Toronto sound designer Jane Tattersall at SYRFILM

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 05/07/09More articles
(Canadian sound designer/editor Jane Tattersall has worked on over 120 films, including Fernando Meirelles’ “Blindness,” starring Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo.)

“The voice is the skeleton of sound,” said Jane Tattersall last Thursday afternoon during what has become the Syracuse International Film Festival’s annual forum on sound and music in film. “But the human voice alone isn’t sufficient.”

Then Tattersall peeled back layer after layer of cinema sound to show us how it’s done, while visiting filmmakers in the crowd sat as intently as the rest of us. Tattersall spoke third, after Wolfgang Eckert and Jeff Beal. Eckert scored the German film in competition at the festival, “The Puppeteer of Havana,” and discussed how music expresses character. Beal, who scored Ed Harris’ “Appaloosa” (which screened that evening at the Palace) showed clips from his earlier collaboration with Harris on the film “Pollack,” and from television work on “Nightmares and Dreamscapes” and “Ugly Betty.” He emphasized how music arcs a film’s story-line, particularly in the absence of dialogue.

Canadian sound editor and designer Jane Tattersall instead discussed everything but the music in studio-produced sound – all the layers of sound that together create reality even though you may not notice them individually, from flesh striking flesh, to wind and rain, to birds flying up through brush, to footsteps, to the whoosh and crackle of sudden flames, to guns and explosions and bones breaking. Tattersall screened a series of individual sound layers from a single scene from Showtime’s “The Tudors” – shot in Ireland with Toronto post-production – and another from the war film, “Paschendaele.”

From the start, the six-year-old Syracuse International Film Festival has highlighted sound and music in film. Screening of classic silent films like “Ben-Hur” (1925), with J.C. Sanford's commissioned new score performed live by the CNY Jazz Orchestra, is an annual signature event that has earned New York State Council on the Arts’ mention. Italian producer-director Gian Vittorio Baldi – recipient of SYRFILM’s Lifetime Achievement Award for 2009 – has paid special attention to sound throughout his career as both filmmaker and cinema scholar. An overture of composer and keyboardist Jeff Beal’s film music, performed live by the Society for New Music, preceded Thursday’s “Appaloosa” screening.

Jane Tattersall, who also served as one of this year’s festival judges, has been sound designer for 121 films, including Fernando Meirelles' “Blindness,” Showtime's series “The Tudors,” Guy Madden's “My Winnipeg,” Sarah Polley's “Away from Her,” Istzván Szabó's “Sunshine” and “Being Julia,” Robert De Niro's “The Good Shepherd,” and David Cronenberg's “Naked Lunch.” Tattersall Sound in Toronto is one of Canada's largest sound studios, with other film production clients including Brian De Palma’s “Redacted,” the film version of the musical “Hair Spray,” and Cronenberg’s “The History of Violence.” Tattersall has also recently released her own first feature, a drama entitled “One Week.”

Another Canadian presence at this year’s festival, Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s film “Le Ring,” which screened on the festival’s first Saturday, received nominations for best feature film and best director and, as the scrappy young Montreal wrestling fan Jessy, its star Maxime Desjardines-Tremblay split this year’s Best Actor award with Alex MacQueen of the riveting British film, “The Hide.” But all too often the national cinema that Barbeau-Lavalette and Tattersall represent is too little-known and appreciated only a few miles south of the St. Lawrence.

Last Friday morning during breakfast at the Renaissance Hotel, Tattersall talked about sound design, editing and special effects in movies and Canadian film's ties with the US. Here’s part of our conversation.

Nancy Keefe Rhodes (NKR): I was very interested in what you had to say at the sound and music in film workshop. I had actually never seen a presentation like that, that broke down the different layers of sound, so it was very instructive to me and I think to others in the room. I also have a great interest in Canadian film. I’d like to see more Canadian films in this festival, and more exchange between upstate and northern New York and the Canadian film communities. There seems to be this wall right at the border – which I suspect is our doing! So I wonder if we could talk a little bit about what makes a sound-literate audience, some about Canadian filmmaking and how might we have some exchange and then, thirdly, some of the films that you’ve worked on. Actually I discovered that many of the films you’ve worked on are films I like very, very much, and it’s clear that it’s a very international experience – contrary perhaps to some US stereotypes of Canada – that you’re working with filmmakers all over the world. You’ve made a couple of films with István Szabó, who’s a favorite of mine. You worked on “Beowulf and Grendel,” a film I liked very much, made in Iceland. You worked on Jeremy Podeswa’s “Fugitive Pieces,” which hasn’t released here but I had seen by screener and liked immensely.

Jane Tattersall (JT): Sure. Well, why don’t we just work backwards? I’m thinking about the fact that I’ve worked on a number of international shows. And it’s a combination of things. One, is that Canada has a small population compared to the United States. And so the films that filmmakers would like to make often need to be subsidized by contributions from other countries, so hence we have a lot of co-productions. That naturally makes people think of how they can make a story that works in two different countries, for both sides. So there’s that aspect of it. There’s always lots of money in the States, but seems to be at least a perception that it comes from the studio system.

Canada doesn’t absorb its immigrants the way the United States does. The immigrants generally are encouraged and allowed – or allowed, not necessarily encouraged – they used to be encouraged but not so much now – to keep their connections with their homeland, to keep their heritage, to keep their language. We call ourselves a cultural mosaic rather than a salad bowl. The connection with other countries is still quite strong. They can travel back to where their parents came from and visit their relatives and so on, but even more than that, people call themselves Greek-Canadians or Italian-Canadians, as opposed to Canadians of Italian extraction. It’s a hybrid name – even to the sense that in Quebec they call themselves Quebecers before they call themselves Canadians. So we’ve got this kind of awareness of other countries as a result. It’s projected in all the media. We get I think a little more international news than you get easily in the States and so on. So that has always created an interest – for me and for other film watchers and filmmakers – in working with other countries.

Plus I like to travel. I have had the opportunity, through being in Canada, whereas I might not get the same opportunity in the States. And then unlike some of my fellow sound editors and designers, I’ve actually taken the opportunity because I’ve had a situation where I was allowed to do that. A lot of people are very tied to their home structure, you know. I’m married to a man who recognized early on that I needed to be always on the lookout for something interesting and engaging work-wise. So if a project was going to take me away for a month, there was never any, “Do you mind if I leave?” It was more that he would always push me to do it. “It sounds fantastic! You have to go, you have to go! I’ll take care of the kids and the home and all that kind of stuff.” So I’ve always had that permission to be.

Lastly is that I actually love the sound of a place. So I’m very aware when I travel of what something sounds like and I keep it as a memory. The more I work on international productions, the more I collect sounds and think about sounds that relate to a place, the background sounds, which means that when I’m asked if I want to work on a film – there might be several of us competing – I can usually articulate what something should sound like. Because I may have been somewhere similar, or I’ve already developed a sense of what that place should sound like.

NKR: Can you give me an example, when you knew what a setting would sound like, and how you would talk about that?

JT: A television production called “Shot Through the Heart”? I don’t remember any of the actors. The director was David Atwood – he’s English – and it was set in Sarajevo. It was certainly ten years ago, for HBO. It’s about a Bosnian-Serbian relationship and how the war tore this relationship apart. It’s a wonderful film. It’s very moving. I still have not been to Bosnia, to Serbia. But I have been to Italy and other Mediterranean countries. And, for example, the stairwells in the homes are very reverberant. They don’t have the same wall-to-wall carpeting or wallpaper. I think their walls are all plaster, and the stairwells in apartment buildings are echo-y and hard-sounding. So I could describe what the sounds would be like living in an apartment building. Everybody lives in apartment buildings there; not many people live in houses. Which is different from what you would describe if you were living in an apartment building in New York City. I would describe that as being, like, the ever-presence of neighbors. But the neighbors are more – okay, it’s like you would describe a tenement, for example. There’s a baby crying, somebody fighting in the room next door. It’s different than in a European apartment. The sound is more washy, as opposed to more pounding through the walls. So that’s one example. And I described that. The war was such that Sarajevo was actually attacked from the hills by snipers. These snipers would sit in the hills and they would wait and wait and wait and then they got their target. And their target almost always got one shot. So I was able to describe the sound of the city from the hills, and then the sound of the city from the apartments. Something just as simple as that.

I can think of another example where I got the job for a movie called “A Cool, Dry Place.” I went to meet the director. It was a story about a single father living with his son in Kansas. They shot it in Ontario because the landscape is very similar. This man lived with his boy in a farmhouse, so there was not much sound going on – crickets and birds and so on, but not too much sound. I had two children at the time. I recorded the sound of my son, who was four, breathing when he was sleeping. I took this in to the director, who listened to it over headphones, because it’s a sound that you hear in an isolated circumstance, in your home at night. You’re going around and turning off the lights, going to bed and checking in on your child and you hear that breathing from the door. It’s very quiet but you hear it. It’s harder to hear in a city or a noisy environment. The director heard this and I think it kind of got through to his heart. And I got that job.

NKR: You also worked on Sarah Polley’s “Away from Her,” a film I’ve probably seen five or six times. And you’ve worked on several films that she’s been connected with, her own or ones that she’s acted in.

JT: She’s a wonderful filmmaker, very talented individual. I have so much respect for her. I worked on one of her short films before that. I have a company and the company had worked on the short before that as well, so I had the connection that way. When she started writing “Away from Her,” you may know, she listened to Neil Young’s music. She played it and played it, so she had some specific music that she wanted to include in the film. But other than that, it’s a film about relationship, about love and how it changes and what you are willing to do for love. One of the things that I did for the film – that she liked and ended up being part of it – is I went to a lot of senior citizens’ homes. At the time, in June and July, one of my sons wanted to go up to my parents’ cottage. He really wanted to go up there and I had to work on the film. So I took all my equipment, which is fairly portable these days. I went to the next town up there, of, say, 20,000 people maybe, and they had about six different seniors’ homes. I went and did the rounds. And it’s not very nice of me but I pretended I was looking for a place for my parents. My parents are a little younger than would have been appropriate but I understood what the needs were. I went around with a microphone that looks like headphones. So I just wore it around my neck with the recorder on. So I would walk into the front door, you know, and greet the person and explain the circumstances and they would offer to give me a tour or show me the rooms or introduce me to some of the guests.

I actually had a great time. It was good research. But I also collected a lot of sounds of just people talking. There were three ladies, very old ladies – I’m sure they were in their 90s – playing table shuffleboard, which I’d not seen before. They were just having the best time, talking to themselves and urging each other on and laughing, and to have that sound, which is what I wanted to put into the seniors home that Fiona actually goes to. You can record a group afterwards, where you get a bunch of actors together, but it’s hard. First of all, it’s not that easy to get a group of people who are of that age, because their voices are a little different and I wanted to have that reality. I also wanted to have the sounds of happiness and pleasure, just people living life in a new place, as opposed to just making up conversation. There’s an artificiality to that. I knew that even if I didn’t use this sound, I would know what it should sound like. We ended up using a lot of that sound anyway, because it was right.

NKR: There’s one scene where the husband, Grant, is sitting watching the dining room, over time. It starts out being full and then it transitions to fewer people and then fewer people and then fewer people, until it’s empty. And my grandmother was in a home and I remember thinking during that scene, this is what it sounds like.

JT: Oh that’s great. Yeah, I think that we remember more about sound than we realize, if we can just tap into that.

NKR: You were talking yesterday in the forum about the battle scene in “Paschendaele” and attending to what rain sounded like on three helmets as opposed to two helmets – that kind of detail. Can audiences become more literate about what’s going on with the sound?

JT: You know, I’m not sure they can. I think it’s – if you start listening to a movie rather than watch it, it becomes a disengaged thing. So you lose what it was trying to do. I mean, of course you could do it. You would need to be instructed. Okay, let’s watch the scene. Let’s watch the scene again. Let’s watch the scene again. So the more you watch it, you know what line the dialogue is, what’s going on, so you start paying attention to other things. But I think unless you’re pushed in that direction, you won’t do it. Like going to the symphony, you do not hear the separate instruments unless you’ve heard them before by themselves and then you think, “Oh yes, here comes the tuba.” I had a record when I was a kid called “Tubby the Tuba.” It’s an introduction to children for different instruments in an orchestra and they each have a voice and then they put them all together. It serves to instruct on how the individual things disappear within the whole when everything is the way it should be. It wasn’t very well done, actually.

NKR: When I spoke with Italian filmmaker Gian Vittorio Baldi here at the festival, he talked about Bach and actually wanting to create a rhythm in a film with his shots the way that Bach wrote music. And what I could relate to about that was I may not know a piece by Bach that I listen to, but there’s something in the order of that music that my brain anticipates what will happen next, after I’ve listened for even a very short time. He said yes, that’s what he’s doing in film. I think the more carefully we listen – well, the more bad sound becomes irritating, perhaps. I know I’m increasingly irritated with badly done musical scores that are just distracting and I wish they weren’t there at all, for example.

JT: That’s a product of you paying attention. That’s really what it is. I think children in Germany and I think probably children in Hungary, they’re more immersed in music than we get in North America, so they are truly more critical as they get older. They learn to pick – they’ve been surrounded by music of very good quality and they learn not to like – well, this Muzak that we’re listening to right now. I suppose my sons have been – particularly the older one – sort of engaged in my work a lot. When they were young they came to work with me. And I’ve often brought films home in a rough cut stage to watch because there’s not been time during the day, so the older one would sit and watch films with me. Although he’s not necessarily more knowledgeable about sound, I think he’s seen the filmmaking process enough – not shooting, but in post-production he’s seen editing – so that will become part of his knowledge as he goes through life. So if you’re going to educate more people about sound in films, first feed them a diet of good quality sounds. Then they recognize the bad quality – as opposed to giving them bad quality, because then that’s the norm. I really do worry about kids listening to MP3s – sure, you get the melody and the rhythm and you can hear the instruments, but it doesn’t have the same richness that a good quality recording has. It’s the same with a picture. They watch films on their computer screens – or on their phones, which they do and that’s not going to change – they’re really satisfied with a so-so image. It’s like being a wooden cabinet-maker, and the stuff that they make at Ikea is junk. We shouldn’t buy this stuff. I want people to buy this really wonderful, hand-made furniture. And that work will always be appreciated by a small number of people but you’re just not going to get the mass market.

NKR: I’d like to ask you about this issue of Canadian film. I think many here in the States don’t know Canadian film and often aren’t used to watching it. The pacing strikes many here as too slow. But there’s such a rich cinema just a few hours north.

JT: You know, I think many Canadians would love more Americans to watch their films but they’ve kind of spent a lot of years trying and it’s not been successful, so it’s like, “Okay, they don’t want to watch our films so we’ll just get on with it.” So there’s that attitude. And then there’s, “Okay, let’s try, maybe this time they’ll like my film.” There’s less of that. And then, for Americans, I think it’s – there’s a little bit of protectionism.

NKR: In the trade laws, yes.

JT: And I what hadn’t actually recognized, until the festival’s panel last week on politics and film, is how the American independent cinema is fighting just as hard as all the rest of the countries of the world against the “big six” companies. I didn’t even know there were six. And so I wonder if there’s as much an attitude of, “Well, if we let Canadian independents in, then that’s going to push away other American independents, so we just can’t afford to do that because we’re grasping for the two percent of the market” – or whatever the amount is. How to fix it? I think it’s probably grass roots, bit by bit. Exchanging films, creating forums, just creating small things. It might be quite interesting to try to do something with the Toronto Film Festival. There’s all kinds of panels that happen through that. Something like, why isn’t there more of a bond between independent filmmaking in the States and Canada?

NKR: The university’s journalism school, the Newhouse School, has a fairly small, young program in arts journalism. They now take their class to the film festival in Toronto at the start of the fall semester.

JT: That’s great – what an opportunity!

NKR: Yes, it’s right there! There’s no other way to see some of these films right now but to go to Toronto. Many of your films we can’t get here. Many we can get on Netflix but also many we can’t. There’s a Canadian TV show that you worked on that’s now available on Netflix , “Slings and Arrows.”

JT: Yes, that’s a great series!

NKR: And that’s on Netflix. But a film as classic as Claude Jutra’s “Mon Oncle Antoine” has only in the past year again become available in this country on DVD.

JT: But you know, it’s the result of things like Netflix and other things where you can buy these independent films – it’s almost like that’s a fantastic result of the restrictions that have existed. I think that more films will be re-released and re-packaged – by the filmmakers, if they can get their copyright back perhaps. Even just the re-release of films on Blu-ray. Usually that’s just the big films, but people who work in the film business are trying desperately to find ways of selling more movies and old film is a good way of doing that.

NKR: What is important that’s happening right now in Canadian cinema that we ought to pay attention to?

JT: I’m going to have to think about this question. There’s probably a lot of similarity. It’s harder and harder to make a low-budget film – you know, the chicken and the egg. You want to attract some kind of cast that’s going to cut through the volume of films. That eats up a fair amount of budget, even if they take a fairly low rate, so then you’re making films with less money so that’s less money to pay the crew. In your career you can only make, I think, a couple of low-budget films – Rob Nilsson’s the exception – because you exhaust the resources. For example, I have a company that does post-production and this company’s been in existence for about five years. One of my business partners says, “You’re the Mother Theresa of Canadian film business!” We do so many freebies for people and still there’s more freebies to do. People might come back two or three or four times with very small money and they keep wanting you to help, and you can’t run a business on that. We try to diversify. So we’re like, you know, Robin Hood – we can use the rich ones to pay for the poor ones. But another thing I think may be different is that many filmmakers work in both film and television in Canada and I think there’s more of a divide here, more consciousness of being primarily in one or the other.

NKR: Well, there is network television and then there’s HBO. And there is a status divide, between network TV and cable, primarily HBO – which even markets itself on that distinction, that phrase – and Public Broadcasting and others.

JT: I think the challenge in Canada – and it probably already exists here – is to keep the standards up, to keep the facilities in business, so they can continue to earn a living, and so they can continue to support the lower-budget films. If they collapse, we’ll be left with the big giants. They pretend they’re interested in the small films, but they’re really not. There’s a lot of low-budget films being made. They’re not all good. But it’s practice and one of the filmmakers will make something great one day.

A shorter version of this article appears on pg. 1 of the May 7, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Nancy covers the arts, writes the film column “Make it Snappy,” and was a pre-screener for the 2009 Syracuse International Film Festival. Reach her at

TAGS: Jane Tattersall, Canadian cinema, sound design, Syracuse International Film Festival, Claude Jutra, Sarah Polley, Anais Barbeau-Lavalette
EDITION: The Eagle

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