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Podcast: Coll Anderson on Sound in Documentaries

For documentaries, sound helps tell the honest story.

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Sound designer and mixer Coll Anderson looks at each of his works as a story—from documentaries for the PBS® American Experience series, the HBO® series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, or independent films like Catfish.

“What I try to look at first is story,” Anderson says in a podcast interview with Glenn Kiser, director of the Dolby® Institute. “Story tells me what it has to be.”

“If you’re true to what the film is doing, it’ll sort of give you instructions. There doesn’t need to be a set of rules that affect documentary instead of feature film.”

Though primarily a documentarian, Anderson doesn’t shy away from altering reality to bring the viewer deeper into the story. For example, in a documentary about the Amish, a religious community that is famous for a quiet, rural lifestyle, Anderson edited out the sound of a generator that supplied light in a milking barn.

“It’s very hard to communicate quiet introspection when there’s a 5,000 watt generator running off of propane 20 feet from the camera,” says the sound artist. “It was a lot easier for us to re-create an environment that communicated quiet introspection where we re-created a lot of the sounds that you hear: shoveling snow, the sound of snow falling, train in the distance.”

Although some might argue that this takes away from a scene’s reality, Anderson takes another view. “That’s where sound becomes so fascinating because we can work with ‘us, the viewer’ and let us-the-viewer into the truth that we saw when we started filming in the first place.”

“I’ll take a documentary film and go literally as far as I can in terms of creating what is honest to the story. Does that mean it’s going to be honest to the moment? No, because there’s only one mic overhead. It can’t ‘hear’ my feet, it can’t hear me walk well, it can’t hear my hands in my pockets,” jingling change.

While working on the HBO series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, the filmmakers faced multiple challenges in the bizarre story of a wealthy real estate mogul accused of several murders. Durst tells the filmmakers stories that change over time and in different circumstances. Discussing what Durst claims is reality “becomes the creative impetus for all sorts of sound design,” says Anderson, “in that this is a recalled event by a guy who might not even be telling you the truth. How do we hear it?”

For example, Durst recalls having watched his mother die. But did he really?

To convey the sense of a perhaps faulty memory, director Andrew Jarecki chose to film a reenactment of the death in black and white. Anderson contributed what he calls “little sound moments”: the footfalls of Durst’s father in “this creaky carpeted heavy house, distant little reverb moments” to add a sense of foreboding. And he added the sound of a waterphone, an assemblage of rods set over a water-filled base. When the instrumentalist strikes or bows the rods, the sound reverberates through the watery base, making “a sort of metallic reflection … a painful sound that is almost beautiful.”

Anderson, who has been nominated for an Emmy® award for his work on the sound of The Jinx, loves working with first-time filmmakers, listening to their point of view and suggesting ways to convey the story in sound. “The fundamental thing about first-time directors … is letting their voice come through.”

Listen to the podcast to hear more of Anderson’s reflections on how sound and the subconscious shape the viewer’s experience of the documentary story.

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