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Pro Sound Effects Blog

The importance of sound in documentaries with Peter Albrechtsen

Peter Albrechtsen

Discover how Peter Albrechtsen took a subtle yet detailed approach to craft the sound of the new documentary, Generation Wealth.

Peter Albrechtsen is a Copenhagen-based sound artist with an impressive list of credits for both feature films and documentaries including the 2017 Academy Award®-winner for Best Sound Mixing, Dunkirk (sound effects recording mixer), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (sound effects editor), and The Last Race (re-recording mixer, sound designer, supervising sound editor) which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

We had the chance to catch up with Peter about his recent work as sound designer and supervising sound editor on the new documentary from Amazon Studios, Generation Wealth. Learn how he used sound to complement the film's unique visual approach and why he thinks precision helps spotlight the story.

Images from film courtesy of Amazon Studios

What is your philosophy for mixing documentaries?

Peter Albrechtsen: For me there is not much of a difference between a fiction film and a documentary film. I feel that the way documentaries often approach storytelling and the way they approach the visual part of the film gives sound a lot of opportunities. So much of this film is based on [Director] Lauren Greenfield's amazing still photography, but it is still photography. There is no sound, and for something like that we needed to create the whole soundtrack. There are some more classic interviews and there is some archived video material but there are also a lot of still images that we needed to figure out how to create a sonic identity. That took a lot of experimentation and playing around with sounds. There are actually a lot of layers of sounds in Generation Wealth, but hopefully the viewer will not think of it like that when they watch.

How would you describe the sound elements that you provided for this documentary?

The idea is to make the sound feel very natural and subtle and really underscore the storytelling. There is quite a lot of sound in this film. It was a very different approach from other documentaries because of all these still images. Jeff Beal, who was the composer of the film, wrote a really great score which I then built my sounds around. I pitched my sound effects and cut them into rhythms so they fit with his music. Music and sound are very closely integrated in this film.

"There is quite a lot of Foley in the film where we accentuated small details to give a sense of intimacy. When you have these small Foley sounds, they make you come closer to the characters."

Peter Albrechtsen
Photo credit: Povl Thomsen

Do you find yourself going to different sound libraries for a documentary versus something more cinematic?

I am usually involved with these projects very early on, so I always try to record sounds for each movie that I do. For Generation Wealth, I started recording sounds about half a year before we were mixing, so it was a long process. Not that I have been working on the film for six consecutive months, but it was slowly developing. This also meant that we had time to record a lot of different sounds and also get a hold of a lot of different sound libraries.

The film required a lot of different sounds because it takes place in several countries around the world – all the way from Moscow to China, even all around the U.S. – and we needed specific sounds for all these different environments. I spent a lot of time just getting a hold of different recordings from around the globe, but it has become so much easier now with the internet. I feel we are much more closely connected in the sound community which enables us to help each other out.

Where exactly did you go to record or collect sounds?

It is a very personal film for Lauren Greenfield, so I went to her own photo library/lab in L.A. and recorded the equipment there. The equipment in the film is the actual equipment, all the different things you see like the cameras and so on, it is all rerecorded and cut in. We spent a lot of time on getting some great recordings that are fresh for the film and feels right for the story.

"[Director Lauren Greenfield] has a wonderful eye for all these visual details. In the mix, she is also super focused about the sound and diving into small details. It really enhances the images and it really drives the film in many ways."

lauren-greenfield-generation-wealth
Lauren Greenfield photographs in the Presidential Suite at the Burj Al Arab hotel, Dubai, UAE, 2009

What was your approach for the mix of this film?

It took a lot of experimentation, trying out things and finding the balance of how much sound to add for the photos and also finding the right style. The mixer was Pete Horner from Skywalker so we were in good hands (we also mixed at Skywalker). Pete is just like me – he has a musical background. We approached the sound in a very musical way and tried to give the film a very musical flow.

In that sense it is so great working with him. We also collaborated on Lauren's previous future length doc, The Queen of Versailles, so it was really nice doing it again and working at the Skywalker Ranch to mix. We spent some time in Copenhagen and then came to L.A. for a week and a half being with Lauren and going through the music together with the sounds and all the elements of the mix. Then I went back home, did some more editing, and I came back for the mix which was a little more than a week. Pete did a dialogue premix for a week, and then we finally mixed for a week together at the Ranch.

It was a process where we were comfortably developing things. There is quite a lot of Foley in the film where we accentuated small details to give a sense of intimacy. When you have these small Foley sounds, they make you come closer to the characters. It really means a lot for a film like this because the whole thing comes alive in a really great way.

How did this process compare to other projects of yours like Dunkirk or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo?

For Dunkirk, I recorded some boat sounds that [Sound Designer & Supervising Sound Editor] Richard King was not able to record in the U.S. because these boats do not exist anymore. That whole idea of being very precise about every detail...I mean coming from thousands of miles away to record a boat? That kind of detail is something that I really like. Just thinking about being so precise with your sounds and really thinking about every sound is telling a story.

Generation Wealth is a much more subtle film, and it has a much more real feel. A film like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is such a real life drama, almost like an action movie in certain spots. It has a lot of different sound effects pumping it up in a way. In Generation Wealth, we had to pick and choose sounds and then make sure that every sound was right for the moment.

Now and then I actually think about the old rule of only using two or three sounds at a time. Generation Wealth has several layers going on but it also has a way of feeling so natural and homogeneous and keeping a very organic flow. It's important for Lauren, the director, that that sound is supporting the photos and she is really into all the details. I mean, she, as a still photographer, is amazing. She has this wonderful eye for all these visual details. In the mix, she is also super focused about the sound and diving into small details. It really enhances the images and it really drives the film in many ways.

"It took a lot of experimentation, trying out things and finding the balance of how much sound to add for the photos and also finding the right style…We approached the sound in a very musical way and tried to give the film a very musical flow."

Generation Wealth

Is there anything else you want to share about your experience working on this film?

It is amazing working with the people at the Skywalker Ranch. It is such a beautiful place with a lot of brilliant people. Making that possible was one great thing about this film – being able to mix it there was really a privilege.

Having a very close collaboration with a director who is really interested in sound is also a privilege. Sometimes when people shoot a documentary, they just put a mic on whoever is talking and then just set up the camera and… you get a little bit of rustling around (laughs). But Lauren really, I mean she brings a strong production sound. Sound is important for her. That also really helps when cutting the film, sound effects, and dialogue. It's great when things are done properly from the very beginning. It was a really wonderful collaboration and the trust that Lauren has is terrific and very inspiring.

peter-albrechtsen-plant


Thanks to Vinny Alfano for conducting this interview, and to Peter Albrechtsen for participating!

Follow Peter Albrechtsen:
Twitter: @lydrummet

Follow Vinny Alfano:
Twitter: @VinnyAlfano
Website: vinnyalfano.com