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A ‘Sound’ Masterclass with Academy Award Winner Resul Pookutty

BIFFES 2016

The Bengaluru International Film Festival, or BIFFES, is part of India’s film festival tapestry. This annual festival has been going strong for eight years now with the 2016 edition. BIFFES 2016 was probably the biggest one yet, with industry stalwarts such as peerless actor Jaya Bachchan, and Indian film making legend Sanjay Leela Bhansali in attendance, and over 200 film efforts and 30 documentaries, all curated from around the world, screened here.

The big winners of the festival were Raam Reddy, whose Kannada film (Thithi) took the joint top spot along with Kyrgyzstani filmmaker Dalmira Tilepbergen’s ‘Under Heaven’ as they were announced joint winners of the Asian award. The Silence, a Marathi film by Gajendra Ahire, won the best Indian film award, and P. Sheshadri was awarded the Best Kannada Film award for his effort titled Vidaya.

One of the best bits of the festival though has to be the interactions with legends of the industry that were held there. One such interaction was with India’s only sound engineering candidate to take home an Oscar – Resul Pookutty!

Pookutty won the Academy Award for Best Sound Mixing for his work on Hollywood blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire, an addition to what is already a stellar body of work. His filmography includes Traffic Signal, Saawariya, Enthiran, Ra.One, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel among many others. He also holds a Padma Shri, a National Film Award, and a coveted BAFTA, the latter again for Slumdog, as part of his achievements.

Jamuura published a video of his interaction at BIFFES, and we’ve curated the best bits for your information and pleasure!

Resul Pookutty at BIFFES 2016

On the influence of sound in films:

“When you watch a film you get drawn inside the picture. That is because of the sound. When you go and sit at the seashore, you feel calm, when you go to a valley, you feel calm and quiet. You go to those places because you want to feel calm. In those places, you hear longer expressions of sound. The valley birds have long calls… so every space that you experience, there is sound behind it. Similarly, when you put sound to picture, it allows it to take you inside. So I would say sound is an immersive aspect of film.”

 On which project has been the most challenging one he has worked on so far:

“Every film that comes to me is very challenging for me. I pour so much into it. I would say, when Shankar narrated Robot 2 to me, after the narration I felt like jumping from the office! Because the vision of that man…to match up to it, I had to work day in and day out. There’s another Tamil film that I’m working on, Sivakarthikeyan’s new film. He is acting as a girl in the film. See I make my own life hell, you know, so I said no, we will not use a girl’s voice, we will convert his voice into a girl’s voice. Now I am in the process of writing the software where I can convincingly do this. So this simple love story, I could have just done it, but I made it complicated for myself. Every film that I am doing, one way or another, has its own challenge.”

 On the science of sound and music:

“Understand the science of sound. I had done tons and tons of recordings of rain. I had probably used more than 300 layers of rain sound. Different kinds of rain. So that every time the scene has changed, audiences perceive something, or when you watch it a second time, you hear something else, so that it keeps interest. Music is an easy way out. Music is just another sound in the field that you hear. And the danger of music is that it has a very emotional quotient. And you need to control the emotion, you want to play with it.

On the power of sound design:

“I would say sound is very dangerous. When you have picture, it’s an image that you see. What is cinema? At a very academic level, cinema is a continuation of time and space. The space that you see, the space where that story is happening, the space that you experience. Be it a classroom, be it a landscape, be it an arena, be it anything, and every space has a time-temporal element. There is a time imprinted with that space. And sound is temporal element. And a picture image can be abstract and remain abstract, but the moment I put sound to it, I’m concertizing the meaning of that image. Imagine you are just seeing a car, passing by as an image. But the moment I put a sound to that car you will see is it a petrol vehicle or a diesel vehicle, is it an old car or is it a new car, and what surface is it? Is it a gravel surface, is it a sand surface, is it a tarred road, is it a wet road, or is it a street in winter? The moment I put sound to it, all the anthropological information gets concertized. So the meaning gets concertized. When you say it is also very powerful, it is the ability to tell you what you should watch. In Slumdog Millionaire, when we were shooting the riot scene, Danny (Boyle, the director) said to me, “I want to hear the sound the way it is running through this boy’s ears.” I knew he was talking in terms of design. When you are on location and capturing the live sound, you don’t do that, but we will manipulate it.”

On the scope of sound in films:

“In a film you have various sounds. Apart from the dialogue, which is the ‘spoken’ performance of actors, there are sounds that we create like footsteps and movements and all that. There is ambient sound that is another set of sound with a time element and then there is music. We keep varying the levels of this and we understand where to bring this. So when we bring that in, you will see that. So what happens is, sound allows the director to tell the story in the most effective way. A sense of space, a sense of time and a synthesis that happens with the audience participation in the story.”

On the understanding of sound in the film world:

“Abroad, for example, someone like George Lucas, or someone like Spielberg has understood the power of sound. George Lucas is one person who built his entire empire with sound, just sound, understanding sound. And I am very, very sad, and very, very, anguished with fact that none of us in this industry has understood it. Especially because we have the greatest tradition of sound.”

On synched sound:

“How are you treating your audience? At the end of the day, whether you are doing live sound or not doing live sound pertains to that. There’s an audience who is paying 100 rupees for your ticket. And they want to come and watch your film. And what you are giving them is not the honest, true performance of the actor. It is like you going for a Michael Jackson performance, and he is playing a CD and doing a lip-sync. You cannot treat your audience so bad. You are in an interactive space. How are you treating your actors? Are they actors or mimers? If they are actors, they should do their job of acting, and you should take all the effort possible to capture their performance, truthfully and genuinely. That is where I come in, and say the only possible way of doing that is recording cinema live.”

Sound is so much more than just the music that you hear in films. It is a highly complex subject that requires you to take a deeper look into the aspects that make the ‘complete package’. It needs you to observe the things around you from a ‘sound’ perspective. After all, the ‘audio’ is what makes the AV experience complete.

Are you ready to give it your all like Resul has? Visit the Jamuura blog for more such brilliant interviews and explore the whole gamut of sound engineering courses we offer at Seamedu School of Pro-Expressionism in Pune and Bangalore.

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