Interview: Ivo Špalj

Interview: Ivo Špalj

07 | 10

Ivo Špalj: The role of sounds in animation is primarily to express what cannot be expressed with music or animation itself.

This year, Anifilm’s Lifetime Achievement Award was awarded to Czech sound master Ivo Špalj, who has closely collaborated with Jan Švankmajer on numerous films and has been nominated many times for the Czech Lion Award for Best Sound, which he has won three times. During his nearly sixty-year-long career, he has worked as a sound director on more than two hundred short and ten feature-length animated films as well as dozens of animated series. One of the screening blocks dedicated to this author – A Tour of Czech Animation – will be screened today at 5.30 p.m. in the Varšava Cinema.

When did you engage in film sound design in a systematic manner?

I first became interested in sound while I was attending a grammar school, or more precisely a so-called eleven-year secondary school. We had wire recorders back then, which I experimented with as an amateur. My cousin was a cameraman, and I too was interested in technology, but sound appealed to me more than picture. Later on, I was lucky enough to be admitted to the Faculty of Electrical Engineering of the Czech Technical University in Prague, where I studied radio, film, and television engineering. And I was even luckier to be the only one of the eleven graduates who got assigned to Barrandov with no trouble at all – because no one else was interested.

What do you enjoy the most about the job of a sound designer? And what are its most demanding aspects?

When I work, I always try to think primarily of the viewers, and I trust in their perception and subconscious. This makes is possible to use sound to achieve a lot of interesting things. For example, the Magician’s Lantern includes a scene, in which a circus catches on fire. Naturally, there is no real fire on the stage, but some of the older viewers still get up to leave, and that is one of the aspects of this job I enjoy very much. The most demanding thing is the amount of time you have to invest in it. There are times when I have no weekends or holidays. You have work to do in the studio that simply needs to be done. But I can manage that because I love the job.

What qualities should a good sound master have?

There are quite a few I would say. When I was starting out, you had to have a university degree in the corresponding field. Back then, every young sound engineer first had to make at least three feature films under the supervision of an experienced sound master before they could become one themselves. That’s no longer required today, but fortunately, we have the Department of Sound at the Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, where students can learn a lot of the craft. Besides technical skills and knowledge, a good sound master also needs to have artistic sense, imagination, a sense of rhythm, and they need to understand hearing. That is they have to understand how the relationship between ears and brain works. Furthermore, they should have an ear for music, a sense for proportions, and extensive cultural knowledge in order to be a competent partner to the rest of the crew.

How did you get into animated filmmaking? 

I used to watch short animated fairy tales with my children, and I didn’t particularly like that the audio was always a sort of a mosaic of sounds. Take animated films about the Mole for example – individual sounds were fine, but they were not tied together by any single common style. I looked into how animated bedtime stories were made, and I found out that the sounds were not designed by a sound master at all; instead, they were compiled by editors from reels with various sounds which they kept in a drawer in the editing room. They edited the reels into the film as needed, and after the sounds had been mixed, they took them out again and put them back into the drawer. I told them I believed that new sounds should be recorded for every new episode. At first they gave me funny looks, but they let me do it and eventually found out it worked. I think the first series I designed sound for was O klukovi z plakátu. After that, I started getting commissions from directors of other animated series as well. 

How much different is working with sounds in animation compared to other audiovisual forms?

Essentially, it’s not really all that different, except that designing sound for animated films is usually more intense. It’s not very hard to design a minute of sound for a live-action feature film – you set one mood, record one dialogue, and that’s it. Generally speaking, feature-length filmmaking makes more extensive use of established practices. When making short animated films, you have to improvise more because you need to avoid being too descriptive. I’ll give you an example of the most common mistake. The film shows a character hitting a tree. Right away, stars start spinning around his head, there’s a loud noise, the composer adds a crash of cymbal into the score, the character exclaims: “Oh my, what a blow!”, and on top of that an explanatory comment appears on the screen. That’s a big no-no in animated filmmaking.

In what ways can sounds enrich animation, and how can animation influence the development of sound design? 

The role of sounds in animation is primarily to express what cannot be expressed with music or animation itself. It can, for example, hint at what will appear on screen in a moment, or it can point out some action occurring in parallel. As to the other part of the question, animation is able to enrich sound design because it constantly requires new methods to be developed to suit its sound-related needs. The great thing about designing sound for animation is that each animated film is a little unique in some way, and so you always have to adapt.

Who do you consider to be a true master of film sound design? Do you find any current sound designers inspiring?

As to my older colleagues, I consider, for example, František Fabián, who designed the sound for Markéta Lazarová, to be a true master. Or František Šindelář, who worked with a Tobis-Klangfilm sound system. Those are true masters of sound design, who had hardly any equipment besides a microphone on a pole, and yet they were able to make films that even today sound good and, above all, are easy to understand. As to more recent films, I was thrilled by The Painted Bird, whose sound was designed by Pavel Rejholec. I think he benefited from working with the Dolby Atmos format, which I envy him a little bit. I don’t think I’ll get a chance to work with this format myself.

Do you think that Dolby Atmos is one of the technologies that are popular with current sound designers? Are there currently any other notable trends in sound design? How fast are they developing?  

I’d say that today, sound designers in general would prefer working with Dolby Atmos, but in the Czech Republic, they don’t have many opportunities to use it. Its main advantage is that you get the same sound experience no matter where in the cinema you sit. The currently most widely used formats are stereo sound and Dolby Digital 5.1, or 5.0 if it’s for the television. Another high-quality sound format is Dolby Digital Surround Ex, in which the sound is taken directly from the film copy.  And another very popular format is Dolby Surround 7.1, which allows you to work with seven discrete channels around the viewer. I personally like this format very much, because you can play around with it quite a bit, and it’s also used for 3D films. Technologies like these are developing extremely quickly nowadays, and I am a bit concerned about what it will lead to. For example, I digitized all of Jan Švankmajer’s films some ten years ago, and who knows what will happen, when new copies have to be made in a few years – will it be even possible?

How fast did sound engineering technologies change before the age of digitization? 

When I started working with sound in 1963, I recorded the sound mix for one film on optical film. Otherwise I used magnetic perforated tapes, which were first monophonic and later allowed us to record up to six tracks – four tracks were the minimum, for example, for the Cinemascope sound format. This format was used for some time, and then, in the mid-1960s, the Dolby company came up with a magnetic recording device that reduced noise and, so to speak, standardized all cinemas, improving the quality of sound reproduction during screenings. It also developed its own stereophonic formats – first Dolby Stereo A, then Dolby SR in 1986, and later, in the mid-1990s, the digital format known as Dolby Digital.

Do you miss any technologies or methods that are not used as much anymore?

What bothers me quite a bit is that the filmmaking industry in the Czech Republic got rid of optical sound recording. Usually, when a film co-financed by state funds is made in one of our neighbouring countries, you are obliged to make one film copy to be archived. Should this practice be introduced in the Czech Republic, I wonder where filmmakers would get the necessary optical sound recordings from. Another thing I’m concerned about is that while before it was no problem to add post-production sounds to a film if the on-set sound was not recorded well, today, as much sound as possible has to be recorded directly on set, which can compromise quality and make speech harder to understand. Furthermore, I often find that films sound flat, meaning that I’m unable to tell which sounds are further away and which ones are closer. Sounds used to be recorded and mixed in studios, which allowed you to have some spatial awareness as to their sources. Nowadays, everything is processed on small computer screens, which makes it hard for inexperienced sound designers to take this aspect into account. Moreover, this flatness makes it harder for viewers to hear all the sounds well. 

You have worked with Jan Švankmajer for many years. Sound plays a very important role in his films – it’s actually impossible to imagine Švankmajer’s typical style without it. How did you meet, and what is it like to work with him? Did Jan Švankmajer always have a clear idea about how his films should sound, or did he rather listen to you?

Jan Švankmajer collaborated a lot with Zdeněk Liška, with whom I had worked before on several projects. It was he who recommended me to him. All of Švankmajer’s films have a perfect rhythm, that’s something he always paid a lot of attention to. And Zdeněk Liška, besides being able to compose the right music for this rhythm, was also able to find his own additional rhythm in it, which fascinated Švankmajer. After Liška died, he didn’t really want to work with any other composers, so he came to me and proposed that we could base all his films on noises and atmospheres. We tried it, and it apparently worked because he later finally mentioned me in the credits in his film The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope. That was the first time he included me, even though we had already collaborated on fifteen short films before. As to Mr. Švankmajer’s ideas about work, that is a tough question to answer, but I can tell you that he always knew exactly how not to do something. I have never had any conflict with him, but I know there are some things I simply must not do – like use electronics, for example. On the other hand, what I really like about our collaboration is that time and place are not important in his films, so I can find myself being asked to add the sound of birds singing in the forest to a scene that takes place in the attic of some house. It gives me certain freedom. We have got to the point that all it often takes is for him to look at me in a certain way, and I know exactly what he wants. Furthermore, for many years, he has been the only director who has always taken part in the entire process of filmmaking – he attends the recording of noises, etc. 

Which animated film was the most memorable for you?

Working on Alice was an unforgettable experience because there’s no music in the film. I have never worked longer on any other film. We spent nearly a month in the post-production studio and worked with six footsteps editors, which is almost unimaginable in today’s film production. But back then we had no other option because we had to create as few tracks as possible so that there wouldn’t be too much noise. And there was also an incredible amount of props in the studio. I remember that one time, Švankmajer brought a small box with glass eyes to the studio and someone stole them. I felt really sorry for him because they were quite expensive.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on three bedtime series – a brand new series Who’s Afraid of the Devils , and new seasons of Earthworms and The Cottage on the Hilltop.