Friday, November 09, 2012

Aural storytelling: Resul Pookutty on film sound

[Did a version of this for Business Standard]

It is an oft-repeated dictum that the technical elements of filmmaking should be placed at the service of the narrative and must not draw attention to themselves. “If someone comes out of a film saying ‘Art design brilliant thi’ then it means we have failed,” the production designer Vandana Kataria told me recently, and I have heard similar views in many conversations with cinematographers, costume heads and other film technicians.

I get the broad point – that these things should work on a sub-conscious plane; they mustn’t stand out and distract the first-time viewer – but I also think a one-size-fits-all proclamation on this subject is naive. Much hinges on the type of film one is talking about (is it advisable or even possible to watch a late-1960s Godard movie, or a Peter Greenaway movie, in such a way that you’re completely submerged in the narrative?), as well as the type of viewer (a professional critic wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t consciously register some of a movie’s inner workings).

Also, the idea that technical crew should be invisible worker ants often becomes a pretext to neglect discussion of certain elements of movie-making. In a celebrity-obsessed culture in any case, most “casual” viewers discuss a film primarily in terms of its actors, or perhaps the music; this is unavoidable. But there is always a small stratum of engaged movie-buffs – keen to examine the filmmaking process at close range without necessarily getting involved with it professionally – who can benefit from accessible film literature about relatively esoteric subjects.

It’s pleasing then to come across Sounding Off, a memoir by the sound designer, sound editor and mixer Resul Pookutty (written in collaboration with Baiju Natarajan in Malayalam, and translated into English by K K Muralidharan). Pookutty is only in his early 40s and hopefully has most of his career ahead of him, but it isn’t hard to guess why this book has been brought out by a big-name publisher at this time: to cash in on the publicity from his Oscar win for Slumdog Millionnaire (indeed the gold statuette features prominently on the front and back covers). But it’s possible to ignore that little detail and focus on the content because this is an engrossing mix of reminiscence and information, and a useful primer to the thought that a good sound man must put into his work.

When Pookutty discusses the relationship between sound and imagery, and how the two things work in unison to create a particular effect, he almost comes across as an amateur psychologist; unsurprising, because his job entails understanding how the human mind works, how it makes connections and fills in gaps for us while we are watching a movie.

“The sense of reality that sound creates in cinema is a manufactured one,” he notes:

The visual provides the clue for the sound – the sound you hear is based on what’s happening on the screen. The visual hitches you to a certain sense of reality, and once you are hitched to that film reality the sound man can take you through many avenues. Then the possibilities become huge. This is the opportunity to lead the audience to another level or to another image track. People like Tarkovsky are known to be masters at it.
Thus, sounds can be triggers for images, but they can also be driven by the visuals. “You can mimic the sound of rain by making sugar fall on a piece of plain paper; but if you hear just the record of such a sound, it might not sound like rain. Only along with the visual footage of the rain can you feel that it’s raining.” Reading this, I thought about intensely atmospheric movie sequences set on rainy nights (for some reason The Road to Perdition came to mind first) and how convincingly they create a required mood, allowing the viewer to stay fully immersed in the world of the story. The idea that the pattering sound one hears in the darkness of the hall might be grains of sugar hitting paper casts a new light on conventional notions of cinematic “realism”, and on how we subconsciously interact with the movies we see.

Pookutty also makes special note of other film artistes who are especially attuned to the nuances of sound, such as Amitabh Bachchan, who once asked for a “reverb” effect in a dubbing studio because he wanted the setting to approximate the acoustics of the hall where the scene was shot; or Mani Kaul, who he reckons may have been the only Indian director who was informed enough to demand the use of a particular type of mike for a particular shot.

Each company’s mikes have a different timbre to the sound they capture – they differ in their frequency responses [...] it’s your call as to whether Sennheiser or Neumann is to be used in a romantic scene – your decision would be based both on the nature of the sound in the scene as well as on the quality of the actor’s voice.
Some of these passages may seem highly specialised, but the book’s chief mode is personal and friendly; there are many insights into the sort of person Pookutty is and the combination of qualities that led him to his field. His affectionate description of his time at the FTII conveys a sense of a well-rounded film education as well as a sense of a man from small-town Kerala discovering a wider world and even facing the shattering possibility (voiced by the visiting Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi) that there are more important things in life than cinema. As he relates the effect that a childhood memory of a rotating fan – during an intense illness – had on his sound career, or discusses the Malayali way of eating in terms of sound effects, “from guttural grunts to violent gargling”, one sees how he has brought his own experiences into his work.

I was particularly struck by an early chapter – not, on the face of it, directly relevant to Pookutty’s career – where he describes, with much affection, his close relationship with and empathy towards animals. Some of his most vivid childhood memories, he tells us, are the sound of cows’ hooves “scratching the floor on a quiet night; the sound of them getting up; the distinctive rhythm of their breathing”. “I have pondered over animals a great deal,” he unselfconsciously says, before embarking on a series of musings about donkeys (“a docile creature that has seen the world”), pigs and goats.

It’s a short section, and apart from an early reference to being cued in to the sounds made by animals and what they might mean (“sometimes the goats suddenly cried together and then would fall into an equally sudden silence. That meant one of them was gone”), there is no tangible connection between this aspect of his life and his profession. But when he attributes “humility, soulfulness and a sense of depth” to donkeys and later discusses the spiritual qualities of Robert Bresson’s cinema, it puts me in mind of the magnificent use of sound in Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, where (among other things) we respond to a donkey’s bray in a dozen different ways depending on what is happening in a given scene. Pookutty doesn’t mention this film specifically, but I’m sure it had an effect on him. In any case, by revealing things about himself (his personal life, his ideologies, inspirations and misgivings, his eye and ear for the natural world), he organically reveals much about his attitude to his craft too, and how the work he does subtly affects the viewing experience for millions of people. This makes his memoir a more useful window into his subject than a jargon-heavy textbook could be.


  1. Enjoyed reading this piece, especially Pookutty's thoughts on animals. Anyone who says,"I have pondered over animals a great deal" is automatically a successful human being in my eyes, all other laurels being merely incidental :D

  2. Pookutty must have spent considerable time in a rural setting while growing up.Not just because he mentions observing farm animals closely-people in Indian cities learn to cancel out noise to the extent that they become instinctively unresponsive,even to the sound of the natural environment which surrounds them.
    Anyhow,this kind of book gives such insight into the minds of people who are instrumental in creating films,but are ignored by all except those well versed in the technical niceties of filmmaking.It's unfortunate,because it adds so many layers to filmviewing.

  3. 'You can mimic the sound of rain by making sugar fall on a piece of plain paper; but if you hear just the record of such a sound, it might not sound like rain. Only along with the visual footage of the rain can you feel that it’s raining.'

    - This reminded me of an experience I had around 12 years back in a Disney World park where there was this machine where you put the headphones on to listen to sounds and an accompanying recorded commentatry described what sounds they were. The sounds effectively merged into each other, and one of them which really struck me was the sound of rain, and the commentator asked me to imagine the rain on the window pane, the hot coffee in my hands, and the world outside the window...and suddenly said 'bacon frying'...and you know what - the sound of rain on glass suddenly did feel like bacon being fried, when the fat scatters on the pan!

  4. Sai, Radhika: yes, he grew up in a semi-rural setting, and he makes it sound very idyllic.
    Here's an amusing little passage from that chapter, btw:

    "The goat's agility is a thing of wonder. It's always wandering around, eating, biting and eyeing things - a goat tastes everything in life. And it gives you whatever you want, whenever. There's no particular time to milk a goat. Sprinkle some water on the udder and give it a couple of knocks, and the milk would flow. That's a major thing [...] The goat is a walking fridge."

  5. Apu: interesting, thanks. Sound really is such an undermentioned part of the movie-making process. Even critics who make it a point to discuss such things as cinematography, set decoration or costume design rarely mention it (unless it is used in a particularly attention-drawing, contrapuntal way or something like that).

  6. Very insightful abstraction of the essence of pookutty's book.Sound engineering, in film making has never been discussed, except for the films, that manages to garner awards. It is ironical that we , look deeper into the sounding work, that had gone into the celluloid, only after the film grabbed some award for it's sound, that many high points, of sound designing in the film, go unnoticed when we watch for the first time .As film, itself is a collation of multiple layers of technology, and art blended asynchronously, it's not possible to percept, each minute aspects of it, unless you particularly pay attention to it.