The viewing of a film by the entire crew, held near the end of every cinematic mix, is where you first get a general idea about how the uninterrupted film chimes with all its sound elements. It is also the moment when the concept behind the soundtrack design is fully exposed. This viewing is particularly crucial for score composers, since the musical work is initially done only against a “dirty” soundtrack with unpolished cuts, without any effects and ambiance sounds, and with dialogues in alternating volumes as well as other distractions for the mind and the ear. And now, the music is heard for the first time in its proper environment. I get a little tense around these viewings, and if the soundtrack designer is someone I have not worked with before, I am especially on edge. That was the case with For My Children by Michal Aviad in 2001, when I first met Aviv Aldema. The film was hard to crack. A whole array of home movies spreading over more than half a century, in varying styles, from silent black-and-white, through ancient 8-millimeter in color, on to Michal's home footage that was taken not long before work on the movie started. The music was varied accordingly and so was the use of music – from a melodic score that completely fills up the screen in absence of dialogue, to quiet, enveloping atmosphere sounds. And Aviv had to mold this jumble into one coherent soundtrack that makes sense, that preserves the stylish chaos concocted by the late editor Dani Itzhaki, while keeping it from feeling like a cinematic disaster area – quite a challenge. After that viewing, the yellow notepad I had, which I usually fill with dozens of notes, remained blank. What's more, Aviv managed to significantly improve many cues, whether by more accurate placement or by gentle manipulation of volume in accordance with other soundtrack componentsor by actual editing. I never know to what extent cooperation with a soundtrack designer can contribute to the finished work. Over the years, working together on dozens of pictures, we got to chatting quite a lot about the philosophy of sound, but only for this edition of Takriv did we finally have the chance to sit down for a long, leisurely talk without being interrupted every few minutes by directors calling us from the mixing room.
The first time you won the Ophir Soundtrack Design Award for Close to Home (Karov la-Bayit, Vardit Bilu and Dalia Hager 2005), you wrapped up your speech with, “Thank you for listening.” I think this sentence reflects a deep truth: being listened to is not to be taken for granted. Can you tell me about this feeling, which score writers share too, when you open a newspaper and read a two-page review of a movie you toiled over for months, and it does not even mention the soundtrack? Can you speak about this huge discrepancy between the significance and importance of your work and the attention it gets when people talk about the film?
I mostly blame myself for that because I try really hard to conceal my work all the time.
This is a little evasive don't you think?
I am not evading. This is the honest-to-god truth: If after seeing a movie, I say, “Excellent soundtrack,” I know that something was off with the movie.
Aren't you exaggerating? Should the soundtrack be that invisible, always, totally?
I am not saying it should. There is no should. The thing is that the soundtrack's impact will not be as effective if it is noticed. That is to say, it is at its best, at full capacity, when it affects the subconscious, when it manipulates you undetected and you are never aware that something happened to you. Then it is a very powerful device.
How do you aim for the subconscious?
I keep looking for more and more techniques for obscuring my work. It is of course very specific to a film, but sometimes a cut from terrible noise to silence does one thing, and sometimes the very same cut, in a different context will have the exact opposite effect. I take this kind of thing, which seems random and does not count as “the effect of sound,” to be the most potent tool at my disposal. It can do things that images cannot do. You can penetrate places without anyone sensing your presence. You infiltrate places that people can’t access.
And this is in a time when fascistic, conspicuous sound is taking over, and not just in reality shows.
I strive for the exact opposite of what's happening on reality shows or on television in general. There, everything is in your face. This should make you happy, this should make you sad. Even before a person opens his mouth, you hear this tender piano, and you already know that his mother died and his grandmother is a prostitute. They don't wait a second.
Which makes the achievement of the Close to Home soundtrack even more impressive. It is a full-length feature film with just one explosion.
When movies compete for loudness, each one literally carries its own artillery. When you come up with a movie in which missiles shoot through the air, you are most likely to win. I want to win with a mute film, a film whose value is its quietness. And every year I come up with this kind of film and…
This reminds me of that story about Levi Eshkol. Someone once noticed in a printout of one of his speeches a written line saying, “Here speak up. The argument is weak.”
It works the other way around too. Sometimes they ask me to turn down an actor's voice because he's shouting. And if I turn the volume down, he won’t be shouting? He'll still be shouting; it's a question of intonation, of body language even. How will it help if I turn it down? Will he act better if I quiet him? He will act badly in lower volume.
These unreasonable requests you get, how do you handle them emotionally? I mean, you are in one of the last echelons, even higher up than I am. You work with people who are nervous wrecks and above all you have to be a kind of therapist, extremely sensitive.
Absolutely. I can't state numbers, but a large part of my work has nothing to do with sound. It has to do with directors getting the feeling that I am somehow at the helm, that I understand them, that I provide the answers they need at this highly delicate time. It is a time, on one hand, of utter exhaustion and a feeling of satiation from all the strife they have faced, and on the other hand, of tremendous reluctance to let go. They experience a sort of abandonment anxiety that the project will leave them and at the prospect of having to create a new film. The ability to be with them at this very difficult juncture is essential, vital even, for this job.
I want to ask about the loneliness of soundtrack designers.
Directors hang around the visual editing room quite a lot. And I think video editors really need this interaction and the creative process of constructing the film along with the director. Many soundtrack designers are like that too. They work with the director and build up the soundtrack together. It's understandable, but with me it's sort of the opposite, and sometimes it costs me dearly. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I'll say that I don't feel truly free to do what I want when someone is sitting next to me. And honestly, I am not talking about control or desire to do things on my own. I just constantly feel his or her eyes and ears. I know that when I am not alone I work differently. I take heed too much. If, for example, I am looking for a car engine sound effect in some library and start browsing through, and then one of the effects has a door closing instead of an engine sound—you hear this thump in the room and the director immediately asks, “What do you need that for?!” and I apologetically reply, “No no, I don't, it's just.. I… by accident…”. The fact that I have to account for everything, even when it is not really required, makes me feel like I constantly have to explain myself, which slows me down and mostly alters my work. It impedes my precision, hinders me, stops me from surprising myself. All in all, I have much less freedom. When I am by myself, I can tolerate anything, fool around, go wild, and I don't have to answer to anyone. Eventually, I usually discard most of the experiments and go back to something more sensible, but when someone is in the room with me, I feel like I have to be more mature and responsible from the start. But despite all that, in recent years I have learned to let directors in on earlier stages of my work – it has a lot of advantages in terms of efficiency, meeting tight schedules; and, of course, the exchange of ideas enabled this way can take the soundtrack to very interesting places.
You always say, “I am not a technician, I don't like buttons.”
I often regret not having any formal education in sound (although I probably couldn't have learned it). To obtain the position of “sound engineer” you have to know about electronics, to really understand all kinds of mathematical formulas.
And you shy away from it because… ?
I got a B in my level-3 math matriculation exam, which was incredible. It was probably owing to one math teacher who smoked reefers with us in senior year, which made us achieve something. Choosing this kind of profession was never even an option for me.
Is it fear that this kind of education will kill your creativity, that if you delve too deep under the hood you might forget how to drive?
Possibly. But it is mostly because I find it kind of boring. It is an area where I feel inept, perhaps a bit insecure. I seem to have some kind of technical aptitude, but a very basic one.
How do you stay up to date?
You know, if I could do sound with a box of matches, a bouquet of flowers and an ax that would be fine by me. If I could think about a soundtrack and through some plug-in people would just hear what I'm thinking, that would be good too. A computer is a working aid and often an impediment. I don't get excited whenever a new version of Pro Tools is released. For me it's just a hastle. Not that I don't enjoy the improvements eventually. Since Pro Tools 10, for example, there are no hardware limitations. You can start large complicated projects on a laptop. For example, I edited all the music for The Congress (Ari Folman, 2013), we're talking dozens of channels, during flights. I would sit with my laptop on my knees, listen in my headset and edit. It's amazing. It's a whole lot of fun, but it is certainly not the most important thing.
So let's talk about what's important: films. Let's start with Invisible (Lo Roim Alayich, Michal Aviad 2011) – a kind of docu-fiction- hybrid, a film I really like, among other reasons, for its soundtrack, which I find to be distinctly you.
It's funny that you picked that one out. I see it as pure fiction, and have to remind myself that it contains some documentary elements. Not just the storyline, but the use of real people's voices, real women. But any demand, which I make of myself or which others make of me, to be more faithful to reality in a documentary than in a fiction does not really apply. A soundtrack for documentary should sound just as good and be just as effective, suitable and touching as a soundtrack for fiction, by whatever means possible.
In the documentary Aretz Acheret (Amit Goren, 1998) there's a scene shot in Nuweiba whose recording was unusable because of the harsh sound of wind on the microphone. We reconstructed all of it in the studio – talking, ambiance, the video game Sarit was playing etc. I argue that the film's sound is much closer to reality than the actual field recording. After all, the reality outside the film does not have microphones jarred by wind.
And another example, In Tomer Heyman's Aviv (2013), Aviv Geffen is getting ready to go on stage, and we wanted to convey that feeling of anticipating excitement and tension; all the sounds of the crowd in the background is an add-on (that we took from other concerts). In reality, the sound recording in that scene was quiet and pretty boring.
And back to Invisible. What I can note about its being a “hybrid” is the way the soundtrack helps create the feeling that it's a true story. I think it is because a fully conscious choice has been made in this soundtrack, out of thoughtful deliberation, that it should be harsh. It doesn't embellish and never tries to appease the viewer in any way — sometimes on the contrary. It is very urban, very tough, and not for technical reasons. The film was in fact very well recorded, nice and quiet (by Moty Hefetz). Most of the noise you hear in this film, the city noise, is made up and added—
The freedom to make dirty—
Exactly. And the possibility of using this dirty noise to relay the feeling of two women being encircled by something troubling that's closing in on them. And by the way, this is a film I call “a fade-out film”; it starts loud and ends in total silence. If you watch the levels, you see that they continually descend throughout the film.
Just the ambiance or the dialogues too?
In the feel of it, I mean, the feeling of a load that keeps diminishing little by little all the time. The film clears away interferences as it goes along.
And without any music.
When I first got involved, somewhere between script writing and filming, there was talk about music. I thought it should have very little, but it should have some nonetheless. There were others who thought the same, including Michal, who wanted to explore this matter. And some work was done, even some sketches written, but none really hit the target. Maybe if some music came along that was completely in tune with the feeling we tried to convey, this film would have music. But none presented itself, and probably for good reason. It's a really hard film to write music for, and I guess it was destined to remain without any.
Is there any consistent, basic view you hold regarding the use of music in cinema?
If you can't write more than three A4 pages in tight hand writing defending a musical cue you chose to include, it is probably unnecessary. It should be extremely well explained. Music is a very powerful device and should be used wisely and prudently.
I want to switch modes and discuss your work on Life as Rumor (Ha-Hayim ke-Shmua, Adi Arbel 2012). You are also credited as musical editor there. It is loaded with music, and not any music, library music. The trouble is that the whole thing sounds great. It all requires an in-depth account.
I had started meeting with the series directors, Adi Arbel and Moish Goldberg, about two years before we began the actual work. And it was always clear that some kind of clever musical rendering was in order. I really wanted a musician to join the entire production, especially because I thought we could be quite smart about it, seeing as there was tons of musical material tucked in the subject matter of the film, with reference to various epochs in Assi Dayan's life, say his growing up in Nahalal, the Jesreel Valley, then the army and the defense forces, then the ‘67 war along with all the euphoria that followed, and then of course all the songs from the films he made as well as from later times. What I wanted most was to have a musician write an original score, but one that integrates in a sophisticated way with popular music. For example, that there would be nostalgic music when he speaks about his childhood in Nahalal and intertwined in it would be one line out of Shir ha-Emek which would lead to some other original theme. I was keen on this smart combination of original and non-original music, but it was very hard to find a musician who could do the original parts well and also be able to write the covers. There were budget considerations too – this person would have stayed on the project for a very long time, since the editing took so long. And it meant putting them on a proper payroll too, since they would have to write “wall-to-wall” music for three chapters over two years.
Why wall-to-wall actually?
It was clear that the soundtrack would be based on Assi's voice, and when you base something on narration, except for relatively long archive pieces here and there – and even these are usually not longer than 30 seconds – you must have music, especially if manyof the visuals are silent images. Assi's narration is full of expression and character, but it needs a lot of support in terms its emotional impact, which the music aptly provided. Sometimes the music even seems to invoke interpretations that don't coincide with the narrator's intonation.
I won't let you off the hook regarding the library music issue.
It started from some reference that Adi and Moish picked up — a few opening guitar chords I think from a Johnny Cash song. Just something that one of them heard and thought, hey that's good. They put it in, but it was too short, so they doubled it in a loop, and suddenly something in those acoustic guitar notes really caught my ear. I searched and realized that libraries have plenty of stuff. I looked for very specific pieces and constrained the search to a very particular kind of music. I didn't go overboard with the quantities because it was very important for me to maintain the sense that, despite everything, there's a continuous line, as if someone was writing us music. I gave them about ten pieces to use in the video editing. Then of course it came back to me. I edited it more precisely and gave it back with instructions: this cut should be moved, this music should be embedded like so, etc. They had another go and returned it to me, I had another go and returned to them. Finally, when there was already a fine cut, I edited again. So there were three rounds of editing, and in the final version there is almost always more than one theme playing. I take for example a guitar line from one track, make a pad for it from something else, sometimes add drums from some effects library, and edit it in.
: Before moving on to Waltz with Bashir, a word on The Stuff of Love (Hachomer she-Mimeno Asuya ha-Ahava, Ari Folman 2003). It seems like the brilliant solution of using animation there was a precursor for the animation in Waltz.
The decision to “animate” the experts in that series was made after the fact. The original intention was to include their sequences as normal footage in the series. What happened in practice was that it couldn't be put together because it came out too ridiculous – scientists talking in full earnest about the chemistry of love vis –a-vis the series’ protagonists' astounding love stories. And then Ari Folman came up with the idea of drawing them. It was a sort of solution to the problem of how to fit them in while emphasizing the complete detachment of their decisively “scientific” assertions from the reality we are about to see. The animation technique was developed for this series and was later substantially improved for Waltz with Bashir (2008).
As sound goes, that the series was not shot with the idea of animation in mind created a problem. We realized that sounds that are considered legitimate in a normal documentary, even if a little loud, are a lot worse with animation. Suddenly the room tone becomes a lot more conspicuous and disruptive, clashing with the animation's sterility. It was also limiting because if the person was recorded on the beach, you would have to draw them on a beach, otherwise the sound of waves is inexplicable, and the same goes for passing cars etc.
These realizations helped us a lot with Waltz with Bashir. By then we had the sense to bring interviewees to the studio to film and record them in a neutral, quiet environment, so that later you can draw whatever you want around them.
So about Waltz, with all the explosions and racket around, what can an advocate of the undertone such as yourself do in the midst of a raging war?
We asked this question from day one: are we going to make it into an American war movie with big sound it or not? The answer is somewhere in between. We were extremely careful not to overdo it, to avoid by any means an Oliver Stone kind of movie. I was meticulous about having firing weapons sound just like real weapons firing, and when possible also a little dirty and documentary like. There are hardly any sound elements that are larger than life, even in the biggest battle scenes. Generally, there's a lot of restraint in the soundtrack, but it is naturally very rich, and the mix is in surround-sound, which gives it a little more like a feature-film sound, slightly bigger than regular television drama or documentary.
By the way, have you made any film without restraint?
The Debt (Assaf Bernstein, 2007), on which you and I worked together is not very restrained. Its soundtrack is very bombastic. I think the film just needed it. I recently finished work on two films: Haganenet (Nadav Lapid, 2014) and Princess (Tali Shalom-Ezer, 2014). They are very different, but in both, each in its way, the soundtrack is very present and far from restrained.
But back to restraint, Waltz contains an excellent example of the force of musical absence. About an hour into the movie the simple chronology of the massacre begins. Up to that point, it’s a patchwork of recollections, some from other places, like Roni Dayag swimming in the sea and Karmi on the love boat, that sort of thing. But it does not touch on the massacre and what happened there. After an hour or so the style shifts a little. It becomes more like documentary, almost like a news report. Ron Ben-Yishai walks in, people are sitting around in the background like it's a studio. There's a tank commander describing how his tank parked and surveyed the camp, how the Phalange men entered the camp, how they knew or didn't know what was going on inside. The phone call to Arik Sharon… there was music written for all of that. It was music that on one hand kept up the action and on the other hand was a little like an underlying carpet, something electronic and a little rhythmic like in the IDF radio news bulletins.
This lasted until the final mix. Then we got to the mixing room in Berlin. A large 5.1 surround room. We kept having the feeling that something wasn't quite right there. Lucky for me, this movie wasn't made like other documentaries, but like a feature film. Everything was covered as far as sound details go: ambiances, effects, and Foleys for everything.
It was all covered, you mean also things you might not use? A sort of contingency?
It wasn't a question of contingency. When you make a motion picture of a certain caliber, it goes without saying, you prepare sound for everything. You don't even discuss what's in and what's out with the effects and Foley artists. Anything you see in the visuals will be rendered in sound, even complementary out-of-frame elements. When you get to mixing, everything is ready for you, so you don't have to make decisions in advance. Everything is there. What happened in that part of the film was that we simply muted the music in that scene we just saw.
It just happened, really. Up until that moment there's a lot of music, a score and songs and all kinds of commotion. But from this moment until the exposure of the massacre, when Ron Ben-Yishai goes into the camp and sees the bodies, about 20 minutes, a whole reel, there is no music. This is rare in Ari Folman's films and in this one in particular. It suddenly turned this part into something very real and chilling. I think this is one of the reasons that many people reach the end of it breathless. There is something about it that draws you in and slams the picture right in your face without pressing any button.
And there's another example I'd like to show.
All the voices you hear are authentic voices of Palestinian women filmed in the refugee camp by various news crews. We took a lot of sound bytes from these reportages and edited them. The whole scene was animated, albeit after the footage, but we had to create the soundtrack virtually from scratch. What we did – Adrian Baumeister, the dialogue editor from Berlin who was working with me, and I— was create a unique voice for each woman. We actually went over them one by one saying this will be hers, that will be the other's, using real voices of Palestinian women taken, as mentioned, from news reports about the massacre in Sabra and Shatila. We built it all in 5.1 mix, that is to say, there was practically the spatial feel of a tracking shot, where the voices come from the right and from the left, from the front and from behind. It was a spectacle. It felt like being surrounded by all these voices that keep on passing by from every direction. It was truly hypnotic. We sat and watched it in this elaborate mixing room, and it was magnificent in terms of sound display. After enjoying that work so much, we took the entire piece, folded it up to mono, and centered everything.
How long did you work on that part?
At least two full days. We gave up the spectacle for two reasons, both, of course, with the benefit of the film in mind. One was that it was a bit demeaning. It suddenly sounded really fake. The other was that from that part there was a cut to the women actually screaming there, all recorded in mono, and it was crucial to make it clear that they are the same screams and shouts. If we had gone from this big show and abruptly collapsed to mono, the entire ending would not have been as strong as it was in the final version.
Another hybrid project you did was The Accursed (ha-Mekulalim, Hagai Levi 2014), a documentary-like fiction series based on real events and characters.
Luckily, the production crew caught on pretty early that we would have to search longer than usual for a soundtrack to suit this kind of thing. Hagai and I watched each and every episode in the various mixes four or five times, correcting iterations. Then he went and recorded the narration again and came back, then he adjusted the visuals, and so on. It was all intermingled, a very enjoyable and creative process.
What tactics did you employ to make it seem more like a documentary?
First of all this is a chance to apologize to Moti Hefetz who recorded it. I was never handed a television drama series so well recorded. It was truly a masterpiece. It was very high quality, clean and all, and the actors' voices sounded just great. Every actor with his own mike, as you would record a top notch feature film. And then it was given to me, and one of the main things I did was find ways to make it sound awful. I messed it up, really, because it had to match footage filmed in various extinct formats. What I actually did was constantly remind myself of problems I used to have as a sound editor years ago, trying to understand where they come from and how they arise. But that didn’t really work either. It was too brainy to say, OK, this voice comes from behind the camera so it should be off-mike in that direction. That was missing the point completely, since most real technical problems I come across, especially in documentaries by the way, are inexplicable. Why on earth isn't he heard?! The microphone is right next to his mouth, and it sounds terrible! And, how can it be in distortion? Why does his voice change and break up mid sentence?!… You can never say why these things happen. I decided that this arbitrariness of things that happen on sets is part of game, and it is part of what would eventually make it sound authentic. So I took quite a lot of liberty with more savage, less realistic, random mutilation of the materials. Of course, basically, for a VHS sound I took this VHS-like hiss, including a very high frequency screech, and I just laid it on top of everything that was shot in VHS with some drops here and there. For the eight-millimeter sequences we found a slightly different hiss. We eliminated certain frequencies so as to mimic low quality. Often old materials have “holes” in their sound, so every now and again, completely at random, I just cut out a frame in the dialogues. And of course, scratched-film sounds etc.
true art department work. Like reconstructing window curtains from the sixties.
It is a form of restoration, only reversed. I found myself employing techniques I had never used before, looking for solutions I had never had to look for. I completely reinvented myself in this series. You go to work in the morning and you find yourself doing, in a way, the opposite of what you’re accustomed to do. I would take a clean track and spoil it until Hagai Levi, the director, would stop me and say, “Hey that's too much, it's getting uninterpretable”. By the way, one of the bad reviews I got was on the sound in that series. Moran Sharir wrote in Haaretz about how he fell for this trick and how could it be that he didn't realize it was fiction, seeing as he knows that recording in those days wasn't that good. I mean, if he thought the recordings were good, it means my destruction work totally failed despite the unimaginable levels of distortions I used there.
In your line of work you penetrate deep into certain situations. You can hear the same phrase about a hundred times. How can you keep a fresh perspective when zooming in is so integral to your work?
This is not entirely accurate because since I've started working with a team, I don't go into such resolutions on a daily basis. All the bits and pieces are handled beforehand, at the effects and Foley level, as well as at the dialogue level, of course under my close direction and supervision. But it's not like I microscopically magnify every little bit of sound. I do it while mixing though, but only in very specific spots where something doesn't sound right. The mixing process is a little different; it does maintain a wider perspective, and I make sure to see the whole picture. If I have been working on some sequence, plowing it over and over endlessly, I insist on stopping, rolling five minutes back and watching it in context. Otherwise you really do lose your freshness.
Do you sometimes take a break and watch or listen to something else, to flush your ears clean?
Flushing the ears clean, no, but I do take a lot of breaks. Sometimes I find myself distractedly lingering in the kitchen, not making coffee. With movies that I find hard to work on, this happens all the time. I need recess from the mixing room, to walk around a little, breath, think. I don't listen to something else, but it is important for me to talk to people outside, to distance myself from it.
When you start working on a film early in the process, are you also involved in non-sound related aspects? Editing? Structure?
Yes. But not too much.
Less than you'd like?
I don't want to do it if no one wants me to. Usually at this point, if I can contribute to the story, it has nothing to do with my being a soundtrack designer. I am one of the people who are making the film, I'm not a sound man. Sound is not so interesting to me. Let me rephrase that more sharply: sound doesn't interest me at all, I mean the technical aspect of it, but also the more abstract aspects. My interests lie in the relation between sound and image, and what I care about is my contribution to the story, to the film. I come from cinema. Most of my colleagues are sound-men who found their way into cinematic sound design because they like doing it or because they couldn't find work in other fields or whatever reason. But they are originally sound people. They studied sound. I, for one thing, never really studied. But originally, fresh out of the army, I wanted to work in the movie industry. I thought of directing films, I thought of editing, and I ended up designing soundtracks.