The sound design of Kon-Tiki

We talk to three-time Amanda Award-winning sound designer Tormod Ringes about his work on Kon-Tiki and the growing Norwegian film industry.

How did you get started in the industry?

After film school I had an internship with a great Norwegian sound designer, Jan Lindvik. He got me going early on as a sound editor on Norwegian feature films and the first big one I worked on was the Oscar nominated Søndags Engler [The Other Side of Sunday]. I worked with him for about 10 years before I began working with other companies that later became very successful in feature film and advertising.

With the success of films such as Kon Tiki, which was nominated for both an Oscar and Golden Globe last year, where do you see the Norwegian film industry going?

It is a very exciting time for both Norwegian and Scandinavian film. Several of the feature films I have worked on have garnered success abroad. It used to be very rare that our films had either been seen or heard about beyond the Norwegian border but now we see more and more cross-border co-productions between the Scandinavian countries. They also have larger budgets as a result of larger audiences. I think films like Kon-Tiki helped other productions reach out into the world and raised the bar on the quality of filmmakers here in Norway.

Speaking of Kon Tiki, tell me about creating the sonic landscape of the film. What sort of ‘sound story’ were you trying to tell?

We started early in the production to create a separate soundscape for Kon-Tiki and had discussions that [the raft] needed its own indigenous voice and therefore the composer, Johan Søderqvist, made many different recordings using conch shells because they sound like the oldest instrument in the world. We also made recordings with several other ethnic instruments in order to produce a soundscape that blended well with the overall sound design.

For us it was important to work subjectively with the sound design. We always wanted to work with how Thor and the rest of his crew experienced and felt about the situation they were in by creating a sort of hyperrealism. Due to the fact that almost all sound was exchanged, we were able to work on the small details, select what was to be heard and often amplify the tiniest sound in order to create a subjective realism. In going beyond reality and trying to give a subjective experience driven by the different characters’ states of mind, it made it possible to substantiate and drive the story (i.e. when removing the sounds of squeaks and water, other sounds will come forward like a sort of extreme realism). All of a sudden one can hear breathing, or a cigarette ember that will describe that perhaps things are not in order.

We had discussions early on with the directors about making the raft as a character of its own in the film. Like everyone else, both on screen and in real life, the raft also changed during the 101 days they were at sea. We adapted this notion to the story’s development so that the raft eventually became more wilful and the crew became more and more captive under its influence.

So the raft’s actual sound changes from a tight, well-tied raft, to a looser, creaking tumble of logs. In essence, the raft took on its own soul and had its own mood.

How did you go about defining the sound of the raft?

Basically, we had some sound recordings taken from the shoot at sea, so we did have some sort of documentation on how the raft actually sounded. Based on that, we were able to make a whole variety of raft noises/sounds. With this sound library, we were able to make the sound design a subjective point of view of the characters on board and how they evolved during the voyage under the influence of the raft, and not just the raft itself. We ended up building the whole soundscape of the raft from the very beginning and used very little of the production-sound from set.

Besides recording all sorts of sounds from waves to storms, we made all the movements, creaks, ropes, sail, and not to mention the roof of the cabin. This enabled us to make some sort of geographic placement on a relatively small area, by laying specific sounds in specific channels.

What were some of the other major concerns on the audio side?

For Kon-Tiki, we were very concerned about dynamics. In some scenes we go large with lots of sound, but it was also important to have the courage to use nothing. Silence is incredibly powerful and instrumental in the film’s sound.

Kon-Tiki is in many ways an ensemble cast where the ship’s crew is ‘trapped’ on this little raft. With the use of sound, and the absence of it, we can create a claustrophobic experience on the raft itself, while at the same time the ocean can seem infinitely large.

In one scene where the whale shark is approaching the raft dead-on, we built the scene with lots of sound and tension along with the score. But then the whale shark takes a dive and we view it underwater as it floats under the raft. We tried a lot of different sounds to make the whale shark feel big, but realised that going quiet with a few clicking sounds and bubbles made the whale shark feel gigantic.
Both the directors and we wanted to work with the dialogue inspired by ‘New Hollywood’ films. To bring out the ‘documentarian’ and realism we put a lot of effort in placing the dialogue in the mix according to picture a little more than what is common today.

We worked a lot on the perspective and placement, even on the raft. That added a lot of life and dynamics to the story, and we could often tie together several other storylines by choosing where to focus. Much of the inspiration for that came from Robert Altman’s MASH (1970), which was shot with big epic pictures where the sound had to decide what was in focus, often with the dialogue overlapping. Also, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) for its dialogue and the radio sequences among other films from that era.

How closely did you work with directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg?

Baard [Haugan Ingebretsen], who I shared the sound design job with, and I have worked with Espen and Joachim since their first short film and previously on Max Manus. We design a lot of sound during editing and start early on with the whole soundscape in total, including the music. I became the middleman, or link, between the composer Johan Søderqvist and the production team.

It was important to create a soundtrack, a combination of music and sound effects, that would function as an emotional unit, with the aim of making the audience not know where one started and the other ended. Using Skype for daily discussions, we collaborated on cues and sound design concepts before I would show the sketches to the two directors.

What upcoming projects do you have planned for the New Year?

I have already begun work on a feature film called Beatles. It’s an adaption of a well-known Norwegian coming-of-age novel. We are very lucky to have obtained licenses to many of the great Beatles songs and we will record all the music next to Abbey Road Studios. I am also in negotiations regarding a large-scale Hollywood production that possibly could be in post production in 2015, so the future looks bright!