January 30th, 2019

The art and craft of sound design – interview with Peter Albrechtsen

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Peter Albrechsten. In what is my first interview on sound design in this series so far, he talks about the language of music and his love of storytelling, creating the sonic identity for his productions, manipulating sound and building his library over the last twenty years, the research he does when he joins a new project, and working with a variety of screening platforms and formats. Around these topics and more, Peter dives deep into his work on “The Last Race”, a glimpse into the world of a Long Island stock car racetrack that is clinging to its tradition as the world around it goes through a real estate development boom.

Peter Albrechtsen

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and what brought you to where you are today.

Peter: My name is Peter Albrechtsen and I’m a sound designer based in Copenhagen, Denmark. I graduated from the Danish Film School in 2001, and since then I’ve been working on features and documentaries, both Danish and international productions.

I’ve had a great fortune of being part of a creative movie environment in Denmark. I graduated from the film school right when the Dogme movies came out, drawing a lot of international attention. In addition, Danish documentaries have been highly valued over the last 15 years, and it gave me the opportunity to work with a lot of very talented filmmakers. I’ve also been doing a lot of international productions from countries all around the world.

I just did a Brazilian feature film, and in the last few years I’ve done films in Israel and Bulgaria. I also do several US indie movies because I know a lot of US film people – in addition to all the Danish and Scandinavian productions. You have a lot of ambitious, very sound oriented creators from around the world who want to play with music and sound – and the visuals, of course. That means that I’m working on a lot of great and ambitious projects, and I’m having a lot of fun with it.

Kirill: If I can bring you a little bit earlier in your career, was it always the plan to do sound – when you went to the film school or before that?

Peter: As a teenager, I was always into movies and I was always into music. Then I went to the European Film College, which is kind of a pre-film school based in Denmark that is attended by students from all around the world. I think that this language of music that speaks to all of us is the only universal language in many ways. That school was the place where I realized that if you do sound for movies, you could combine all the things I love about music and doing storytelling that I loved as well. So by doing sound for movies I was able to combine those two things.

That was 20 years ago, and it feels like I’ve been doing it forever. The amazing thing is that after working with sound for so many years, I can still be surprised and overwhelmed by what sound can do for images. Working on a film and playing around with sounds for it can totally change the perception, the atmosphere and the feeling of it. Doing sounds for a film is an adventure for me. It’s been like that for 20 years now, and I don’t see myself stopping any time soon.

A scene from “The Last Race”, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Kirill: When you started working in the industry after school, was there anything particularly surprising or unexpected for you?

Peter: I started out assisting on different projects, doing sound effects editing on films such “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Antichrist” by Lars von Trier. Those were big, ambitious movies, and I was a part of the sound crew, learning a lot of things from those experiences.

Gradually, I started working on movies were I was in charge of the sound. My job now is to try and be the ears of the director. I try to find the sonic language for any film that I do. That happens in via a close collaboration with the director, and I really love the collaborative way of working on movies. You’re doing something that is greater than the sum of the parts.

You’re creating something that no one could have created on their own, and I really love that. There could be hundreds or maybe even thousands of people on a film crew, and it’s all about being inspired by the director’s vision. In a way, it’s amazing every time it happens. When someone is building a bridge they can go hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. You don’t see that in the film world. Its effectiveness is quite amazing.

The art of making movies is about combining that effectiveness with creativity, and trying to create something special. Sometimes you succeed, and sometimes you don’t.

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January 16th, 2019

Cinematography of “Terminal” – interview with Christopher Ross

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Christopher Ross. In this interview he talks about the beginning of his career and technical changes in the last 15 years as the industry has shifted from film to digital, the various facets of cinematographer’s responsibilities on and off the set, and on what still surprises him in his chosen profession. Around these topics and more, Christopher dives deep into his work on the post-apocalyptic neo-noir world of last year’s “Terminal”, a story of deceit, betrayal and vengeance that stars Margot Robbie, Simon Pegg and Mike Myers.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far.

Christopher: I’ve been actively employed as a cinematographer since about 2007, but prior to that I’ve been an unemployed one, going back to 2000 when I started doing my first short film.

When I went to the university in mid-90s, I wanted to be a director. At the time I didn’t know that there was anyone else involved in making films, except for the director, the writers and the producers. When I was at the university studying physics, I worked alongside some writers who wanted to direct the same as me. Through the process of osmosis, I ended up being the cameraman for most of those other directors, shooting on VHS tapes.

After university, I started working in the film industry as a driver for various rental companies. That’s when I realized that there was this role of cinematographer that I could aim towards. It took about a decade to go from being an unemployed cinematographer to an employed one, and then another decade to work out where to go next.

Kirill: Looking back at the last 15 years or so from the technical perspective, do you think it’s becoming easier to get into the field as the equipment is much more affordable these days?

Christopher: It’s a complex scenario. Speaking from my experience, when I first began working in the industry trying to become a cinematographer, the equipment that was trusted by the producers and the industry itself was 16mm and 35mm film. The only way for you to be given the role of the cinematographer on a budgeted motion picture of any kind was to show a great deal of experience with celluloid.

That was the difficult thing. You had to find somebody who had one of those cameras and borrow it, or rent it for a period of time, and then pay for the stock. It was a very expensive way of proving yourself. I worked with directors that wanted to push their short films as high as they could, and we ended up generally going 50/50. I would get hired to do a job, and I would use money from my day job to supplement making short films, in the hope that it would give me enough experience.

But today you can buy a digital SLR that records 4K video, with an SQN mixer and some stereo sound equipment. The access to technology is far higher, but there is another difference.

When I began, you were shooting on 100 or 200 ASA film stock. You had to light interiors, and now you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. You can effectively shoot your films without putting forth yourself into the material. And if your self doesn’t come over in the material, that’s what the producers and the directors are going to see. They want to see what you brought to the thing.

Actually, I’d say that it’s much harder these days to make yourself any different to 200 other aspiring cinematographers of all ages that are trying to make their way. But when I was younger, you still had to stand above others in order to be seen.

The one thing that I would say about the advent of digital cinema is that has allowed filmmakers to take far bigger risks in the worlds of short film and music videos. There’s a safety net of digital that allows you to be much more experimental, in a knowingly-successful way, whereas previously you had the fear of celluloid on your back.

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December 19th, 2018

Sustainability of social platforms

There’s a lot of hand-wringing around the changes Verizon corporate is bringing down on the Tumblr communities. People are talking about the freedom of creative expression, the future of safe spaces for fringe interests and the good old days before the engagement-driven ad “opportunities”. Yahoo’s billion-dollar purchase of the not-quite profitable platform was accompanied by grand promises:

We promise not to screw it up. Tumblr is incredibly special and has a great thing going. We will operate Tumblr independently. David Karp will remain CEO. The product roadmap, their team, their wit and irreverence will all remain the same as will their mission to empower creators to make their best work and get it in front of the audience they deserve. Yahoo! will help Tumblr get even better, faster.

In terms of working together, Tumblr can deploy Yahoo!’s personalization technology and search infrastructure to help its users discover creators, bloggers, and content they’ll love. In turn, Tumblr brings 50 billion blog posts (and 75 million more arriving each day) to Yahoo!’s media network and search experiences. The two companies will also work together to create advertising opportunities that are seamless and enhance user experience.

There’s a certain beauty in the natural cycles of web chaos. And there’s also a big difference between sustained and sustainable. The history so far has shown that it is not a sustainable endeavor to build a popular social platform that is held in high esteem by both users and the market forces. It’s a rather awkward place between being a sustained loss center, and being stuck in a somewhat unsavory self-reinforcing cycle of business decisions that go counter to the whole notion of, well, social.

As for me, with the impending shuttering of Google+, I’ll be writing more right here in my own little web garden.

December 4th, 2018

Tending the web garden, 2018 edition

Software is never quite done. Even if you have all the features put in, and all the known bugs fixed, if you stand still, the world will slowly pass you by and leave you behind.

A modern app is, more or less, expected to be everywhere. People expect seamless sync between all their devices, intelligent offline, presence of all the screens in their life, and constant adaptation of how the app behaves to the ever-evolving world of technology that we live in.

The same goes for web sites. Space Jam is a rather wonderful memento of the early web frozen in time. But it’s a curiosity, a rare peek into the world of yesteryear.

Content is king they say. Whoever they are, they don’t tell you that the presentation of content matters. As I was switching my site to be fully HTTPS earlier in the year, I was reminiscing on all the non-content maintenance work that I keep on doing on a semi-regular basis with my site to keep up with the latest and greatest. To keep up with what is “expected” of modern web sites. To get a feel of the burden the technology evolution is placing on hundreds of thousands (millions, tens of millions?) of web developers that find their carefully constructed houses of cards gather cobwebs.

  • In 2012 I’ve switched to using web fonts, and I kept on tweaking those ever since – for body, headings and navigational elements.
  • In 2013 I’ve switched to fully responsive design, scaling the overall layout to behave well on a variety of screen sizes.
  • In 2014 I’ve switched to use 2x / retina images on relevant hardware, which required going back to the archives and resourcing all the images in the interviews that have been published until then.
  • In 2015 I’ve switched to a single-column layout, rearranging the content to flow better across a variety of screens.
  • In 2018 I’ve switched to HTTPS, even though the only user-facing input box is the search tucked at the very end of the page.

Is the latest 3 year gap an indication that things are slowing down? Maybe. But probably not. I’m still tending this little web garden of mine. The latest chapter, so far, has been adding support for dark mode:

On the left is the regular version of Pushing Pixels. On the right is how it looks like running under Safari Technology Preview on the latest macOS 10.14.1 (Mojave), with the work under way to add the matching CSS selector support to Firefox and Chrome.

I hope this little web garden of mine will be there in 10 years. In 20 years. Hopefully in 40 years. There’s a lot of tending ahead.