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Top photo credit: Povl Thomsen
Danish Sound Designer Peter Albrechtsen has worked professionally within feature films, documentaries, and television for more than 20 years.
Among the films he has worked on are The Cave, The Idealist, The Killing of Two Lovers, Dunkirk, Antichrist, and a lot more. You can see the full filmography here.
In this interview, I talk to Peter about how he became a sound designer, about the importance and emotional impact of sounds (and silence) in film, about the differences between making sounds for documentaries and making sounds for feature films, about his work at Dunkirk, Skywalker Sound, and more.
So let’s dive in…
JS: Why did you choose to become a sound designer?
PA: As a kid, I loved two things: movies and music.
My dad had an enormous collection of classical music and The Beatles and I was trained in classical piano for ten years – without ever becoming a virtuoso in any way.
We were listening to music all the time and my dad also enjoyed more experimental modern music, as we listened to Morton Feldman or John Cage.
In other words, music was all around, and when I got into movies – I was a big, big fan of Hitchcock – I also listened to soundtracks.
I remember my parents watching Hitchcock’s Psycho and I guess I was five or six years old, lying next door trying to sleep but then hearing Bernard Herrmann’s score playing through the door. That’s the first big soundtrack moment of my life.
It wasn’t until I attended the European Film College in 1995/96 that I had this epiphany that sound for film was the way to go, the way to blend music and movies.
It felt like entering a new world that I wanted to explore infinitely. And it still feels like an adventure after having worked professionally with this in almost 20 years.
JS: How did you become a sound designer?
PA: After being a student at the European Film College, I got into The Danish Film School in 1997. I was still very much a youngster, I was 20 when I got in, but during those four years, I learned a lot of technical skills and met a lot of inspiring people.
My graduation movie had a pretty crazy soundtrack – it was my attempt at saluting Rumble Fish, one of my all-time-favorite sound design movies. One of many wild ideas was to put some of the dialogue on vinyl and get a DJ to scratch the lines into the film.
Some people thought we went much too far, but a lot of people loved it as well and it meant that I got this reputation of being ’the crazy sound guy’. And it got me working with a lot of people who really wanted to explore what sound design could do.
That’s how it’s been since then. I simply feel very privileged to be able to do this for a living. It’s very rare that people’s greatest passion is also their work. It’s amazing.
JS: In your opinion, what is it about sounds, that make them such an important element in film?
PA: Sound connects directly to your emotions in amazing ways. It creates mood and atmosphere and tempo and texture but also expands the visual world way beyond the screen.
In many ways, sound makes images three-dimensional. It creates space, and it also creates emotion; a rhythm. Sound has all these amazing abilities.
I’ve always loved movies that don’t just feel like a story but feels like an experience — where it feels like I’m entering a world, where I’m becoming part of an experience, and sound is always a key element in this.
No matter if it’s an art film or an action film, a drama or a documentary, I think sound can always enhance, deepen and strengthen the image and at the same build a world around the film.
Sound is the most invisible part of the film but at the same time also the most powerful. It still feels unexplored. There’s still so much to investigate and so many possibilities which haven’t been tried out yet.
In many ways, sound makes images three-dimensional. It creates space, and it also creates emotion; a rhythm. Sound has all these amazing abilities.Peter Albrechtsen
You can keep on recording sound and own the world’s largest sound library and still, you won’t necessarily have the appropriate sound for a certain moment.
If you think about it, it’s a bit nerve-wracking as you can never feel safe. But I love that there’s no definite answers and so many unique ways of playing around with sounds, on several levels, and at several levels.
At the same time, I love that sound has such an incredible influence on us and we’re not really aware of it.
Of course, this means that sound is now and then the neglected part of filmmaking because people aren’t really aware of its indescribable impact. But it also means that we can get away with amazing things:
When I see a door getting slammed in picture I quite often cut in a frame of a hand grenade exploding to make the slam seem bigger and give the door a bit of personality – you can feel that the person slamming this door is really angry.
It’s a subconscious way of telling a very basic story. But you would never be able to do something like that visually – obviously, you couldn’t cut in an explosion visually without everyone noticing it.
But when you’re in the audience and see a door getting slammed, you automatically reckon that the sound you’re hearing is the actual door. That for me makes sound the most incredible part of the movie experience.
JS: How about silence? How do you work with silence in film?
PA: Silence is one of the most powerful tools in a sound designer’s toolbox, for sure.
In the real world, there’s never really total silence – even if you’re in a totally quiet place you can hear your own blood rushing through the ears – but in a movie, you can actually have total silence and I try to use that in pretty much every film I do.
It often makes a moment really stand out and actually in the last three films I’ve done – all three US productions, The Killing of Two Lovers, Freeland and We Are As Gods – the most emotionally powerful moments for me have been moments of total silence.
It’s also worth mentioning, though, that I think there’s generally too much dialogue in movies and sequences without words or at least minimal dialogue are usually the most moving to me.
So silence comes in many shapes and forms and having the actors be silent is also incredibly important. We can express so much without words.
When a movie review describes a movie as “quiet” it’s very rarely silent but just not filled with words.
When you make movies I think you have to consider what actually makes it a movie, what makes it cinematic.
I recently read an interview with genius Korean director Bong Joon Ho where he said that “my brain is optimized for cinema” and I know how he feels: I’m constantly thinking about how to make every moment in a movie as emotional and impactful as possible. And silence is a big part of that.
JS: When I do sound effects work, e.g. in an animated explainer video for a client, I often feel like the sound is what ads ”weight” and ”body” to the otherwise ethereal virtual characters and objects on screen. It’s like the sound effects are what grounds the pixels in the real world.
Do you have any similar experiences with or reflections about sound?
PA: Sound effects for sure are good at grounding things in the real world.
That’s most evident in animation where sound makes the animations feel real – foley sounds like steps and cloth makes the characters feel real and background sounds make the environments come alive.
It’s also amazing how reverbs can influence sounds and create an acoustical space within the film.
The same goes for fiction films where the production sound is usually only dialogue and then the sound makes the rest come alive.
At the same time, though, I’m also very fascinated by how sound can make things more unreal and especially more subjective. Heightened sound and expressive sound can make a movie come alive in extraordinary ways.
A recent movie like the Hungarian WW2 drama Son of Saul is an excellent example of this – you experience the world through the ears of the main character which makes the film incredibly impactful.
Sound has this amazing ability to cross the line between what is real and what is unreal, and what is authentic and what is fake.
JS: Could you tell us a bit about the sound design process? Is there a specific order you build the layers of sound into the final soundscape of the film?
PA: When you’re the sound designer on a film, I think you’re in many ways the ears of the director.
To me, it’s mandatory to be part of the process very early from the script stage so that the sound can be an integral part of the film and the storytelling.
Being part of the process early also means that you have time to do research and record sounds for the film. In this way, you can also make sure that the sound is recorded properly during the shoot.
It’s very rare that the sound designer is an actual part of the shoot, but it’s great to be in touch with the director during that process.
I also watch some of the dailies to get a feeling of “what is this film like?”
When it comes to the postproduction then I usually start out working on some key scenes in the film while the picture editing is still going on so that we can find out how the sound influences the picture and slowly building a proper sonic vocabulary for the film.
I usually have a dialogue editor handling the dialogue and then I work on ambiance and effects and talk with the foley artist about the approach to the foley.
And on top of that, I also work very closely with the composer to find out how music and sound should interact.
JS: How do you make sure the sound and the music don’t clash?
PA: It’s really important that the sound designer and composer talk very early on and start exchanging sketches and ideas from an early stage.
Music is a wonderful thing but I really don’t like if it pushes the feelings too much.
Of course, there are exceptions, but generally, I don’t want music to create the emotions – I want the music to underscore an emotion that’s already established in a scene.
I often work very closely with the composers on the movies I do and on projects like The Cave, Vildheks/Wild Witch and Idealisten/The Idealist some of my sound effects were even integrated into the score.
The sound designer Richard King, another of my big inspirations, has said that in a movie, the sound design is what the characters are hearing and music is the sound the audience is hearing. I find that an interesting way of looking at it.
To me, it’s so important that sound and music are really interwoven and I often build my sounds around the music, both regarding pitch, rhythm and overall texture. The more the sound feels like music and the more the music feels like sound, the better it is for me.
JS: How do you communicate with directors about the soundscape of a film? I sometimes find it difficult to find the right word for the essence of a sound, if I can’t play it to them in person.
PA: Great creative communication is always key. And it can be very difficult, indeed.
If you look at our language, it has many more words about the visuals than about sound. Often, when you talk about sound, you start making all these different noises of clicks, pops, etc. It’s almost like being in a kindergarten. What you need to do is try out things together.
I think it’s important to talk about creative things with the director and not get caught up in technical details. Talk about the emotional effect and intent of the story or the scene. Share a lot of examples. Watch other movies together. Listen to music together. Experiment with sound together.
Generally, a lot of our work as film sound people is about communication.
It’s important that we’re able to communicate with producers, picture editors, composers, other sound editors and, most importantly of all, directors. I’ve actually argued that communication courses should be a part of the training at the film school.
I’d say that a big part of my evolution as a sound artist comes from me getting wiser, older, more experienced and a lot better at communicating with people and understanding what a director wants.
And yes, I’ve also learned a lot from just goofing around with weird sounds and working on lots of very different projects with so many inspiring and talented people.
JS: Is there a movie you’re especially proud of and why?
PA: Several people have asked me what my favorite project has been through the years and I really can’t say.
It may sound a little corny, but for me, doing sound is a very emotional process – the best soundtracks for me make the picture an emotionally enveloping experience and I really try to make each project as personal as possible.
Picking a favorite among the films I’ve done is just as impossible as deciding which of my two kids is my favorite child.
That being said, one of my key working experiences would probably be Christina Rosendahl’s The Idealist which was my first movie in Dolby Atmos and in many ways a film that got me a lot of international attention and later got me into the Academy.
Another career highlight was The Cave which was Oscar-nominated and is the biggest sound design I’ve ever done for a documentary.
JS: Who are your heroes in terms of sound design and why?
PA: There are so many but let me start with sound design guru Walter Murch.
For me, Apocalypse Now is really THE film. It’s a mindblowing masterpiece that keeps on inspiring me and the sound design has all the qualities I love: It’s deeply subjective and highly creative, dynamic, wonderfully textured and very, very musical.
But of course, there are lots and lots of movie soundtracks that have inspired me during the years.
Generally, Coppola’s films from back then are mesmerizing: The Conversation, The Godfather, Rumble Fish, etc.
He even produced another sound classic, The Black Stallion.
The sound designer of that one, Alan Splet, did so many amazing tracks in collaboration with director geniuses such as David Lynch, Carroll Ballard, and Peter Weir.
Other milestones of sound design history are of course the works by Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom. And, in my opinion, Ren Klyce is now continuing that impressive Northern Californian legacy.
But besides all the US stuff there’s so much great sound being made around the world.
Mexico has the wonderful sound designer Martin Hernandez, in Argentina Lucrecia Martel’s movies utilize sound in extraordinary ways, and here in Europe, I love the sound being done for the films of Dardenne brothers and Michael Haneke – both aren’t using any score.
As I said, there’s so much good stuff and I didn’t even make room for film history giants like Sergio Leone, Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson, Andrej Tarkovsky, and Terrence Malick. The list just goes on and on.
JS: I know you work on a lot of feature films as well as documentaries.
Could you tell us a bit about the major differences in terms of sound design when it comes to each genre of film?
PA: In a way, I see documentaries more and more as feature films. The way they work with sound and visuals is quite creative.
Back in the old days, documentaries were closer to journalism where you were going out there and interviewing people, and building up the film around that.
If you look at a lot of modern documentaries, they’re often so abstract, atmospheric and poetic. Fewer words are being spoken, and there’s a lot of sound effects.
There are as many sound effects in it as you would have in a fiction film. There are layers and layers of sound in there, and for me, there’s not much of a difference between the two types of productions.
I like saying that for me, the biggest difference between fiction films and documentaries is that in fiction films the actors get paid.
It’s about telling stories, and you do that by working with visuals and working with sound, and you can do that in all kinds of possible ways.
When you do a documentary, you need to be true to your character or the environment.
On a film like The Cave, I spent a lot of time getting hold of recordings of Syria and all the sounds which would be around the underground hospital. We wanted to get the right war sounds and the right hospital noises so that you feel that it’s true, and then I build on that.
I have my palet of sounds, and I can do anything afterward. First and foremost I’m faithful to the story, the characters, and the emotions. I call it emotional authenticity.
JS: Has there been times when it has been emotionally difficult for you to complete a scene due to the subject of the film? For example, I’d imagine a movie like ”The Cave” must have been hard to work on?
Do you sometimes feel the need to embrace a professional distance from the footage in order to be able to work on a film?
PA: I’ve worked on quite a few very intense films, for sure, and The Cave was one of the most harrowing. The picture editors actually had to get therapy to get through the process of doing the film.
I avoided seeing the most disturbing material as that never ended in the film – we had to make sure not to push the audience away – but it was still very intense, for sure. I hugged my kids and girlfriend a lot during that process.
At the same time, though, sometimes the intensity of a film comes from the sound design. This is especially true in horror films and thrillers.
I remember Martin Scorsese’s legendary picture editor Thelma Schoonmaker saying at one point: “Marty’s movies aren’t violent until I cut them.” And sometimes, it’s really up to me as a sound designer to make a movie scary and thrilling and that can take a lot of hard work.
Of course, when talking about documentaries we shouldn’t forget that they are about real people and the human stories can be very special in themselves.
Some years ago I did a film called The Kid and the Clown about a hospital clown’s moving friendship with a six-year-old boy with cancer.
The film had a quite positive and upbeat ending as it seemed like the boy got cured but later, a long time after the premiere, he suffered a relapse and died.
When I heard this terrible news I shed a few tears. I didn’t know him personally but having worked on the film it felt like we were connected anyway. Such a tragedy.
JS: Do you do everything from audio field recording and foley to mixing and mastering yourself?
Or do you usually work with a bigger crew of people involved in audio?
PA: I always work with a crew. You just can’t do everything yourself unless you have pretty much unlimited time.
It takes a lot of time to do sound for movies if you’re really going into all details and want a very specialized soundscape.
I really want a lot of unique sounds for every project I do and that also takes a lot of time to record and collect.
For example, it would have taken one person one whole year to do all the sound for The Cave – that’s the amount of time that was put into the sound of that film.
I have a wonderful assistant, Mikkel Nielsen, who helps me record new sounds and also cuts quite a few sound effects for every film I do, and I work with the same foley artist on every film, the Finnish sound wizard, Heikki Kossi, who’s also doing a lot of big US productions, lately Ad Astra and the upcoming film from Sofia Coppola.
Depending on the size of the production, I might have other sound people attached as well but those two are working with me on every single project. Their contributions are invaluable.
JS: When working with a bigger crew, what is your role then?
PA: In the US, you’re often called Supervising Sound Editor as well as Sound Designer and that title covers the work quite well – you’re both supervising the crew, taking care of all the practicalities and making the sound design.
My role doesn’t really change with a bigger crew but the amount of office work becomes bigger.
I’m still the one who’s communicating with the director and production all the way, I’m making sure our visions for the sound hold up, I cut and design a lot of sound effects and as I’m a total perfectionist I also go through all the sounds created by my team.
At the same time, I highly respect the people I work with and if time allows I always start the sound postproduction process by inviting everyone on the sound team to the studio and then we do what I call a jam session where we go through the film together and exchange crazy ideas and sounds.
That’s always very inspiring. For me, making movies is really all about teamwork and collaboration.
JS: Could you tell us a bit about your involvement with the movie Dunkirk?
PA: The scope of that production was enormous, and I was a very small part of it – I recorded some boat sounds for the film.
I know the sound designer Richard King who worked on it, and he got in touch with me because he needed some specific boat sounds that he couldn’t record in the US.
He spent a lot of time recording the actual sounds for everything. He recorded planes, boats, machine guns, and explosions, but he couldn’t get hold of this special old boat.
It turned out, though, that you could get hold of that boat right here in Denmark. Me and my assistant recorded that boat, went out there with a long list of things to record, and got all those sounds that were then used in the film.
When you think about it, do you really need to get someone on the other side of the world to go out and record this specific boat for your film?
That’s where I really feel that sound makes a difference. You feel that there’s attention brought to every sound.
In my opinion, every sound tells a story, and that’s why it’s important to have the right sound for everything. I spend a lot of time recording sounds for my projects.
It was amazing to be a small part of this great movie. The work that the whole sound team did on that film was amazing, so I’m very honored to be a tiny part of that.
JS: Not everyone can work on Hollywood-productions like Dunkirk. Luckily, with the internet and democratization of technology, a lot of low-budget features and short films are produced and can have a life.
What are the typical errors you see in terms of sound recording and sound design when more inexperienced produce film?
PA: First of all, I just want to say that great sound is not dependent on big budgets. You can do amazing sound for small indie movies.
Actually, sometimes there are more refreshing ideas in low budget movies than in big-budget movies where there’s a tendency towards taking fewer chances.
Great sound design is really about being creative and that’s one of many wonderful things about sound – it doesn’t need to be super expensive.
That being said, a problem that often occurs on movies is that there’s not enough effort and money put into recording great production sound and another problem is often that the sound designer is hired very late in the process and doesn’t really have much creative input into the storytelling.
I wish all directors hired the sound designer and composer at the same time as they hired the photographer. The movies would be so much better.
JS: I know that you often return to Skywalker Sound to work? What is it about that place that keeps you coming back?
PA: Skywalker Sound is technically the leading film sound facility in the world and at the same time it’s an incredibly beautiful place in the middle of the gorgeous nature about an hour north of San Francisco.
The greatest thing is, though, that the sound people there are not just some of the most talented but also always so kind and generous.
Of course, a lot of the biggest blockbusters are done there but they also really want smaller indie productions to be done there.
George Lucas built the place from his Star Wars money but his own background is in independent movies and it’s always been important for him to keep supporting that part of the film business.
It still feels a bit unreal for me every time I arrive there – I’ve done a handful of films there during the last five years – but at the same time, I feel very welcome. I’ve become good friends with quite a few people working there.
I love multinational sonic friendships.
JS: Do you have any advice for others on how to become a sound designer? Should they go to film school or are there better routes out there?
PA: I think it’s really important to as a sound person to really listen. Sometimes as human beings we tend to forget to listen, we hear things but we don’t really listen.
I feel that if we were listening more to each other and the world around us, the world would be a better place.
I feel that as a sound designer you have to listen and record a lot of sounds.
If you want to do sound design for movies, then you should watch a lot of movies and really listen to the movies. Find out what your favorite film sounds like and how they are using sounds and approaching sounds.
Look at details like how the dialogue sounds and when they use silence and when they use noise. Basically, what kind of sounds they use to get the optimal reaction.
For me, my advice is to listen to the world, listen to the movies, listen to a lot of sounds. There is so much inspiration to get.
JS: Thank you.
About the author:
Jan Sørup is a videographer and photographer from Denmark. He’s the owner of filmdaft.com and of the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.