by Vinny Alfano
Learn about Jacob Ribicoff's long-time collaboration with filmmaker Ken Burns, and how he approached creating the Emmy-nominated sound for both The Vietnam War and Fahrenheit 451.
Since starting his audio post career in the early '90s, Jacob Ribicoff has had quite the successful journey – amassing an Emmy win, seven Emmy nominations, a C.A.S. nomination, one MPSE award and three MPSE nominations. He's known for his work on 2001's Jazz, 2003's School Of Rock, 2007's The War, and most recently both Fahrenheit 451 and The Vietnam War which earned him two Emmy nominations.
We had the opportunity to speak with Jacob about his start in the audio post production world, his decades-long collaboration with filmmaker Ken Burns, his go-to audio tools, impressing Roger Waters with sound design and more.
Could you describe how you began working with Ken Burns?
Jacob Ribicoff: With Ken Burns, it starts all the way back at The Civil War and before I ever got into the business of doing what I do as sound designer, sound editor, sound effects editor, mixer, and all that. I was just a regular civilian and tuned into The Civil War series as it aired for the first time. The thing that caught my ear and my imagination immediately watching that on television was these amazing civil war photographs. Let's just say you see a photograph of a battlefield after a battle with the bodies strewn across the field. And suddenly you're hearing a bird or something, and it's morning. It was so evocative to me through a few well-placed sounds how it intensified the degree to which I felt like I was there. Sitting in my living room watching this on TV, experiencing these photographs come to life, the evocation was very strong for me. So it was at that point I had become interested in sound.
Is that how you were first introduced to the process of audio post production?
Yes, I was aware that there were people out there called sound editors, but I had no idea that that was a career one might be able to have. It was very inspirational for me watching The Civil War and beginning to realize you could do amazing things with sounds as opposed to music; that you could use sounds in such a way that would really place a listener or viewer in a location, in a mood, or even emotionally get them to feel a certain way.
"Sound works on a subconscious emotional level in a way that image doesn't. To have that opportunity to tell stories with sound, I think that's probably the highest call that I could possibly imagine."
What was the process like designing and editing the sounds for The Vietnam War?
On Vietnam we had a recording session about two or three days long where we were able to bring in a group of Vietnamese folks who varied in age, and we played scenes for them. Everything from very quiet scenes, whispering in a jungle setting to the fall of Saigon where it was just bedlam, and chaos, and hysteria. We did single voices, we did groups, and that stuff was like gold for us, because it was real. We were able to take that and mix it very low into the backgrounds. Using a little bit of foley for whenever we see somebody walking through a muddy rice patty, or a soldier handling their gun, with the combination of the voices worked out really well.
When I started working with Ken's company, Florentine Films, on that first job, The West, they introduced me to their library. Their library had so much, I can't even tell you where it all comes from. It all had this grainy, low-fi, narrow bandwidth character to it. We found very quickly you will never be using this stuff for any other job, but I was taught and I learned that this stuff was amazing when you put it on top of a piece of, either a photograph or archival footage that might have no sound or might be a newscaster talking over the images anyway. You could drop that stuff over those images, and then, boom, presto, it's like, "Wow. That's exactly right, and it feels great." It's amazing what it does. It's like just at the snap of a finger you're there, you're suddenly there.
There's the aesthetic side of that and the technical side of that. Certainly there's the equipment we use, Pro Tools, and the plugins, and things like that. That's always changing, especially the plugins, especially a plugin like iZotope RX where they've come up with just these incredible ways of being able to clean sound, and even get the natural room echo out of a recording. I've used that on Vietnam on voices where maybe I had someone in a room yelling and screaming or something, but suddenly it calls for that voice to be outside. Because I didn't care so much if it was degraded a little bit, in fact if it was degraded a little bit it actually made it more effective, I could hit that voice with the De-Reverb and suddenly there it is, it's an exterior voice, there's this in and out quality, and it's great. It's actually working better. That would be one example of using something that's relatively new in terms of technology.
One thing that just comes to mind is the sound design I did on Roger Waters' The Wall concert documentary which we mixed in Atmos. Unfortunately it wasn't shown very much in Atmos, there was a one day release all over the world, and then the movie went to DVD. In between some of the songs you see footage of Roger going back to visit the grave sites of his father and his grandfather who both died in different wars. Grandfather in World War I, and his father in World War II. He goes back to visit those sites and it's very emotional. He's driving to get to those sites, and he's driving this beautiful 1960 Bentley, and he's on the Italian coast. There's a surreal device that's used where he's talking to someone who might be in the backseat, then he turns around and the person's suddenly not there. And then he turns back and it's maybe a friend of his, and then he turns back and it's his family, his kids are there.
What was it like working on Fahrenheit 451?
It was another amazing process where, in a short schedule with not a lot of lead time to research or what have you, I had a large crew. It was not just me doing everything, but I did spend a lot of time coming up with ideas and sharing them with other sound effects editors and sound designers and then everyone pulled together as a team. It was truly a great experience, everyone did such an amazing job on that. We really tried to personify some of the sounds, for example, the flame thrower sounds. It's the fire and the flames that in its evil way consumes the books that are being burned and, by extension, the soul and the culture that's conveyed and the humanity that's conveyed through those books and other forms of media.
“I think anyone who gets these kinds of nominations probably agrees that we work hard one project to the next - we don't skimp on any project, and you're giving them equal amount of your creative spirit, mind, time, energy and everything…It's great because you just take it as an acknowledgment of all the work that you've been doing and will continue to do anyway.”
It's definitely gratifying to get those nominations… and it's a bit random. I think anyone who gets these kinds of nominations probably agrees that we work hard one project to the next - we don't skimp on any project, and you're giving them equal amount of your creative spirit, mind, time, energy and everything. And then all of a sudden, for whatever reason, maybe because they're popular across the board in terms of just the film itself, it's positioned so that it gets a nomination. It's great because you just take it as an acknowledgment of all the work that you've been doing and will continue to do anyway. You're gonna keep on doing the same job next year, the year after that, as you did ten years ago when you weren't gonna get anywhere near being nominated for anything.
Where one would hope that a nomination helps you is to bring you to the attention of other filmmakers when it's time for someone to tell their story and they want to create a unique soundscape. I would hope that they would know who I am and give me that opportunity to try and do that along with them because that's what it's about. In the end, it's about storytelling and bringing the story through the whole language of movie making. It's bringing the story as deeply to the viewer as possible. Sound works on a subconscious emotional level in a way that image doesn't. To have that opportunity to tell stories with sound, I think that's probably the highest call that I could possibly imagine.
Amen to that!