A Dummies Guide To Sound Design In Film By National Award Winner Anish John

Anish John, who has worked in films such as "Trapped" and "Pari", explains the craft of sound designing, why it is a good time for the profession in India, and the importance of silence on a film set
A Dummies Guide To Sound Design In Film By National Award Winner Anish John

Sound design is one of the less obvious elements of cinema. But a potent one, which if used seriously, is capable of film history. The cool, muted buzz of the light saber in George Lucas's Star Wars; an accidental distortion caused by a TV when sound designer Ben Burtt was passing by it with his recorder. The unforgettable helicopter sound merging into "This is the End" in the opening scene of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Its sound designer Walter Murch was the first to be designated the title, which legitimised the art in filmmaking (before that it existed as editors and mixers, and was treated less seriously). "A sound designer," it was defined, "is an individual ultimately responsible for all aspects of a film's audio track, from the dialogue and sound effects recording to the re-recording (mix) of the final track."

The place of sound design in Indian cinema is its own story, where the awareness came even later. But one of the things Indian cinema has become increasingly adept at is technical sophistication. And one of the people who is making that happen is sound designer Anish John. Think about the scene in Trapped, where Rajkummar Rao's character tries to use a pincer (chimta) to break the door when he realises that he has been locked-in, in an empty high-rise, all alone. As the pounding becomes more desperate, and assumes a rhythm, it becomes difficult to tell where sound design ends and music begins — the soundscape starts reflecting the character's state-of-mind. Fewer people would have seen the wordless Labour of Love, for which he won a National award. He worked in the recent horror film Pari, and is finishing Netflix's series Sacred Games.

Anish used to be the vocalist and rhythm guitarist in a rock band when he was studying in St Xavier's College, Kolkata. Then, he says, he started getting interested in the sonic aspect of music: Why does it sound better when you place the microphone at a certain spot, when does it get too boomy? What position sounds best? About processing sound, exploring delays and reverbs. He got enrolled in the Film and Television Institute of India to learn more about sound recording – where he got drawn towards the world of cinema, rather than music. Now his guitar lies stringless in his Malad studio.

We asked Anish to tell us everything about the sounds we hear but don't listen to. A sort of "Dummies guide" to sound design.


Sound design can be divided into the following departments: Sync sound (on location recording), foley, sound editing, and dubbing. I have different teams working on them, and it all comes together in the final mix. Let's take the example of Trapped to illustrate why we need sound design. It is a story of a man who gets locked in a flat in an empty high-rise in Mumbai. We aren't supposed to hear much sound from the streets, since the apartment is 35 floors high, it should feel very isolated. This was the requirement of the script… But in reality it was noisy as crazy; it was right in the middle of three busy streets, and all that sound would converge to the top. Through sound design, rather the lack of it, we had to cut down and make it seem sparse and quiet, so that Shaurya (Rajkummar Rao) feels like he is by himself, otherwise the audience would feel, "There are people around. It can't possibly be that difficult to find help. What is he getting so worried about?"

So we had to reduce those sounds in post-production. Why did we have to record sound on location in the first place? Technically we can recreate everything later in the studio, but the kind of tonality you get by capturing sound on-location is special: Record everything on location and then take a call if it is good enough to be used later or not. In Trapped, we recorded the dialogues of Shaurya, and some of the ambient sounds. The shoot of the film happened during the Navratri festivities, we recorded those sounds on location, which we were able to use on a shot of him sitting and staring at some celebration happening down below him. We would record any interesting ambient sounds that we would think might fit in the design: TV smashing down from the top floor, Shaurya setting fire to a mattress, sounds of Shaurya beating the pan on the grill of his balcony.

You might be shooting inside a room but you want it to seem like it is raining outside, even though it actually isn't. So in post production you add effects of rain and thunder. We have our library of sounds, some of it which we record ourselves. Or say, if you have a shot of a person walking and delivering his/her dialogue, we don't want the footsteps overlapping the lines. The priority on location is to get clean dialogues. We try and dampen the footsteps by putting foam under the shoes of the actors. Then we add footsteps in the foley — the foley team matches the images later and recreate the sound in perfect sync. Now the dialogue we record on location might not be clean because the mic the actor wore might have been rubbing his shirt and creating a noise. We need to cut out the noise and make sure the voice is clear and audible. This process is called dialogue editing.

In Trapped, Shaurya screams from his apartment which no one is able to hear. In reality, when Rajkummar was screaming, people were looking up and asking "What's wrong?" Then Rajkummar started miming because he didn't want to get distracted by the reactions from people. So we made Rajkummar do some of the screaming again in dubbing, for situations where his voice changes from different degrees of strain, fatigue, tiredness to completely losing his voice. Then we patched it into the original recordings from location and made sure it matched that.


The final mix, is where I sit back and watch the film like the audience would, and try not to worry about something like, if the footsteps in a scene are missing. To ensure this, I try and do a very comprehensive pre-mix. In the mixing stage we have the film locked and we know exactly the kind of mood we want to achieve. So you take calls like if you want to make something sharper, bassier, or muffle something. Or how loud or soft the background score should be. Or if there's something dramatic, how big the thunder clap should sound — Pari, for example, is full of thunders.

I try not to add too many things in the mixing stage, so that we use our time mixing rather than changing things around. This is a practice that has also been shaped by the expensive rates of mixing studios in Mumbai, where you have to pay about Rs 4-5 thousand per hour. But that's probably not how it is in the South, where the real estate rates are cheaper and one could afford to spend more time mixing a film. Here we have to make the best of the limited time we have.

Back in the 90s we used to wonder, "Why don't our films have the quality that Hollywood films have?" I think a large part of that was the sound. Typically in the 80s and 90s — and that kind of work happens in some cases even today — it will be actors talking, music playing, and there was very minimal ambience work. It used to feel very flat and two dimensional.  


Back in the 90s we used to wonder, "Why don't our films have the quality that Hollywood films have?" I think a large part of that was the sound. Typically in the 80s and 90s — and that kind of work happens in some cases even today — it will be actors talking, background music playing, and there was very minimal ambience work. It used to feel very flat and two dimensional. As an audience you wouldn't be able to pin point the problem, but it would overall not feel right. Up until the last 15-20 years, our films didn't travel well internationally because the sound wasn't organic enough. From their point of view, these were technically poor films.


One of the main reasons for the poor sound in older Bollywood films was that there was no practise of "sync sound recording", which is on-location sound (everything was dubbed). The only recording that happened on location was a very basic, often noisy recording of the dialogues which could only be used as a reference for dubbing later. It was a low-paying, neglected job that wasn't taken very seriously. For the longest time, people on the set didn't have respect for people recording sound on-location. My seniors like Resul Pookutty did a lot in terms of changing that during the 90s; he fought all those battles for us when he must have had to go and explain to every single person on set that he was not recording a reference, but something that would be used in the final film. People like him brought in respectability and awareness toward our craft.

This wasn't always the case. Sync sound was used back in the 50s but then as films moved out of studios, and cameras became portable and noisier, it became more difficult. Only a handful of people like Shyam Benegal used sync sound. Sync Sound, kind of, exploded into mainstream films with the success of Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai (2001) — both by Nakul Kamte.


The nature of my job is such that I can't achieve it all by myself. Even if anybody is standing in the corner and talking quietly, my mics are powerful enough to pick that up. Even if there is one production boy who doesn't understand this and continues making his chai in the middle of the shot, thereby making a fair bit of unwanted noise, it can can mess up the work of the sound designer. To ensure this doesn't happen, we have a team of security people wearing these safari suits who monitor the sets. They are usually these big intimidating guys who sometimes have to manage large crowds of unruly onlookers and make sure everyone stays quiet during the shot. It's a very tough job but they are super efficient. It's great to have them help me out.

In order to do my work I need the cooperation of everyone working on a film. When you have an actor or director pushing for good sound, it becomes easier. Aamir Khan is amazing. He doesn't like to dub as he thinks it compromises the quality of the film. So people on his sets are extra careful. One of the greatest joys, to me, is to see directors and actors becoming sensitive to sound. Irrfan Khan, for instance, who I have worked with in Karwaan— which has almost no dubbing. If he is in the middle of a dialogue and there is the sound of a horn that interrupts him, instead of continuing with his dialogue, he takes a pause, lets the sound of the horn die out and then incorporates that pause into his performance.

Hollywood has the resources, time and money to either create an environment perfect for sync sound recording. They could clear out an entire area, like they did in Times Square for that one shot in Vanilla Sky. We have to work around what is available to us. As in the case of the Netflix TV series Sacred Games, which has a very chaotic soundscape. In the parts we shot in the slums of Dharavi, where it used to get really noisy, sometimes we just had to shoot with all the noise around us and retain some of it in the final edit. Thankfully it fit right in, since we are trying to depict a very real version of the city with all its noises in place. We give it our best shot and get the best possible recording with the resources we have.


Everybody instantly connects to cinematic visuals because its right there for you to see. Most people don't understand sound design easily because, it's less obvious. You use actors, the camera, editing, sound, costumes and make up, to tell a story, to create an experience. These are tools we have available to us to achieve that and if you choose to not use one of those tools then you are probably not being as effective as you could ideally be.

One can create an entire character we never see, through sound. Like we did in Pari for the character of Ifrit, the jinn. We created a grunting-like sound for him — we dubbed the voice of this big guy who has gigantism and plays giants in movies, made his voice heavier and deeper. So it becomes less human and more demon like. Through the film it becomes a familiar element for the audience so that every time the sound comes, they know Ifrit is coming.

A lot of directors go through the process of making a film and realise the significance of sound only in the post-production stage, and they sometimes say "We should have been more careful while shooting". Not everyone learns and many go back to the same routine because when you are shooting you have a different set of priorities, like dealing with the mood of the actor, or a difficult location, coordinating hundreds of background artists. Sound isn't the top priority sometimes and that's understandable. We should be prepared to work around such situations.


Personally for me, if a scene has a guy walking into a room, I don't want to be focussing on his footsteps so much as I need to feel him entering the room. It shouldn't be so low as to not hear him at all, but it shouldn't be too loud to distract me. Sometimes big commercial films tend to overdo the sound, because they are trying to create a larger-than-life experience, a hero's entry kind of situation, to which our audience responds in a certain way. But for Labour of Love, for instance, which was meant more for European audiences who would be watching it in a quieter environment, in nice acoustically designed theatres, I opted for a more real approach.


There has been a shift in sensibilities in Indian films. For the dubbing of Trapped, there were times when I'd need Rajkummar to come in to the studio for just one scream. Most actors would find the idea crazy. But he realised this is a very special film and everything in it needs to be perfect. Sound design stands out in films like Labour of Love and Trapped because they rely very heavily on the aural environment of the characters. Filmmakers like Aditya Vikram Sengupta and Vikramaditya Motwane think about sound from the writing stage itself, so we have the idea of a very comprehensive soundscape already in place right from very early stages in the filmmaking process.

For Labour of Love, people from Kolkata wrote to me saying that they noticed the sound design in a film for the first time in their lives. This could possibly be because the film had almost no background score or dialogue. The sound design was at the forefront. Indian films generally rely very heavily on Background Score and Dialogue. This is usually the main point of focus in our films. The score underlines the emotion and the dialogues provide the information, while also generating emotion. We minimized the reliance on both and instead used Sound design. Which is perhaps why people noticed it more.

Even after one round of the edit design was done, I went to Kolkata to record sounds which I felt needed to be added. I wanted a scene at the printing press to be more loud and noisy, and recorded the buttons and levers and different kind of machines of the press with my 12-track recording device. I recorded sounds of trams, buses, voices of the bus conductor, fish markets, old ceiling fans, wooden doors and windows that you now only find in Kolkata. My producers on the film agreed that this was required and backed my decision, rather than cut costs. This is the kind of support that helps make a good film.


I am lucky to have worked on films such as Trapped and Labour of Love, but even in commercial cinema, you can do little things with sound design which are impactful. There is this famous story about Sholay. The sound designer Mangesh Desai realised that the mountain setting of the film would mean the gunshots will have to sound like it's reflecting off the hills. The result was the dhishkiyaoeee kind of sound which we hear in the film; it's another thing that for the next 10-15 years the same sound was used in many Hindi films, every time a gun was fired, regardless of the setting. Whether it was inside a room, in the open desert, out at sea, inside an airplane or wherever. Thankfully that isn't the case anymore.

Some of the people whose work I admire are Ben Burtt, Randy Thom, Walter Murch to name a few. Closer home, Hareendranath Dwarak Warrier — who now works for Dolby. He had worked on Bhoot which had that really startling sound of the bell every time it rang and the way he used the bikes and the score in Dhoom was also very interesting. There is a lot of scope for sound design in action films. The more real it sounds, the more real the audience will perceive it as being. For the longest time in Hindi cinema, they used to make that Dhishum sound with the mouth for punches in action sequences. Now its funny to imagine doing it that way. I keep referencing the action scenes in Fight Club where they created the sounds of the fights by punching huge chunks of meat hanging in front of a microphone — The films of David Fincher and Coen brothers films have great sound design.

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