“There’s poetry in everything. Even in traffic.” It’s statements like this that led Jean Paulo Lasmar, writer/director of Thunderstorm to seek out Xiao’ou Olivia Zhang to supply the sound for this film. Zhang is a respected sound designer who has garnered acclaim in the film industry for her unique and creative approaches in the industry. Lasmar declares, “Olivia is a very clever, sensitive, and professional filmmaker and storyteller. She has worked on the film on set and in post. She knows how every aspect of filmmaking works and how they depend on each other. These skills give her a very mature and solid understand of story, emotion, and character, as well as production limitations. Due to this knowledge and proficiency, she was able to add different layers in Thunderstorm, through sound design and mixing, taking what we initially had and making it work by adding a personality to it, ultimately adding other layers to the story. Olivia was quickly persuaded to work on the film by Jean’s discussion of his interest in getting very creative with their approach to the cacophony that is downtown Los Angeles traffic and its personality in the film. For a sound designer like Zhang who finds her greatest excitement in the freedom that independent films afford, this easily became a production she wanted to be a part of creating. Olivia confirms, “He [Lasmar] came to me and said he wanted me to use sound to separate them [the two lead characters] and then to unite them together through these subjective moments. I couldn’t pass on the film because the story is so real and there’s so much I can do with sound to enhance the emotions.”
Thunderstorm is the story of Bella and Troy. Despite all the magic around their love story, they are no longer together. Broken hearted, Troy moved to LA to forget about Bella. Six months later, she arrives in town. One night when the universe gives him the signs, he tries to win her back. On a rooftop in downtown LA, during the first snowfall of the year, amidst manic traffic, the two deal with their emotions and differing perspectives of each other. While there is resolution to the film’s plot, what impacts the viewer is the way in which these two different people can perceive the exact same circumstances. This was the crux of Zhang’s work in Thunderstorm; to give the audience the sense of viewing the character’s emotions in a subtle way. Olivia reveals, “Sound design in drama gives a lot of freedom to craft emotions. I pick moments that are subjective and try to mimic the way our brain neutralizes our environment. When you are close to someone or want to be close with someone, your mind focuses on the sound of their clothes rustling instead of the traffic because it is the sound that this person makes. When you really want someone to stop talking and leave you alone, you hear more of the background sound while the foreground sound that’s the voice of the person becomes the irrelevant background noise. So balancing the loudness of each sound and choosing the sounds the character would hear the most give energy and feeling to these subjective moments. At the beginning, when Troy and Bella are on the roof, she really wants to leave. Viewing things from her perspective, you hear lots of traffic and noise because her focus is not there. Troy, on the hand, wants to stay and remember this last moment with her, so he hears the night wind blowing on the roof while the traffic is more of a distant wash. At the end of the film, when they both reach closure, the way they hear the world becomes similar. The traffic become less irritating for her and more realistic for him. Of course, these are all done in a very subtle way, sound design in this film is mainly to build the mood.”
Zhang often thinks of her work as relating to other art forms. Analogies are a way for her to inspire the creative approaches she is known for in the industry. She used this in her approach to the sound of traffic as she explains, “A bus in traffic always stands out because it has a distinguished squeaking sound of a higher frequency than general engine sounds. In sound design, when we put a bus in the distance on top of a traffic wash, it brings more life and energy to it. I think of it as music. It’s like a piano. The bus and occasional horn honks are like the melody of the right hand, and the traffic wash would be the left hand chords that support and carry on the life of the song.”
To access inspiration, Zhang keeps a journal in which she makes note of her life experiences, allowing her to access “triggers” that she can refer to resuscitate the emotional states she needs to impart. It’s something that goes back to her earliest memories of film and sound. Olivia recalls, “When I was 12, during summer break, I was bored and I started to go through my parents’ video collections. On one cover I saw a short-haired lady, dressed in red and smiling at me against a green background. I put it in the VCD player and immediately heard this beautiful accordion music playing on the menu page. I have played accordion 2 hours a day since I was 5. The sound of that instrument is like a brother to me. And that was the first time I heard an accordion in film or any kind of media. I felt electricity in my body that was followed by a great sense of comfort and happiness. It was a French film called Amélie by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The character Amélie does all these strange quirky things in a world full of color. I was so mesmerized and surprised that films can tell stories about people’s current life, and the current life is just as troubled and beautiful as it was in the past. Amélie carved the word “film” permanently in my heart. Nowadays when I think of film, I always see her and hear her faintly in the distance.” The poetry that Xiao’ou Olivia Zhang finds in common things like traffic sounds is obviously a product of the poetry that resides in her own heart.