A Sound Life

June 4, 2012

Sound sparks your imagination, carries emotions, and takes you back to that special moment or to a place where you have not been before. Movies such as Blade Runner, Star Wars, Apocalypse Now or Grand Prix have used sound masterfully to create magic atmospheres that become critical to communicating a story. Iker Gil interviews Oriol Tarragó, sound designer for over 30 movies, about his working methodology, movie genres, his favorite movies, and what cities communicate through sound.


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Oriol Tarragó at work. © Courtesy of Oriol Tarragó.

IG: What was your path to becoming a sound designer?

OT: I have been a sound designer since I was a child. When I was playing Chase or War, I was always making sounds with my mouth. I was continuously trying to reproduce the sound of guns, cars, motorcycles, spaceships… when imagining riding the motorcycles from Star Wars, I tried to imitate their sounds. Without knowing it, I was already a fan of Ben Burtt, the sound designer of Star Wars. Years later, I decided to study cinema at ESCAC (Escola de Cinema i Audiovisuals de Catalunya), the first university of cinema in Spain. The initial project we had to do there was to direct a three-minute movie in 16mm format, black and white and with no sound. In it, we had to tell a small and basic story only with images. When I saw the result of my movie, I realized that something was not working, that something was missing. So I picked up a cassette and I recorded music and a few synchronic sounds to go along with the chase I had recorded. The next day in class, I projected the movie and, at the same time, I reproduced the sounds that I had taped on the cassette. The result was fairly good and, while the other students liked it, my professor scolded me because the exercise was supposed to use only images. Despite the “failure” in this first project, I realized that I could not understand cinema without sound. I always saw the images accompanied by certain sounds, even if the images did not have it. Since then, I have been busy doing the same thing with more or less sophistication.

IG: What is your method when facing a new movie?

OT: Basically, the first thing I do is read the script and understand dramatically the movie. I try to understand the main idea of the movie, I try to define the main emotion we are trying to communicate. It is like a synopsis but purely on the emotional field. After that, I establish a breakdown of all the sounds described explicitly in the script, such as a car, a bell tower, specific music… things that are explicitly written. At the same time, I make a list of all locations and spaces of the movie and at what time of the day the action happens. A scene might be Interior-Night-Hospital, Exterior-School. For example, in The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007), most of the action was Interior or Exterior-Orphanage except for the scene at the beach and in the town. That way, before starting the movie, I know which spaces and sound atmospheres I need to create. All the action happened in the same location, but throughout a period of a year, so it was important to show the temporal evolution in the space. Once the movie is already edited or is being edited, I review parts of the movie without sound in order to see what the images evoke and how I react to them. And not only the synchronic ones, but also sounds that could appear and that the images do not reflect, or deficiencies that I find in the images and that sound could improve.

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Capturing the sound of an airplane. © Courtesy of Oriol Tarragó.

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Capturing the sound of an airplane. © Courtesy of Oriol Tarragó.

IG: What do you try to communicate through your work?

OT: Basically, the emotions and feelings that I have read in the movie script, the main idea that the movie, scene or moment wants to transmit. For me, sound is something really interesting. Unlike the image that is something completely defined and can only be one, sound is something that activates your brain and makes you imagine, makes you think. In each film, I try to active those parts of the spectator’s brain, make him or her think, and transmit some type of emotion. It is like when we hear a song that we haven’t heard for a long time and then, whenever we hear it again, it takes us back to that special moment. In a similar way, I try to achieve that feeling.

IG: Most of your work has been related to horror movies. In general, the most typical approach to that genre is defined by direct and immediate surprises and a continuous over-stimulation. However, movies like The Orphanage are more complex, more ambiguous, and based on stories that evolve gradually. What is the main difference in terms of communication to these two approaches to horror movies?

OT: The horror that is closer to gore, that is, the one that shows blood and action more explicitly, is based on a series of sound and image clichés or conventions. It includes a series of loud sounds, a really characteristic type of music, screams… it has a really defined style. In the same way, these conventions can also appear in other genres beyond horror movies.

In movies such as The Orphanage, the style can be closer to what we can define as Polanskian, that is, a type of movie in which things are suggested but not shown. A psychological terror, one that is directly linked to the sound and, for that reason, where sound plays a key role. The spectator has to think, has to imagine the terror that is not explicitly shown. For example, in Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), you don’t see any monster or blood or anything like that. However, you are completely terrified because you don’t know if the female character is going crazy because everybody is conspiring against her, or might be more terrorific, the thought that she really is pregnant by the devil himself. Both thoughts are quite horrifying and the movie continuously plays that duality using the sound to suggest them. In The Orphanage, while being quite different from Rosemary’s Baby, we find some similarities. It is a movie in which we never see any ghosts or spirits, but we do hear them, we hear the kids crying and screaming, for example in the scene with the parapsychologist. The spectator has to imagine all that horror. And the movie again plays with that duality. The spectator doesn’t know if the mother is going crazy, if people and the police are conspiring against her, if the kid is really dead or ghosts have taken him. From my point of view, I think this type of movie is much more interesting, as I don’t have to just add sound to the images that we already see. The movie tries to go beyond that. And, as I said at the beginning, I think this approach relates less to the genre of a movie and more to the style and intentions of each director.

IG: Which differences do you find working in a horror movie versus another genre? What are the most difficult feelings to communicate?

OT: The horror genre is really interesting at the expressive level, as we have to generate atmospheres and sounds that do not exist. In that sense, it is much more expressive and interesting. But I also think that it is important to point out that it is not an issue exclusively of the genre, but also the staging of the director. For example, the director can make a movie of a girl who lives in Barcelona or Manhattan with more or less normal, life and I can create a type of sound that simply explains the story and creates a realistic atmosphere. But it can also have a completely different approach, like in Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010). In that movie, the main character is a ballet dancer living in Manhattan who faces a series of traumas, but it remains a real story. However, with the style that the director applies and with the continuous use of sound, it ends up being closer to a horror movie. I insist that the difference is based less on the genre of the movie and more on the atmosphere that the director wants to create. And it is not just the sound design. The combination of sound, image and photography will transmit the qualities or feelings of the script.

In terms of the feelings that are more complicated to create, I think comedy is something quite complicated. Many directors agree on that, as it seems that the sense of humor is not the same for each person. For that reason, many directors don’t dare to do a comedy. I have worked on a comedy, Spanish Movie (Javier Ruiz Caldera, 2009), that is a parody of many movies that we have already done so I didn’t find it difficult. But it is a complicated genre, wherein you can end up being absurd or rude very easily. I also think that love is really complicated to transmit through sound, as it is also a very abstract feeling, very complicated to convey.

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Oriol Tarragó at work. © Courtesy of Oriol Tarragó.

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Oriol Tarragó at work. © Courtesy of Oriol Tarragó.

IG: What is the role of silence in your work?

OT: Silence is really important in my work. It is a needed element among the palette of color and other instruments. It is like light and darkness in photography. You need darkness to read the light. It is the same with sound. If there is no silence, there is no contrast. Without silence, everything becomes a ball of sound that is not interesting. Silence helps the spectator to reflect on what he or she is looking at, remove himself, and ultimately look at the movie from an external position that makes one think in a different way. In a way, the spectator can reflect on the scene. On the other hand, when a scene is full of sound, the spectator is completely immersed in it and can’t reflect on the scene because he is too busy processing all the information that is he is constantly receiving. Silence creates exactly the opposite and it’s essential in the construction of a soundtrack.

IG: How do you incorporate new sounds to your library? Which ones have you incorporated lately?

OT: As soon as I read the script, I realize the sounds that I am going to need, the sound universe that is going to go along the movie, and the sounds that are going to inhabit the story. With the breakdown that I have from the script (locations, explicit sounds and emotions), I begin to think about the places where I can collect the sounds. I begin to think if I am going to produce them or I am going to ask someone else to do it. Sometimes I ask the sound technician to record them during the filming of the movie as a “wild track,” that’s a sound track that is not recorded along images. It is called wild as it is not synchronic to the image. We also ask local technicians to record outdoors if the sounds that we need are too complicated to reproduce. If we need a specific sound from another country, we also hire sound technicians from that country. But other times, we record them during postproduction or I do it myself. While I am traveling, I always carry a recording device with microphones in case there is something that I find interesting. We also buy sounds from a library and, with that, I begin to generate the sounds that I need in the movie. But most of the sounds that you end up using in a movie are a combination of those sounds you collect, sounds that through mixing and editing create the effect you want.

Lately, as I have been working on The Impossible, the new movie by J.A. Bayona, the sounds that I have been incorporating are from Thailand, from people, towns and nature to public spaces, hospitals, beaches and hotels. We have also recorded many water sounds, underwater, oceans, waves, eruptions and storms. All kinds of sounds that can evoke the tsunami that occurred in 2004.

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Working on The Impossible movie directed by Jose Antonio Bayona. © Courtesy of Oriol Tarragó.

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Working on The Impossible movie directed by Jose Antonio Bayona. © Courtesy of Oriol Tarragó.

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Working on The Impossible movie directed by Jose Antonio Bayona. © Courtesy of Oriol Tarragó.

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Working on The Impossible movie directed by Jose Antonio Bayona. © Courtesy of Oriol Tarragó.

IG: What are your fetish sounds that you come back time after time?

OT: I have two fetish sounds. One is the sound of the swallows, a typical bird from the Mediterranean that always shows up during spring and autumn. Those are very emotional seasons, autumn marking the end of the summer, melancholy and change, and spring, with its days getting longer and everybody getting ready for the summer. Since I was a child, the presence of those birds created in me a feeling of nostalgia. So, in order to communicate the feeling of nostalgia and change to others in my movies, I always use the sound of swallows in the background. It is a very personal thing that might or might not work with the spectators depending on their experiences in life. The second sound is the sound of dogs barking. I use the sound of dogs barking in the background during a moment of silence. For example, if there is a scene with a couple talking and, all of the sudden, there is an uncomfortable silence, I use a really distant sound of a dog barking to convey a feeling of a really profound silence. The spectator is not aware of it but, if you can hear a sound that is really distant, that means that the silence in the scene is really profound. Another way of creating this feeling is the tick tock of a clock.

IG: Which movies are your referents in terms of the use of sound?

OT: Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) is a movie that has greatly influenced me. I saw it when I was a child, on TV at home, and it really impacted me. It is a movie in which sound, image and music merge and create an incredible universe. The music by Vangelis gets combined with the atmosphere of the city, you don’t know where the music ends and the atmosphere starts: the Chinese voices from the PA systems and the echoes and acoustics of the streets, the environment of Rachel’s house, the lights of the cars passing by synchronized with the sound of the AC systems… it is all very organic and very interesting. Other movies that have influenced me are Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi with their incredible sound design. The sounds in those movies are instantly recognizable by anybody, like the sound of the light sabers, and Chewbacca.

At a personal level, I really like the sound design and sound editing of David Fincher in Seven (1995), Panic Room (2002), and Zodiac (2007). He has a personal way of using the sound that I find really interesting. It might be a little complicated to go over the technical aspects here, but basically what he often does is to synchronize the movement of the camera with a specific sound.

IG: Which movie would you have liked to design the sound for?

OT: Obviously Blade Runner and any of the ones I mentioned earlier. It would have been great to work with Ben Burtt in Star Wars or any other movie of the trilogy. It would have been incredible to be part of his creative and expressive capacity for finding the perfect sound to communicate the qualities of each character. Not only in Star Wars. In WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008), it is incredible how he has created the language for a robot that does not speak but that can transmit every feeling at all times. To be honest, I think he is a genius. The sounds that he has created are going to become history and instantly recognizable by anyone. The last project he has worked on is Super 8 (J. J. Abrams, 2011) and the sound in that movie is also spectacular. In the movie, the monster, the main character of the movie, is always hidden underground. As the movie progresses, we begin to see more of the character, but for the first half of the movie we do not see anything, we just hear it and it is much more terrifying. The same idea we were discussing earlier.

IG: On which movie or in which genre would you like to work?

OT: I would like to work with Alfonso Cuarón, a director who I really admire or, as I mentioned earlier, to work on any movie in which Ben Burtt is involved. I also admire Danny Boyle, who uses sound prominently in his movies. That is the case of Slumdog Millionaire (2008), that won the Oscar for best sound mixing, or Sunshine (2007), a science fiction movie that was not received with passion but that I find incredible. Solaris (Steven Soderbergh, 2002) is also a movie that I like a lot, but all these are movies that have already been done. I think I would like to work on a science fiction movie with a top tier director. Nowadays, science fiction is not the preferred genre by spectators around the world, but it is one that I would like to work on. I would also like to work with director Alejandro Amenabar, who I think is a genius in communicating feelings and emotions. He is a great director who has worked in different genres, having directed horror movies, drama, science fiction, period movie… he is one of the best because he can work in any genre.

IG: You are based in Barcelona. What do the sounds of that city transmit to you?

OT: Barcelona is a city that transmits the idea of being in the Mediterranean, close to the sea, where you can hear the sound of seagulls inside the city. A city where you have traffic, but you barely hear the sound of claxons. You can hear, however, the sound of continuous traffic, like the one of motorcycles present all year round in Rome. You can also hear a lot of birds. All the directors that I have worked with doing a movie in Barcelona ask me why I use so much the sound of birds, and I say that those are the birds that you can hear in the Eixample neighborhood, for example. Barcelona is one of the cities in the world with many trees. It might not have many big gardens or parks, but it has trees on each and every street. And that is why I think it is a really pleasant city in terms of its sounds. Always with the presence of birds and the sea.

IG: What are the sensations that you get from other cities? Is there any city that specially attracts you?

OT: Definitely, each city has its own specific sound atmosphere. New York, for example, is a city where you can hear a lot of claxons and sirens of ambulances bouncing off the skyscrapers, creating a special acoustic. London is a city that has less traffic than New York and you can’t hear it as much, at least in the area around Soho where I have worked. It is an area where you can hear people walking and you can hear more the sound of heels than the one of cars. It is a city where you can also hear the sound of bells. It is something that got my attention. Another city that got my attention was Bangkok, one of the noisiest cities that I have ever visited. There are ads on the streets with sound and music, window shops with music, and even on the subway the ads have music. The ticket inspector on the boats sailing the river in Bangkok carries a box with metallic coins, making noise with them to let everybody know that he is coming. There is a lot of traffic, a lot of noise, people singing in the streets… The hustle and bustle of the city really got my attention. Each city conveys different sensations, some stressful, some relaxing. Definitely, Bangkok is a stressful city and Barcelona can be a relaxing one.

IG: What is your favorite tool of communication?

OT: Nowadays I think it is email. I use my phone a lot because of my work and, in the end, it is really tiring. Email is direct enough to contact someone and expect a reply in a day or two, but also not as intrusive or annoying as the phone can be. Since the massive use of smartphones, email is the best way to communicate with people who are not close to you. It respects each other’s “space” and is immediate enough to receive information.

But if I want to contact someone I love, someone to whom I am close, I like the video call (such as Skype or FaceTime). It allows seeing the other person, knowing his or her mood and perceiving the details in the conversation. Sometime using the phone, there are misunderstandings because you don’t have that direct feedback of seeing the face. Most of the times, a smile or a look can communicate much more than words.


Eva (Kike Maíllo, 2011)

Julia’s Eyes (Guillem Morales, 2010)

The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007)