The Sound of ‘Winter Brothers’

An Interview with Sound Designer Lars Halvorsen

Professionals working with sound don’t necessarily spend so much time on set but their work is essential, as they help create atmospheres in all kinds of moving images. To learn more about what sound designers do, Cinema Scandinavia sat down with sound designer Lars Halvorsen. Based in Copenhagen, Lars has worked on films such as the award-winning Winter Brothers (Vinterbrødre by Hlynur Pálmason), the sound of which we were pretty hooked on.

Let’s start with the film itself. I must say when I was watching Winter Brothers at the Göteborg Film Festival in January, I could not stop thinking about the sound of it… It was just so distinctive and fitting. Please tell us about the making of it.  

The description of many of the scenes was very detailed in the shooting script; so it was written how loud or quiet they should be. One of them was the opening scene that lasts ten minutes or so. It starts underground, in a cave, and then we found ourselves walking through the factory. It was prescribed in the script, similarly to what you experience in the film: the workers can’t hear themselves, they have to shout, and it’s an excruciatingly loud and unpleasant environment to be in. So we all had these details very early on even before the shooting started. I myself wasn’t part of the team on set, so I asked my field recorder to record as much as he could while being there. I actually started working on the soundscape just by looking for sounds in sound libraries and all that. But it never quite fit the film, so I went back to the factory for two days to record everything I could and used that material to spread across the film.

I must say that, with Hlynur’s films, I’m always introduced to the process early on; he is very sound-minded. For me, his films are more than just a piece of film; it’s like a sculpture in a way. I think he sees that in the same way, and sound is very present for him as well. When he writes a movie, he likes to go to the location (and kind of write them while he’s there) to have that environment speak to him – about the story and the characters. And the sound plays a very big part in it.

I imagine there are various challenges on every occasion when working on the sound of a film. What do you consider the greatest challenge you had to overcome regarding Winter Brothers?

There are always challenges. Concerning this film, I’d say the greatest challenge was making the sound for the underground scenes in the dark. One reason for that is that they didn’t shoot those scenes underground but on the ground during night-time. They created walls and sprayed them with water so that it would look like it was a cave they were in. Therefore, a lot of work went into creating the feeling that they actually were in the cave, and figuring out the architecture of the underground and how you make the audience aware of where they are at all times. The latter was crucial because if you watch the film without sound, it’s all black despite seeing some faces, and you could be really anywhere.

In addition to this, mixing the final (underground) scene turned out to be really challenging. In the script, it said the workers start humming randomly together while working, and that would evolve into a more harmonic piece of singing/chanting. I can’t remember the exact wording of the script but this was the moment when, in a way, they let Simon know he is also out of this community. In written form it’s very poetic and we tried so hard to get the humming to work but, when doing the sound mixing, it was really difficult to have them humming all over that insanely loud machinery. The problem was that we couldn’t possibly have them humming loud enough over the machines and we couldn’t just turn the machines all the way down to make the voices audible because it sounded really fake and would break the sense of realism. So we ended up re-editing the scene differently, without the humming part.

Didn’t you want to go back with the actors, extras to the location to re-record the sounds maybe?

We never planned to re-record the actual extras for the choir scene, but we knew we had to record somehow a composed piece of men’s choir music that would also – because of the scene being in almost total darkness – be the climax of the film. It’s funny how every project has this one scene that keeps being hard to crack, that demands attention from the very beginning to the bitter end. For Winter Brothers, it was definitely this scene.

We had tried recording different groups of voices throughout the editing and also during the sound editing, but nothing seemed to work. Then, three weeks before we were entering the final mixing stage, we heard of this men’s choir of prison inmates called Fangekoret. They were perfect because the last thing we needed was a group of professionally trained singers, and Fangekoret really sounded like a bunch of limestone miners. Like real men having lived a harsh life. It was hard to plan much ahead, because we didn’t know exactly what they were capable of, we just knew we couldn’t possibly hand them composed sheet music in paper form and expect them to start singing. So we had to improvise. And we only had them for an hour. It was actually quite nerve-wracking.

What happened was that we set up the recording in a church with Hlynur listening and keeping an eye and ear on the sound levels, and me directing and conducting the choir, making stuff up as we went along. I started building some harmonies with them and using my arms to gesticulate changes in pitch and volume. A lot of it was totally useless, of course, but two of the takes was totally magic.

You mentioned that Hlynur Pálmason always gives instructions regarding the sound of his films. I’m wondering how you like working with sound. Do you prefer to have a detailed brief or would you rather develop something on your own first and then discuss it with the director?

These two approaches don’t exclude each other. It’s a gift for me when the director is aware of the sound early on. It’s easier to develop a language between each other when there is an obvious ambition that the project also greatly uses sound to tell the story. Some films are not as expressive as Winter Brothers in terms of sound. I’d also say it’s pretty rare that I read about the sound in a script, which is also fine. In that case, I would meet the director and try to have him or her explain to me what the film is about – because I usually have my own interpretation of the story. I’d like them to tell me where they originally come from. This makes me understand the project a bit better because all of these films are personal to them. And if I understand them as people and as artists, it’s easier for me to know where to go with the sound, because when you start a project, you have this infinite number of ways you can go with anything. So the director can narrow it down for me and then I can narrow it down even more. Thanks to this, we are usually in sync pretty early on, which is important to me.

How do you decide which project to yes to?

In theory, there is nothing I wouldn’t work on. I’m not very snobbish in the way that I should only do low-budget art films. There is a challenge in everything – also in romantic comedies. It’s a whole different set of challenges from what we had in Winter Brothers, but I would enjoy overcoming those challenges. However, I’m not really getting approached to do mainstream films. And then there is always a conversation about the budget. In terms of films like Winter Brothers, you always have to really love the film for it to be fun for you because you’re not doing it for the money. You do it because you love it and you want to be part of something great. I think if it was a big commercial project and with the same budget, I’d say no.

You’ve worked on documentaries as well. Does your approach to sound change according to the genre?

You can’t really say anything general about genres because there are so many sub-genres in all of them. For me, there is no difference between documentaries, fiction films and animations. It’s the same work. You still have dialogues to work on, you have to record foley (‘reproduced everyday sounds’), and you have to make sound effects and ambiance. However, I usually find that documentary directors are more open to ideas – maybe because they don’t have such control over the project as fiction film directors have. When it comes to fiction films, you get the idea, it’s written in the script, and everything is planned out. Regarding documentaries, you can only plan what you are going to do but you can’t control as much – a lot depends on your subjects. Sometimes documentaries can be more playful in a way because you’re only asked, ‘What do you want to do?’

Is there any specific genre or sub-genre you would like to make the sound for but you haven’t had the chance so far?

I worked on a Danish thriller titled Cutterhead (directed by Rasmus Kloster Bro) last year. It’s this claustrophobic catastrophe story about being trapped underground. It was a low-budget production so they had to keep the amount of visual and special effects to a minimum. So many of the action sequences had to be told through sound rather than picture, which was really challenging. I’ll be working on a horror film sometime next year, which will be fun, I think.

If I’m not mistaken you work as a freelancer and have your own studio. What has your experience as a freelance sound designer been like so far?

It seems to be a very healthy period of working on films in Copenhagen right now. There are lots of projects around – both smaller and bigger productions for cinema, TV and also for the web. There is always a competition, of course. When you start out, you always do more assistant work and try to get to know people, and slowly you get your own projects. After film school, I started working with Peter Albrechtsen (sound designer, music supervisor and writer); I was his right-hand man, which gave me the opportunity to land bigger projects in Denmark and to build my own network.

You’re an established sound designer so I’d like to hear a few pieces of advice you would give to those who are just starting out in the field.

You have to work on your talent and build your own network. For example, it was a blessing for me to attend a film school. For four years, I could experiment a lot, make lots of mistakes, and I could figure out my weaknesses and then focus on those. So try and learn from other students as well as teachers, and people working in the industry. When you’re working, you cannot experiment so much due to deadlines and budgets. And you also have to arrive somewhere… In film school, you can play around and that is really fun. But what I noticed, especially in the beginning, was that people tend to focus a lot on the sound they want to do. However, when you work on a project, you must think about what sound the film should have and not what sound you’d like to make. And to land projects, you have to build your network. You need to be visible. A lot of times people get the job because someone was like ‘Oh, I remember that guy or girl. He or she was great.’ You can also meet people and say, ‘Hey, can I work for you for free for a week?’ Then you can show what you can do. This worked for me at least.

Reacting to the last part what you’ve just said. What about those who can’t afford to work for free?

For me, that period was before and after film school, when I didn’t have a family, so I could afford to do that. If you can’t work for free, just spread the world. If you don’t know anybody, you have to approach everybody. Look him or her up on Facebook and introduce yourself. To gain experience, you can ask them if it’s possible for you to visit them. And there is always someone out there who wants to find someone to do something for them. I get phone calls almost every week asking, ‘Can you do this next week?’ And I’m like ‘No, I can’t do this next week.’ Luckily, I’m booked a few months in advance. So I think there is stuff there, you just have to let people know who you are and what you can do. So I would emphasise them the importance of networking and building their brand.


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.