Tag Archives: Sound Designer

Experience Chen Xu’s 5-channel surround sound method in hit Chinese film ‘The Wasted Times’

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.

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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.

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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.

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Sound designer Randolph Zaini says film “Mosquito: The Bite of Passage” is highlight of his esteemed career

Randolph Performing Foley Footsteps
Randolph Zaini working on “Mosquito: The Bite of Passage”

Randolph Zaini is more than a sound designer. He is an artist; the video is his canvas and audio clips are his paint. He is a storyteller, and sound is both the setting and the characters. He sees sound as one of the most important aspects of a film, and those that have seen his work can hear this immediately. There is no doubt as to why he is so sought-after in his industry.

Of all the films he has worked on, with many esteemed awards and praise, the highlight of Zaini’s career he says is working on the film Mosquito: The Bite of Passage, which was just shortlisted for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). The film tells the story of a young mosquito brought out by her mother on her first hunt for blood. The issue, however, is that she doesn’t like blood, and but fears disappointing her mother. Though the main story is simple and clear, there is a complex message underneath. It has much to do with being accepted for who you are. It exemplifies the best form of storytelling, where it can both entertain and illuminate.

“It was a great screenplay filled with heartwarming and funny moments,” said Zaini.

Since the story deals with opposing perspectives, it is imperative to give the appropriate sound design treatment on each subject matter. The mother has set her eyes on a single human: a slob who lives alone in his dingy apartment. When there is a switch back and forth between the perspectives of said human and the mosquitoes, audiences should hear the differences in ambiance. Everything feels gigantic in the perspective of the mosquitoes, even the air feels heavier; they are in the land of giant beings. Although Mosquito: The Bite of Passage is a hybrid live-action/animation, there was no production sound provided to Zaini, even on the live-action part of the film. This meant on top of creating every bit of audio clips for the mosquitoes, he also had to recreate the sounds of the human character, played by a live actor, from scratch as well.

“Every bit of sound that the animated character made, from the mosquitoes’ helmets, suits, boots and blood-bag was created by me in the foley recording studios. As for the human character, I also performed all his movement sounds, which then got a frequency manipulation treatment to make him feel gigantic when seen through the eyes of the mosquitoes,” Zaini described.

The film ended up becoming a large success after premiering at the prestigious Telly Awards, where it won Best Animated Short. In addition to BAFTA, it was an Official Selection at the Chinese International New Media Short Film Festival, Edmonton International Film Festival, New Orleans Film Festival, Haryana International Film Festival, African International Film Festival, 9th CMS International Children’s Film Festival, Newport Beach Film Festival, New Voices in Black Cinema, and more. It has gained offers for representation by CAA, WME, Paradigm and Verve. None of this could have been possible without Zaini’s work as sound designer, and he was recognized for it with the Outstanding Sound Award nomination at the 2017 First Look Film Festival.

“It was incredible. We make these movies to connect with audiences, to tell a story worth telling, with a hidden message worth sharing. Winning awards is always secondary. But I’d be lying if I say winning Telly Award for the second time did not give any affirmation that I was doing something right, that my passion was not misguided, and that people do appreciate the result of hard work and the vast amount of passion being put into it,” said Zaini.

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Randolph Zaini recording foley for “Mosquito: The Bite of Passage”

The detail Zaini put in to each and every sound in the film is outstanding. To create the sound of the mosquito wings, he used a combination of hummingbird wings flapping, plastic cards being run through bicycle spokes, and small airplane engines flying in the air, among other sounds that helped sell the integrity of the wings that carry these mosquitoes. Every single sound file was designed with the storytelling effectiveness in mind.

“Randolph is the best sound editor, ADR editor, foley artist, and re-recording mixer I have encountered. To cite a specific example, for Mosquito: The Bite of Passage, Randolph created the sound of the entire film from scratch. There was no production sound going in. He was notably innovative in his approach to creating a new world of sound for the macro world of the mosquitos in the film. Using devices like leather jackets, his own voice for various flight sounds, and other unique concepts, he made a deeply immersive experience. This film relied heavily on the sound design given its heavy science fiction component. I was very happy with the results,” said Brian Rhodes, the director of the film. “Randolph is extremely hard working, dependable, diligent and a wonderful human being to be around. I greatly look forward to working with Randolph the rest of my career. He pushes the boundaries of what is possible and is a visionary.”

Rhodes, who previously worked with Zaini on the award-winning film Harold’s Fish Sticks, refused to have another sound designer work with him on the project. He even pushed back the timeline to work with the sound designer, knowing he needed the best. Although it was a long process from start to finish, there was not a moment of it that Zaini did not like.

“It was work that I enjoyed wholeheartedly. Mosquito: The Bite of Passage is an action-filled movie, which means there are a lot of high-paced sequences that were fun to design. I had a blast planning, recording, and editing the sounds I created,” said Zaini.

With every project he takes part in, no matter how successful, Zaini is living his dream. As a child, he told stories, always putting in captivating sound effects. He may not have known at the time it would be his future, but he always knew what his passion was.

“Like most children, I grew up watching animations. Though I wasn’t always aware of the sound design aspects of those cartoons, it had always sold the believability of these drawn and sculpted worlds and characters, being brought to live with sound. To think that what I do now is breathing life into these lovable characters, it is like having an important role behind a magician’s performance,” he said.

Working on Mosquito: The Bite of Passage was just another chance for Zaini to live out his dream.