Day Twenty Nine

Posted: 2020-06-22 12:00:00


22nd June

It’s been hard to find a picture to accompany today’s activities. The reason being that today has largely been concerned with all things sound. Sound plays a huge but often under appreciated role in almost any production in any medium- often it gets overlooked. But in our new medium, somewhat closer to radio sound cannot be overlooked- it is absolutely crucial.

Dom our sound designer has already been quietly working away doing a huge amount of work which to most ears sounds like he hasn’t done any work at all. Often, just like a wicket keeper in a cricket game, with sound design you don’t notice the really hard graft and artistry that goes behind it. You only notice it when it gets wrong, or as with a wicket keeper the ball gets dropped.

Of course you will notice the big bangs and loud explosions which feature in Birdsong as Dom recreates the sound panaroma of the epic Somme offensive, but in some ways that is the bread and butter of the sound designer. Big loud bangs are easy when compared to the more herculean feat of trying to get all our actors sounding like they are in the same room. When the absolutely are not.

You’ll remember the actors filmed themselves from home scattered all over the UK. They recorded in different sized rooms with different atmospheres. To get all those voices sounding the same, as if having been made in the environment in which the various scenes are set- is really, really hard. So to state the obvious, something we all know but probably never consider for example, is that a conversation in a hospital ward sounds different to the sound of a conversation in a quiet trench at night, a large drawing room sounds different to a cramped dugout. Every scene thus has its own sound character. Dom not only has to create that background atmosphere but then manipulate each piece of actor dialogue (recorded in very different places) to make them sound as if they are all now naturally in environment- and we are all in the same world.

The thing is when it works- it just sounds right and you don’t notice it. When it doesn’t work you notice it and the delicate illusion we have been trying to create is broken. So this is crucial work, and Dom is now taking the baton from Tristan and basically pulling 20 hour shifts. Tristan is now piecing together the second part of Act 1- he is also not sleeping. Just to be clear. In fact none of us are sleeping. 

Whilst it is of course stressful (and tiring), it is also continually exciting to see the little details come to fruition that can propel a scene into life. From the sound of footsteps in a muddy trench coming into focus to the ticking and echo of a clock in an Amiens drawing room- simple stuff- but transformative when deployed well. 

Fortunately Dom knows a thing or two about noise. He is head of sound at London’s National Theatre and a freelance sound designer to boot. We have worked together on and off for over 10 years. The journey started with Journey’s End in 2010 and continued with Birdsong for it’s 6 year life-span. Thus Dom also knows the sound world of Birdsong better than anyone. Yet again though this is both an old familiar world and at the same time an entirely new one. In some places we are starting completely from scratch.

What worked on those big stages doesn’t always translate to our smaller screen, equally ideas we played with and put down when we created the original show in 2013 now can be taken up. Above all else today rammed home the delicate dance that is taking place between the visuals and the audio. Two completely differing elements which appeal to two contrasting senses- that in fact have far more in common than we imagine. If the sound is working well it gives another dimension to the visual, it opens out the frame and expands the horizon. It allows you to see more. Equally the visual sells the sound, so when a character cocks a head and a plan flies overheard it coheres the plane concretely into the on screen world. I realise going through the first few scenes, all the moments where we could have plotted actors reacting to little sound details- imagined at the time of filming but suddenly brought to life when sound is added in the edit. 

So easy in retrospect.

Incidentally the picture chosen you sadly cannot hear, but if you could- which I know you can’t-  it would sound really good. Just you wait.