Moor, a Pakistani-Pashto film directed by Jami and sound designed by Kashif, is a very unique and special film. It traces the conflict that exists in a person, the society and the generations. The conflict of truth versus reality, honor versus greed. There was so much in terms of subtle undertones in this film and its characters and color tone. I had no references to films made in that region and so this would be a new experience for me. The primary reason was, I had very little idea of the audience and how they perceive cinema. Of course one can argue that sound should be for cinema and I do believe so. But, it must have a context.
The reason I say this is that as a mix engineer, I am responsible for what the audience hears and should make out of the scene. I can determine where the audience needs to concentrate on, what needs to break or create a jump in the emotional graph, what should the audience listen to. I would be responsible to portray the vision the director has to the audience from the sonic perspective without overpowering the visual. This is very important because the audience should always connect with the character and the narrative. The sound designer and me as a mix engineer will supply the context of the emotion and the location. We do have more scale to decide the hidden communication that will happen with all that is on screen to help justify the character. This is also how we are able to add and embellish the acting and subtle nuances the character shows on screen.
I had 5 days to mix the movie. Yes, I know that will not provide justice to this but we were really out of time as by the time I met Jami, it was a bit tight for schedule. But, I saw the film first before mixing it and had a week’s gap between and I did my homework, as I wouldn’t compromise on the mix. The reason was I needed to understand what Jami had intended before I heard what he had to say. I was looking at it as an audience to get my own interpretation of it. I didn’t want to have a preconceived idea. This would give me a lot of insight into what was it that would drive it. Why certain shots were there, were it a bit too long, did it drag, what point did I lose something, or did something strike me etc. I would make a mental note and then talk to Jami to find out if I got the right idea.
Once that was set, I wanted to know what it was to be in Balochistan. It was a beautiful place with so many visually stunning shots. But there was coldness in the characters and what they were going through. I had to be able to give justice to both. The visually stunning part was on its own by beautiful camera work. The characters evolution and their life would be my job. Jami took me through the place explaining the drive there, what was the place about, how cold it was and the history there. All these elements made it into the mix.
Strings have done an amazing job with the score and the songs. They bring out the flavor of the place and the culture behind it. But more importantly, what it does is compliment the visuals and the story on screen. This is very important if we need to have the audience to experience the land and culture and the character as they pass through various transformations. The mix of this was a joy to do and only helped in various creative pans and mixes. Of course, the mix of the songs will sound different from the ones on the CD but that is the point. We have a visual to which we are mixing the song. One example is the end scroll has a beautiful visual on a train track. The way the song was balanced was with very subtle pans and level changes to reflect the bumps and shots on the train. This gives a very emotional connect to the travel and the song. None of the things we do in the mix and pans can be radical in this film because this is a very delicate mix to handle. Another example is the placement of instruments in the surround based on how far the camera is from the character. This gives an incredible sense of depth and loneliness or solitude as and when needed. The fast song EVA was mixed with a lot of dynamics in pans and tight compression to give the speed it delivers both by composition and by visual. One of the things I often use in compression is setting the attack and release based on the tempo of the song. Its quite easy to find tempo by opening the transport window in Pro Tools and then clicking on the tempo field and tapping the letter T to the tempo of the song. This will display the tempo there. I can then use this tempo to convert bar and beats into millisecond from the many converters available online. Once this is done, I can have compression as aggressive as I need without changing much in the timber yet making it sound musical because the attack and release will be in tempo.
I decided to bring the audience into this world with a very cold and bare approach. It was also important to show the distinction between the City life and the Mountain life not just as visual, but also what they would hear. If you and I are used to a city life, there are certain things we miss in the mountains and new things we hear and feel. It is the same vice versa. So, this will give me a cue to let the audience hear what the characters would hear. For example, when the son comes to the village, the desolation would be heard though the wind. The whistles and absence of ambience, the stillness of life there and the barren world would be present. But when we show it through his father’s view, who lived there his whole life, you would hear the house creaks, the crickets, dogs, a moving wind, window rattles and other sounds. This was the approach we did when we shift to the city too. Again, the city through the son’s view is a very posh and cleaner sound in terms of traffic or buses etc. But when the father arrives, the cacophony of the place is what he will hear. How many elements that were never part of his life would pop up and how the creaks of his house will be replaced by the sounds of people chattering constantly or the harsher traffic that Kashif used here.
These are very subtle things but help in quickly establishing the space and the character view without us spending much time. Honestly, we didn’t have that luxury. So, when I first saw the cut, I suggested some changes and additions that I felt would help things go easier and make it easier as a design.
The opening sound has a mix of both the creaks of the house that transforms into animals representing how the whole place became desolate, and how people by nature are truly converted into animals when money or greed comes into life thus giving place to what was the current situation where the Father was. One thing that was used was thunder. It was very odd that there wouldn’t be rain or anything in the whole film, but we used this to show the places vanish on the map as thunder is actually nothing but the rush of wind to a vacuum created in air. Initially the idea was to use winds to represent a wipeout, but I felt this would be better because the villages would become a vacuum and Jami and Kashif agreed. Remember, at the end, if I do a good or a bad job, the name would be Jami’s and I have to have responsibility for that!
The cut from this is pure silence. One needs to breathe, and so does sound. We can treat sound as a living creature and in a way this is exactly what we technically call dynamics. Up and down. Inhale and exhale. Then from this silence, sounds begin again. We establish the mood of the film.
This is probably one of the very few films in my experience where the techniques were not plugins or creative routing, but manipulating elements in the track. The approach was of course helped by plugins like R2 and Phoenix Verb from exponential audio, the Avid Pro Multiband and Avid Pro Subharmonic so on, the idea was primarily to play with presence, absence, placement and modification of sound.
There are quite a few things we managed to do within the film. It was very important for me to understand the culture. The reason was, what are the words used in the film, what is the timbre of the instrument used within the given score. How much freedom do I have, to modify it before it becomes different. Strings who did a very beautiful and mesmerizing also lent these things to me as I experienced it as an audience. I had to space both the score and the sound design so that they both grow on you as a viewer and have the power to take you to the character as first person or as a third person. This also affected the way I approached dialogues. Some of them were purposefully not clean very much and had the grit of the location and the bareness intended. I also had to understand to find out which were the primary consonants in that language so as to accent or make legibility in difficult scenes. Our minds are very good at understanding words from the consonants to also know the meaning of the delivery. (For a technical purpose, a pulse 3 milliseconds long must have a level about 15 dB higher to sound as loud as a 0.5-second (500 millisecond) pulse. This also affects our understanding of the delivery of speech and where we stress p and the t etc. when we are angry, happy, sad or advising. Not that we would be conscious of this while mixing but good to know how much it impacts.)
Getting the elements in and out of the space was what we used as a technique. So, when some conversations happen, we would for example use the sound of the kettle-boiling rise in the center channel or house creaks in surrounds and overhead or under the dialogue, without hearing it, so when there is a resolution between the characters, it signifies that the space also responds. For the audience, since we are using the elements from within the existing space, it will not be odd, but changing levels and position, will bring intensity. The same is also the opposite. Removing creaks, traffic, and nature as dialogues represent the cold facts of life or the state of mind also helps in subtly getting the audience into the headspace. This is also why songs were not represented as songs but as the emotional bridge. The songs when mixed in surround had elements that would grow based on the camera shots. Is it a pull back, use a bit of reverb to get the vocals or lead bigger based on the speed of camera movement; is it an underlining statement, subtly add the LFE to the track to make it bigger than life, and so on. For the LFE, I had the Pro Sub Harmonic from Avid, which is my go to, and standard plugin without which I cannot pull off many of the things I do.
I manipulated dialogue reverbs based on the camera distance or tracking to the character so that as the camera tracks really close to the characters in a tight shot of face and we lose reverb, the sound matches the distance we are on screen and we get the character in our face without having to raise or change levels. The reverbs manipulated are by first removing them from surrounds then side, then center and ending up dry when we are really close on the shot. This doesn’t take much time and can be established in two runs of the scene. It was also important as we didn’t have much time to spare.
Another technique was using a low pass filters on the dialogue, music and effects to match the focus in some scenes as the character loses his mind. This equates to the blur we see on screen thereby putting the audience in the mind of the character. This would make it easier for Jami to emotionally engage the audience. One thing I did in one such scene was to take words from normal sentences and highlight it with reverbs, delays, filtered delays, reverse reverbs etc. to construct a parallel underlying statement that is completely contradictory from the intended message. This will give the audience the opportunity to understand how the character misinterprets what is being said and also at the same time make a true judgment of what is being really said. This was very important philosophically because in all our minds we are very skeptical of help offered at no cost. We try to read into the sentences often interpreting our own version. I wanted to show how this happens psychologically in the real world of the character.
Dolby Atmos and Avid Pro Tools give you the power to do this not just fast but efficiently without compromise. It is very easy to immerse the audience in sound with Atmos and have you be in the real space of the character with the room or the location sounds placed exactly where you would hear if you were the character. Then again we can shift all that to score where you would get the emotion of the character. Honestly, I don’t know of a format that will give you all these freedom in such a short span. Pro Tools simply because of the sheer flexibility it offered. We mixed this film on a Laptop connected to an HDX2 system in a beautiful Atmos studio called JBM. No other DAW will let you do this with so much power from a small system without a single crash. We couldn’t afford the crashes!
These are some of the things we managed to do in the film. If after watching the film, you stay on with the film and not remember the mix, then I know I have succeeded because it was the film, not the sound and visuals that was the focus for you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did and with all the heart that Jami and his team put into the film.