IN CONVERSATION: COLL ANDERSON (Sound Designer for NOAH, FARGO etc)

Hi Film Folk,

It’s time for the Film Doctor team to be excited and proud again! We have a new addition to our interview section.

This time, we spoke with Coll Anderson, the wonderful supervising sound effects editor, mixer and recordist of films such as Dead Man, Fargo, Revolutionary Road, Broken Flowers, Black Swan, Melancholia, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Tower Heist and the upcoming Noah.

So, whether you’re a rising sound guy or a writer/director/producer in need of more know-how, read Coll’s journey, so far, below!

 

Film Doctor - Coll Anderson

 

As a kid what got you into film?

I grew up with my parents separated, my mom was a disc jockey at a radio station in the middle of America and had a boyfriend who owned a recording studio. When you’re a kid, you’re 12 years old and getting dragged around (Philadelphia, Iowa, Kentucky, Utah) you start learning how to mess with stuff.  For me it was solder cables and move faders and tweak 2 inch decks and then I got asked ‘oh, can you cut this commercial on a quarter inch tape?’ and when you’re a kid and you get good at that, you don’t think it’s anything neat, you just think ‘oh whatever, I’m gonna make a mix tape’.

I’d make mix tapes by cutting them on quarter inch. I would record songs and cut songs out and throw them on reels and throw the whole thing together and then put it back onto a cassette tape. So I sort of got into things that way and as it grew and as I got better at it and it became a college thing (cutting basics on 2 inch tape, dealing with musicians and music and studio stuff). I had several jobs post-high school and before college in that area, that dealt a lot with electronics and things like that. At some point in time, I decided I wanted to leave where I was so I came to the East Coast. I had access to some friends who were at Harvard. They were studying in Visual and Environmental Studies and there was a guy, one of the chief engineers in that department at Harvard, named Mike Callahan, who introduced me to a Nagra (a staple recorder for dialogue on set).  I had been helping with kids’ documentaries and I think at that point in time something just clicked. I never wanted to be a director, I didn’t want to write, I wasn’t an aspiring actor who was waiting tables.

I was in love with sound. I was in love with recording things. I was in love with recording and discovery and cool sounds. Both musically and concretely in the world. Access to the VES program at Harvard let me, as an outsider, start exploring sounds through people’s films. I think when I found that you could have all the excitement of music but with doors closing and cars smashing and winds and STORY, it was much more interesting than music. I thought ‘I wanna do this for a living’.







 
 

Did you go to film school?

No. I went to Utah State University and studied electrical engineering, a little bit of print-making, a little bit of photography. I went to Sarah Lawrence college and studied Latin American fiction and a lot more photography. I had access to film school through secondary channels but I was never a gigantic fan of film school. There are some film schools that do fantastic work but I think, for me, the way to study film is to do it through writing and through story – really understanding story.




 
 

Your first credit is a producing one for ‘The Color of Love’, please tell us about it. What, why, when and how?

Yeah. I think it’s an associate producer credit. I had been helping a young woman named Alison Humenuk with her thesis film and through Alison I became friends with a guy called Jed Weintraub. Jed, along with several friends, said he was going to help with this film and I came to Boston because Jed, Alison and I were really good friends and they’d said ‘we need people who can help out with this film’.  This was the beginning of the indie world of filmmaking – this is post She’s Gotta Have It but it wasn’t too deep into the idea of making independent movies, like the beginnings of Sundance, everybody thought they could do anything. They asked me to come help and though I started with locations, or getting this or getting that, before too long I was helping with bigger aspects of making the film.

 
FILM DOCTOR - Coll Anderson working on Dead Man.
Recording for Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Dead Man’
 

You have some very interesting mid-90s credits, including Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Dead Man’, The Coen Brothers’ ‘Fargo’ and Steve Buscemi’s ‘Trees Lounge’. Tell us a little bit about your involvement in those, how you got involved, what it was like?

There’s a whole bunch of things that happened around that time. I had been working in Boston recording sound on set and I had come down to New York to do – I don’t even remember what – and a friend of mine Kevin Lynn had made ‘Stealing Home’ a while ago. While working on set, really enjoying it, a great Sound Designer, Eugene Geraghty called me and said ‘what do you know about guns?’ and I laughed because I’d lived in Utah for a long time and you could sell Encyclopedias about what I know on firearms. He said ‘I’m doing this film called ‘Dead Man’ and it’s kind of a new film and we really want this feel of old “Western” guns, so I literally went home to Utah, hired my neighbour who lived down the street, who had an enormous collection of historical Western guns and we made custom reloads with black powder – what you would have done way back when – and we went out into the mountains and recorded all these guns and the thing that was fun about it was that in the process of recording all these guns, we started recording other aspects of the movie, y’know pieces of train bits and squeaky lanterns and black-smith shops.

This was before the idea of QuickTimes and computers and what I had was this Sony camera and this little player we called the clam shell (a video tape player that opens up and you’d put a tape in and you could watch on a 4″ screen). So I sat down with a video camera and the Steenbeck and I videoed the whole movie off of the Steenbeck and then I took those tapes with me and we’d go out into the field and record me beating around on Blacksmiths’ shops and hammering steel and shooting bows and arrows out in the mountains and shooting guns off and creeking things – and I came back with these DAT tapes that weren’t just guns. I had a whole collection of sounds that were needed for the film.  The sound crew in New York were like ‘this was a crazy idea. That’s awesome.’

And that opened the door to doing another film ‘Fargo’ which was much more difficult because it was the middle of June and they needed the cars recorded which, you can tell from the film was shot in the dead of winter, and so I went out to try and record cars and had several huge colossal disasters, just completely fell on my face several times. But I did the same sort of thing, we videotaped the movie, put it on hi-8 tapes and we had the clam shell and Joel and Ethan via Skip Lievsay had got into this discussion about detail, about little things and not big huge car crashes or things but the cars would drive by and there’d be a chain hanging from the car and the chain would jingle as the car drove by and the discussion was about things like that. And I had, and this is where this conversation becomes circuitous, on Kevin Lynn’s ‘No Way Home’ we’d had a car that had a trailer and we’d dragged that car around when we were making that movie (‘No Way Home’) and I had recorded the crap out of it, like the little chain jangling between the car and the trailer, and on ‘Fargo’ I was like “wait a sec, I’ve got that little sound!” and that became “Holy Christ, details are the cool thing”.

The details are what make the story go from here to here. It became, for me, a fun game of how many details can you get. I think Eugene, or Skip or somebody, had this idea where when Steve Buscemi in Fargo walks up the stairs, up the deck of the house and peers in the window, he has a crowbar and he sets the crowbar on the ground and it kinda goes clunk on the ground and then clink on the window and there’s little things like that, like when the lady runs, locks herself in the bathroom and starts speed dialling the phone, the bad guy yanks the cable and this little piece of plastic breaks off and goes tinka-tinka-tinka-tink and those became the things that became really cool and really fun.

 
 

Trees Lounge came to me via working on Fargo.  The producers were looking for a sound guy and Steve Buscemi and I got to talking and because he knew I’d recorded sound effects on Fargo, it became ‘come record dialogue on set’ (for Trees Lounge) and I always wanted to figure out how to bridge between the guy who records talking on set and the guys who do post-production. I wanted that relationship to become like this (interlocks fingers), instead of we don’t even know who they are. In a perfect world, people call me first and we create a team from set to post. For Josh Mond’s film (James White), the film I’m working on now, I have had great access to the production sound mixer. I know, what his problems are, what he’s facing creatively, what they’re trying to do – we have a really good heads up as to what’s happening with that film.  That puts us in a great position creatively for post.

 
 

We’ve written down Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy, Old School) and ‘Frat House’ as a point of interest…

(Laughs a lot) Yeah, you should write down Frat House! And maybe Bittersweet Motel. This is what I’ll say: Todd is one of the smartest guys in the world that I’ve ever wanted to kill. He’s probably the coolest guy that I’ve ever tried to murder in his sleep. Todd is the bomb but good Christ you get in so much trouble when you hang out with him! He’s really someone who will consider breaking any rule that exists, even the rules that keep you safe, even the rules that protect you, he is the guy that will gladly break those rules. Mr. Creepy.

 
 

So The Hangover trilogy was basically an autobiography?

(Laughing) Let’s put it this way, I don’t want to say that all the really cool jokes that come from Old School and The Hangover movies came from making Frat House but Frat House was definitely a leaping off point for the ideas that those fiction movies pursue.

 
Recording sounds
 

What differences do you recognise between creating sounds for documentaries and sound for fictitious work?

I don’t know if there’s a difference. They both involve a certain level of verisimilitude and so you can’t really say there’s a difference. People will say ‘documentaries are real and fictitious films are about telling stories’ but documentaries are really about telling stories and fictional films often want to feel super real. So there’s a huge cross over between them. When you insert a camera into a situation, that situation is no longer real. It changes. It changes the dynamic. There’s a square box capturing it. We go to great lengths to show ‘oh the truth of the square box’ but it’s not true.

Errol Morris has written extensively on reality and perception and the changes that happen when a camera is introduced into a situation. We get to say ‘oh we aim for a little more verisimilitude in documentary and a little more emotion in features’ but I have many times aimed for emotion on documentary sounds and for verisimilitude on feature sounds. The beautiful thing that happens in film is that every film, if a director and a picture editor have really done good work, every film tells you what it needs. The thing that I like about my job is that I get to think about story and how to make what they’ve done deeper.  They’re giving me a road map ‘I want to go from here to here’ and I get to point out all the points of interest for the audience to look at on the way. I like working in, and thinking of story, in that framework.

 
 

Technically speaking, because in documentary you’re often in a less controlled environment, are there any processes that documentaries come weighted with that don’t happen with features?

Certainly, in terms of production sound, there are limits to what they can control in documentaries vs. features but I’ve been on a million features where they’ve not controlled the environment at all, and a million documentaries where they’ve gone out of their way to exercise as much control as possible or film in beautifully quiet places. A good example is a PBS documentary called ‘The Amish’, they came to us and we thought these idyllic beautiful Amish communities would be all pastoral and quiet and have beautiful horse sounds and hay and men working without electricity. The truth of the matter is, when you get out there, all of these farms have these huge propane and gas generators making electricity. It’s awful sounding. You can’t hear yourself think. So we look at the film and the truth of the documentary is that this place is really loud but that doesn’t really help us get into the characters or tell the story or help discuss the greater issues that the film is trying to discuss, so  we took all of the production sound and re-did all of it, everything, the entire show, from stem to stern – and I think it’s actually a very beautiful film. The interviews are fantastic. What people are saying is fantastic. The stories are fantastic and you aren’t taken out of the visuals by their true sound, the visuals are what you think they should sound like. So it feels much more real than the other way.

You just have to go with what the film needs and less of what we think is 100% right or wrong.

 
Dolby Tuning
Dolby Tuning
 

For those among us who do not work in sound (writers/directors/actors etc), please describe to us what a sound editor does and what a sound mixer does.

Lets start with sound on set, we write a story, we say what we want actors to say and there’s a guy on set called the Production Sound Mixer whose job it is to capture as clearly as possible not just what people say but what they do and how they move and to do that, the microphone is usually placed in a position of importance – who’s talking – because ultimately the words are the most important sound on a set. Explosions don’t record the way you think they would and often what the camera is looking at prohibits putting microphones closer to things. So ultimately if you can capture talking on set, it’s one of the most valued things one can take away. But ultimately what that means (because camera positions change and microphone positions change) often the sound quality that’s recorded on set changes with each different camera angle. Now that’s not always true but as a general rule often, how camera angles change dictates microphone positions and, conversely, sound qualities change.

As a picture editor works through a story, it doesn’t help the decisions that they have to make if they have to rely or choose different shots on how they sounded, so ultimately what they try and do is pick the shots that tell the story the best. After the fact, a sound editor comes through and looks at how those sounds are being used by the picture editor and how to manipulate them in a way that they can be made smoother, or be made to flow better in a way that doesn’t draw attention to itself so that the audience can focus on the story, on the actors, on what’s being said and elements that move the movie forward.

So a Sound Editor‘s job is to edit. To pick and choose the best microphones that were used at any given time, arrange them in a way that a mixer can have control of them and the sounds that forward or help the story. There’s not just dialogue editors who deal with what was recorded on set, but sound effects editors, foley editors, ambience or background editors, ADR editors and all these people whose job it is to pick and choose the best material that helps tell the story; the right car door closes, the right car sounds and not just picking the right sounds but putting them in an organised fashion that a mixer can make them work as a total unit or finished soundtrack.

A Mixer organises all the parts to form a finished unit.  Now the ability to start mixing in the editing process is quite huge, so there’s a lot of mixing that happens while you’re editing and while you’re designing sounds to function within the scope of the story. But what a mixer starts to do is interface between the technical rules or layout of sounds and the director – what the director wants to communicate in terms of story. The mixer starts to look at dialogue, music and effects (which is how we work). Dialogue tracks 1, 2 and 3 are 3 different microphone positions but it doesn’t work for the story for those microphone positions to be noticeable, so the mixer’s job is to make the joining between microphone positions 1, 2 and 3 seamless. It doesn’t feel like the sound has actually been recorded at 3 different times. It feels like it was recorded all at exactly the same time.  When the dialogue is smooth and it feels natural, we think how is music going affect the emotion of this scene, but also what frequencies are in the music? And what frequencies in the music interfere with the dialogue and how can I control those?  The same with effects – what car doors feel real or not real? What spaceships feel real or not real? What sounds can the sound editors use to increase a sense of unease and how can I use frequency to make that unease palatable but not noticeable? How can we smell it, how can we taste it but not notice it?

It’s kind of like well spiced food versus badly spiced food. Badly spiced food you taste the spices, you know there’s salt and pepper in there but when it’s done really well, the salt and pepper don’t interfere with the flavour of the food, they just highlight it. It’s kind of like that, the mixer is the chef as opposed to the sioux chef or the pastry chef as Sound Editors. They put things together in a way so that the Mixer can affect the final outcome.

 
 

How much do you rely on libraries and how much do you record fresh?

I really like to bring lots of new sounds to what I work on. I live in the middle of nowhere, I live in the woods. You can’t even see neighbours from where I live. I live here because my favourite thing to do is to go out and record things. That’s what I live for every day. I like to bring probably about 80 or 90% new to every film. That being said, I do have a huge amount of published libraries at my disposal and a huge amount of unpublished material that’s mine and that I share sometimes with friends – which I also love, to share and trade sounds with friends. I love calling up Craig Henighan or Charles Deenen and trading stuff. But more so, when they or I don’t have something, say a trash compactor that crushes cars, and I don’t know what a real one sounds like, I can go and record something like that. That’s what I do. I love that back and forth.

But, saying that, there are an unbelievable amount of custom, fantastic, libraries out there. The guys at Hiss and Roar do unbelievable stuff, the Tonsturm guys do the coolest shit in the world, Boom library is effin’ great work, unbelievably impressive stuff. And with the advent of these small custom library companies that do little things and do them really well, great technical sound quality and really interesting stuff. That’s really cool. There’s those guys who are doing boutique stuff and then out in LA, Rob Nokes’ Sound Dogs has been around a really long time and the more the web gets faster and the ability to put sounds up on remote servers gets better. It’s not just what I’ve got in my pocket but what I’ve got access to and I think the amount of access in this day and age is unprecedented. It’s awesome. And I love drawing from all of those resources and at the same time on Noah we put together a crowd and ran through the woods and got stuff that was just not like anything else.

 
Recording sound for 'Noah'!
Recording sound for ‘Noah’!
 
 

What differences have you noticed between working with directors? Is there one great similarity between them all? Are there any two directors who work in just totally opposite ways? 

I think that I have a particular style where some directors just give me space to work.  It is a style that I really like. I’m very much a loner. I very much like working alone or with a very small group of people. I really don’t like too many people around in the sound process. Directors should have the space and time and the budgets to explore anything they want.  I really like them to sit down and have a long conversation about what they want that can be as specific as they want or as free form as they want and then let me go off on my own and be creative. I think that’s where I bring the most to things. I like it when they give you a sense of space and trust.

Plus, when people see every step of the process then there’s no magical wonder to it. It is so hard to see something for the first time over and over.  We’re interested in their opinion when they see it for the first time, so they know either something clicked on a visceral level or doesn’t.  We want to create an environment to enable them to see what we do, with that “first time” magic. Space, and a bit of working on our own, lets us do that.

So, it’s not the traits of good directors and bad directors – everybody’s different and they have systems that work for them – it’s much more, which directors have come to let me do what I do.  It’s very hard to speak to their working methodologies because most of the directors I work with I have an unbelievably strong sense of trust and confidence. Even when they say stuff that I don’t like or when they want to do something that I don’t want to do, the key is ‘is there enough of a relationship there to trust the decisions that they make and enough of a relationship there that they trust me to have a little space to work on my own and explore things on my own?’

 
 

You seem to straddle independent film, English and foreign language, fiction and documentary, what informs your choices? Do you approach things with creativity in mind or do you just see what comes up and go ‘hey that’s cool?’

Most of the studio films I do, I end up working for or helping other people. I have a couple of friends who are supervisors and now sort of coming into their own as mixers. Their way of thinking and their attitude is phenomenal. Craig Henighan is one of the most brilliant supervisors I know and just literally lucky for me that he’s really supportive of me recording weird shit in the middle of nowhere (laughs). Vibrating rocks. He’s really good at letting me follow my nose. He’s just downright supportive of it and encourages it and in some way, shape or form demands it creatively. This also means I’ve been lucky enough that I can pursue things that I love the most which are documentaries.

I love documentary filmmaking and I love documentary filmmaking that flirts with our perceptions of not just how we perceive reality, that’s not interesting, it’s cool but it’s not as deep as how we perceive subconsciously. What we get subconsciously from events in life. And I love documentaries that pursue that and look at that. I love Errol’s documentaries or Jason Choen’s Manda Bala. This fantastic circular story of connection between wealth and lower class that functions on so many different levels. Catfish is this great exploration of who you are in reality versus who you are in the land of technology – who are you as a virtual person vs. who you are as a ‘boots on the ground’ person. If I could explore that and that was all I did and I could pay all my bills that way then I would probably choose to do that more than anything else.

But I also really love feature films that tell character stories, really singular character stories. In the last couple of years, the two that come to mind are Antonio Campos’ Simon Killer and Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene – they’re fascinating, dark character studies. Or Mona Fastvold’s film The Sleepwalker. They’re great patient filmmaker looks at characters that are really dark and complicated and I love doing those as well. And because I’m really, really lucky, I’ve gotten to do other super fun films like Death Race – let’s go and record a ton of big, fast, huge cars and because I love recording shit it’s like ‘oh wait a sec, this has turned from a recording to an editing to a sound designing job’. Craig has called me occasionally ‘hey can you go record crowds or an electro magnetic field sound?’ and because I had experience with Darren Aronofsky it was a comfortable enough relationship that he could bring me on to Noah.

Noah was one of those things where it started as just doing 1 or 2 sounds and then it was ‘wait a sec, can you do a couple more?’ and ‘can you do a couple more?’ and then after a while they just said ‘just keep sending me stuff’. It’s a little bit of luck and a lot of loving what I do. I don’t mind getting up at 4 in the morning to record rocks. I like recording rocks. I like lighting stuff on fire and recording it (laughs). Nothing about that is a task for me. It’s just a joy.

 
 

On to Noah, what were the main challenges with this project? What seemed logical and easy and what was really hard to nail down?

After you see it we can talk more but how energy vibrates and how energy transmits through sound and how creatures that could be perceived as internally radiating energy, how to communicate that in sound was very, very tricky. I don’t want to be the spoiler but there’s definitely a whole entire creature component that you’re probably not aware of and the sound of that component is just not as simple as what it looks like on screen. To make it be a force that actually radiates energy, that pulses and vibrates, was fun, not only to wrap your brain around but to make it. I think things like Genesis and the idea of creation (and I’m not religious at all, I’m familiar with the story of the bible, I have a brother-in-law who’s a preacher but I’m still very secular in how I go about my life), the idea of looking at Genesis and the story of Genesis and telling the story of creation and making the sounds of creation was a total blast.

Couldn’t have been funner and couldn’t have been harder because none of those ideas or images have defined sounds. I mean, what does it sound like when cells are created??? What is the magic of God’s finger touching inanimate things and life popping forward, what does that sound like? That’s the kind of shit that’s fun to make. And rain. Helping to do rain and helping to do crowds pouring through the forest. Helping to chop trees down. Those are all sounds that, in the land of, I think, Darren’s creation, they have to be bigger and ‘more than’ but not Hollywood, not over-the-top. They just have to be something that we can latch on to as people. Lucky me, as I was in a position to help with that.

 
'Simon Killer' post-prod.
‘Simon Killer’ post-prod.
 
 

How would that work with a composer?

We got to hear what the music department was working on a lot. The assistants were really good about sending me the temps for the music, so I was able to hear what was going on all the time. I knew what was going on dialogue-wise all of the time and one of the tricks that I love using is I’ll look at the harmonic components of the music and at the harmonic content and components of the dialogue and I’ll build into sound effects EQs that actually carve holes out for those things to sit in – for instance, rain.

I have a general tendency to carve EQ space into the effects that fit, so you can play an effect really loud even with the dialogue and it’s already been tweaked to fit around the dialogue. I think there are probably other mixers who do that trick. It’s kind of an old school trick, I’ll find the root note of an actor’s voice and I’ll attach an EQ with a mild Q so it’s not a huge notch filter and I’ll attach the gain of that filter to an actor’s side chain and that will allow that EQ band to be ducked by the actor talking. There’s little tricks like that that I’ll do so the sound effects can play loud but not interfere with dialogue and maybe not interfere with music.

Also, good composers do a great job of not putting cymbal crashes on the lightning crash, for example. Let the sound effect be the cymbal crash.  No snare drums on the machine guns or trumpets on the dinosaur roar kind of thing.

 
 

What is your basic setup? Or, if it varies, then an ideal one? What programs do you use?

I’ve been on Pro tools for forever now. I’m sort of in the box. I don’t mind going to LA and sitting on a Harrison or a DFC or whatever. The console doesn’t matter. It’s the ears and the fingers controlling the console that matter. I try and tell first timers – everybody gets involved with ‘what plugins do you have?’ or ‘whats this?’ or ‘whats that?’ – it’s your ears. The decisions you make with your brain and your ears. That’s the important gear. The most important gear you can have is knowing what sounds good and what doesn’t. Use things that sound good. Don’t use things that don’t. People try and throw tons and tons of sound at big things and really, using your brain to make decisions about what the audience should hear and only giving them what you want them to hear – that’s so much more important than what workstation you use.

Someone asked a sound recordist (I think it was Ben Burtt?), ‘what’s your favourite recorder?’ and his reply was just pure genius ‘the one I have in my pocket’. Because ultimately, I love going out into a field and recording things, but some of the best recordings I have ever made are the things that caught me off guard and I just recorded with my iPhone and made them work because the content of them was so cool, was so good. I tell people, don’t get bogged down in getting gear, this that or the other thing. Find the littlest thing that works for you and get out and think about stuff. Get out and find cool sounds. Learning how to make cool wind, as opposed to actually trying to record wind and having it turn out miserable. Trying everything and learning, that’s the thing that matters. Flipping a bicycle upside down and spinning the front tire really fast and then rubbing an index card on it to make insect wings.

Trying things is much cooler than what the latest and greatest Pro Tools rig is. Which is not to say it’s not great. It’s great. I have a big fat fancy Pro Tools rig and an Icon and all that crap. It’s cool and all. But the really cool thing is going out into the world and trying to be truly creative. That cellophane unraveling makes the best cigarette inhale. That’s the cool stuff.

 
 

Are there any huge pre-prod or production mistakes you can warn or advise filmmakers not to make/leave until post-production?

Stop thinking ‘I’ll fix it in post’. Erase that whole idea from your brain.

Stop looking at ADR as a fixing tool. It’s a creative additive tool, it’s not for fixing.

Ultimately, making your set quiet will go a very, very, very long way in post. Quiet sets do wonderful things. Rooms sound good, they establish geography and character and stuff and being able to capture that is one of the greatest things.

But I think one of the lessons I learned in time, I learned from a cinematographer who said to my boom operator at the time ‘where do you want to put the microphone?’ and my boom operator put the boom about a foot over the actor’s head which is where it should go (a boom about a foot over an actor’s head sounds beautiful all the time) and the DP said ‘great’ and he set hundreds of lights, crazy set, shadows everywhere but when my boom operator put that microphone back there where it was in the blocking, it was perfect. It worked like a charm. It sounded fantastic.

The same thing happened for every set up – we did about four set ups that day and every single one, no matter how complicated the set ups got – the same thing happened: ‘where do you want to put the microphone?’ And at the end of the week, I realized I should be buying this cinematographer copious amounts of alcohol and I said ‘so what’s the story? I mean every DP- I’ve had  has pissed in my Corn Flakes on more than one occasion. How come you are treating us so well?’ And he said, and I’ll never forget this because it’s been one of the greatest lessons of my filmmaking career,  ‘if people can hear clearly, everything an actor says, if they can feel the story from an actor’s voice, they never stop looking at the images. But I can take the most beautiful images in the world and if the audience can’t understand what’s being said, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean shit. Because they’re not gonna look at the screen they’re gonna look at the person next to them and say ‘what the hell did he say?’ The key to making them believe my cinematography is beautiful. The key to them forgiving poor focus, forgiving poor framing, forgiving every mistake I make, is that they’re able to hear everything clearly.’

And to this day, that’s the lesson I wish I could tell everyone before they start filming. If you can hear everything an actor says, they stay in that actor’s world, they don’t care about continuity, they don’t care about poor wardrobe, they don’t care often about bad sets, they don’t care about things being in and out of focus because you’re operating on the audiences subconscious level, operating on that subconscious connection between the audience and the actors.

Take it for what it’s worth, some people don’t care much for that advice, but it seems that the films that I’ve done that are really good have that in common. You can sort of hear and feel everything that the actor’s experiencing.

 
More recording.
More recording.
 
 

How much should one budget for sound??

It’s hard in that any ratio that works in the small scale is not gonna work on the large scale. If you said 10% on a $100k film, that’s probably about right but 10% on a $100m film might be a little excessive. So it’s hard to say. I think, ultimately whatever allows you to make changes, because what happens is, once you’ve started doing sound work, you realize that there are editorial changes that you would want to make.

So any budget that lets you make those changes without pressure and any budget that gives you some time to think because it’s really hard to take 20 weeks to edit and then take 3 weeks to try and get your sound work done. That’s just ridiculous. You can’t really absorb the kind of information that’s changing or fluctuating in that short a time. Anything that allows you creative time. You can’t have an 8 to 1 time differential between picture editorial and sound. It just doesn’t work that way, or well, not well.

I think, ultimately, you need to give time to listen, react, make some changes ‘oh wow, that big boom happens there, we can shorten that cut up by a second and a half, oh that solves that whole flow problem, oh wow, we don’t need those two words, we can get rid of that stuff or add time here, we can give the audience some reaction time, we can see if we can slow this shot down’. You need to be able to think, you need to be able to be creative and any budget that allows that is good and any budget that doesn’t allow that is bad.

 
 

Who or what inspires you, both today and in the past?

There are certainly people in film who inspire me and guys who do great work and it’s always fun to watch, I love listening to what Craig’s doing and I love listening to what Skip’s doing. I can always watch an Alen Splet job.  There are tons of guys out there who are doing great work and it’s always fun to watch what they’re doing but I’m much much much more inspired by watching the wonder of my children as they experience life. That’s much more inspiring to me. I volunteer as an EMT when I’m not mixing and actually helping people outside of the movie business – recognizing that life, real life, is very important and very much happening, makes the work that I do on ‘fake life’ kind of funner and I enjoy it more. I get inspiration from that.

 
Recording for 'Tower Heist'
Recording for ‘Tower Heist’
 
 

What advice would you give somebody wanting to be involved in sound production today or a director/producer starting out?

The producer/director one is easy: be well read. Learn to write well. Learn to communicate effectively. Learn to patiently, patiently communicate and to stubbornly follow your vision.

For sound people, it’s a little different. I think sound is an ends. There are a lot of people in the film industry that think I’m going to work as an editor and then I’m going to go on as a director. In general I find sound to be ‘what I’m gonna do is sound’. I’m not gonna be a director, I’m not gonna be an editor, I’m not gonna be a writer – I’m gonna be a sound guy.

So I always encourage sound guys to learn to understand art on a deeper level, learn to appreciate not just music or not just film but good painting, good drawing, athletics, body movement, story and use all of that to enjoy the access to the subconscious world that sound gives you. The way sounds are interpreted by the brain is very, very, much a 1 to 1 ratio. Basically you get a key to the deep inner workings of people’s brains and I think appreciating and using that and exploring with that knowledge is the thing.

You don’t need a hammer and nail, you don’t need a Schoep’s microphone, you don’t need the newest version of Pro Tools to be creative. You need the understanding of listening to frequency and content and how it affects people. How high frequencies and mid-range frequencies and low frequencies work. I’m much more about following your nose creatively. Go wherever you wanna go!

 

FILM DOCTOR - NOAH POSTER

NOAH is released at UK cinemas nationwide this Friday 4th April.

 
Join us on FACEBOOK or TWITTER and sign up to our emails on the right hand side for articles straight to your inbox.
 
Any questions/thoughts/experiences of your own??? Leave a comment below!
 
Have a great week!
 
FD LOGO
Check out our previous CASE STUDIES
Check out our SERVICES

3 thoughts on “IN CONVERSATION: COLL ANDERSON (Sound Designer for NOAH, FARGO etc)

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: