Thursday, June 18, 2009

Open Magazine conversation: Resul Pookutty

Interviewing Resul was exciting because he knew sound, and I wanted to know as much as possible about sound. The story brief was limited to Resul's sound library, but we digressed a fair bit, and this worked out well for me. I've had many rewarding conversations with people who don't mind going off topic and talk for hours. Transcribing can be a pain, though.

Before I finished my film school, I decided I wanted to create India's own sound library. In FTII, they insist that you don't use the library. You can hear the sound samples, but don't use them. You had to go out and record your own library because every film needs its own sounds. That's what makes each film different.

So when I was going through their library, I realized that India did not have an extensive sound library. When Indian films need sound, we either license it from BBC, Hollywood Edge, or Lucas Films, which are not India's sounds. Imagine a London city sound for a Bombay street shot. It won't sound the same. I started working on it in 1997. Amitabh Bachchan was the first person to bring a sound library to India, during Khuda Gawah. It came through an actor. They used to take part so much in the process of cinema. We technicians never had access to those libraries. We were pretty much recording most of it, so people had their own personal libraries. There was nothing codified and available in the market.

When I started this project, ABCL was willing to produce my idea commercially. The project went ahead, I had a decent budget. When their first film failed, they struck off all the unviable - so they thought - projects. They struck off mine too. I still had to do it, though. With a friend of mine, we did it with our own money. That was a time when stereo recording was just coming up in India. So I used a friend's stereo recording gear for months. I traveled almost all of Bombay and Pune and villages and all that. Then I realized that the entire sound spectrum in India is so huge, so vast, that it's mindboggling. It's like the language, the food, or the costumes of India.

Every part of India has a different dialect, and the sounds are different. Every culture has its own sound. Sound pieces for religion from the north to the south of India will give you a hundred albums. I thought it was like a cobweb. I could not get out of it. My idea was to give usable stereo sounds recorded neatly, cleanly, as sound effects for use in films and theatre. You need clean ambiances, clean effects. It's a huge effort to categorize it.

I was lucky in that there was no software at the time. Now you can sit in a bathroom and use Pro Tools. My first album I edited on SADiE, which worked on a PC platform. I called it Essential Indian Sound Effects, Vol. 1. I was doing everything. We managed to put in 60-70 clips on each CD. I tried to give loopable sounds, so that even if it was two minutes long, you could loop it.
Also, we used to think in analog.

It was impossible for just one person to categorize and decide what is usable. We were looking at a musical album. We put it in music stores so that people could buy it. 600 bucks for a pack of three CDs. It was mastered in such a way that it could be used as analog elements. I even learned coding in order to number tracks. It's been a huge learning experience. The challenging bit was categorizing the sounds. I had village sounds, religious sounds, public places. A south Indian railway station is so different from a Maharashtra railway station.

I'm not just concentrating on creating a library. I'm a film person. I created a platform in the beginning. So I thought I'd take it to the next level. So every film I do, I carry my sound recorder and keep recording the sounds. We, who work on sound in film, are constantly looking for how sounds affect our lives. That's what we emotionally play with. For me, sound and cinema is a temporal element. If the visual is spatial, you're making something that is intangible tangible with sound. For example, when you go to a valley, you feel completely quiet. At the sea, you feel calmer. This is because you're hearing longer expressions of sound. Valley birds have long calls. Sea waves are...wavy... but they are long in nature. Sound is stretched horizontally. In the city we have short bursts, or expressions, of sound. That makes you restless. It’s a cacophony. For me to capture a city, I have to understand all this. So for me, recording ambiances on one level is understanding it, and on the other hand transferring what I feel to the audiences.

I was very young when I started this. There was huge learning. If you see my album no.1 and compare it with no 2 and no 3, I think the third is my best work. I was learning how to record. I had a gut feeling that this is wanted to do. Nothing could stop me. I remember nights and nights when I was roaming in Pune and faraway villages. I was just moving around with my recorder. I wanted to give professional quality sound. Technically I wanted to be perfect.

I thought I'd give city sounds as one element, village sounds as another, as well as household sounds, and clips from religious and public places. I started thinking in terms of what are the public places you generally see in a film. You see bus stations, railways, airports. I started thinking filmically. With religion I had to incorporate Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims. Aartis and Azaans. An evening aarti in Pune is completely different from an evening aarti in Bombay. It's like dialect. The nature changes. If I want to be anthropologically specific, I can go into minute detail. I don't think any other country has so much diversity. It's so huge I don't know how to explore it. So I just keep building my library. I can boast of one of the biggest libraries. I'm also sharing it with my friends abroad so that I get something from them. Two terabytes of sound is nothing. I'm going to have a tie-up with one of the biggest s/fx guys in Hollywood. Like a cameraman who carries a still camera, I carry my recorder.

When I am recording a sound, I know if it is perfect or not. When you record sounds, it gives you an emotional clue. When it emotionally stimulates you, you know you have the right sound.

I generally go into as much detail as I can. Not just a creak of a chair, but everything possible that you can hear. When you slap your hand down on a table, it makes a sound. But If I add a metallic sound to it, you immediately know that this man is affluent, he’s wearing a ring. I’m going into what this man is. That’s what I mean by detail.

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