Interview with Production Designer Maria Djurkovic (Oscar Nominated – The Imitation Game)

maria_djurkovic.jpgMaria Djurkovic is one of the most talented Production Designers in the industry today. She has created a multitude of worlds in many critically acclaimed movies and TV shows, including: Sliding Doors (1998), Billy Elliot (2000), The Hours (2002), Mamma Mia! (2008), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), and Gold (2017).

Matthew Toffolo: Is there a film or two that you’re most proud of?

Maria Djurkovic: Yes – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

I also was very pleased with The Invisible Woman. I dont think you can tell we had a very small budget.

PHOTO: Still from the film”The Invisible Woman” (Director Ralph Fiennes)

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MT: What is a director looking for in a Production Designer?

MD: I am certain each director is looking for something different. Wes Anderson will be looking for very different qualities in a designer than Ken Loach.

MT: What is a Production Designer looking for in a director?

MD: I am certain that everyone is different. I like to work with directors for whom visuals are very important. This may seem obvious in such a visual medium as filmmaking, but believe me it isn’t.

I will meet a director for a job with a very clear idea of how I see their film. I actually like to stick my neck out, because I really don’t want to spend the next 6 to 9 months arguing. If a director likes my ideas I will get the job. If they don’t, or if they are not looking for an opinionated designer, I won’t.

The best working relationships for me are the very collaborative ones. Tomas Alfredson is my dream director. We practically finish off each other’s sentences. I enjoy working with directors who are unafraid of bold visuals and who dont get caught up in stuff that actually doesn’t matter. Those who are comfortable cheating locations and are not too literal.

Obviously the material they are wanting to direct has to be good and I have to like their work.

A sense of humor is hugely important to me. We will spend hours and hours in cars, looking at locations. We need to get on.

MT: You were nominated for an Oscar for The Imitation Game (2014). How was the Oscar experience? You didn’t win, but is it just as good being nominated? Or, did you really want to win!?

MD: It was crazy from beginning to end. I knew I would not win because I was up against “The Grand Budapest Hotel” that year. Knowing that I wouldnt win actually made the eremony much more relaxing. The year I was nominated for a BAFTA for “Tinker” I was a nervous wreck during the ceremony and had an anaphylactic shock during the dinner.

I was working in Boston in the coldest recorded east coast winter when I heard about my nomination. I had one Saturday to find a dress. Flew to LA one weekend for the nominees luncheon, the following weekend to London for the BAFTAS and the one after for the actual Oscars.

I was tired and jet lagged but the whole experience was quite extraordinary, and i am thrilled to have had it. Hair/ Make-up / the biggest celeb count on the planet, all huge fun.

PHOTO: Still from the movie “The Imitation Game” Directed by Morten Tyldum:

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MT: How early do you come into pre-production before shooting starts? When do your hire and bring on the rest of your key team members?

MD: I come on board very early, normally after the producer and director. The amount of prep I get varies from project to project. Anything from 10 to an incredibly generous 24 weeks I have had on the movie I am working on right now. The Art Dept. has a massive pyramidal structure and I try to secure my supervising art director and set decorator as soon as i am allowed, everyone else follows.

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you watched the most times in your life?

MD: Probably Kusturica’s films.

MT: Do you have a Production Designer mentor?

MD: No

MT: Do you have any advice to kids currently in high school or in university who want to be a Production Designer?

MD: Be prepared to work insanely hard, be a monomaniac and really want to do it. Take every opportunity and be persistent. Be prepared to take knocks. Keep immersing yourself in visual culture, refresh your resources. I am always shocked how ignorant many students are about period. Period knowledge should run in your veins

MT: Where did you grow up? How did you get into the film industry? Was this something you always wanted to do?

MD: I grew up in Harrow, wanted to be a Production Designer from about the age of 8 – this is the Monomania I was talking about. Made period clothes for my Barbie dolls and loved going to the v& more than anywhere else.

My dad was an art director and hated the idea of me following in his footsteps. Said that the film industry was full of shits. He was right, but I persisted.

Studied fine art at Oxford. Did a post grad course in theatre design. Started at the BBC the day after I graduated. Stayed there for 3 years before I went freelance, built up my career step by step alternating between set decorating bigger films and designing small TV things and working my way up. I designed my first film in 1995…..

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 20-50 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto, and Los Angeles at least 2 times a month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

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Interview with Emmy Winning Sound Designer Andy Kennedy (Band of Brothers, Generation Kill)

Andy Kennedy is easily one of the most skilled Sound Designers working today. He has worked on many landmark productions besides his two Emmy winning shows for Best Sound in “Band of Brothers” and “Generation Kill”. He has worked on “Game of Thrones”, “Batman Begins”, the recent “War & Peace” series, 5 of the “Harry Potter” films, and “The Imitation Game” to name a few.

Go to his website: www.resonancesoundesign.com

It was a pleasure to chat with Andy about the art of Sound Design in film and his career.

Matthew Toffolo: You’ve worked on over 90 productions in the sound department in the last 35 years. Is there a job you’ve done that you’re most proud of?

Andy Kennedy: Some of the early projects – It was a time of mixed technology and a challenge creatively. ‘The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb’ was made in Bristol by animators who worked with just a Bolex camera, hence their name the Bolex Brothers. I worked with a Synclavier – an Audiofile – 16mm and 35mmm Mag and a 24 track multitrack tape. It was made with love and was a wonderful collaboration of like minded individuals with music crafted by The Startled Insects. We finished the mix in Bristol and everyone came to the dubbing theatre at the end.

Watch on YouTube

Creatively, ‘Blueberry’ or ‘Renegade’ (US title). A bizarre and unusual film about a caygeon cowboy who Hallucinates a lot on Ayahasca – I worked in Paris with the director and found the whole thing immersive and stunning visually and a real challenge. But a bit hard for the audience to grasp.

Watch on YouTube

MT: In the initial stages do you generally have a lengthy discussion with the director about themes, tone etc..? Are some directors more hands on than others when it comes to sound design?

AK: There is a spotting session – normally with the editor and director somewhere near the final cut which involves understanding the intentions of the material. Any narrative information that the sound can bring to the final process and the setting. There is generally a lot of discussion about dialogue – quality and intelligibility and whether to ADR or not. Some directors prefer original performance. So, capturing the dialogue places a lot of pressure on the production sound mixer. For me, what we do in sound is generally a collaborative process and as technicians we all try to get the best from the material.

Ultimately it is the director that guides our efforts so if he or she wants to play the scene with full on music, then so be it. We are hired on the basis of our skills and experience and can offer only that – the final vision and sound is the director’s call.

MT: In a typical studio film, how many post-production sound crew members are there? Do you usually work with the same team?

AK: Obviously, crews tend to stick together – The larger the budget the larger the crew. Today ‘packages’ or ‘All in Post production deals’ have changed the nature of true freelancing here in the UK. Sometimes the post sound budget is tied into other aspects, such as picture and visual effects and this can dictate how or where the soundtrack is done. Studio films differ because they can afford too. Dependant on the content of the film and the schedule this plays a big part in dictating the size of the sound crew. If you have an actionmovie with tons of visual effects sequences then of course you need a large effects editing crew. The dialogueand foley department expand and contract dependant on the quality of the production recordings too.

We also ‘Temp’ Films a lot before the final process for marketing reasons, so the crew can expand at these moments.

Modern soundtrack are far more complex then ever before – There are multiple formats at delivery and the final soundtrack has to play in Dolby Atmos – 7.1 – 5.1 – stereo and on your mobile device. The attention to detail is very important and QC of all areas of the process is a critical part. This leads to other roles that are not always related to sound editing and design but also tech support and management.

MT: Is their a core difference between working on a TV episode in comparison to a feature film?

AK: Time.

Films are more generous and TV is much quicker to the final post. TV today has high ambitions and can look and feel like a full scale movie although the budget and the time are much shorter.

Some TV series can seem like a 10 hour film narrative wise, that makes it possible to explore themes and settings in a much more leisurely way then with a film. Also if it’s full on action, you just have to work faster and make broader brush strokes to get a result then you would with a film and also with a much smaller crew.

MT: You’ve won 2 Emmys for your work (Band of Brothers, Generation Kill). Where are your Emmys right now? Are you proud of your wins, or is it really all just about the work?

AK: They are on a window ledge with my other awards. It is an honour to get recognition for the work we do. Both B.O.B and Generation Kill were for HBO. They tend to have a high quality finish, with schedules that give soundtracks time for the attention to detail required. Generally things that go ‘bang’ tend to get noticed for sound and both projects where based on written accounts of real conflict and I researched and recorded as much as possible while working with military advisors to check that the audio elements sounded ‘real’ or as close to the real thing as physically possible. Authentic sound is really important when trying to re-create the reality of war. Arms, transport and mechanics to the sound of distant battle and the visceral intensity of being under fire through to the military radio sounds and commands with soldiers ‘off stage’ background banter as the final cream on the cake.

PHOTO: Creating the sounds of Easy Company in “Band of Brothers”:

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MT: What is the key job description for a sound effects editor?

AK: A good sound effects collection is a must on lower budget shows. If it’s a movie then the Sound designer/Supervisor will furnish you with the material you need to cut. Accuracy and choice is fundamental and to a certain extent taste!

For example If your cutting a fight scene it’s worth knowing what is expected – ‘Tarantino blood fest’ or a ‘Bourne’ reality piece. That, then dictates to the palette of sounds you can use.

Personally I record as much as possible even if there is little or no budget. An original sound beats most commercial library sounds, especially if they have been recorded with the project in mind. Today you have to know your DAW inside out – you need to have a good grasp of plug ins and ultimately you should have an ear for the ‘balance’ of sounds prior to the mix.

The latest tech allows fundamentally complete control over the audio. Sound is a collaboration and others will be bringing different material to the table. I believe in everyone ‘listening’ and bounce a mix at the end of each day so my colleagues can hear what is going on with Fx,dialogue or backgrounds and hopefully the music.

You have to be able to accurately manually conform your effects tracks when there are picture changes. The conform packages can do it quicker but tend to turn sound design into bar code and require a lot of maintenance to stop you losing any nuisance in the effects, a computer program just cannot figure this out. Be willing to change things – your idea may be cool but if it is too complex or in the wrong frequency it may not play with other elements – especially music!

MT: What are the key traits you’re looking for in when working with/hiring your sound team?

AK: Talent, pleasant personality and a sense of humour! It helps if the said person has technical skills – you just can’t escape it – everything is computerised and some people are really creative but can’t figure out bus routing and expect others to help. With the shrinking time frames and budgets, you can’t do a sound job without some knowledge of work flows, procedure and technique. I teach the next generation this at film school and regardless of gender you have to have a bit of ‘geek’ in you to succeed in sound. The ‘mechanical’ industry I joined has been superseded with computer systems, so the dexterity of the physical medium has been replaced by a digital equivalent. Even physically recording a final mix has been replaced by complex workflows and automation management and then stored digitally. Change is a daily thing and fine cuts are now a thing of the past. To remain flexible and creative you have to know how to handle the last minute changes and not go into melt down. So half of you needs be artistic and the other half technically practical!

MT: You were the sound designer on the first season of the landmark show “Game of Thrones”. How was your experience working on that show and setting the template of sound design for the entire series run?

AK: Yes, setting the style of a show at the opening can be a challenge. Again, I requested time to record before we started. Game of Thrones is a massive task and at the beginning no one was sure what it should sound like.

Season one had no large scale battles or big visual effects set pieces that it has grown into now, but there was a ton of ambience and location narrative to be filled in. Again I researched as much as I could – read everything, absorbed the series bible, scripts and had as much art department material as possible because visual effects where running in parallel with our schedule so not a lot was finished till the end. I recorded a lot of weaponry sounds and prepped lots of sword blades extracted from a variety of scabbards as everyone is under threat in the show! Animal recordings of Horses in as many settings as possible from as many perspectives as possible. Trained ravens flying across mic arrays and calls and background ‘loading and unloading’ action for busy castle scenes. The term ‘Wind and Foley’ was batted around at the beginning of discussions but it was much, much more then that ambience wise. Winter fell has a population of a couple of hundred and is a bit like Scotland. Kings landing is much more Mediterranean and has a population of thousands. Castle black is a military camp in an arctic environment with a couple of hundred men. Daenery’s is traveling across a continent that resembles the Arizona desert. The sonic story has to be believable so the audience understands when we change locations on interior scenes exactly where we are.

Once we got started I felt that I was in catch up mode constantly. We had a team of Irish sound editors and Stefan, the supervisor over in Dublin and I worked from my studio in the UK. I was mastering the recordings – laying up sound design scenes on two or three shows at the same time and reviewing lay ups plus feeding the effects editors with sounds and ambiences constantly.

It was tough but we all worked hard to meet the deadlines and did our best in very challenging circumstances. I am proud of what we all managed to do and was sad it did not continue for us. Again the visual effects and sound post deal was based in Dublin – Series Two it was all done in the US – for the series producers I understand why. They where away from home for a good part of half the year shooting and the post being done in Ireland meant a 16 hour flight from LA via Newark and never seeing their kids. The LA option was a better fit for them and they could oversee the finished work in more harmonious family situation. They still shoot in Belfast as a production base and cut there but visual effects and sound post is finished in the states.

MT: You seem to have consistently worked on 3-5 projects a year. How long do you typically work on a movie?

AK: It varies, everything is dependant on budget and of course, the type of project. Some period shows are short dependant on original production sound and content. Action movies can take longer to craft and if the visual effects content is high it is, strangely difficult to weave ‘believable’ sound to a half finished image. As I mentioned earlier – it is rare to get a ‘locked’ edit these days so everything is changing on a constant basis. This can have implications as to when you start or finish a film and overlaps do occur.

MT: What film, besides the ones your worked on, have you seen the most times in your life?

AK: It has got to be ‘2001’ – I saw it when I was a kid and have seen it many times since. Stanley Kubrick’s films have always felt totally different to any other movies of the same era. ‘Barry Lyndon’ fascinated me when I was young as it was all photographed in natural light aside from industrial candles that lit the interior scenes.

So ‘The Revenant’ was not the first film to be shot by natural light – only difference was Stanley, had to use untested high speed film stock – work with wide apertures and critical focus and practically reinvent the camera lens to get the result. So for me it is not the technology that counts but what you do with it.

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.