[Interview] John Kassab: “Childhood of a Circle”, et al.

As I was being transported back to my youth watching Childhood of a Circle, I noticed a thread lining several recent posts here…

Melbourne-based audio designer & deep sea diver John Kassab has been making a subtle but sound statement through a handful of featured Motionographer articles, notably: Callum Cooper’s Full Circle, Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing (exerpt + interview), and of course, Kadavre Exquis’ recently released piece above (among others).

As the sculptors of all things aurally beautiful, sound designers are not often given their proper due, so be sure to lend an ear to John & all the other artists here who routinely tickle our cochlea.

Additionally, Exquis’ fine work showcased above definitely deserves a hand – specifically, the backgrounds are just killer.  View landscape set 1 / set 2 + check out more behind-the-scenes work in his Secret Files. Kadavre is also a musician, and you can pick up the retro-inspired Childhood of a Circle original soundtrack here.

UPDATE: John Kassab provided us a discussion in which he extends some great insight into his processes, perceptions of the field, finishing work in the digital age, and the beauty of the imperfect.  Read more after the jump.

Discussion with sound designer John Kassab:

What is your favorite sound?

My favorite sounds are found in nature. We rely so much on our ears for perspective and balance and I find that in wild natural environments I tend to lose both in a good way. During the end credits of Full Circle, for example, you can hear a distant animal call which I recorded in Borneo a few years back. I had no idea where the sound was coming from through the trees, whether it was a bird, mammal or reptile; whether its call signified joy, fear, mating, hunger or war. I still don’t to be quite honest.  It is a sound that is inherently organic but completely alien in every other way and this aids in the disorientation we wanted the audience to feel in that piece.

What was your process on ‘Full Circle’?

Klezinski are very close friends of mine. When they decided to launch their new label with a ‘fashion film’, I offered to help produce it. I recommended Callum Cooper’s jump rope technique which I had seen on an earlier video he did called Summersault. I had worked with Callum twice before on video works and had struck up a good synergy with him. Our process together was quite fluid, Callum does the the visual and I do the audio. We are similar in that we both work very instinctively or intuitively and often in different time zones.

I really enjoy working with Callum as he has great rhythm in the way he edits, which allows me to be musical. To extend the metaphor, his edits provide a time signature and my job is to come up with the beat and the melody. His edits also demand you to think in terms of how many notes (or sounds) you can use per bar (or cycle). Callum responds to clarity and punctuation which is quite hard to achieve in these quick scenes. To find clarity in this chaos, you really have to be so selective in choosing that 1 or 2 perfect sounds that sell the shot and make you feel something. It can take months to perfect, but I’m always surprised watching the finished films when it is all over in minutes.

I also worked very closely with Klezinski. Their fashion is all about subverting context; mismatching place, time and tradition to create new meaning. I really wanted the sound to reflect this idea. Callum did a wonderful job of collating urban, natural and industrial environments which was great as these types of contrasts are inherent in the visual design of the edit.  In keeping with Callum and Klezinski’s taste in sound, I was very keen to create something natural and acoustically accurate for the piece. However I also wanted to subvert context further wherever possible on that track. For example, I used the sound of a roller-coaster to completely re-place a park pergola and in the abandoned warehouse shots, I used explosions and sirens to give new meaning. In terms of psycho-acoustics, sound can be used in this way to expand the narrative and universe beyond what can be seen in the limited screen space. I also tried to demonstrate this in the shot with the invisible fly.

‘Childhood of a Circle’ (2012) has a wonderful retro feel to it. How was this achieved in the track?

Kadavre Esquis is self proclaimed ‘retro guy’. his animation, particularly his stunning background paintings and his music (which brings the funk hard) takes you back in the nicest way possible. When working with him, I really had to abandon my contemporary way of thinking about sound and set major limitations on the session. I started by reducing the number of frequencies and tracks to an absolute minimum. Having super duper fidelity and too many tracks was going to work against the concept because these things were simply not available to filmmakers during the period of animation we were trying to reference.  In the tradition of cartoons from way back in the day, I found sound effects in musical instruments such as chimes and my trusty jewsharp. For the narration, I processed Julian Smith’s voice through a guitar amp modulator to give it a distortion that I hoped would make it sound reminiscent to the vocal ‘treatment’ of old reels. This sound, whilst not entirely accurate to the 70s, immediately conjured this feeling of the ‘past’ which I felt was good enough to get the retro message across – that the track had been stored somewhere collecting dust for a few decades and just got re-discovered.

Towards the end of the project, it became clear that the sound treatment of the narration was tonally not fitting in with the rest of the track. So as a last minute decision I decided to send the entire track, including the music, though the guitar amp and it was an effective glue for the elements. I particularly love the way rain and wind sound through a guitar amp. It somehow brings out so much hidden texture in the absence of fidelity.

For the finishing touches, I added little bits of crackle and pop that you typically find on records and old film. However, I was constantly aware of over-killing the track with these stylisms. This made the mix a major challenge, even though I was working with a limited number of tracks. At the time, it was hard finding perspective on how much is too much and remembering to pull back for story. After listening to it again now, I wish I pulled back more. Notes for next time…

What is it like to be a sound designer working in the digital age?

The internet has been a real blessing. Kadavre is French but based near Rotterdam, and Callum is Australian but based in London. At the time of both of these collaborations, I was based in Melbourne, Australia, and had not met either collaborator. Now I live in Los Angeles and continue to work with both, having only met Callum on the set of Full Circle when he visited Melbourne briefly last year. Whilst in Australia, I also worked with Portuguese animator, Pedro Lino, on his wonderful film The Tortoise (2012), which is currently showing at Festivals. For those projects, we used file transfers, Skype, and Facebook, for communication. It also works great to have a 24 hour work cycle on a project. For example, when I am working, they are asleep, and vice versa. It can often get the job done faster and its nice to wake up to notes or drafts.

On the flip side, the great curse of working in the digital age is nothing ever feels finished as everything can always be changed. There is no print master, so to speak. You can always re-open, tweak, and re-upload. The temptation is always there, but once people start seeing it – and Full Circle is far too popular now – you have to let it go and let it be what it is. Its not yours anymore to touch. I never bought into that whole redux thing that happened in Hollywood. Its much better to make something new than to apply more varnish to something old. You fuck with the vintage otherwise.

But, I have learned from experience that at some point, such as a deadline, you just have to stop yourself or you get lost in the possibilities. Although I feel it should also be stated here that ultra perfection can often lead to adverse effects – this is why old rock recordings are so great, and why most recordings on commercial radio right now simply are not. Its the human element of ‘mistake’ (not to be confused with sloppiness or poorly resolved work) that can go missing with all this digital endless-undo business. As self critical as I am with my work, if I’m finding little niggly things to fiddle with after my 150th pass, then the chance anyone will hear something ‘wrong’ with the track on the first or second viewing is, to me, completely negligible. I believe that mistakes – particularly micro mistakes – is what makes all handmade things beautiful, and I’ve learned to welcome them on my track.

You mentioned you made some recordings in Borneo some time ago. Do you record all your sounds?

I tend to use a combination of original recordings, recordings by genius sound man, Dane Cody, samples I find on websites like freesound.org, and the same stock libraries everyone uses. Although, I try to steer away from libraries unless I change the sound beyond recognition. As filmmakers in this digital age, we should all be striving for innovation in technique and story telling, otherwise, what’s the point? If we keep recycling and rehashing the same source material over and over, we will start to really see the death of culture that theorists have been warning us about with all that Post Modernism jive. I refuse to buy into it. I’m all for sampling and referencing but I don’t think this is at odds with originality. Originality is not dead, it never was. It just became fashionable to say it is for too long, and unfortunately, this excused the production and hype of a lot of really lazy art (across all media).

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the adverse cultural effects of art and film saturation on the internet. Do you think this saturation of images makes it harder for filmmakers to get their work noticed?

Because of Vimeo, I am very optimistic for the future of film, film-making, and originality in general. Don’t get me wrong, I agree that there is a total saturation of shit out there which has created an ocean of brown beige. But as artists, we should all endeavor to use this beige as our canvas and repeatedly strike it with brush strokes of color which contrast and pop. However, once you make something, it’s ultimately in the hands of the spectator. After your marketing push, you simply have no control over audience reaction. If it’s good, it lives, and if it isn’t, it sinks. What is popular today might not be tomorrow, and what is overlooked today may turn out to be the most influential work 10 years from now. There is no way of telling how the wind will blow.


Childhood of a Circle Credits

Direction & Animation: Kadavre Exquis
Sound Design: John Kassab
Voice Over: Julian Smith
Foley Sound: Adrian Medhurst
Music: Kadavre Exquis & guests