26 June 2023
Sound designer Viktor Ekrt (*1975) is having a busy spring, working on the post-production of Brothers and in the middle of shooting Waves. In the former, screenwriter Marek Epstein and director Tomáš Mašín tell the story of the Mašín brothers, the controversial anti-communist resistance figures, while the latter is Jiří Mádl's auteur film about the fight for Czechoslovak Radio during the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Ekrt also teaches at the FAMU sound department.
Interview by Vojtěch Rynda for CZECH FILM / Summer 2023
Do you usually discuss the sound concept of the film with the directors before shooting?
I like to do it when I can, and that's how I teach it at FAMU. We tell the students to discuss the concept with the directors at the script stage, to think audiovisually from the beginning, and to try to find the right approach to the sound together, so that the intended idea can be better incorporated into the shoot.
Do you have an example?
I'm looking forward to working with the archival recordings in Waves. We are planning a scene in which Waldemar Matuška sings at a party with a club band. I have used the latest audio cleaning software to edit an archival recording of this particular song, removing everything but the vocals, i.e., the entire orchestra. Copyright permitting, we will add a much smaller band to this vocal that will also play in the film. This will result in a new recording that will guide the musicians in that scene. That's one of the things that will fundamentally affect the filming.
In Waves you use authentic audio technology from the Sixties. How do you feel about that?
In the Pilsen radio station, where we will also be filming, they have two rooms full of archive equipment, and they will lend us some of it: reel-to-reel tape recorders, old microphones... I'm glad to be familiar with it and able to advise the props people on how to use it. When I was a student, the analog era wasn't quite over yet, so I'm glad I know the equipment.
How has the transition to digital devices and miniaturization affected your work?
With documentaries, the weight of the bag we have to carry around hasn’t changed: we used to carry a heavy Nagra and one microphone, and now we have a smaller recording device, but lots of microports to go with it. With feature films, there's been a dramatic change in the number of recording tracks. Before, everything had to be mixed straight on set into one track, later into two tracks; now we record each microphone and microport separately, and the number of tracks keeps increasing. But, also due to the larger amount of recorded data, the post-processing takes a lot longer.
How did the microports change your work on intimate projects like the documentary Over the Hills or the docuseries Čtyři v tom (Four Pregancies)?
Thanks to microports, we can shoot a more intimate, detailed perspective without our presence being a distraction during filming. A filmed subject forgets that he or she is wearing a small microphone, so we’re able to witness situations previously difficult to capture. On the other hand, the sound produced by a microphone on a pole is still the most beautiful and complex, and we, sound designers, hate to hear that our "cue" is perceived by documentary directors as the most distracting element in a shoot. I still try to use it when it’s ideal, but at the same time I understand that the hairy microphone is often really distracting. I’m always looking for a compromise.
Naturally, I enjoy their diversity. I'm always looking forward to challenging the boundaries of our profession, trying out new techniques, stepping out of my comfort zone. With Mice we were creating an entire fictional world where we needed to find the right balance between a precise, hyper-realistic approach and soulful stylization. Hopefully we got it right; we may have just overdone it with the volume.
The film might be too scary for small children, and we didn't spare them in terms of sound either. We got a bit carried away with our profession, convincing ourselves that Hollywood films don't spare children either, and that today's youth is more resilient and hardened. But then my four-year-old daughter was very frightened. The sound volume in cinemas is a big problem that we have to deal with because we have no control over it. Producers and sound engineers want a "big" sound, which the theater owners have started to muffle, resulting in the sound engineers mixing the sound even louder. It's a vicious circle.
You are also an active musician, having played for 28 years in the band Hm... Does that translate into your work?
My bandmate Mark Doubrava and I even composed the music for the film The Magic Quill. Since then, I have become much humbler about composing and choosing film music. Music, with its ability to evoke emotion, is a particularly powerful tool, and it's not easy to shackle it to the service of a film. And it's not just a matter of composing – the composer has to work with the director, the editor, and the sound engineer; it's a royal discipline.
What are your memories of filming Havel´s Leaving with Václav Havel?
Happy ones. We were all grateful for the chance to share time and space with such a special man.
He was new to the profession, and his insecurities about it clashed with knowing full well what he wanted to show. This contradiction brought about certain comical situations. Mr. President, as we called him, was shy about asking to repeat a shot and praised everyone after the first try. But when, for example, the DoP Jan Malíř encouraged him to voice his reservations, he articulated exactly what was wrong and how he wished it had been done. It was a fun shoot.
Did you have much contact with Miloš Forman while completing the recording of his theater production A Walk Worthwhile?
Miloš Forman was a great professional, and he accurately analyzed the most subtle things that we thought only sound engineers would notice. We would mix a segment, knowing that there were weaknesses in it that we would later have to deal with ourselves, but we thought that Forman, with a cigar in his hand, would not consider such details. But he accurately identified them, and we blushed and were delighted at the same time to be true partners with such a legend.
Is there a sound you particularly like or dislike?
I'm happy when I can use a sound that I've randomly recorded somewhere and then found that it fits a film perfectly. For example, in Mice it's a cricket that I was able to get within five centimeters of in my cottage. I tweaked it, and now it's a mysterious sound in the dark forest.
You have been teaching at FAMU for ten years. How do you look back on that time?
I've reached an age where I'm no longer worried about helping to create my own competition, and I'm excited about what I can offer the students. It gives me great pleasure to see their enthusiasm for learning, without them even realizing that I am also extracting knowledge from them.