INTERVIEW: Peter Albrechtsen, Sound Designer Of Generation Wealth
How do you create the sound of a plane crashing into ice, or jazz up a slamming door? Peter Albrechtsen's unique approach may surprise you.
Speaking to Peter Albrechtsen was one of the most intriguing interviews I’ve done, and let me tell you why. Peter is a Danish sound designer based in Copenhagen and he has done a lot of work on films and TV shows, including Dunkirk, Netflix’s Godless, and most recently the documentary Generation Wealth. His work with sound design breathes life into many of the films, TV shows, and documentaries we watch, and without his talent many scenes would fall dull and many moments would lose their impact. Peter has done extensive work with sound and talked to us about how he creates certain sounds for different types of scenes, and also talks about the collaboration process with the crew of the projects he works on.
His most recent work on the documentary Generation Wealth, directed by Lauren Greenfield, posed a unique type of challenge for him as he worked with Lauren’s still images to create sounds that went along with the theme of the documentary which focuses on wealth and materialism in today’s society. Peter spoke to us about how he tackled creating the sounds for the documentary and how he transitioned certain sounds for each person in the documentary as they moved in or out of a state of materialism.
Peter’s work speaks for itself and has given so much meaning to many of the shows and films we enjoy watching today. Without him and his immense talent and his unique niche of working with sound, we wouldn’t enjoy anything we watch. He once created the sound of a plane crashing into ice by crushing plastic bottles. That takes a special kind of genius and talent known as Peter Albrechtsen. Check out our conversation below!
As a sound designer what does your job entail? And how did you get into this profession?
As a sound designer, you are creating the sound of the film and you’re taking care of things starting from the practical issues that involve needing to be able to hear what people are saying into creating a sonic environment and sonic identity for the whole film. Is it a loud film? Is it a quiet film? Should the sound be very poetic or should it be very action oriented? So there are all these different options on how to work with sound. At the same time sound is in many ways the most difficult part of the film. It’s something that can be hard to talk about. When you talk about images, you immediately have a lot of words for it. When you talk about sounds, you get direction on what they want the sounds to be like.
You need to play around with things and work together and examine together. For me, it’s really important to find directors who I work with very closely and I have these amazing collaborations with people where I work with the same directors over and over again. The same thing goes for Lauren Greenfield who directed Generation Wealth. I also did her previous film, The Queen of Versailles – this is our second collaboration together and we know each other well, that means a lot when you’re working with sound. It’s an emotional thing and hard to put into words. It’s something you need to play around with, and have to try out things, and need to find the right personality for films. This was something we worked on a lot for Generation Wealth – finding the right kind of personality for the film.
I graduated from film school in 2001 so I’ve been doing this for quite a lot of years. I’m doing both documentary and fiction films, I like going back and forth between the two. It’s quite amazing that after working with sound for so many years I can still be surprised by how a certain sound works together with certain images. In that sense it’s still very much like an adventure working with sound. I really like that it can still surprise me and still makes me happy and still feels like I try something new every day.
It’s interesting how the concept of sound works because while watching a film, documentary, or TV show we often don’t even realize the impact sound has on the scene we’re watching.
Yes, that’s very true. There’s this old saying by Walter Murch, who invented the term sound design back in the ’70s. He said that “images knock on the front door, and sound seeps through the back door.” I really like that kind of visualizing it because you’re really aware of the images, however, sound works on you subconsciously and emotionally and it’s not something you think about. When you’re watching a movie and hearing a movie it’s actually a good sign in a way that you’re not thinking about the sounds. The sounds are what are taking you into the movie.
Most recently you’ve worked on the documentary Generation Wealth, a documentary that is looking at the concept of wealth and materialism and what society that has led us to. What was your experience like working on this documentary? How did you decide what sounds to use/create for the documentary that suited the nature of its message and the still images?
The film was a lot of different layers and the film is a portrait of the way we are so hooked on wealth and how materialism is making us live our lives. Lauren had this amazing ability to get all of these people to share their personal stories. For the sounds we often would use kinetic sounds for the characters so that each of the characters had specific sounds that are connected to the rich and the wealthy.
For example, for a woman who works at a stock exchange and becomes more interested in a personal life, we slowly throughout the film went from using sounds that are focused on money and office sounds to something that is more softer like sounds of children and more human sounds so the character of the sound reflects the character that we meet in the film. It’s a subtle way of enhancing the parameter throughout the film. And I think it really works because you get closer to the character and the sound also helps define their personality.
Did you find it challenging to create sounds for still images on Generation Wealth?
I think it was a big challenge for this film to find out how much sound should go with the still images. There was a lot of experimentation playing around with different sounds and finding out that in some places it was really nice to have one small sound and in some places it was nice to have several sounds and then in some places if it was better to have silence.
All of this is is something we developed by just going through the film again and again and finding the right kind of balance – it took a lot of work. When you see the film it should feel natural and something that has a very subtle effect. But it did take a lot of time to find the right balance. Because of the way we confronted it, it was like a collage of sounds. There is quite a lot of music in the film and I built my sounds around the music. So the pitch and tonality of my sounds and rhythm fit with the music.
Is it very different when you’re working with sounds when it’s people-centric (documentary) versus an action scene? How do you tackle such a difference?
One of the most amazing aspects of being a sound designer is every movie needs its own personality. But at the same time, when you do a movie, whatever genre it is, it is still about telling the story with sound and telling the right story with sound. For Dunkirk, I recorded something specific that the sound designer wasn’t able to get a hold of, so I recorded it here in Denmark and sent it out. That sound was super specific for the film, and it needed to have the right sounds, and I really have to think about collecting the right sounds for the film I’m working on.
Once I have the right sounds then you can start building up the sound stage. In Generation Wealth, there is a scene where every machine is making a specific noise and I had been cutting around the scenery, so it almost turns into a piece of music on the film. There is a sequence where I took different sounds from stock exchanges, and it almost turned into a sonic warfare. On Generation Wealth, you have that dynamic between being very quiet and sometimes then being very intense.
When you look at a script how do you figure out what type of sounds will fit with it? What details are you paying attention to?
A lot of different things. When I’m thinking about the sound, the realistic approach is thinking about where the space is, what kind of shoes they are wearing, if they’re in a restaurant and if it’s noisy, or if they’re next to a train station. There are all these practical issues on how to approach the sound. For Generation Wealth, there was a more intimate approach because the sounds had to be more personal. I’m very much inspired by what I see and also very much inspired by what I feel.
Do you use the process of creating sounds with unusual objects and did you use that process in Generation Wealth?
Yes, absolutely. When you are filming, you always have to put your focus on dialogue and the great thing about working with Lauren Greenfield she is really into recording the dialogue properly. On some documentaries they don’t spend the money to hire a sound recorder for it, but for Lauren it’s really important that dialogue is really clear. On top of that, you want all the other sounds to be there as well like when someone is moving a chair or opening a door.
All these things are small things in a way, but it means a lot when you are there. When you start being detailed about sound, then you need all those details. What we do to make it sound more real is we take the microphone and move it a little off because it sounds more clean and it feels more real in a way. Those are the kinds of tricks we do to make new recordings fit in with the natural recordings from the production.
What are some of your favorite sound elements to work with and do you have one you use often?
I have some favorite sounds that I love to use. For each new film I try to get a hold of new sounds and record new sounds, but I have some favorites I love to go back to. For example, I have this 20 year old recording of kids playing around in the distance, which I recorded here in Copenhagen. One of these kids had this wonderful scream and each time I heard that sound I loved it. That sound is in every film I do, probably 100 movies now. It’s almost like a signature in a way.
Do you often create sounds using unusual objects? What is the strangest?
I once created the sound of a plane crashing through ice using plastic bottles and crunching the bottles. We have a lot of little tricks we use. For example, for a door slamming shut in a powerful way, I recorded the sounds of hand grenades some years back and used a snippet of one of those hand grenades to put into the door slam. Those are the kinds of things you can do with sound. If you cut just one frame of the hand grenades for the door slam everyone would notice, but when you mix it with sound no one notices it.
How often are you collaborating with everyone else on the team and how does that process work when everyone has their own style or method of doing things?
It’s very much teamwork heavy. So on Generation Wealth, it’s the same director as The Queen of Versailles and it’s also the same composer. In that sense we have to trust each other and work very closely together. I’m based in Copenhagen and Lauren is in LA, and one would think how are they going to collaborate when they live so far apart. It actually works very well. We do a lot of sketches and send them back and forth and then during the process we meet a couple of times.
On Generation Wealth, we met once in LA during the sound and sync process so I was over there for a week going through things with Lauren – talking about music and sound together. In this film there is a very close collaboration between the music and the sound of the film. Then I went back to Denmark and did some more work here, and then went to California again and then we made the film together at Skywalker Ranch in Northern California. That was really, really great.
I worked with the same mixer who did The Queen of Versailles. In many ways we were the core team that met together again. It means there is a close connection between us and Lauren, and when she is editing the pictures, she’s also talking to me and working with me and tells me what versions of the cuts she’s seeing so I can start collecting sounds for the film very early. So when we get to the sound editing then I already have a bunch of sounds and a bunch of ambiances and recordings that I can use.
This film takes place all around the world – US, Russia, Brazil, China, and so on, so I had to do a lot of work on getting a hold of sound recordings from all over the world. When I was in LA I recorded sounds there as well. Lauren is an amazing film photographer and several of her photographs are part of the movie, so it was important to handle all the cameras that were used in the film and we recorded all of those and used the new recordings for the sound of her taking photographs.
It has such a personal sound to it. The projects become much more natural in a way because of our creative collaboration. We have a long time to develop the sound of the film and that’s really great in a film like this. The film is based on still images which means there was no sound with it. We had to create believable sounds for the still images, and do it in a subtle way that would go with the emotions of the story. Having enough time to do something like that was really important and helped us a lot with the creative workload.
Does your role come into play primarily in post-production or are you involved from the start?
For me it’s really important to be a part of the process really early. These directors I’ve worked with, I’m a part of the process from the start from when they’re filming or just coming up with ideas. The same goes with Lauren, her and I know each other well now and we are comfortable talking about the projects. But, of course, the other thing is also that it’s a shame the sound department is coming in at the very last moment and they’re just like there to clean up the sound almost which is so sad because there are all these people who are creatively working with sound.
I feel that the earlier that sound is involved in the process, the more amazing it is, and the more creative it is. Last week I spent one week doing sound designing for a film that is shooting in autumn so we’re doing sounds that are inspiring the photographer, the scriptwriter, and the actors. We are kind of turning around the creative process and its working really well because its a creative way to get inspired to find the right way of doing the movie.
What advice/opinions do you have on doing the type of work you do?
I think it’s really important to as a sound person to really listen. Sometimes as human beings we tend to forget to listen, we hear things but we don’t really listen. I feel that if we were listening more to each other and the world around us, the world would be a better place. I feel that as a sound designer you have to listen, and record a lot of sounds.
If you want to do sound design for movies, then you should watch a lot of movies and really listen to the movies. Find out what your favorite film sounds like and how they are using sounds and approaching sounds. Look at details like how the dialogue sounds and when they use silence and when they use noise. Basically, what kind of sounds they use to get the optimal reaction. For me, my advice is to listen to the world, listen to the movies, listen to a lot of sounds. There is so much inspiration to get.
Do you have any projects you are currently working on?
I have another US documentary I worked on called, The Last Race, which was in competition at Sundance. I’m looking forward to that one. Right now, I’m working on a Danish type of Harry Potter movie, a fantasy film that I’m doing. And then Lauren Greenfield is working on a new film that we will be doing by the end of the year or next year.
Keep up with Peter’s current projects on Twitter!