BEHIND THE SOUND: Dystopian Neglect in 'Strays'
At 344 Audio we like to provide carefully crafted Sound Design, even with tight deadlines. For Strays, we built a lo-fi soundtrack to compliment this Northern British Dystopia.
The Spotting Session
After multiple conversations with Director Aaron Dunleavy, and providing Sound Effects/Design on his previous film 'The Truants', it was a clear progression to approach a project that harnessed his lo-fi, no frills vision of Northern England. That project is Strays, part of Random Acts Centre North's production programme - a joint initiative between Arts Council England and Channel 4.
The film has themes of survival, abandonment and child exploration without boundaries (for better or worse). Children have taken over a street (and seemingly the neighbourhood), with no rules or discipline to stop their dark imaginations running wild. Aaron made it clear that because the film was completely mute at the editing stage, the Sound Design would make or break the audience's perception of this forgotten terraced block.
With a big passion for sound in his filmmaking process, it was clear that Aaron needed to capture the essence of the locations while shooting. Bringing a Sound Recordist on board to record sound effects meant that the final process was not only quicker, but also felt more authentic to the Blackburn based set. We edited these sounds to use for both their intended purpose, and in new ventures - such as turning a hair trimmer into a transitional element:
Most of all Aaron allowed us to roam free, confident in our mutual understanding from previous projects. He gave us references from video games, films and real life objects to describe the sounds he envisioned. Because of the children's struggle for survival, there was an almost predatory element in both the film's editing and in the vision for the Final Mix.
Sound Design, Foley
Dialogue in the film is minimal, but often a gateway to off screen action not entirely described by the visuals alone. The sound of children playing in the foreground, and an almost subconscious sound of distant adult screams, suggests an awful anti-paradise which draws you in.
The Sound Design had to have a musical element and rhythm which flowed with the haunting slow motion of the entire piece. It had to be time stretched and pitched, so that washing clothes in sinks, or even blabber from a baby felt like naturally recorded sync sound. This all was combined with the stunning music offered up by the ever eclectic Slomo. Disturbing guitar drones blended well with our harsh feedback effects, microscopic audio fragments and precise music editorial.
We are introduced to the world with establishing shots, and sounds that are equally reminiscent of the film's world. Wind through the bushes foreshadows emptiness, while seagulls fly by, almost trying to evade impending danger. The interior shots of the film are riddled with industrial sounds, reflecting revolutions of the past in this part of the world.
Our custom recordings of Northern British towns and rural areas, combined with the wild tracks recorded on set, gave us plenty of material to build an immersive soundscape. The use of certain eagle sounds suggest that wildlife has commuted from Scotland and the Moors, a great way to express the predatory element mentioned in the spotting session. We also used ethnic instruments to punctuate moments where the children showed their primal instincts.
Many interesting things occur beyond this point in the film, which we can't give away, but the film closes with quite a crucial sound effect. The combination of static and harsh electronic squeals rises from the lo-fi effects we used, and closes the piece almost as if a busted old television is switching off.
Strays was mixed in stereo for broadcast delivery, but due to the lack of dialogue and experimental nature, there was lots of discussion with Aaron to keep the mix as fluid and natural as possible while still meeting the specifications.
It was crucial with this mix to retain clarity but give an unpolished, disused feel. The flow of volume, panning and frequency balance of the Sound Design had to weave around the music to help elements cut through. We added vinyl crackle, tape noise and other audio dirt, which also enhanced Aaron's characteristic colour grade and film grain. By mixing these low in the soundscape, it gives off a feeling that something isn't quite right, that we are watching this world through a lens.
It was a pleasure to work on Strays, and explore new audio techniques that we hadn't seen used before to tell a story. No doubt there will be more to come from Aaron Dunleavy and 344 Audio in the future.
Strays is currently on the festival circuit, recently achieving an official selection at the BAFTA and Oscar® qualifying Encounters Short Film Festival in Bristol, the UK’s leading short film and animation festival. The film is also currently touring the UK as part of the Random Acts Playback Festival; a showcase of short films screening at venues throughout the country and finishing at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. The film was recently acquired by Channel 4 and will be showcased on the Random Acts website towards the end of the year.