In a new series of previews, every fortnight we will track down a British film by an emerging filmmaking team and talk to them about their experiences in making the film, as well as letting you all know where you can see it screened.
Sound in Short Film: Resonant Frequency // On The Radar
Short form films serve an important aspect of a filmmakers craft. Not only does the format make completing a film with limited budgets and resources more attainable, but short form films also allow filmmakers to distil and emphasise a detail, theme, or issue, thus allowing them to tell their stories in more powerful and creative ways.
Jonathan Birch’s short film, Resonant Frequency is one such project. We had a conversation with him after the film screened at London Film Festival 2014 as part of the Radio Live Transmission programme – a collection of shorts that utilised bold techniques in score and sound design. We were intrigued by the detail of the sound design employed to tell this stark tale about a man with paranoid schizophrenia. Ahead of the films second outing at London Short Film Festival this week, we caught up with Jonathan and his sound designer, Tom Lock Griffiths.
Jonathan, in previous interviews you’ve said, “the public only hears about paranoid schizophrenia when someone is murdered”. Was there a particular case that caught your attention and drew you to this subject?
The initial news story that attracted my attention was the Christopher Clunis case. Christopher Clunis was a young man with paranoid schizophrenia who murdered Jonathan Zito at Finsbury Park station in December 1992. A report was published, which highlighted the failings in his treatment and care and I found myself coming back to it, as it was very compelling. My interest in the subject developed further whilst I was working in West Africa and interviewed a notorious prisoner who suffered from bouts of psychosis and paranoia.
How did you go about collecting further research on the condition to start creating the script?
I read and watched everything I could on the subject and contacted various mental health trusts, charities and hospitals to no avail. Then I did a series of interviews with a psychiatric nurse, but felt I couldn’t go any further until I had spoken to someone with schizophrenia and visited a psychiatric hospital. By chance, I happened to meet a filmmaker at a networking event who worked in mental health and he opened the doors for me. He put me in touch with a charity and I was able to finally meet and chat with someone who had paranoid schizophrenia. It was also through him that I met a senior psychiatric nurse and associate director of a busy mental health hospital.
So, you faced some challenges when putting together research for the character of Tyrone?
People who work in mental health are understandably wary of the media, but when she realised I was genuine and wanted to make an honest and sympathetic film she went out of her way to help. I owe a great debt of gratitude to her, as without her I wouldn’t have been able to make the film from a solid foundation of knowledge. We spoke at length and I visited the hospital where she worked. She introduced me to a young man with paranoid schizophrenia, who had committed a very serious crime whilst ill and was now back in the community doing really well. He was very candid and articulate about what it was like to have the illness. It just so happened that the story I was formulating had striking similarities to his own and he really connected with it. It was through our talks that I was able to create the character of Tyrone.
One of the main reasons for making the film was to challenge the stigma associated with schizophrenia. I thought the best way to do this was by taking as my central character someone who was very explosive and potentially dangerous and showing the reality behind the situation which people don’t often see.
What drew you to expressing so much of the character’s experience through sound, and how soon in the process did you start working on sound design and score?
Film sound is a particular interest of mine and was one of the primary aesthetic reasons for making the film, as it allowed us the potential to create something striking and innovative. I approached Tom after we had locked the picture. Tom is all about environmental sound and how it reflects a character’s state of mind, which I thought was the right approach for the film. He wanted to use hostile environmental sounds, to embed the character in a very concrete reality from which we could work, for our more subjective sequences. I wanted the film to be a very visceral experience and for the audience to ‘feel’ this film in the pit of their stomachs, so we looked at ways in which we could use low frequencies effectively to create an unsettling and menacing atmosphere.
Both Tom and I spent a lot of time recording radio sounds, searching for those fleeting moments when a voice or sound becomes distorted and mutates into something sinister. I also came across some inflammatory racial speeches, full of hate and fury, which when manipulated produced some unsettling effects. Eventually it came down to the voices and their treatment and placement. Tom nailed it and created a sequence that still gives me goose bumps when I see it in the cinema today. The attack scene was difficult because I wanted it to be extremely brutal and realistic and avoid an overtly ‘cinematic’ representation of violence. We recorded a lot of foley and Tom used some sound effects, which sounded very fake untreated, but with the right reverbs applied suddenly became much more real. Most people who’ve seen the film comment on how brutal and upsetting it is. And it really is all in the audio as you see very little.
As we approached the final stages of editing James Pickering started work on the score, which was built up of drones and worked very effectively with the sound world we had created. The sound design is in places, very complex and getting it to sound how I wanted it to in the environment of a cinema took a lot of work. In the studio Tom was wary of being overly aggressive and blasting the audience with high-pitched frequencies and hitting them with deep sub, whereas I was, shall we say, less reticent.
We reached a compromise, but erred a little too much on the side of politeness, so we went back at a later date and ramped it up a bit and made the sub fuller and both Tom and I were happy.
What was the festival response to the film at London Film Festival? And what are you future festival plans for the film aside from the first GOD”S LONELY MEN screening at London Short Film Festival?
We had a good reception at the LFF. When the film ended there was silence in the auditorium, which a lot of people commented on. There is a tradition of clapping at the end of each short in a festival but no-one did until the very end of the credits… I decided to take this as a sign that the film had made an impact and not that it was terrible!!
After the screening I received emails from people who had family members with schizophrenia and they were uniform in saying how strongly the film had affected them and how true to life it was. The best feedback was from the people who had helped me with my research, which was very positive and made it all worthwhile for me.
In terms of future festival screenings I would like to screen the film outside the UK and will look at festivals that deal with mental health issues.
Tom, when Jonathan asked you to get on board with the project as Sound Designer, what were your initial thoughts on how you might approach the subject matter?
It was a very exciting project, especially because I am very interested in the sound of the world in which the characters experience the story; that the emotions they are feeling will affect the way the landscape feels around them. In this case the urban landscape. So because our character is very angry and paranoid, the soundscape had to feel very threatening and heightened.
Jonathan, I think, was already thinking along the same lines… What Jonathan had a much clearer idea about, was the sound design sequences in which we really get an insight into what it actually sounds like in the character’s head. Jonathan had lots interesting references for that side of things. Jonathan and I did talk about the characters condition quite a lot. He had obviously immersed himself in all of that which was great. My instinct is to always just start and explore things. You can talk an idea to death and I think that is dangerous… But I think we got the balance right.
How did a film with such a prominent focus on sound compare to other film work you have done?
Difficult question. The sound is always important…. Always. The difference here is that we were putting that side of things very much up front – But you’re always thinking along the same lines… How should the world feel and therefore sound? If you’re not doing that, you’re not doing your job, but most of the time you’re doing it in such a way that no one notices. A Film like this is important, because it makes people realise how important sound is in film generally. Not because sound is all of a sudden important in this film and it usually isn’t, but that working with someone who loves sound as Jonathan does is very exciting and sadly not common enough.
Did you have any particular influences for the sound design on this film? Who / what are your influences and inspirations in general?
This is an easy question to answer… The world around me. To work with sound you have to listen all the time and listen passionately. My dad is an artist and he can look at the sky and be completely lost in the colours and lines and composition…. You have to be the same, “What’s the acoustic quality of a sound? How does it make me feel?” etc…
I don’t think I’m influenced by sound designers or composers really. Every film is so different, the sounds in Elephant Man are so heightened are haunting because it’s the right sound language for that film, but the best sound moment in a film might be simply hearing the wind in the trees. I rarely talk about sound designers with other sound designers. Conversations are usually along the lines of ‘I was on the tube today and the brakes starting squealing and….’.
Catch Resonant Frequency at LSFF as part of New Shorts: God’s Lonely Men 1 – Under Attack.