I designed atmospheric sound for Pustina – a drama for HBO. The series focuses on dark and unsettling events in a small Czech town
Pustina is a bleak depiction of life in a small Czech town beside a large mine. The town’s inhabitants are moving out as the owners of the mine are buying the land under each house one by one. Suddenly a local teenage girl disappears. This 8 part series follows the town’s inhabitants as they search for the girl while dealing with the massive changes in their community.
My task was to create atmospheres in 5.1 surround for the 8 episodes. Early in the project I discussed the atmospheres with the supervising sound editor. One idea that he was keen to include was to make abrupt changes with the atmosphere during a scene, so that the atmosphere would change with the camera even though we were still in the same location. Usually this is not done; during any scene the location will have its distinct sound which is played continuously (consider the sound of a bar in the real world; the ambient sound is usually a combination of traffic outside, people talking, the drone of the fridges, beer taps and lighting buzz, plus a lot of music; none of this is likely to change while we are in the bar or if we move from one location in the bar to another).
I was also encouraged to emphasize the ugly aspects of the location. The story occurs in a bleak and unwelcoming place in the middle of winter, and the tone of the story dictates that the atmosphere should not sound positive or happy. I was given the task of making the atmospheres dark and unsettling, but without taking this to extremes and drawing too much attention to these sounds. There are many locations in the series; mines, a juvenile delinquent centre, towns, farms, homes, bars and a restaurant beside a petrol station at the edge of town where prostitutes wait for clients.
In the sound mix atmospheres have the role of creating an identity for the locations that the story occurs in. Although they might be lower level in the mix than dialogue, music and sound design they are a key element. They must support the dialogue recordings from the locations, and give the right tone to the location so that the sound design appears to come from a real world.
This project was very challenging because I had two contrasting tasks – the atmosphere should be nasty but not noticeable. Through many iterations I eventually reached an approach that was acceptable to the director, supervising sound editor and mixers. At first I made the sound too aggressive and stark, focusing on irritating electrical buzzes and industrial tones in amongst the more standard location recordings that were recorded on set and in public bars, parks etc. The feedback that I received from the wider audio team on the project was that this was too much. I had made something too stylized at the expense of realism. I had to take it back to something that suggested an unsettling environment without such an exaggerated ‘industrial’ sound. I agreed, and looked to find a way to achieve this.
When creating atmospheres I try to add things that will enhance characters and the story. I love to create atmospheres because you must work with a very broad palette of sounds to create something evocative. With this in mind all seemingly normal sounds gain an extra dimension. For example I used a large variety of wind recordings throughout the series (it’s set in winter) and eventually discovered that particular wind recordings evoked a certain mood and so I used that to get an effect – a whistling wind was great to emphasize mounting tension whereas a rumbling deep wind sound seemed to heighten an aggressive scene when the tension reached boiling point. Atmospheric sound has its own story-telling quality; I love to use it to create a backdrop that makes the story feel like it exists in a world that contains real living people. One of the great aspects of atmospheric sound is that you can suggest the world beyond what the camera shows us – just like in real life our eyes only see what we point them at but our ears are constantly taking in sound from all directions.
This video shows an examples of windy atmospheres in Pustina:
After completing this project I’m proud of the results. I may have shocked my co-workers early in the project as my work was too bold, but I felt this series needed a bold approach. I feel that it’s always easier to start bold and tone it down than to try the opposite.
I’m most proud of some subtle sound design I created in one scene set in the garden of the mother’s house. There are many metal sculptures in the garden created by her eccentric husband (who is presented as a complex man without limits who may even have some responsibility for the disappearance of their daughter). In this scene I added recordings of metal wind chimes (we never see any but i felt it was true to the characters and location). I have often felt that metal wind chimes have a cacophonous, random and slightly unsettling quality which suggests subtle chaos. To me their sound can be beautiful gentle chiming or irritating loud metallic clanking, and the sound of the chimes often rapidly morphs between these two qualities. I felt that these qualities would fit well during this scene; to show the tender caring beauty of the family and the shocking brutal situation they are in.
I also created a sound which evokes both a human scream and the sound of wind whistling through a pipe. This sound appears at the moment we see a metal sculpture of a man who appears to be either in ecstasy or in severe pain. I loved the ambiguity of the object and wanted to heighten it. Luckily the director liked it and left it in the mix! As atmosphere is so much about creating a subtle but evocative backdrop to the story and characters I was glad that I got to work on this great series and give the locations a character of their own.
This is the scene with the wind chimes and statues:
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