’32 Sounds’ Filmmaker Sam Green on Why He Wants Audiences to Wear Headphones: ‘It’s the Best Possible Sound Experience’

Rexa Vella

’32 Sounds’ Filmmaker Sam Green on Why He Wants Audiences to Wear Headphones: ‘It’s the Best Possible Sound Experience’

Sam Green’s last film “A Thousand Thoughts” was a documentary about the Kronos Quartet, but his challenge was getting people to “hear” the film because everything about the medium is visual.

When it came to his next project, “32 Sounds,” the documentary feature shortlisted for Oscar, he set out tell a story specifically about sound and the aural experience. Green assemblies 32 different scenarios in an attempt to challenge how audiences think about sound.

In one scene, foley artist Joanna Fang is in a studio drumming her feet and tugging on ropes as she imagines what a falling pine tree landing in snow would sound like. Elsewhere, sound pioneer Annea Lockwood shares decades-old recordings of underwater sounds of a river. In another scenario, a man blasts the Phil Collins hit “In the Air Tonight” as he drives through Brooklyn.

In many of the scenes, sound designer Mark Mangini worked with Green to build the film’s sonic scape. At the heart of it all, the binaural microphone is a character unto itself — critical to creating the immersive experience. In others, Green and Mangini rely on archive recordings.

At the film’s opening, Green invites the viewer to put on headphones in order to fully experience the world of “32 Sounds.” Here he and Mangini discuss how the film came together and why wearing headphone is the best viewing experience.

Sam, where did this idea begin for you?

Sam Green: The previous film I made was about the Kronos Quartet, a great musical ensemble. It was a really hard movie to make because you half listened to their music. But, if you open your ears, it’s astonishing.

The challenge with that was to get people to open their ears which in cinema is hard because it’s such a visual medium. And then I connected with a sound pioneer who shared her recordings and was smart about sound, and those underwater recordings were such a gift, so that’s where it started.

I do think audiences are becoming savvier about the sound experience, do you agree with that?

Mark Mangini: That has to be true. I’ve seen it in the sound community as well as in the film community because we all hear our friends endeavoring to seek out a good film like “Dune”. After all, they want to hear “good sound,” and I don’t remember hearing that 20 years ago.

Green: Given the number of interviews Mark does, I sense that the sound designer was kept away in the past, but now he does tons of press.

Mangini: Well sound can tell stories in many efficient ways. It’s an idea that’s not taught in film school, instead, you learn about microphones, kilohertz, speaker dispersion patterns, and a lot of techie garbage,

The opening encourages the viewer to watch through headphones, and there are different film mixes, but why specifically headphones?

Green: It was a real conundrum for us. We made a mix that was for headphones by using binaural mics. We bought 500 sets of FM transmitter headphones, and we traveled around doing these screenings. We would give everybody headphones to wear. But the Film Forum in New York wanted to show it and asked if we could make a mix in 7.1 so we did. It was a big task to do that, but I think if you’re at home and the choice is to watch on your laptop with headphones, I plead with people to wear headphones. I don’t want to be one of those fussy filmmakers who tell people to see it in the best possible sound environment, but with this movie, it’s sort of true.

How did you figure out what those 32 sounds would be?

Green: We talked about the sounds that interested me or moved me, and so that all came out of dialogue. I read a book about field recordings and it mentioned a recording by Mazen Kerbaj. He recorded himself playing the trumpet as bombs were falling and I listened to it, and it was just extraordinary, and so a lot of the sound coming together was just that.

We had one with the world’s loudest crowd that I liked, but Mark said that there was no way to do that without punishing your audience’s ears, so that is not one of the 32 sounds.

There are recordings from decades ago, such as Annea Lockwood’s water recordings, and there are ones you built from the ground up, what were some of those challenges in gathering them to tell a story?

Green: The scene with the guy who drives around Brooklyn playing “In the Air Tonight” from his car was hard to record. We got Ambisonic microphones and we had our sound recordist leaning out of the window and went to town with it, and we realized they were terrible, so that just got built from the ground up with filters and reverb.

The other challenge was how to bring order to it with no main characters, no conflict, and no chronology. How do you make things flow and hold people’s attention? It is the opposite of random order, it took so long to get an order that seems random and works.

It had to flow in an associative, almost poetic way so your attention doesn’t wander. That was the biggest challenge.

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