Sound design for prison: Michel Wenzer

Tom Allan is a multmedia journalist into environment, social issues, and community. He has worked for the BBC, the Guardian, FSRN, PRI, and Leith FM. This is his account of the masterclass with Michel Wenzer at the Scottish Documentary Institute, originally published on the Radio Doc Blog.

On Friday I attended a sound design masterclass with Swedish film maker and composer Michel Wenzer. Earlier in the week I’d seen Wenzer’s film At Night I Fly at the GFT in Glasgow, as part of the Glasgow Film Festival. Ten years in the making, it depicted life in New Fulsom jail, a super-max prison in California. The film had a particular focus upon a group of prisoners participating in an "Arts in Correction" program.

Michel’s route into filmmaking was unconventional – he has been a truck driver in Bosnia where he began to develop an interest in still photography, taking images of soldiers. Returning to Sweden, he wanted to get more involved in the arts, and he would have gone to art college in New York, but he wasn’t able to afford it. Ultimately he trained as a composer, and sound and music are still central to how he constructs his films, particularly his early shorts about the prisoners, and for this reason I’m going to focus on these in this blog post.

The starting point for the films was a prisoner and a poet of some renown called Spoon Jackson. Gaining access to a maximum security prison in the US is extremely difficult, so Michel recorded telephone conversations with Spoon, in which he would recite his poetry down the line, and mixed them with Super 8 footage from the Mojave Desert, which is where Spoon Jackson comes from.There are some shots of prison cells and the outside of a prison in the film, but perhaps the principal images are from some train tracks as a train speeds overhead, repeated patterns of wind turbines on hillsides, and a bird flying.

The recordings of Spoon down the phone are striking but sometimes hard to hear, partly because of the quality of the phone line, partly because of the many automated interruptions. Spoon’s poems are regularly interrupted by a recorded voice reminding the listener that the call is from a prisoner in a “California Correctional Facility,” and by beeps and interruptions telling the caller how much time is left on the line. But this doesn’t really detract from the impression. Snatches of meaning emerge from the poems, words, themes and above all the rhythm of the poetry, whilst the clicks and beeps and interruptions remind you  (and presumably Spoon) of the cold, hard reality of the fact that this poet is behind bars. His poetry is being audio water-marked to show that it has come from a jail.

[The recordings strongly reminded me of Mumia Abu Jamal's audio commentaries from death row - check them out.]

Other layers of sound are added to the mix – music and the ambient sound of the train, particularly as it first rushes over our heads. Although the sound is then faded down, the rhythm of the train remains – perhaps just because we are seeing the carriages whistling overhead, or perhaps because the sound is still there but very low.

Footage: Albin Höglund. Image: Rick Misener

As one person in the audience yesterday noted, the audio track could have stood alone as a piece of art or a piece of radio, and indeed Michel said that he actually built the sound track first and then looked for the footage that would best fit it. This reminded me somewhat of the approach I’ve taken in the past to audio slideshows, where the focus is on the audio first and foremost, and then on the images that might complement it. Michel’s approach though allows for a new synthesis, because the links between the sounds and the images are so abstract, and because, unlike still photos, they bring new sounds with them, which are then added to the audio mix.

Sound had a more subtle presence in his feature length documentary At Night I Fly. The whole mood of the film was deliberately understated. Wenzer wanted to depict the reality of the prisoners lives in a super max facility without the gloss and glamour of many prison documentaries. But he told us that there was still a great deal of attention to the sound. Michel acted as the sound recordist whilst shooting, and recorded constantly whilst in the prison. In post-production, he worked with a trusted folley artist, and used created an ambient “character” for each different location in the film. Often the effect is so subtle that you would assume that the recorded sound is just ordinary background ambient, but the impressions of wind in open space, the sounds of prison guard intercoms, the rustle of fans, all make an impression.

Michel still works as a composer, and it seems to be a great advantage to be able to create your own music compositions tailored to the mood and movements of your documentary. For me, it’s another reminder that in moving towards documentary it makes sense to start looking for good people to collaborate with with different skills. Coming from the background of a one-man-band radio journalist, the idea of working with a team is both exciting and a little daunting!

Michel’s own comment on this was that it’s hard to find people you trust your work with. And if you do manage to find them? Hold onto them.