sound designer, specifically for film?
The Director of Sound for MochaChai Laboratories and a featured speaker at BroadcastAsia2017, Lim Ting Li first started doing sound for films in 2004. Besides having her works traveling internationally and winning awards, she has won the Verna Fields Award in Sound Editing at the prestigious MPSE Golden Reel Awards 2014 in Los Angeles and was selected as one of the two sound designers in 2010 to attend the Asian Film Academy headed by Abbas Kiarostami at the Pusan International Film Festival.
Popspoken speaks to Ting Li, this time on her personal pursuit of sound design despite being in a male-dominated industry.
Popspoken: Being a sound designer wasn’t your original plan as a career, so what was your initial ambition?
Ting Li: When I was younger, I wanted to be a lighting designer for theatre. I remember being completely mesmerised watching a play and I wanted to be a part of creating that experience. After ‘O’ levels, my parents preferred me to enter a public school and theatre related studies were only offered in private schools at that time. So I found the next best thing at Film, Sound and Video (FSV) course in Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Although it wasn’t relevant to what I wanted to do, the hands on course was perfect for a rather unacademical me.
Popspoken: Share with us how you discovered sound design and developed this interest into the career it is today, for you.
Ting Li: It was during my studies at FSV that led me to discover sound design. When I tried it for the first time, I was amazed at how much sound could affect a film. Plus, it didn’t feel like work. It was this feeling and the encouragement of my lecturers that made me decide to pursue sound design as a career.
Popspoken: Being a woman and in Singapore, did you receive the support you needed to chase this passion and is the industry still mostly made up of men?
Ting Li: Because film sound is such a niche field, I got the support that I needed, not just from people in the industry but also from the government, who saw a gap in specialised departments. MDA (now iMDA) gave me a scholarship to pursue my Masters in Sound Design at the National Film & Television School in the UK, which led to my working and living there for 5 years – a definite turning point in my career.
The older generation of sound designers are made up of mostly men, but there’s an influx of female sound designers, recordists and even boom operators (a highly physically demanding job) joining the field in Singapore in recent years. I think that so long as you’re passionate and that shows through your work, people will pay notice. In fact, Singapore’s very first Oscar nominee, Lee Aileng, is a female sound designer!
Popspoken: Do you think your gender impeded you from opportunities in this industry?
Ting Li: While I’ve been fortunate enough not having faced blatant sexism personally, I do see more men than women in the industry. I don’t think this is due to lesser women picking it as a career choice, but the working environment and the long uncertain hours that come with it makes it harder for women to navigate their way in the industry, especially once they have children. My husband, Filipe, is also a sound designer and we share equal responsibilities at home and to our 4-year-old son. This equal partnership enables me to keep doing what I’m doing.
Popspoken: How did Mocha Chai Laboratories come about?
Ting Li: Mocha Chai Laboratories was founded by Chai Yeewei in 2011 as a digital film lab when film distribution went digital. Through mastering filmmakers’ films into the final delivery format over the years, Yeewei realised the lack of properly calibrated facilities for filmmakers to finish their picture and sound work. After more than 2 years of planning and building, and me jumping on board as Director of Sound, Mocha Chai relaunched in July 2016 as a boutique one-stop post facility with the first and only Dolby Atmos dubbing Theatre in Singapore.
Popspoken: Since 2004 until now, how has the scene changed and is it for the better?
Ting Li: The scene has changed in a tremendous way. Now that everything is digital and the entry level is lowered, it’s easy for anyone to make a film and present it on the various platforms available. In the past, every frame of film was so precious, one had to calculate the maximum number of retakes s/he can do for a shot whereas these days, filmmakers can keep the cameras rolling without feeling a pinch. While more is more, it is also important not to lose sight of precision and quality that is essential in our craft.
Popspoken: What more can we do as a nation to help grow The Arts in Singapore, and eventually have our efforts recognised globally?
Ting Li: A small but significant way in which we can help is by watching local films the moment it’s released. A lot of people don’t know this but the cinema is a very unforgiving place when it comes to box office takings. If a local film is released and the attendance rate is poor, it’ll be taken down that hall in a matter of days.
Unlike blockbusters that’re guaranteed to go on for weeks, local films have to compete for the same audience with a lot less marketing budget. So if you’re keen to watch a local film, don’t wait. Watch it once it’s released and urge others to do the same to keep it running in the theatres. When we can truly create a sustainable industry, then we can keep telling our stories and share them with the world. Because if we don’t, who will?
Popspoken: Share with us words of wisdom you have received that keeps you going on this path of passion and progress.
Ting Li: Christopher Doyle once said that your best work is always your next work. And this rings true in our line of work. The rolling credits do not come with a disclaimer of what circumstances the film was made in. The audience doesn’t know how little time or budget the filmmaker had. They’re just going to walk out of the cinema and think if it was a good film or a bad film and that’s it. Hence it’s important for us to press on and make the best version of our work there can be.
Speaking Arts is a new series to shed light on individuals in The Arts scene in Singapore. Be it administrators, artists, performers and writers, we seek to share all stories and to help form a wholesome narrative of the scene.
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