Thursday, May 5, 2016

Sound Design for Short Thriller: "Personal Space"

Andrew Hunt’s “Personal Space”, a short thriller featuring my sound design, won Best of Fest and a host of other honors at Z-Fest this year; my work earned a nomination for Best Audio/ Sound Design. In this entry I'll go into some details on process. But first, here's the finished short:

Given its subtlety, I was pleasantly surprised that this film was recognized to the degree it was-- especially given the overall high quality of Z-Fest films this year. Which is not to say the film is simple or facile in any way-- it was far more ambitious than 2015's Clean Cut, which earned about as many awards but was a lot more extroverted and comedic.

"Personal Space", on the other hand, builds from a sense of silence through layers of tension to a twist ending. Hunt, DP Ryan Grams and the rest of the team put together some impressive visuals on set. And it is a set; that's not really somebody's apartment, though some of the seams were removed digitally.

Other than breaths and gasps from its protagonist, the film contains no dialogue. I'm indebted to location mixer Jenilee Park for her skillful on-set recordings-- especially of actress Molly Ryman's vocalizations, which were recorded "wild" and synced up with the visuals later.

Which left the rest of the soundscape to piece together once the visuals were assembled. Editor Jeremy Wanek likes to place sound effects as he assembles the visual cut, so I provided as many effects as I could up front, before even seeing a frame of film. Hunt also added a variety of sounds to the timeline before I ever received it. Given all this input, plus the welcome feedback of producer Jason Wallace, the sound design of this piece was truly collaborative.

My sound design work focused on the grit and textures in between the main audio events. To this end I employed a variety of objects I keep around for such needs, including the ill-defined box I've called upon so many times before. In this case it helped to sweeten fumbling with the chain at 2:38:

My trusty squeaky hinge also came in handy for the latch at 1:20, as did the block of stone I often use for rough, scratchy textures. And I performed original Foley effects for small moments like plugging in the phone cable and putting the phone down on the glass table surface (with the cable rattling in between) at 2:26.

One curious note (spoiler alert): at about 5:10, we originally included a sound that clearly indicated the hooded figure was entering a different space. We got some feedback from a test viewer (thanks, Lindsey!) that it sounded like the hooded figure was in fact exiting the closet and re-entering the living room, which of course wasn't what we wanted. So Hunt decided the best thing was to replace that passage with some sort of ambiguous sound effect that confused the issue rather than communicating anything-- a rare example of using sound to intentionally obfuscate the storytelling rather than clarifying.

Nathaniel Levisay's score was a real gift: he sent us stems of each individual instrument, which allowed us to experiment with different arrangements and timings of each cue. I was tasked with (spoiler alert #2!) treating the audio of the cassette player, particularly the warbling quality of its pitch. Hunt brought over the actual cassette player used in the film, which produced a wonderful dilapidated warble until I tried to record it, at which time it worked perfectly. So I wound up simulating the warble digitally using variable pitch shifting, which worked just fine.

Thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make this film happen-- it was a true group effort, and a worthwhile one at that!

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