The Extraordinary Sound Designer Behind Hollywood Biggest Productions
Xiao’ou Olivia Zhang, grew up in Beijing, China, attended the MFA Film program at the University of Southern California where she discovered the power of sound in cinema. Upon graduation, she received the Outstanding Achievement in Sound in the First Film Festival. The first show she joined in the industry was Twin Peaks (David Lynch). After Twin Peaks, she joined the film Roman J. Israel, esq. (Oscar nomination — best actor Denzel Washington). The same year, she worked on X-Files, which later brought her a Golden Reel Award nomination. Since then, Olivia has worked on many high profile theatrical features and broadcast television shows, including The Nun (box office $365.6 million), Quail Lake (Chloe Lanier), Velvet Buzzsaw (Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo), John Wick 3 (Keanu Reeves), Another Dream (Gouden Kalf Award Nomination), The Red Line (Noah Wyle CBS TV show), Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates (Oscar winning director David Guggenheim), The Lovebirds (cast Kumail Nanjiani, Issue Rae), El Tonto (Charlie Day, John Malkovich, Adrien Brody).
1. Who brought you aboard for this production and what were the reasons they selected you specifically (previous work, recommendation, etc.)?
The director Tamara Shogaolu approached me with the film. We previously collaborated on the film Another Life, which is also a part of her Queer In A Time Of Forced Migration series (https://www.adoatopictures.com/qtfm).
2. Please describe any discussions you had with Director Tamara Shogaolu about your work on this film. What was the director’s vision for the film and what were your discussions about what you would specifically contribute to the mood of this film?
Tamara Shogaolu has great understanding about the power of sound in storytelling. Her approach is to start and finish sound design before scoring the film, which is quite unconventional. Tamara wanted sound, not just dialogue, but also ambiance, effects, and design to recreate the experience of the two asylum seekers’ journey from Egypt to the Netherlands — how was Cairo sounded like that specific afternoon when
they left the country, how cold the rain was in the dark forest to the government facility, how much the protests have shaken them at the camp, and how heartbreaking it would be for their union hadn’t they left Egypt.
In cinema, at least for now, touch, smell, and taste are three of the five senses we couldn’t directly allow the audience to experience. However, it is a magnificent form of art that involves those three senses through sight (picture) and hearing (sound design and music). Hearing gives extra layer to story telling by evoking the other sense picture sometimes cannot, like a gust of howling wind, an unknown creature in the darkness, a quickened heartbeat only can be felt but not seen. With the stunning animation, Tamara wanted the film to have a sound design that is able to provoke as many senses as possible, so that when the audience sit in front of the film, they don’t just watch it, they experience it.
This comes as a challenge for me because the animation was very internal and sometimes impressionistic. We had gone through many passes for a spot-on evocative moment that both preserve the reality and comes in harmony with the abstract images. Lots of time we had to jump out of the animation to rediscover the reality because the mass complexity of the reality resides in the negative space of the image on screen. Then we would walk back into the animated world with the sound design to see if we are getting the right balance of the internal and external.
3. In your own words, what is the message that this film tries to communicate about this lesbian couple and the LGBTQ community?
This documentary film is a recreation of their journey from Egypt to the Netherlands as asylum seekers. I think one of the most compelling messages this film is sending out to me is that in a world where we tend to conceptualize and objectify a group of people into a slogan, a message, through media and politics, we forget how simply human we are. Listening to two real people narrating a story, that we usually watch in news reels or read on twitters, in a sitting-on-the-couch-with-a-cup-of-tea manner, makes their existence feel heavy, and most importantly, their experience feel close. What they said matters. In the film, they tell how they met and fell in love, the name of their dog, what the afternoon is like when they packed in silence before one woman’s brother opened the room door to tell them it’s time to go to the airport. How walking in a cold rainy forest at night sounded and made them feel, and how much they hear others’ asylum seekers sleeping in the dorm room at the government facility, and what is it like shopping in a Dutch grocery market and how their dog finally joined them from Cairo.
It is a courageous human rights story of the Middle East LGBTQ community. But it’s also about two humans coming together and seeking for a life worth living. There is a human interest we could all relate to.
4. How did your work enhance the drama of this documentary/short film? How does a sound designer such as yourself approach the emotion of a drama with your skill? Please give examples of a couple of scenes in this film that illustrate how you contributed to the emotional tone of this story.
In this film, enhancement of drama the sound design has contributed to the storytelling is mostly through negative space of the picture, and through a dynamic balance between internal and external.
One scene that sound design stands out for its emotional tone is the processing room scene where asylum seekers go through a rigmarole of interrogation, interviews, and never-ending paperworks. Although it is a system that’s designed to process and eventually give asylum to people who truly need it, it is an intimidating and anxiety striking process for asylum seekers who live between hope and despair everyday in the camp. Tamara was inspired by the interrogation scene in Terry Gilliam’s 1985 science fiction film Brazil, its influence specifically reflected in the animation where different steps in the process was conducted on floating tables in a bottomless rotunda. She wants a sense of dystopia. A person against a system.
So sound design embraced Kafkaesque for this scene. An empty bureau hallway where you only hear the hum of a lifeless fluorescent light. After a moment of wondering in silence, there is a chain of affirmative footsteps approaching towards your floor. And just when you expect someone in posh leather shoes showing up in view at the end of the hallway, the footsteps disappear into the reverberant distance. Then an army of fluorescent light lit up in tandem and the wall with a door on it suddenly moved towards you. The movement has the kind of sound when you slide open the lid of a coffin made of stone. Then the door on the wall opens and creaks in a way that makes the hairs on your neck stand. And then all the walls suddenly drop down into a bottomless pit like an ancient land sinking into the earth, revealing the UFO-like rotunda and floating tables. And when the procedure starts, the clock ticks like a bomb about to explode.
I think the reason this design works here is the simple sense of memory these sound provoke us in real life. Fluorescent tube light is blue-white and cold. Many times they are used in public facilities. The sound of its distinguished hum also evokes emotions related to these experiences. Then a trail of clean reverberant footsteps of an unknown
person approaching, building curiosity and anxiety. And when the unknown person disappeared, the silence reminds you of the emptiness. Much like the experience of asylum seekers waiting for an asylum. Hope, confusion, unknown, fear, helplessness, and isolation. The dark feeling of rot and death the sound of a stone coffin provoked brings suffocation in the scene. And last, when the bomb starts to tick, naturally the emotion of despair, panic, and anxiety kicks in. Many times in sound design, simple and realistic elements that provoke universal emotional memories have strong impacts in the most natural and believable way.
5. Please describe 2-3 scenes in this film in which your sound design emphasized and heightened the emotion of the action on screen. Describe the actions of the characters in these scenes (include the specific character’s names) and what you edited or added to the scene to make it better.
I think we tend to have this notion that the homelands of asylum seekers are often declining or destroyed by warfares and crimes, where their lives are constantly in danger. They had no choice. So lots of them leave their home for a place where things are materially and socioeconomically better. But lots of times, especially in this case, it is not because of the economy or the physical living condition, but the extreme intolerance of who people are. They left their comfortable home for something intangible but significant for their existence. They had choices. And they choose to leave. Before they are granted asylum, the emotional experience in the Netherlands is impersonal. It is them versus the system. This is this emotion I wanted the audience to experience.
On our previous collaboration (Half A Life), Tamara has shared lots of her memories of how Egypt sounds. I watched a lot of raw tourist footage online and explored the sound of the country with great authenticity. It’s a place that even when you close your eyes, you feel that it has been fully lived. Even though Egypt is where they try to escape from, it was a place they call home. Instead of portraying it with a sense of brutality and cruelty to enhance the urgency of escape, we wanted to carry a warm feeling when the audience flew through the city. It would be so lively that the audience would miss it so much when they are alone waiting for the verdict in the government facilities.
So hence comes the The Flying Over Cairo scene. In this scene, you arrive in Cairo on a balcony in the middle of the city. Then it separates itself from the building and takes you on a flight through an alley between walls of windows. There are corner shops, small businesses, bed sheets and cloth hanging on strings, little traces of life here and there. Then it opens up to a courtyard where the couple’s building is. Then you will land
on their balcony, where you are able to see them packing for their flight to the Netherlands.
I designed the sequence by giving households behind these window activities. Someone is cooking, someone is watching TV, someone whose window hangs a small business sign picks up the ringing phone, someone laughs at a joke told by someone who is smoking a water-pipe, and the camel on their balcony sneezes when the smoke passes by, and in the distance, a kid just goaled a soccer match in the courtyard. Sound design the negative space brings a lot to the story that image has certain limits to offer.
Another one I think sound design had a lot of fun is the Dutch Christmas Market scene, where there are many colorful market stalls in line on the snow. The difference between this scene and the Cairo scene is the movement. In Cairo, we are on the move flying through the city. But in the Christmas Market, we are standing still. So this scene is more like a shot with a 360 degree view. To create a sense of joy and to support the dynamic of virtual reality, sound design focused a lot on element of motions. This time, instead of passing by activities, activities pass by you. A group of children throw snowballs around you in the foreground, people cruising through the market in the middle ground, and snow traffic moving slowly in the background, meandering through these layers are little carts with jingle bells coming and going. When I experienced the film on VR, it was a scene that feels very active and real with a great sense of space and movement. I was very happy about how sound design has contributed to the experience of this scene.
6. This film is described as “a hybrid animated documentary and VR game.” Video games have incredible production value these days, definitely rivaling feature films. Are there differences between these two genres for you as a sound designer or is your work for a film exactly the same as for a film? Please describe the similarities and differences.
Sound designing a VR animation film is a fusion of interactive games and traditional cinema.
For my experience designing Another Dream, there are many similarities in the methods and workflow during sound design editorial process. Tamara would provide a video of a real time capture by a player/audience with a slower speed, so that I could see all details from all the angles. And with the captured video, I was able to design the VR film in a synchronizing fashion (sound to picture) most of the time. Breaking down on screen movement and environment into units, layers just like how we sound design films. And because of the wonder of surround sound in cinema nowadays, sound design has a
great ability to build, expand, and re-imagine a special relationship that are both physical and visceral. I think my experience with sound designing films on screen provided me with great tools and strategies in sound designing films for virtual reality.
And of course there are things that are different. One is the interactive 360 degree visual. The interactive nature, much like sound design for games, make it hard for transitions. When sound designing a film, because of its linear nature, there is greater control of timing, subtlety, and build-up through a scene. This could be challenging to achieve in scenes that’s completely interactive. In Another Dream, there are moments that’s linear and there are moments that are interactive. So it was important to know the limits.There has been a lot of back and forth with the team that’s on the coding side. I have learnt so much about this VR just by doing sound design.
Nowadays the ATMOS system has made cinema sound literally above and beyond the audience with its ceiling speakers, forming a 3D sound dome around the screen. When sound design ATMOS, sound puts in extra attention and thoughts about what’s above. But designing for virtual reality needs even more awareness because it is 360 degrees and the image is not just on a flat screen. When layers of elements mixed into their respective locations, there are times it still sounds empty. Sometimes foreground, middle ground, and background is not enough to fill the reality completely. In movie theaters you don’t turn your head back, but when watching a VR film, you can turn back to look at someone who you just passed, and there will be a new background, new elements, new activities, and even new special relationship.
The fact I designed the film with a captured 2D video made it even more challenging. Tamara would describe these interactive moments to me, what happens when the view turns left or right, and what sound could we put in to lure the viewer to look down, etc. And I found myself offended by ignoring the picture in front of me and going into a virtually reality I’m imagining in my head in order to get the design working correctly. So that extra layer of awareness of special relationships, and really, the power of imagination, is crucial to make a VR film sound good.
7. Another Dream is the second installment of Queer in A Time of Forced Migration, an animated transmedia series that follows the stories of LGBTQ refugees from Egypt, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, and from the 2011 revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa region.” Did you include different cultural influences in your sound design because of this?
I haven’t particularly separated these cultures into different sounding elements. I think I was focused on how really Egypt sounded the way it is, which would naturally have imprints of these cultures.
Tamara lived in Egypt for several years. Back then when we worked on the film Half A Life, another installment of the series, she shared a lot of memories of sound during those years in Egypt. What’s very special about the sound in Egypt is the call to prayers from outdoor loudspeakers in all the mosques. The overlapping sounds of the call to prayers from different mosques, five times a day, was massive in volume and reverberance. It is a constant signature sound of Egypt. So it is made into the sound design when the couple imagine, or are physically in the country. I think the spiritual nature of the call to prayers in this overlapping fashion really brings the city alive in the film and it also gives a very strong resonance in abstract moments.
Although lots of people don’t pay special attention to this, I found it fascinating that different countries, cities, towns, have their distinguished way of sound. Being an international person who does sound design, I think it has been a blessing for me to have an awareness about such, which really helped me to understand and connect with a place.
8. Any awards or Official Selection status at film festivals for this production?
Yes, it premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival as one of five works in the Storyscapes competition. Nomination for a 2019 Gouden Kalf Award, the top film award in the Netherlands (Dutch Oscar).
Tribeca Film Festival 2019
Sheffield Doc Fest — Best Digital Experience Award Nomination, UK, 2019
Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, Korea, 2019
Gouden Kalf Award, Netherland, 2019
Games for Change Award Nominee, US, 2019
Film Independent, Showcase, US, 2019
The film is currently touring at festivals, galleries, and museums internationally.
Other press coverage: https://www.adoatopictures.com/allpress)
9. What was the most challenging part of your work on this film?
Mainly the challenging part of working on this film is the differences in the platform of films. Sound design films for silver screens and for virtual reality are similar yet different in both creative and technical aspects, which I had to learn and adapt. It has been a great experience.
10. What was the most rewarding part of your work on this film?
I think the subject itself is the most rewarding part of my work on this film. Sure it doesn’t have an exhilarating car chase or action sequence, a “great sound design moment” Hollywood blockbuster films frequently offer. But I think internally I was feeling great about my value not just as a creative artist, but also as a basic human being. Working on this film included me into a group that gives voice to underrepresented people who seek for, fighting for, and advocating for equality and justice. When a project like this comes to us, many late nights work means something more than just a good sound design. It gives meaning to our work.
-You’ve worked on a variety of genres in film. Is there any difference for you and your work when working on a comedy as opposed to a drama or other type of film? Is it all essentially the same thing regardless of the mood or genre of film? If not, what are the differences in how you apply your skills? Please give specific examples which illustrate your point.
There are some different approaches I find important to keep in mind when sound design different genres.
I think for dramas, sound design is there to heighten and to protect the authenticity of a relatable emotional journey the story is trying to present to the audience. Environment is usually my big focus in genre like that. A story with a normal life setup brings the audience closer to the characters. When an environment becomes a reflection of the level of intensity of the internal world it still sounds real and believable.
Contrast to drama, horror films and thrillers go a little bit above the authenticity of reality. Stories in this genre, lots of times, is a battle with the unknown. There will be more tonal and mood design that has a nature above reality but beneath musical. And I tend to humanize objects by assigning different levels of energy and characteristics into the sound they make to heighten the sense of omnipresence of the unknown. For Comedy, there is a delicate pace sound design needs to recognize so it works with music and picture together to reach that genuinely comedic moment seamlessly. It’s like a comedian setting up a joke, nothing should give away or sidetrack the joke until the punchline. So that is the principle I follow when I’m on a comedy.
And depending on the subject of the comedy, choosing sound effects with realistic whimsical nature also give a sidekick to the joke. Say a wine glasses clink to seal a comedic moment, it could be extra playful by adding a subtle glass wobble on top of a crystal sharp clink. But it really depends on the moments, the set up, and the characters. Lots of these sounds and ideas are very subjective. Just like how different people and different cultures find things funny in different ways. It is a process of trial and error but when you are on a comedy, many frowns also come with a lot of giggles. However, in general, regardless of genres, sound design is there to work with the picture and music. The ultimate purpose is to make the audiences immerse themselves into the story and glued to the screen from the beginning to the end.
My core principle of sound design is to recreate details and provoke emotions, build perspectives that helps viewers to sink into characters’ point of view, give energies, and be mindful to the emotional response our body and mind has to various frequency ranges.
What do you think is the least understood/under-appreciated part of being a sound editor/sound designer on a film (by those not involved in the industry)?
I think the least understood part of sound design is the experience of an authentic and credible cinematic reality and the energy and believability of motions only sound can bring to the screen.
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