Photo source: Stills from Here for Life - Source: Artangel
Here for Life is a documentary drama directed by Andrea Luka Zimmerman (Erase and Forget, Estate: A Reverie) and Adrian Jackson (Cardboard Citizens). Ten Londoners come together to share and act stories that fall between the cracks of truth and fiction, lies and boasts, memories and false memories, and that combine to agitate and meditate on the intimacy of a very public existence that we share, alone. Commissioned and produced by Artangel, Here for Life received its world premiere as an official selection at the Locarno Film Festival 2019, in the Filmmakers of the Present Competition, where it was awarded Special Mention. You can read some of my thoughts below on how the sound design came together for Here for Now. For more information about the film project visit: https://www.artangel.org.uk/project/here-for-life/
What did you learn working on this project?
Oh, so much, literally, and in different areas of the work that I do. It was in many ways the most complex project that I’ve done to date, certainly the most complex where I’ve had lead responsibility, so to speak, for the sound. So, there was quite a bit of the less creative stuff like budgeting and scheduling, dealing with audio post studios, getting quotes and negotiating with studios, that kind of stuff. I think one concept that was a little bit new for me, and that I only really thought about once everything was over, was that as the sound design lead I needed the capacity to see the big picture as well as the small details with regards everything to do with the sound. When you’re a sound effects editor or dialogue editor, or whatever, of course you’re thinking about how everything will come together, but you’re very much focused on your rolel With Here for Life, switching heads from small to big picture wasn’t something I did consciously at all, but looking back I I can realise that my head was working between those two different modes for much of the time.
One realisation, I suppose you could call it, that I discovered while working on this film is how important it is for me to be able to go back and record sounds in some of the original shooting locations. It’s something that I would always advocate and push for now, wherever possible. Partly because when you work in post-production, you are very rarely on set or on location, and having that material connection to what you’re working on, for me, I absolutely, positively gain something from that experience. Then, there is the very practical side of gathering useful and essential sounds that will help give credibility to the storytelling. The first time I did this actually was on a short film I worked on last year, The Bicycle Thief, and I don’t know if the directors thought I was crazy when I said I was going to drive from Surrey to Southend on my day off to spend a few hours wandering around the Adventure Island theme park recording sounds there, but the end result certainly justified it. Anyway, that was that, and so with Here for Life I was just really keen to get those 'hero' locations embedded in my senses more than anything, in addition to building a library of sounds that could be used. So, that was a lot of fun and deeply interesting. Visiting Billingsgate Market on the coldest day, well, early morning of the year. Actually, it was a few early mornings: I went around the Nomadic Gardens, which is one of the central locations of the film. Not inside, but all around the perimeter, which is so noisy during the day because you’ve got about four different metropolitan train and overground lines that cross over right there. But in the early morning you can hear the different trains; the older, really noisy clackety-clack ones, and then the newer, more drone-like ones, as well as the birds, and then the drifting sound of Whitechapel in the background.
I mean, I could go on and on about learning points! From a procedural point of view a really important lesson was this: for me, time is always one of the biggest things slowing me down, and with this project, although time was tight, it actually all wrapped up pretty neatly in the end, and I think that was because I had a basic tracklay of the whole film completed really quickly. So, even though the sound in a number of sequences may have been completed re-jigged and the soundscape, the sounds used and the sound purpose evolved during the audio post phase, the basic broth was there to be worked upon and extended, refined and finessed without stressing over a big massive gap in the soundtrack that you’ve got to hustle some time from somewhere to get finished. I’m convinced of the success of that point.
What pleases you most about the how the process and the soundtrack itself turned out?
I think the fact that we did it. I mean, no more, no less than that, really. At the beginning, when you’re brought in on a project and before you start work, everything is good, right? Everything is lovely and energy is high, and then on some projects you feel that energy and that focus ebbing away over time, and it can happen for different reasons. This was a pretty tough schedule - not the toughest, but it was demanding - but I always felt that it was possible to create the type of soundtrack that I had in my mind, and even at those points where I had a few doubts, mainly just doubts around getting it all finished in time, I trusted in my schedule that I had given myself enough time, even as time got chipped away by the various things that always crop up, I just took a deep breath and went again. That’s not a very interesting answer, I know. I suppose the more interesting answer is that what pleases me most is that the sound manages to be quite powerful whilst not at all overpowering, and that is, actually, what you always want - what I almost always want - to create with my work. So, that pleases me very much.
What’s your secret for success in terms of tying the sound design together? Were there many different elements to consider?
I think that one important thing is to be open to everything and not to shut ideas down too quickly, particularly on a project of this nature where one is kind of trying to avoid that which is obvious. A proposition might be a bad idea, but let’s try it and see. So, keeping that channel open with Andrea was very important, and making sure that both Andrea and Adrian knew that they could suggest things and that I would listen and consider honestly. It’s always interesting because sometimes you work with directors and they want everything bigger, more prominent, more noticeable, more in your face, and there are others who want everything dialled back, and who are wanting to get to a core - an essence - of simplicity. At the end of the day, I’m one of many interpreter-translators for how directors envisage their work, kind of like 100-odd people sewing their individual layer of a quilt together: you’re hoping that it’s all going to come together in the end. I try to allow creativity and personality to come out a bit in my interpretation, while providing a faithful and credible translation. The secret of success, in one sense, can be knowing which projects need dialling back and which ones needs pushing forwards.
Here for Life is a docu-drama, or a fantasy documentary film maybe, so truth in sound, however you interpret that, playing with what that may or may not mean, was an important part of the sound design process. So, although it’s got very much a documentary style in places, that doesn’t mean what you hear is always truthful, because it kind of depends what axis you’re working on, and this is one of the subtexts to the film itself. Of course there are the material elements of dialogue, sound effects, music (there isn’t a lot of music in the film), diegetic singing by the actors, sound design, but more subjective elements were also at plays, such as lightness and heaviness, intimacy and detachment, in terms of what the sound is trying to achieve.
You spoke a little bit about this earlier, but what was inspiring or particularly creative or interesting about the sounds that people will hear when they see this film?
Well, definitely I found the quest for simplicity very creative and interesting, but I’m not sure that’s something that I particularly want people to hear; they should just hear a film that works as what it is. But simplicity was one of the key creative tenets that we worked on with the sound. And this is not just a question of having very little sound in places; far more about selecting just the right sounds and just the right amount of sound that will that lend power to that simplicity, that will strengthen and support the images, bring clarity to the narrative, but also not be afraid to throw a spanner completely in the works at times. I guess what I’m saying is balance and simplicity are the two creative themes that are underpinning all of the sound design. Having said all of that though, there are a number of spots in the film where there was no production sound at all and so there were some sequences where there was quite a lot of sound holding everything up, but not giving the impression that was the case, and so the fun and creative part was to make something very simple from sometimes quite a layered bed of sounds. Ultimately, though, place and a sense of place is an important theme within the film, and so I would love for people to really feel where they are, spatially, when they watch it. That’s my hope, at least.
You recorded and performed all the Foley yourself for this film? Was that a little weird? Had you done that before?
Well, I’ve mixed and recorded quite a lot of Foley, usually working with a Foley Artist, and I’ve done bits of cloth tracks and specifics myself, of course. I really love mixing and recording Foley, and the way things ended up going with timing and budget, I felt that the least risky option was actually for me to do it all myself. This is such a particular and natural sounding film that I did have concerns about getting something back from a studio that was very good technically but just not what was needed in terms of texture more than anything, but also detail. My mind also went back to one project I edited Foley for that was recorded in a way that just sounded perfunctory, plus it was way too loud and just sticking out like a sore thumb all over the place, really hard to mix in, and sounded like it was done just to tick a box. Add this to the fact that a lot of places were reluctant to let me hire just their place and let me go in with a Foley Artist of my choosing (I can kind of understand that point of view), it made sense for me to hire out a small Foley studio for four days in the end, and do it all. I was most concerned about the steps and it taking forever, but thankfully there weren’t that many, and it was just quite a fun thing to do. It’s rare to do actual physical work, and Foley is very physical. It’s draining physically and mentally, and if I were to head into cliche territory I’d say that it’s somewhat akin to playing a musical instrument where both your body, and your props are the instruments. In terms of recording and performing, t’s not easy because you can’t really hear as well as you’d like to: I can’t hear as well as I could if I were only recording and mixing. It also means everything is recorded static, rather than my preference, which is to actually mix dynamically on VCAs while recording, which gives a really nice blended sound, and saves a ton of time on the back end. I was really, really pleased with how the Foley turned out, though.
Could you see yourself doing it again, performing and recording the Foley?
If the situation required I wouldn’t have any hesitation at all, because I enjoy it: it’s fun, it’s creative and it’s physically engaging, so what’s not to love? Having said that, I think it’s also cool to mark the Foley up and outsource it. Not outsourcing was definitely the best option for Here for Life, but it might not be for the next project.
Where can people see this film?
Well, as of now I’m not sure. There were some preview screenings held at the Nomadic Gardens in east London in June, and it had its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival (Switzerland) at the beginning of August, and will have a UK premiere at the Open City Documentary Festival on September 8th. I think in November it may screen in a few more places, so look out for it.