When Chen Xu thinks back to his childhood, he fondly recalls the way in which his admiration for sound shaped his youth and ultimately, his career in sound mixing and sound design. For the highly sought-after sound designer, it is difficult to recall a time where sound design wasn’t his main passion. At the age of 17, Xu watched Forrest Gump and notes the experience as being the first time he ever truly fell in love with a film. It inspired him to focus on a career in sound design and gave him the confidence boost he needed to take the film industry by storm. The now 36-year old, award-winning creative is just as enthused about his art form today as he was back then. His life is enriched by the opportunity to do what he loves day in and day out and he has no desire to stop any time soon.
A typical day as a sound mixer and sound designer requires the skill and expertise to be able to record sound and mix it creatively. Although this may sound relatively straightforward, it is no small feat to achieve on a daily basis. For instance, when Xu works on set, he is required to carefully position microphones in such a way that will capture sound as clearly and concisely as possible. In addition, he must learn a film’s storyline inside and out in order to thoroughly understand the types of sounds that will complement the characters’ conquests. In addition, during the post-production process, Xu must awaken his creative tendencies and use them to apply sounds in the most unique, yet appropriate manner possible. Where Xu truly shines, however, is when he is tasked with location sound mixing for a film’s script. Knowing how to effectively capture sound in a complex location is what Xu does best. He is a master of extracting compelling sounds from a loud, busy location and ensuring that there is nothing compromising the sound in order to enhance an audience’s viewing pleasure.
“When I’m sound mixing, my work is more focused on creativity. I need to design some unique sound effects according to the images and the storyline before me. Then, I need to edit and record some foley and sound effects before I can arrange each sound element to fit perfectly into each moment within the film. All of these steps allow me to help develop and compliment the storyline” noted Xu.
In 2015, Xu was given a script for a film titled The Wasted Times, by well-known Chinese director, Er Cheng, who was confident that Xu possessed the skills necessary to take his script to the next level. Having already secured a $23.6 million budget and two of Asia’s most accomplished and award-winning stars, Ge You and Zhang Ziyi, Cheng was determined to make this film his most successful yet. In addition, he was intent on making the sound design in The Wasted Times unlike anything his audiences had ever heard before. With that, beyond dialogue alone, he wanted to use as many location sounds as possible and to make best use of live recorded sound effects and foley. Given the film’s budget, cast, and unique content, he needed someone with both the experience and creative edge required to rise to the challenge. Fortunately for Cheng, Xu was compelled by the script and eager to take part.
The Wasted Times depicts the life of a legendary mafia boss in modern Chinese history. Through the use of a biographical narrative, the film follows a violent and betrayal-ridden deal between the Japanese army and criminals in Shanghai. For Xu, working on The Wasted Time presented a number of challenges he hadn’t previously encountered in his career. For instance, due to the fact that several of the film’s scenes were shot inside state- and city-level protected historic buildings, he had to master the ability to capture vocal exchanges in historical settings, as opposed to the more modern buildings he was used to working in. In order to do so, Xu led his team in adopting a pioneering approach whereby he recorded a 5-channel surround sound effect during production sound mixing. In addition, he made use of two additional stereo microphones in order to account for any and all reverberation, echoes, and delay of sounds in real time. This led to Xu having recorded and mixed approximately 80% of the film’s final dialogues and about 50 per cent of the sound effects using his location sound. It therefore goes without saying that Xu proved himself to be instrumental throughout the entire process, being able to provide carefully thought-out solutions to each potential problem the crew encountered. He is undoubtedly a strong contributor to The Wasted Times’widespread success and feels honored knowing that the film went on to receive four award wins and ten nominations from some of the industry’s most acclaimed organizations and festivals, including the Asian Film Awards, China Film Director’s Guild Awards, and the prestigious Macau International Movie Festival.
For Xu, however, the true highlight of working on The Wasted Times was embedded within the reality that for him, this film was far more than just a sound production process. Being able to film at authentic locations such as the residence of Pu Yi, China’s last empire, as well as in a 1920s car loaned from an antique car museum helped Xu acquaint himself with the type of lifestyle of the individuals depicted in the film. He credits the experience of working on this film as helping build his understanding of people’s lives in that era and helping make it feel familiar to him. It was both a cultural and career-building opportunity and Xu couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome.