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Sadness is My Friend: A Review of the film Adult Life Skills and an Interview with Its Sound Designer Anna Bertmark

The incredibly funny and thoughtful film Adult Life Skills written and directed by Rachel Tunnard is a story about grief, adulthood and friendship – in other words about life in general. Anna is currently coping with the loss of his twin brother in her own way, which might seem rather extreme or unusual from an outsider’s perspective. But one might ask: Can the employment of any kind of personal coping mechanism for grief be regarded extraordinary? Who decides on what extreme means?

Anna’s way is to move into a shed located in her mum’s garden; that was the place where she and her brother played and talked a lot, and also where they produced and acted in humorous short films together. They were inseparable, and since they were twins, the bond between them was much stronger, and therefore his loss probably affected Anna more deeply than it would have affected someone who is not a twin. Researchers, for instance, have examined this issue and came to a conclusion that twins’ grief a bit different than non-twins.

During the Q & A session after the festival screening of the film, Tunnard was talking about the idea behind the film, the research she did regarding the relationship between twins and the opportunity to make this film. Her charming, quirky and delightful personality definitely shines through the screen as well. Adult Life Skills is a dramedy, a black comedy that is leading its viewers out of a labyrinth of emotions while following Anna’s journey through the five steps of grieving.

The ordinary is depicted in a smart way that challenges the viewers’ psyche. Sometimes they might feel they are sitting on an emotional rollercoaster: in one minute they cry, in another they can’t stop laughing. They can really experience life, both the dark and bright side of it. Ups and downs take turns, but under difficult circumstances, friends and family members are always there to help – if they are not hindered to do. Anna personally takes the effort coming from her family members and friends as an attack on her decision and shut them out as long as possible. Luckily, time – and a friendship of a small, troubled boy – can always help.

Rachel Tunnard’s first feature succeeds in creating a struggling, but a joyful journey into adulthood and reminds her viewers that every tiny action matters. Interactions between individuals shape relationships in the long run and laughter can function as a remedy. The message viewers take away from the film is that life is easier if it is full of friends, family members, and funny and awkward events that sometimes happen when one is suffering in misery.

We also interviewed the film’s Swedish sound designer Anna Bertmark, who has been living in Brighton for years now. We asked her about her career, work, and Adult Life Skills, of course.

You mentioned in more interviews that you had decided to study in England because in Sweden there had been only one school located up in the North where you could have taken courses related to music. This was more than a decade ago, a few years before the huge success of Nordic Noir. Do you think the situation has changed since then? Are more schools available to those who are interested in music technology and sound design?

You can find more courses and programmes in music production offered by public or private schools nowadays than 15 years ago when I was looking for one. At Luleå University located up in the North one could enrol in a more mathematical and engineering-based programme, which still exists, and it is great if you want to study engineering, but it’s probably not for everyone. Besides that, individuals interested in this field can find courses and programmes at SAE Institute Stockholm, the University of Gothenburg and the Royal College of Music in Stockholm.

In Sweden education is usually free, but there are schools and programmes for which one has to pay, and obviously this is not an option for everyone. Do you think this creates a problem for people who want to be specialised in sound design to get into the film industry?

I’m sure things have changed quite a bit since I was a student, so I’m not the best-informed about all the possible options for subsidised film schools today, although I believe that the National Film School of Denmark and Stockholm University of the Arts are some of the few. Apart from Scandinavia, I know a few Swedish film-makers who studied at the Polish National Film School in Łódź, and a few directors and film sound practitioners I know studied at the National Film and Television School in the UK, which offers scholarships.

I ended up in the industry following a different path, though. I never actually studied film but instead studied music, and I learnt everything about films and film sound through assisting some great sound practitioners. I can really say that you learn more by assisting someone for a while. Of course, I’m aware it can be tricky to get a job because since the financial crisis there are not as many companies that are specialised in sound. Unfortunately, it’s challenging to offer assistant jobs or internships to people due to the lack of physical space in studios – like in mine. Most of us in the UK who work with film sound are freelancers.

Working as a freelancer is never easy, but I’m wondering what the conditions for freelancers in your field are like.

The only way to become a freelancer is to have the training, to be an assistant for a few years, to really learn the craft and understand not only the technical part of it, but also the social one, and also to meet people to have enough clients. It’s tricky, it’s a catch-22 situation, really. It can be challenging to get into the industry, but you have to know people to be able to make it as a professional. However, I don’t think it’s impossible. If you really want to, you can do it!

I assume you spend quite a lot of time in your studio. Do you follow a routine?

No days are the same! This is why I love my job. As a freelancer, I can control and manage my own time, and I aim at using it in the most effective way. I tend to work on one project at a time, but sometimes they overlap. When you’re planning or reading scripts, you can deal with more than one, but when you actually work on ideas for the sound, it can be distracting to handle two projects or more at the same time. Therefore, some days I might spend more time in the studio, some days not, however, my ultimate goal is to create a balance. I always try to read about new things and to find new inspirations in order to be more useful for future collaborations – and to be better, of course. But I do hope that my commitment to working on longer projects make me stand out among other sound designers.

You’re a Swede living abroad, but today’s world one can easily manage to work for companies/people in different countries. How often do you have the opportunity to work on Swedish (Scandinavian/Nordic) projects?

Besides American, Belgian, English and French productions, I’ve worked on only two Swedish short films so far – on Stefan Constantinescu’s Six Big Fish shot in Romania and on Karolina Brobäck’s animated documentary Seat 26D. The experience was great in both cases. For years I sent out e-mails to producers and directors in Sweden, but it didn’t really work. The industry in Sweden is relatively small, everyone knows everyone, so it’s not that simple to get into the circle as an outsider, meaning for someone who has been living in the UK in the past 15 years. But this is normal. Still, I’d love to work on more Swedish productions in the future for personal reasons – to do something in my native language would mean a lot to me.

The post-production of the film Adult Life Skills directed by Rachel Tunnard was partially done in Sweden, so it’s almost a Swedish film. How did you get attached to the project?

Michael Berliner, the producer of the film, sent me the script three months before the shooting started. I liked it immediately, the writing was fabulous. I could easily identify every character in it, which made me more excited about the project and inspired me a lot. Naturally, I could come up with many ideas in terms of sound, and I shared those with Michael and Rachel. Later we talked via Skype, and I also visited the set to record sounds that are to create a sound library for the film. It’s important for a sound designer to be familiar with the place where the film is set, so you subconsciously get to know the energy of the place, the flavours and the colours sound-wise. I was also really excited about the fact that the director and the head of almost every department were female. That meant a lot to me personally.

Please tell us about what you did exactly when designing the sound for the film.

Regarding stylistic and abstract things Rachel had planned a few things beforehand, which was natural because we talk about a highly dialogue-driven film. In the case of a film like that you don’t want to incorporate so many sounds because you don’t want to interfere with the dialogues. Therefore, I used more atmospheric sounds (e.g. wind, birds, etc.), and I aimed at selecting subtle sounds to add tension to or highlight the quietness and the intimacy of the scene – of course, depending on how emotional the scene was. For instance, in the case of a happy, tension-free scene set on the shore, my only goal was to support that particularly natural scene with sounds.

For the scenes with more tension, I chose different types of ambience with stronger winds and added the clanging halyards (boat’s metal wires attached to the mast) that subconsciously increase anxiety in the soundscape. Also, instead of birdsong I used birds’ warning calls from magpies and blue tits that suit the season. In other cases such as the thumb videos in the film, the goal was to exaggerate the sounds. Even though it might seem that there are not so many things to do or work with, I can always find things to play with emotionally. Generally speaking, all sounds you hear are intentional and planned, and you want them to naturally support the scene they are used in.

You mentioned you went to the set to record sounds with the purpose of creating a sound library for a film. Please talk a bit about sound libraries, because our readers might not know what those are and how sound designers can use them.

There are four main standard sound libraries a sound designer might want to use: Hollywood Edge, Sound Ideas, Digiffects, and the BBC’s sound library. You buy them on a royalty free buyout basis, with a lifetime synchronisation license, so you can use them freely. They’re great, but it’s important to have a varied library. And, of course, all sound designers and editors share sounds that we record ourselves. I tend to use sounds from my sound library to create something unique – some sounds are still waiting to be labelled actually.

I’m wondering if you think there are universal sounds that can be used in many films from horror films to romantic comedies.

I guess so… Film genre fashions go through phases, especially horror films, so you might have so-called cliché sounds people use for a reason, namely because those really work in certain situations: for instance, reverse breath in horror films was used a lot in the recent past. General story clichés are still commonly used like birdsong usually means “things are good”, while distant dog barks are ominous.

In various interviews, you emphasised that the process of sound design depends mainly on time and the size of the budget. Sometimes the lack of money or even time can lead to more creative solutions and results. Have you ever experienced like that, or you think the more time you have and the bigger the budget is, the better ideas you come up with?

Good ideas have nothing to do with how much money you’ve got, good resources help to realise good ideas. Thankfully, good sound ideas rarely need complicated and expensive tools to make them. The good thing about the limited budget is that you’re forced to come up with solutions to problems and learn things you wouldn’t learn otherwise. I’m not saying you should work for free, but when you start out you usually have to work on projects of a limited budget. This way you can learn a lot because you really need to think about what kind of sound you need, and you also need to learn how to use the money the most effectively. Don’t start with the computer, but with pen and paper and the script! This is how I work until today: Before I get the picture from the editor, I always write down my ideas while reading the script.

What is the process like? Do you usually receive the entire film as a whole or rather section after section?

It depends on the film, the genre and the team. In the case of the films I’ve worked on so far, I got 2-3 scenes on every occasion – even those have only gone through the second phase of editing called rough cut. These are mostly the key scenes, and the director needs something specific or wants to try out an idea. This usually happens months or weeks before the editing of the picture is actually finished. I like working on films in which the sound is really important and I have time to try things out early on, because then you don’t need to rush it after the editing is finished. I don’t necessarily get the exact duration of the film, but by the time they’ll send me the entire film, I’ll have probably seen all the scenes, so I’m very familiar with material. I try to spend as much time as possible to work on the film. I also communicate with the editor and the director regularly, and I’m usually in touch with the composer with whom I share ideas and discuss how the soundtrack and sound effects could be integrated into the film.

You suggested that pen and paper are the best tools to launch a project. What programs, equipment and tools do you use during your work?

I use Pro Tools, Nuendo, and Soundminer, which is a kind of software you can use to search in sound libraries. Sometimes I use Conformalizer to recut the sound if there is a new version of the film. I also use Isotope to clean up dialogues, and a couple of other plug-ins, but really not much else. I try not to process with things too much. It also depends on the film I’m working on, but I tend to create (weird) effects by layering up different kinds of sounds.

Related to the way in which you find inspiration. Are there many media outlets you can turn to, such as magazines, books for sound designers?

Not really, I think it’s really difficult to write about sound design because it’s very abstract and you can’t see it; film is a visual medium, so it’s much easier to write about the look of things. Having said that, there are a few magazines focusing on tools and equipment, but not specifically on the actual job, and sound as an art and the process of designing it. I might be wrong, though. I know about several podcasts you can listen to, and there are pretty good resources out there about the latest developments and how people work. It’s a friendly community and people like sharing. Even though you read about how someone did something, your piece will always sound different. Everyone works slightly differently, which makes everyone unique in a sense, and that is absolutely exciting.

That is a great way to look at other people’s work. I’m wondering, though, whether a sound designer can make any kind of mistakes. And if so, what are the most typical ones?

I don’t know! I think everyone you ask has a different answer to this question. I’d say when the sound is noticeable when it takes you out of the story, it can be considered a mistake, but it rarely happens to be the case nowadays, because everyone is really good, and quality control is involved in the project, especially if it’s a TV production. For instance, the sound has to be clean, and the audience has to understand the story. Creatively speaking, I cannot really say there is something called mistake, because sound is a form of art.

Artists tend to have a unique style, and you also argued that in a sense everyone is unique who works with sound. Does a sound designer cultivate a style while working in the field for a long time?

I think you can, but it takes a while to figure out what it is. It depends on what films you are attracted to, wants to work on, and spend the most time on. The films I like to work on are the films I’d love to see myself.

You pointed out several times in previous interviews that only a small number of female sound designers work in the business. As you said, this number is constantly increasing, and luckily this is also true concerning other areas of the film industry. During the Q&A session, Rachel also explained to the audience that she was at the right place in the right time to receive funds for her film since they were looking for a female director who was planning to direct a comedy. These initiatives are absolutely great, however, it shouldn’t be like that. Why do you think female film-makers have fewer opportunities?

It’s a really good question, and it’s really tricky to answer to it. People – depending on their experiences – probably have different answers to it. I personally think it’s the combination of unconscious bias and the lack of references women have. In film schools, gender equality exists, but ten years after graduation you might look at the numbers and see the decreased number of women working in the industry. So the real challenge for women is how to become and stay relevant and improve in an industry where men are the majority and they are the ones who are employed more often, who win the awards and get recognised by the public. There are initiatives in the UK and Canada as well to finally achieve gender equality in the film industry.

Last November we organised a 3-day-long sound symposium here in Brighton, The Sound Of Story, where, amongst workshops and talks by some of the most interesting sound professionals and artists working today, one day was dedicated just to emerging women in sound. We also started a mentoring scheme with the participation of twelve women, who are studying in film school or are at the beginning of their career, to supply them with a mentor for a few months that will hopefully make a difference. It might take longer for the film industry to catch up with other areas in terms of gender-balance, but I do believe things are getting better.

You seem like a busy woman who not only designs sounds but also organises events for sound designers to meet and learn. What are you up to now?

I’m currently working on a thriller set in Kolkata, India, which is creatively challenging and has a great team. I went out there for a few days last year and recorded a sound library for the film, which was an amazing experience. Also recently, a film I did the sound design for, Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country, won the World Cinema Dramatic Directing Award at Sundance in January and is having its European premiere in Berlin, so it’s great to follow its global success. I rarely know what’s around the corner, but that’s the nature of the job and what keeps it exciting and fulfilling. It’s my dream job for sure!

CategoriesIssue 18
Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.