Purple Magazine
— S/S 2017 issue 27

Nicolas Becker

on sound landscape 

interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portrait by GIASCO BERTOLI

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you work on a film’s sound?
NICOLAS BECKER — For me, if we restrict things to pure Foley — the reproduction of everyday sound effects that are added to films in post-production — it all goes through the body first. The idea is to re-create all the sounds of the actors that the actual filming didn’t capture because filming focuses on voices. My job, then, is to faithfully reproduce the sounds produced by an actor’s body.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Why does filming focus on voices?
NICOLAS BECKER — Because voices are the hardest thing to reproduce. You bet it all on that. You’ll put stuff under the actors’ shoes, for example, and dress them in clothes made of fabrics that don’t rustle — all to isolate the voices as clearly as possible.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How would you describe the production of sounds?
NICOLAS BECKER — It’s close to dance or performance or mime — noisy mime. It’s a musician’s or interpreter’s work, with the body serving as the instrument. You have to immerse yourself in the film, in the image, and become the actor that you’re miming down to the thousandth of a second. You unconsciously create a sort of immersive, ultra-sensitive point of view for listening. It’s as if you were entering into the film’s space. It’s a very exacting exercise, accurate to less than a frame: you can’t be more than a 20th of a second late. In other words, you have to read the character. You have to be able to anticipate all his movements, the way he’s going to move his body, before he ever changes his position. You become a sort of animal. He walks, stops, opens the door. So you redo all that in one spot. It’s a weird thing because you walk in place, and you move in place, because you can’t really move around in a studio. It’s pretty absurd.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What led you to take up sound work?
NICOLAS BECKER — When I was 13, I saw a documentary on television about the making of sound in cinema and understood right away what I wanted to do with my life! I was doing a lot of sports and was a cinema fan, and it came together for me in a kind of knot. Physical performance and curiosity about the world of cinema. It was the idea of being able to suddenly bring forth a world with my body. Another thing: my parents had forbidden me to watch television. I’d watch movies through the keyhole and couldn’t really make out the sound. That might have had an unconscious effect. I’d reconstruct the soundtrack in my head. Since then, I’ve developed a sort of synesthesia. In other words, if you show me a silent film, I hear everything, instantly. I mean that if you play a film for me and mute the sound, I hear it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What fascinates you about the link between image and sound?
NICOLAS BECKER — The cognitive level! How the brain handles the mix, the infinite combinations of sound and image that we can create. The associations you can make are infinite. In a given scene, you can make people suddenly look at the wall or the lamp, here instead of there. That allows you to develop a whole strategy of the gaze on the image. You can create a line of force to parallel the narration. So the job boils down to accomplishing that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What is your relation with the director?
NICOLAS BECKER — Between a director’s dreamed, mental version of a film and the film’s actual production, there are always differences, always discrepancies. My role, through sound, isn’t necessarily to follow the film as it is, the way you would in traditional Foley, but to try to unearth the film as the director originally wanted it or dreamed it up. Directors consult me for that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In other words, you reinterpret the initial idea through the aural ambiance.
NICOLAS BECKER — Right. It goes beyond plain-old realistic or illustrative Foley for a film. Far beyond! We’ve left behind car horns, passing ships, and crying children.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you wriggle out of the realistic function?
NICOLAS BECKER — I started going out into the world to record natural sound. I wanted to break out of the prefabricated system of film sound design, which is a very codified, very closed professional universe, with established habits and rules all guided by the idea of doing very illustrative things. Sounds have to belong to a traditional vocabulary. It has a tendency to repeat itself, a lot! So I started going out and recording lots of sounds all over the place. I sought out multiple sounds.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There are sound libraries for credible sounds?
NICOLAS BECKER — There are libraries of prerecorded sounds. But my work is precisely to compile a separate sound library for each film: the set of a film’s sounds, its sound color, the visual sensations that shade its objects, its lights, its characters. As I did for Gravity, for example.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you go about it for Gravity?
NICOLAS BECKER — You start out by turning to existing works of film — Blade Runner, 2001 — as points of reference. Then I read a lot of things about the astronauts’ experience, their sensations. I worked with NASA, gathered some radio equipment, talked with scientists. And you make yourself a sort of aural filming, to establish sensorial veracity. You might also need to do the past instead of the future. They might tell me, “It’s sometime in the 19th century, in a village. Recreate for me the sound of a 19th-century village.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a kind of creation in that you bring your own sensibility to it.
NICOLAS BECKER — I go out into nature, into real life, all over the place, in search of sounds. Sometimes you create sounds from scratch, and sometimes it’s nature and the world that surprise you. It wasn’t until I got out of the world of cinema, out of its self-feeding system, and started recording sounds in real places, with real people, that I realized just how incredibly rich in sound the world actually is. If you make a science fiction film, you go to the laboratories where people are making the cars of tomorrow, the technology and electronics of tomorrow. You go to the workshops and the laboratories and the factories, and you record lots and lots of sounds that are the sounds we’re going to have 20 or 30 years from now. You can often make astonishing discoveries that way, things that are completely outside the schemas of the usual vocabulary and that you can use for cinema. For me, reality is an absolutely incredible source of inspiration.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But you have to go out and search for those sounds.
NICOLAS BECKER — There are a lot of people who do, in fact, prefer the comforts of the mouse and the screen, who reconstitute things by distorting
and transforming existing sounds. It goes round in circles. I myself start from scratch: that is, from the film itself. I try to renew the aural grammar with every film. I try never to reuse anything.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Every film is a new quest for you?
NICOLAS BECKER — Every film is, for me, a prototype. And I separate myself from the repetitive, hyper-specialized industrial workings of cinema, with its very definite spec sheet. Especially as it produces such an incredible pile of waste. There aren’t many industries where 50% to 60% of what you produce goes right into the trash can. It’s really horrible. So, I’ve always considered that you have to approach every film as a prototype and try your best to use conditions on set to capture the occasional sound. But also do the reverse, and perhaps influence the filming itself by getting the director and the director of photography to listen to a sound library.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And there you go. You’re now discussing things with the director.
NICOLAS BECKER — With the director, of course, but also with everyone else, in fact. I’m on set as well, and I work with the DP [director of photography], with the set designer, with the costume designer. In fact, I’m against the separation between filming and postproduction and editing. I try to reestablish ties on set. And sound design has an effect on the conditions on set. It’s no longer a piece added after the fact.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In fact, sound no longer comes at the end of a film’s creation, after filming has wrapped, but instead influences the filming in real time.
NICOLAS BECKER — Absolutely. When the editor gets down to work, I prepare him a whole sound library. He’s already got sounds. There are, in fact, two things that have happened since the 1960s or, let’s say, the 1970s. First, there’s been a huge separation between filming and postproduction. Second, there’s been a huge separation between editing, postproduction imaging, and sound design. For starters, then, I seek to re-establish ties, to understand the film’s hidden intentions, to grasp the general feeling that has to be transformed into aural writing, and to re-share it. In fact, we can’t always say these are specific things, but it’s a general feeling where you suddenly understand what has to be done.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And that goes hand in hand, perhaps, with the changes in today’s cinema. Let’s say that narrative cinema has overtaken the experiments of the 1970s — Godard-style experiments, for example — where sound had its autonomy. To keep things brief, let’s say that cinema has become more commercial and more narrative. Perhaps today, we’re returning not to a more conceptual but to a more immersive cinema, we might say, or to a more ambiance-laden cinema, in the manner of Terrence Malick, for example. And here, sound has a fundamental cinematic importance.
NICOLAS BECKER — Of course. You’re absolutely right. We’ve gradually moved away from the illustrative side of sound and tried instead to produce overall texture and ambiance.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What is your relationship with a film’s music?
NICOLAS BECKER — I’m getting there — or, rather, circling back to that. The encounter between sound design and music occurs out in the open, because I work with lots of musicians. I ask musicians to come make imaginary sounds with me or to construct sound textures. With Darius Khondji, who’s an immense director of photography, and whom I’ve worked with on three or four films already — I’ve even had him listen to music that I play him live on set as he looks at his images. It’s a loop. Who knows who’s influencing whom anymore?

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you work alone?
NICOLAS BECKER — I undertake my searches, go out in search of sounds, but I also very much enjoy building sounds with several other people. I have a place in Montreuil, a house with a sort of little cabin, some 50 square meters big, in a gigantic garden amid other gardens. An utterly secret place, where musicians come, sleep, and eat. And we work there. It’s like a little residence, a little utopia, a little town. It’s called Sound Park.

OLIVIER ZAHM — We can’t call you a Foley artist anymore. Should we say “sound designer?”
NICOLAS BECKER — I’d say “sound designer,” for lack of a better term, because I think design isn’t the right term. It’s a bit too decorative, or illustrative. I like the term “soundscape.” I wish we could say “soundscape composer” or “soundscape artist,” but that’s too complicated.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Composer of sound landscapes…
NICOLAS BECKER — Because landscape contains the idea of movement, the idea of temporality and space. It’s a bit like Peter Greenaway. Sound does not exist outside its relationship with space and time. Whereas an image can be instantaneous, a sound is never instantaneous. Sound exists only in an unfurling temporality. It’s necessarily a development, a temporal development.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve worked extensively with the artist Philippe Parreno on his exhibitions.
NICOLAS BECKER — And done so for those very reasons: for the inscription of sound in a space and time, which are those of the exhibition’s course, with multiple entry points. What interests Philippe Parreno isn’t making art objects, but staging objects in a temporality and a space that we call an installation. There we enter an environment, and he creates the exhibition space with sound, as well, with multiple possible trajectories in the exhibition. This probably starts to enter the territory of [Karlheinz] Stockhausen’s unfinished project, the spatial symphony. As soon as you broadcast sounds from several different places, and you don’t impose a session and a listening point, the mix or composition is not due to the artist; rather, it is produced by the trajectory of each person at the exhibition. So, each person will construct his own work as a function of his trajectory.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is that possible in cinema, as well?
NICOLAS BECKER — I think so. That’s to say, as soon as you cease to be illustrative and start creating, you are working with immersive sensations. The space that the film’s viewer strolls through is the image and time; it’s the narration, the sequence of images. When you work with images in a nonredundant and non-illustrative but instead sensorial or conceptual way, you strive to create freer, more open levels of perception, so as to invite people to favor this or that kind of information in the image. Some will be more sensitive to spatial information, others to colors, others to structures, and others to rhythm. Me, I want to make soundtracks that breathe a kind of liberty.

[Table of contents]

S/S 2017 issue 27

Table of contents

purple NEWS







purple BEAUTY

purple LOVE

purple SEX

purple TRAVEL

purple NIGHT


purple STORY


Subscribe to our newsletter