When commercial directors Jonathan and Josh Baker released their 2014 short film “Bag Man,” it felt very much like a bridge from their advertising work to the world of longform narrative. The 14-minute film follows a young boy from Harlem as he travels, alone, lugging a suspiciously heavy looking duffel bag on a trip into the isolated environs of upstate New York. The scenario seems straightforward enough, if slowly and deliberately paced. But then the boy opens up his package, pulling out a piece of heavy weaponry that looks like something from a videogame.
The oversized rifle rumbles with SF-style hums and thrums created by Jafbox Sound owner Joseph Fraioli, a musician and sound designer who had previously collaborated with the Bakers on commercial work. Ultimately, the short film’s ending leaves viewers with more questions than they started with, which was a savvy way for the Bakers to pitch a feature-length extension of the film’s story, Kin. Having gotten the green light, the Bakers asked Fraioli to revisit his work and expand it for the big-screen treatment. We asked him about creating otherworldly sounds for a naturalistic sci-fi story, capturing the sonic essence of magnetism, and giving voice to a weapon like no other.
Watch the video, below, to see Fraioli at work on the film, then read the Q&A for more detail.
How did you start working with Jonathan Baker and Josh Baker?
We’ve been working together for almost 10 years. They came over from Australia and I had seen one of their commercials, so when I met them, I said, “Let me try sound design on a VFX-heavy commercial.” They loved it, and we’ve worked together ever since. It’s been a great, long ride with them to get here.
In addition to your film and commercial work, you have a career as a musician under the name Datach’i. What’s it been like living in both of those worlds?
I’ve been making electronic music under that alias since 1997 or 1998, and released my first album in 1999. It was through that that I discovered post-production and sound design. I got an opportunity through MoMA to sonify an installation. My set-up was super lo-fi at the time, but I learned the idea of putting sound to picture — and I realized that was essentially what I was already doing in my own mind. It was a few more years before I got another opportunity working in post-production. For a good five or six years, I didn’t do much of anything [musically] because I was so heavily involved with sound work. I had a Eurorack modular synthesizer, which is a new version of the original types of synthesizers with lots of patch cables and knobs. I purchased it to generate sounds for my sound-design work, but I realized that I could also make music on this thing. So I released another album in 2016.
Was your sound design for “Bag Man” helpful as a rough draft for the feature film?
There are some parallels where elements from “Bag Man” come into Kin, and certain aspects of the sound they didn’t want me to change much. It’s a very documentary-style piece — a clear and good-sounding documentary — and that worked really well to bring you into the world of the characters. With Kin being this larger-scale journey, we had the opportunity to explore the duality of worlds. There’s the real world of Detroit, and then this other world of the unknown, and we got to balance them out. The more you play up the science-fiction aspect against those moments from the real world, the more interesting the sound becomes.
How early did you come on board the feature?
I started working on Kin really early on. Right as they started shooting, I was receiving stuff from the editor, Mark Day. I was doing everything for a good long time — it wasn’t until the last three months that I had support from [sound-effects editors] David Rose and Paul Germann, who were able to take the non-SF work I had done and continue working on it and conforming it, and [supervising sound editor] David McCallum, who came on and shaped up the dialogue. I did a lot with the terrestrial guns, but mostly I put a lot of work into the SF aspect, and I was grateful to be able to work on it for that long. I was able to put in a lot of detail and make everything very purposeful as far as how it sounds.
The film shot largely in Toronto. How did you work with the filmmakers while production was taking place?
For the majority of the time, I was working in Brooklyn and we were in constant communication. We were texting all the time — we had a really quick language for sending ideas, and we were able to work super-efficiently that way. We were adding layers of depth to the story, dramatizing certain scenes that didn’t have visual effects. It’s best for me to be involved during the editorial process, when we can come up with an idea driven by sound and change a scene through that idea. For the final mix last August, we mixed in Toronto for three weeks, and then we did a couple more mixes in L.A. for some changes and quick fixes. And we recently went back to L.A. to do the DTS-EX and Imax 5.0.
So how did you approach the process of creating otherworldly sounds for a film that otherwise seems largely naturalistic?
The approach for the short was to make something you experience with very little dialogue. You really want to set where he is [upstate New York] and how he feels in his space. With the feature, we have a totally different setting in Detroit, and a sense of space is equally important to the SF aspect. It makes it more believable and more real, more emotionally grabbing, for the audience.
Did you try to make the science-fiction sounds especially wild or unusual, to stand in contrast to the other elements of his environment?
It really depends on what’s happening in the story. Most of the time we felt it was most satisfying to have them be pretty bold. It wasn’t bold for bold’s sake, either — the sounds are sculpted to tell part of the story and convey certain emotions. There are always aspects of a film that you want to stylize, but not over-stylize. But there are definitely dramatic effects through the film. It sort of brands the film and gives it its own vibe, incorporating another language of sound.
Can you talk about some specific work you did on the film that you’re especially happy with?
There’s an introductory battle sequence that you get a little bit of a sense of in the trailer. John and Josh shot this footage knowing they were going to give it to me to make a world of sound for it, and it’s completely told by sound. We don’t see much happening, but we get a sense of it all through sound. I was really honored that they thought of me for that opportunity, which was very fun. Another thing I was happy with was the idea that this technology has an artificial intelligence about it that connects to its user or can reject its user. All the aspects of that storytelling are through sounds I created that were inspired by Bluetooth, and pairings with mobile devices. I took that idea into the future, so you hear the sound and what’s happening makes some sense to the audience, just through the use of beeps and chimes. I thought, “This is really cool.” And John and Josh got it right away.
What lengths did you go to in order to create unfamiliar sound elements?
I pulled out everything I had to get the film’s world of sound going. Very early on, before the script was even written, I knew the technology was going to be based on magnetism. So I thought, “What can I do to represent magnetism sonically?” I started with a lot of electromagnetic field recorders, which are basically induction coils with preamps so you can listen to the world of electricity around you. I also used a similar device, a low-frequency radio band recorder — so it’s a wider-range electromagnetic field recorder — to record the sounds of telephone poles and transformers and electricity running under the ground and street. Those were really interesting textures to work in. I had my Eurorack modular synth and a Symbolic Sound Kyma system, which is a powerful computer-based sound-design system that allows you to warp and morph sounds together. I recorded a lot of organic sounds and textures and ran them through the system, combining and morphing them together to make new sounds.
Another scene that’s cool features the Cleaners, characters from the other world. Originally, as scripted, they were supposed to have a breathing sound that came from tubes in their helmets. When I first saw how they were working together and interacting with no voices, I felt they were communicating somehow. So I came up with vocalizations for these guys by doing a long pass of recording myself talking. I had my wife come in and recorded her talking about our cats. We used software to scramble those bits of dialogue, filter them, and edit it down to individual syllables. It’s gibberish, but if you take the phonemes and syllables and put them together, it resembles an expression in English.
As far as the actual hum of the gun, I had an idea for that. Shepard tone is an audio illusion — you can hear it in the score for Dunkirk — that works by layering the same sound at different octaves. Through automation, you crossfade through the octaves and it gives the illusion of a continually ascending or descending sound. I figured out how to do it with filters, creating sort of a warm growl with Shepard tone on top of it. That was helpful in a lot of scenes because, without any music, this constantly ascending tone from the weapon adds suspense. We were all super-excited about that — and then Dunkirk came out and it was obvious that [composer] Hans Zimmer had used the Shepard tone extensively. [Laughs.] It’s still a really cool aspect of the sound design, and I’m really happy with how it works.
Kin opens this week in the U.S. and worldwide. For more information on Joseph Fraioli, visit jafboxsound.com.
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