Alchemy of sound

So Resul Pookutty has won an Oscar nomination for sound mixing. But do you know what his craft can create?

Written by Pallavi Jassi | Published: February 8, 2009 11:59 am

So Resul Pookutty has won an Oscar nomination for sound mixing. But do you know what his craft can create?
Halfway into Slumdog Millionaire,young Jamal Malik descends a subway in search of the boy he knows will lead him to Latika. Arvind,the blind beggar with an exquisite voice exacts his price (a crisp $100 bill) and,unwittingly,gives Jamal the answer that will take him,years later,closer to unlocking computerji’s treasure. Sound mixer Resul Pookutty knew,as he was recording the scene,that the crackle of the note as it slips into the blind boy’s hand had to stand out from the other noises of the city. It was one of the many details that went into Slumdog’s soundscape,one which has earned Pookutty (along with Ian Tapp and Richard Pryke) an Oscar nomination for Best Sound Mixing.

Despite the hoopla,not too many people are aware of what sound technicians like Pookutty add to a movie. What does a sound mixer do? He creates the film’s distinct voice not just through dialogues and music but the white noise in the background—the squeak of a door,the rumble of a train and the whir of a fan. He makes it speak.
“Sound mixing is not done in isolation. It’s a process that continues through the making of the film,” says Pookutty.

Phase one is the live recording of dialogues. While the scenes are being canned,sound engineers got to work,hunting for the noises that can add to a scene’s life. Pookutty recorded sounds as varied as the chugging of a train and the crow’s cawing during Slumdog’s shoot. “Creating an ambience needs construction of a lot of actual sounds. For instance,if the visual shows a marketplace,then it needs to have the buzz of flies or the sound of a cycle-bell to make it look and sound real,” adds Pookutty,37,who has also done the sound for movies such as Ghajini,Black and Gandhi My Father among others. “For Slumdog,recording those minute sounds in a noisy city like Mumbai was quite a challenge,” he says. The real work begins after the film has been edited,when all the nano-sounds that are crucial to the movie are blended in the sound engineer’s studio.

Engineer Eric Pillai,who is currently working on songs for films like Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani,Main aur Mrs Khanna and Veer,explains that “a good mix is a blend of all elements that doesn’t throw off a listener or sound harsh—whether in films or songs,the mix should flow smoothly.” It’s a soundtrack you hear,but never notice.

Sound mixing also comes into play in film soundtracks—and in Bollywood,that is definitely a big deal. “Mixing songs puts together various elements like vocals,grooves,bass and drums with other effects like echoes and delays to shape up a song. It’s like a chef putting together all ingredients to make a recipe,” explains Pillai,who has mixed songs for films such as Salaam Namaste,Dostana and Partner.

“Once a song has been composed by the music director,every layer of sound,what is known as a track,is sent to the mixer who then combines it to construct the entire composition,” says Pillai. Sometimes,a mixer can even turn around a composition with his inputs.

While a song takes up to two days to be mixed,a film takes as long as the shooting and sometimes even more. “The time involved in designing the sound of a film depends on how elaborate you want it to be. So if the shooting lasts 90 days,the recording of the sound would last as long. After that it can take another 40-90 days depending on the kind of mix the film demands,” says Pookutty,who took almost four months to design the sound for Ghajini and Black.

Sound engineer Farhad Dadyburjor,who has not only worked on this year’s Grammy-nominated jazz album Miles from India with producer Bob Belden but also done mixes for Aloo Chat and Anurag Kashyap’s Gulaal,says,“Engineers are more than sound mixers. They bring in their own creative element to the film or music and give it a fuller structure. The easiest way to understand that is to press the mute button and see how much sense the visuals make.”

Mixing the sound can be done differently in the same scenario. For instance in a kitchen scene,some may have the humming sound of the refrigerator,some may add the whistling of the kettle while others may even want to insert the sound of flowing of the tap water. “The film’s sound depends on the visuals it needs to enhance,whereas the songs don’t have any such restrictions. They give the engineer the creative freedom to make their own additions,” says Dadyburjor.

The industry’s technicians are happy that the Oscar and Grammy nominations have made people curious about them. “Our technology is advanced and people are realising it now. But the difference between Indian and Western scenario is the money that technical people get outside India,something that’s amiss here,” says Dadyburjor.
As Pookutty gets ready for the 81st Academy Awards on February 22,he would rather not have high hopes. “I’m just glad that people finally want to know what a technical aspect such as sound mixing is. I feel like a job has been well done,” he says.

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