WRITING ANIMATION: EDUARDO RAON

 

Georges Sifianos: Hello and welcome. To begin, can you introduce yourself and your work in a few words?

 

Eduardo Raon: I’m a composer, instrumentalist and performer and I work in music but also in tandem with other arts, theatre, dance or performance and especially with cinema in two directions. One is accompanying live silent films and the other one is composing soundtracks for animated or live-action films. For example in animation, I work with Portuguese directors : Marta Monteiro, Isabel Aboim, Filipe Abranches, Nuno Amorim… 

 

Birdwatching by Nuno Amorim, 2014

 

I play a few instruments namely the harp and guitars but basically when I’m working on a film, everything goes. I do enjoy when I have the chance of working both the music and foley because I enjoy exploring the border between one thing and the other. And so I do enjoy using non-musical sounds as an instrument and vice versa.

 

© Nuno Carvalho

 

GS: Can you give some examples of collaboration? Who gives the idea? Is the music following?

 

ER: First of all with each director it is a different story because in the work of a director, each movie can also be quite different in approach. For instance with Isabel Aboim we did three or four films and the first one that we did together, Vacas (Cows), was a ‘western’ between commas, a kind of western. We had a very specific aesthetic, we wanted to approach that context and the direction we wanted to take was clear from an aesthetic point of view. In Growing pains, it was completely different because of the way that Isabel was working on the film. It was a very long process. I took quite a few years. I do enjoy being in touch with preliminary phases of the animation work so that I can also start thinking and start making associations, either because of theme, either because of aesthetics or whichever element seems most important when I can suggest the most things on my side. 

 

Cows by Isabel Aboim Inglez 

 

GS: Can you precise the choice for each one?

 

ER: Yes. For the first one, Cows, since it was a western, I knew that I would enjoy having some male back vocals, guitars, some jaw harp.I knew that there was this kind of context or specific aesthetics of the western that I wanted to be close to or take as a starting point.

In Growing pains, the structure of the movie was much less univocal so it was a film which had several chapters and each section in itself had its own character or personality. And none of them had, a priori, a clear aesthetic, so it demanded research for each of them. There was also a great deal of spoken text whereas there wasn’t any voice in Cows. This demands a different approach not just on conceptual level but also on a practical sense: how to deal with music and sound while the voice is present versus when we can have non text spaces. It was very different.

 

Growing pains by Isabel Aboim Inglez

 

GS: How do you collaborate with the director in the conception of the work? Do you make propositions or give ideas? I guess the director has some guidelines…

 

ER: As I said I enjoy being included as early as possible so that I start thinking of things. I enjoy working or testing some ideas even on animatics or some preliminary animated parts, which means that I know that whatever I am working on at that moment will probably not survive to the end, but it’s part of a dialectic process. And many times I always have two things in the back of my mind: one of course is to help tell the story but on the other hand also that the music or sounds, by being associative and not so much literal, can challenge the image and somehow produce an effect on the spectator which is beyond the space that we are watching. Many times I make small sketches that I send to directors. It can be for specific scenes or it can be a proposal for instrumentation for the whole film with a few examples. It can differ quite a lot. I’m also very interested in understanding the process the director uses : if it’s very empirical or if it is based on historical research. For instance, in It would piss me off to die so young by Filipe Abranches which was obviously connected to the First World War, he had already quite some sound ideas about the armament sounds to include. There was a lot of research to know which recordings from this specific period were already available. And there are quite a few speeches by political leaders of the time and songs which were heard by soldiers, songs which were made by soldiers during the war. And somehow all of these elements met in a big melting pot. I do enjoy working like this when several elements are just floating around and slowly get together by experimenting or trying different approaches.

 

It would piss me off to die so young by Filipe Abranches

 

GS: How do you decide whether or not there will be music in certain parts of the film? In the beginning of Filipe Abranches’ film, It would piss me off to die so young, the soldiers march in rhythm and you or the director choose not to play the sound of the footsteps, which must be very loud – you put them a little later. You played a kind of ambient music. Can you give us more details?

 

ER: In this specific case, several factors may come into play. There is a general rule which is not just about being concrete or not concrete, literal or metaphorical. It is about when do sounds appear. Do they appear when the image shows an element/action/space? Or do they appear before? Or later? The loose rule is: either the sound appears before or after, not exactly when we see it. In a way, I think this encourages viewers, to make associations and raise questions instead of shutting them down. To encourage the sensation that there is more than just what we see. And also because elements don’t start existing when we see them and they don’t stop existing the moment we don’t see them. In this specific scene, I was researching marches from this specific period. The music that we can hear there is inspired or based on the recordings from that time. It has a bit of the patina of the recording quality of the period. Throughout the film, on several occasions, we are in contact with this period, notably thanks to the quality of the sound. This way I was not going for an “as if we were there” sensation but more a “nothing is just what we see” feeling.

 

It would piss me off to die so young by Filipe Abranches

 

Zepe: I think your soundtrack doesn’t place the same value on sounds, dialogue and music. Especially in It would piss me off to die so young. Even though it’s the First World War, you get the feeling that people are approaching a kind of graphic and aural atmosphere and that people are trying to reach the centre of something that you never see in the film. What’s incredible is that you create this kind of feeling when you join the army and go into the unknown, and I think it’s exactly the same situation in Europe at the moment. It is political and religious at the same time. Did you work from the beginning with Filipe in a synesthetic way? So that the movement of the lines matches the sound. You said it was a dialectical process. Did you work together step by step until the end? This is the first question.

And the second question is connected with the first one. It is about the spatialisation of the sound. In the three films (A sonolenta by Marta Monteiro, Growing pains by Isabel Inglez Aboim and It would bother me to die so young by Filipe Abranches), the placement of the sound is totally different. In Isabel’s film, Growing pains, or in Sonolenta by Marta, there are naturalistic sounds, even if it’s drawn, it’s close to a fiction film. In It would bother me to die so young, it’s totally different because it’s like an ambience with all the mixes we’ve been talking about. And in Growing pains it’s more literary. It’s as if the sounds were organised by genre, with a precise nomenclature among them and there’s something akin to a semantics of sound. As these films are made using drawings, how do you place the sound of each object? Why do you choose that the sound must be at a certain distance and that another object is at another distance? Is it something that comes from intuition or do you follow a rule with a perspective for the sound in each film?

 

Growing pains by Isabel Aboim Inglez

 

ER: There is a big deal of intuition. What does the image suggest to me? This may be at a conceptual level or from a graphic point of view, a visual composition or a rhythmic point of view. What kind of pace does this scene have? Should I reinforce this element or should I counterpoint it with something that challenges this main feeling? That’s the first thing I try to be aware of. What does it tell me? and somehow what is it missing? Depending on the answers to those questions, the music and some sounds come in. Maybe this element could have a voice of its own but it needs a background. For example, if there’s a very high frequency sound for a specific element, I’ll want to produce a feeling of comfort around it, and so work with lower frequencies as a background. So that the “main voice” has a clearer silhouette soundwise. 

Placement is also linked to the importance of the elements. Some elements are more important than others for different reasons. This placement is also linked to an interpretation of its importance or hierarchy and, sometimes, we feel bad when an element doesn’t play its part. In some other situations, it’s just the opposite. Maybe the most powerful way of making this element speak is to make it mute.

As for the question of whether it’s intuitive or programmed and predetermined, I think it’s a negotiation between the two. I try to be as open as possible to the intuitive messages that the image suggests but on the other hand, we need to be pragmatic and ask ourselves how can we manage all these elements. Working alternately in macro and micro scale. We can focus on a small element, but we must always re-evaluate whether the emphasis on that small element makes sense in a wider picture.

 

Z: Can you compare the process of spatialisation that you did for these films, A sonolenta by Marta Monteiro, Growing pains by Isabel Inglez Aboim and It would bother me to die so young by Filipe Abranches? For example, in Filipe Abranches’ film, did you decide to put in sounds at the end of the film that we don’t hear at all, like ultrasound, because I felt so bad when I saw the film? 

Do you feel that each film has a specific notion of space for sound?

 

It would piss me off to die so young by Filipe Abranches

 

ER: I was never comparing films in that perspective but I can do it now.

Regarding Filipe’s film, the main feature of the space is that we find ourselves inside the helmet and gas mask. How does the person hear the outside? How does this complicate listening to the outside world? I tried to convey this element and in contrast, when we hear the outside again, it’s not naturalistic. Some elements are historical, some are oniric. The outside sound space is a mix of these concrete, historical and oniric elements. That was the aim, because war is an absurd situation, especially for those who take part in it. There’s always this ambivalent situation where you feel both in this scene and in the war scene, because it’s such an extreme situation for our senses and our being and it also creates a certain distance from the outside world. We tried to convey this ambivalence, by trying to give meaning to everything you feel personally and by contrasting it with the outside world, which is also in itself full of all these inputs that, in a way, go together but don’t go together at the same time. This was the approach to Filipe’s film.

 

It would piss me off to die so young by Filipe Abranches

 

In the case of Marta’s film, A sonolenta, Sleepy, it was very clear that the film essentially operates in two spaces: the concrete space and, I wouldn’t say the dream space, but the fact of trying to fall asleep and finally falling into the world of sleep. As the child was desperately in need of sleeping, I tried to convey the idea that even when you are still awake and in a concrete world, your state of mind is already so desperate and elements of sleep are already present. A lot of emphasis was placed on the question of whether this should be concrete or whether we should have the impression that she had returned to the concrete world, but that, even if she had returned to this concrete world, she was always on the verge of falling asleep at any moment. In the “dream” parts, I tried to make sure that many concrete sound elements were part of it, but that they appeared in a distorted way (distorted in the broader sense of the term). They were present but in a way that wasn’t naturalistic, like when you incorporate into your dream outside elements which are happening around you while you sleep. They cohabitate.

 

Sleepy by Marta Monteiro

 

Regarding Isabel’s movie, Growing pains, the structure was very different. Each chapter is somehow autonomous. It has a lot of text. The film sometimes aimed to show how concrete elements of the landscape sound, but also to highlight certain sounds that would have their own development, a musical treatment that would make them characters in the film. In some cases, this was more necessary and in other chapters, it was more a question of creating music that would stand in the background of the text and reflect or convey the rhythm of the text/image or its playful side.

 

Growing pains by Isabel Aboim Inglez

 

Z: I normally ask this question to the people who create the sound. When you watch a static drawing, the drawing was done with a certain perspective. Even if it’s not correct, you have a line, you can imagine the space, that is based on perspective or not, but it’s more or less clear. But when the sound is placed, how is this sound organised spatially? In what way is a spatial and sonic progression established on a surface that is both flat and volumetric? It’s the same sensation when somebody adapts a cartoon or a comic to the cinema. So when you look at a drawing, you imagine the sound in your mind, even if you can’t hear it. When you ask someone if they’ve watched the film adaptation of this comic, people say they don’t like the sound at all because it shouldn’t be like that. Where does it come from?

 

ER: It comes from all kinds of associations that we make. There’s no one way of doing it. If we watch the same image in the morning or in the evening, or after running or after eating or being hungry, we will for sure imagine different things. All of this influences us. There are infinite ways of approaching any image. For me, in some cases, in some parts of the film, or in some films, it’s so obvious that that sound/music should be there. To the point that any other possibility doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s not so obvious so you have to search more.

There are so many external things that condition our viewing or interpretation of any work.

 

Vincent Gilot: Do you put yourself at the service of the director or is your proposal another film? When the images you see evoke sounds, you suggest sounds to support the image, which is a personal process. But the director may have had other sounds in mind.

 

 

ER: It’s always a proposal but with each director part of the preparation work is also knowing if they have specific ideas for specific scenes or specific wishes regarding sound. And sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. That’s before I even start working on the sound. Part of the preparation work is getting to know what kind of feeling do directors want to achieve and if they have some sounds/music related elements that they thought of. And sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But sometimes it also happens that after working for some time on the film, there are specific parts of the film in which my proposal doesn’t fit the vision of the director. And then it’s a dialectic process to understand exactly what we are trying to achieve, what the goal is in that specific scene. And that’s normal. Sometimes it also happens that even though it was not what the director had in mind, it opens up some other doors of interpretation. The basic idea is that it’s a dialectic process. I try not to be too attached to any element and to be open to the vision of the director in the sense that, even if I was working for a long time in some specific part, maybe this is not the best approach to this part.

 

Z: Many times, when the directors are asking somebody to make the sound of the film, they give examples of sounds, and especially music, that they heard before and ask for something close to it. And when the musician tries to approach that, they say that it doesn’t work at all. Many times the directors are not ready to build with the sound designer a third object, which is between image and sound. It must be the result of the sensation that the director wants to create. They think that putting a music heard before should work but it’s not true.

 

ER: Even if my experience with directors is not, on the whole, a close one to that, sometimes the situation you just described happens. Every time I am given a reference, I try to understand what is the most important thing in the music that helps the film at that moment. It can be of course very different elements. It can be something as basic as the speed or the pace of the music. Or the instrumentation. Or the way it accompanies the dramaturgy of the scene. I try to interpret the director’s words and identify which elements are actually crucial. If it is clear in my mind, I forget the reference and develop from there.

 

 

Z: Often, when you hear the sound of animated films in Portugal, we directors have the impression that the music follows the image. The music is not strong enough to create a specific sense with the image (to transport/carry  the image). It follows it and the mood of the film falls. Sometimes it’s too exaggerated and sometimes not. If you keep only the image without any sound, the film is stronger than with sound. Often I get the impression that the person making the sound isn’t giving it the correct energy it needs to exist. What I usually ask the people making the soundtrack is to elevate the sound to the same level of importance as the image. Do you have this problem when you are making a soundtrack ? This feeling of being just following the image ?

 

ER: This takes us back to the first question by Georges. Why this sound comes later than when we see it in the image. Why make some steps sound? The soundtrack has a duty to challenge the image, not that it has to go against the image. It’s not just a decorative element that ensures we don’t miss the music or the sound. The soundtrack must contribute to the meaning(s) of the film. 

 

Z: I agree with you when you say, for example, that you can associate a sound that is not related to a step with that step. This is like you say a question of ethics to show that the sound and the image can work in a more rich way than being illustrative. You’re finally playing with the spectator. But my question is also a physical question. It’s about the energy you put on the sound. It’s a decision if the sound must work side by side with the image rather than merely serving it. So this is more synesthesical. It’s not so much a question just of meaning. Things must not coincide. A movement drawn and displayed on the screen can become poorer with the associated sound. It’s a physical sensation. It’s not a question of meaning. 

 

ER: It’s still connected with what I was saying. I will explain a bit further. In addition to the issues of responsibility and duty, I would add a third element, which is to be sufficiently bold, to have the courage not to follow but to support the project. For instance, in a scene where the music carries the image and transports it, even though we see the movement. In terms of this daring or courageous attitude towards the incorporation of music, perhaps one of the most obvious examples in cinema is Tarantino’s use of music. It is so incisive. When the music comes in, it’s no longer just the same scene. He’s not afraid of putting on something which is also iconic. Such a strong element does somehow overrun the image. But this is also a very helpful possibility in a film – the inclusion of a new element which transforms our perspective of the scene. Even if all the other elements continue unaltered.

 

Reservoir dogs de Quentin Tarantino

 

Z: Wim Wenders did that before. He put the music of a 70s band on his films. As you say, it’s a bit semantic. You recognise that this is part of your own story and then incorporate it into your understanding of the film. Of course it works, but it’s like a drug. He knows that it will work. He knows that people watching will take it, because it’s nice, but I wonder if it’s good for  the film on itself, even if it is part of it. Just like when you are cooking, you can put some powder and you know that people will eat it. Maybe I’m not generous enough because we like these films of Tarantino and we cannot explain why.

 

William Henne : I don’t really have a question. And I’m going to say something fairly obvious. I can only say that the 3 films use a lot of metaphors and that the sound does the same. For example, in A sonolenta, Sleepy, the baby’s cry at one point becomes more than a baby’s cry and condenses all the torments the young girl is going through. The sound also becomes a metaphor. It seems to me that this sums up the way in which image and sound collaborate and reinforce each other, each providing information on a naturalistic level, and others on a metaphorical level. And some sounds, which are initially realistic, become symbolic later on, like the baby crying.

 

Sleepy de Marta Monteiro

 

ER: I take it as a compliment because that was the intention. I’m not sure if it’s just metaphorical. In this case, the intention was to reveal that feeling of being half asleep while struggling to stay awake, but constantly so tired that the dream world keeps creeping in and distorting the elements. The word ‘metaphorical’ is also appropriate, but I would see it more as an image that says one thing and a sound that says another, and the mixture of the two that says a third thing. I would place it more in an associative space, so that image and sound are a kind of fertile soil that prepares the ground for people to make associations and are not constantly so concrete that there is nothing else to think about.

 

Sleepy de Marta Monteiro

 

Z: For animation or another discipline, did you work with a soundtrack that the authors followed?

 

ER: Not exactly. I don’t remember but I do remember some other processes in which the development of the soundtrack and of the stage dramaturgy happened in parallel. I meet the director and we speak a bit and kind of clear some basic ideas. And I just do my thing whereas the dance or the performance on stage develop their own things separately and then we just superimpose the two. It has happened. Of course at a certain point there has to be some adjustments. 

 

Z: You do it with dead composers. It’s easy to take some composition, Stravinski for example, and to make an animation on it. Do you know any filmmaker who asks you for a soundtrack and is inspired by your composition to make a film?

 

ER: Of course, as a director, you can commission a piece of music without telling the composer what you’re going to do with it, but I think the examples you’ve given come from the other direction: if you’re working on Stravinsky, you’ve chosen Stravinsky because this music contains elements that are worth working on beforehand. Sometimes we commission a composer simply because we like their work, without knowing what that composer is going to do. In some films, for example, there are other processes that involve not composing for specific parts of the film, but composing for the film as a whole, and then the director and editor choose which elements go where. I remember suggesting this approach to a director, Fernando Vendrell, with whom I work on live-action films. And he told that he needed specific things for specific places. And in the end, there were quite a few moments when he used music that was supposed to be played elsewhere. In the end we came closer to that initial proposal, so it was more of a mixed approach. There are also a lot of people, more for live-action films, who work in this way: I produce musical elements for specific time codes, therefore for specific locations, but I also produce material without a time code, which means that they relate to the film but have no concrete place where they could fit in.

 

Apparition by Fernando Vendrell

 

Z: I imagine it as an industrial process where we place certain types of movements that we need for a certain mood and we place them like a collage.

In German expressionist cinema, the scenographer of the film had the same power as the directors because they came from theatre. It was difficult for the film industry to create new rules for collaborations. Now the scenographer is totally an employee from the team, even if he’s famous. He’s part of the process, not like the director. For example, when you apply to the Film Institute in Portugal, there are two possibilities for screenwriters: the first is that they write for a particular director – and I don’t think it’s a good idea to write something without knowing for whom. But the Institute also accepts that a screenwriter can apply for a project of his own and then choose and contact a director. In fact, why not go in the application with a soundtrack and then choose the director? Sound designers and musicians never receive the credit that cinema claims to give them. Everybody says the sound it’s 40% but of course the money is not 40%, the conditions are not 40% and the timing is not 40%. They always come in at the end, when deadlines and resources are usually more limited.

 

ER: I totally agree with you. That’s why, when I’m working on a film, I like to be there from the start. It has happened several times that the music/sound also informs/determines the length of specific scenes. Or maybe there’s something missing in the animation to make this scene work. That’s why I enjoy that the process comes early even if it means a lot more hours of work for me and a lot more elements that I try out and then throw away, it’s much better for the movie if we do take the time to work together from the beginning. We do it in this dialectic way. I don’t enjoy coming in the end and putting some decorative elements so that we don’t miss them if they’re not there.

 

GS: I would like to deepen the relation between music for image and music by itself. Sometimes, we remember the music and we don’t really remember the scene. For example the music of El Paso (by Lewis R. Foster, 1949. Music by Darrell Calker). Should we aim to create memorable music?

 

El Paso by Lewis R. Foster

 

Other question a bit provocative: some composers say they can do whatever, jazz, classic, modern, rock and so on. Is this polyvalence possible? Or does that mean this kind of music, for film, is a little lighter?

 

ER: Is it a goal to make memorable music inside the film? I try not to think in those terms. I really think that what can help is that somehow image and sound contribute to say something else together. It’s not what the music says, it’s not what the image says, it’s the meaning that emerges from these two elements combined.

On the other hand, if we’re working on a specific part which is, let’s say, mainly musical, you obviously want to make the flavour as intense as possible, as rich as possible, as you do in cooking. But there’s always this game of micro/macro point of view. At what point is it useful that the music somehow takes over the scene? Or should we go back a few steps so that it’s more integrated and that it doesn’t stand out so much or that it doesn’t distract from what the movie wants to say. Of course there’s no clear line for this. We all have to evaluate if it’s doing what it should or it’s lacking or it’s too much. One very obvious sign is when you feel that something is stealing all the attention. The situation you’re referring to, where we remember the music but can’t remember the scene, is somehow wrong. It didn’t achieve the goal.

About the polyvalence, again I also try not to think in terms of musical genres as much as trying to understand – what does the film need? – or wants to say in that specific moment or in a global way. I have every confidence in the aesthetic needs of the film. Sometimes the film says that it needs a specific continuity for instance in instrumentation. Tuba drums and double bass for example. Somehow the film tells me that this is the core element or the core elements that conveys the character of the film. Even if some other elements show up, this is the core. Whereas some other films clearly say please don’t do a monochromatic music but a more fragmented approach. It’s an exercise of humbleness to trust and hear what the movie has to say because, if we are open and sensitive enough, it will tell us what to do.

 

Z: Music appeals to so many feelings and forms in parallel that it’s impossible for me to say whether it’s music for a film or music in itself, because there’s already something in music that can replace drawing, painting, dance and so on, because there are so many directions inside that you can’t say “music is just music”. It’s just not possible.

 

 

GS:  To be clearer: suppose you were on a jury and you had to give a prize, for the best music. Could you give us a definition of what good music for a film is?

 

ER: I cannot.

 

Z:  For example, in the Norman McLaren films that are scratched and painted, the soundtrack is often drawn for films.

 

Blinkity Blank by Norman McLaren 

 

On the other hand, I can remember Doctor Zhivago music for years and I sing the music without any connection with the film. It’s just the music.

 

ER: Doctor Zhivago theme somehow came through into mainstream music. Or The Godfather music. These themes found a place as archetypes of some sort. It’s a very complex mix of elements that somehow make some themes particularly popular.

 

The Godfather by Francis Ford Coppola

 

Z: Many times, it’s not so much the soundtrack unfolding within the movie, throughout the movie, but rather the feeling that is imposed on us from the beginning, a somewhat artificial way of experiencing the film.

 

ER: The idea of leitmotiv works on that principle. It builds a sense of identification of familiarity by repetition or insisting on something that becomes recognizable. In a song the chorus, besides having a bigger power, is this moment when we feel galvanised not just by the energy but also by the fact that we recognize and we can almost immediately join in.

 

Z: In the russian film War and peace, they use a mix of synthesiser and other instruments, like a flu so that you cannot distinguish them….it is impossible to remember the theme.

 

ER: This last example is about conveying the emotions at the pace that the image needed with the right character and not so much if it would be interesting enough to hear it autonomously. The opposite would be maybe Mancini which is so economical, so iconic and instantly memorable.

 

 

War and peace by Sergei Bondarchuk