22 July 2019
When sound engineer Jakub Čech first started out, he could take all the equipment he needed with him on a tram. Nowadays he needs a van, and for Tobruk he had to get 200 kilograms of equipment into the desert.
Interview by Vojtěch Rynda for Czech Film Magazine / Summer 2019
Now that he’s gained experience in every aspect of soundcraft, he’s looking forward to going back on set, though he still enjoys the silence of trails in the wilderness.
You’ve won six Czech Lions. Nobody working in any other branch of film could win that many awards, right?
In our branch of the industry, the important thing is what kind of film you’re working on. If you’re making a war film, there’s a good chance someone will notice the sound. A drama with four people chatting at a table might actually be more difficult in terms of sound design, but it doesn’t have the same impact on the viewer. Our profession is pretty thankless, so I don’t attach too much value to awards.
You’ve worked on war dramas with Václav Marhoul, conversational films with David Ondříček, children’s movies with Jan Svěrák. Which genre appeals to you the most?
I enjoy variety. I would get bored if I always worked on just one genre. I like challenges, difficult shoots. Marhoul’s Tobruk, for example, was logistically tough. Being out in the desert for three months, whatever you didn’t bring with you, you just didn’t have. Ondříček and I are working on Zatopek now, which has athletes in sleeveless shirts chatting as they run. That will be tough to shoot. On Svěrák’s Three Brothers, which is a children’s musical, we had to invent technology to allow the actors to sing live. I don’t think I would enjoy filming an endless series, where you’re always doing the same thing.
People who don’t know any better probably think that you can get by with a boom, a mic, and a tape recorder.
And headphones. I actually did when I started out, 17 years ago. I didn’t need anything else, and we adapted the shooting method accordingly. For instance, there was much more postproduction sound engineering. Nowadays crews are used to each actor having their own wireless microphone, but at FAMU I learned to record everything on a single mike, and if that wasn’t possible, then on a single mike, and if there was absolutely no alternative, then also on a single mike. I normally bring seven or eight.
How big of a change was digital technology?
When I was starting out, the dialog track was used pretty much the way it was recorded and it was just cut to fit. Nowadays every actor and every microphone is recorded separately on separate tracks, then the tracks are cleaned up by editors, and then the dialog is mixed together. The principles of audio are the same as they were 30 years ago, but the demands on sound are greater. It used to be that a lot of the time it was enough to just set up the sound equipment. Now it’s more a method of narration itself: You’re building multiple sound levels, using audio motifs for individual characters.
Like the specific rhythm of someone’s gait, puffing on a pipe. You don’t even have to see the character to know they’re there. Or you use sound to reach the viewer’s subconscious. Like in Svěrák’s Empties, for example, the Tkalouns have an important argument in the kitchen, where the wife complains to her husband that he’s always off somewhere so he won’t have to spend his “peaceful” retirement with her. At the same time, on the other side of the wall, someone is practicing scales on a piano and they’re making mistakes. It gets on your nerves, but subconsciously. We played the scene for people, asking if they minded the piano behind the dialogue, and they said they didn’t even notice it.
Another director you’ve worked with repeatedly is David Ondříček. But you didn’t work on Dukla 61, which must have been interesting sound-wise, with its coal mining setting. Were you disappointed?
I was, but it overlapped with The Painted Bird, which I had already promised to do. I realize more and more that you have to be humble in what you do. When I started out, the sound man generally worked with a film from start to finish. That’s not the case today. Things develop so quickly and technology gets so advanced that one person can’t do all the phases of sound production equally well. They have to specialize and teams of sound specialists emerge. I might regret not doing a final mix, but I know a specialist will do it better.
Isn’t it frustrating, though? You do all that work with the soundtrack, and then somebody watches the film on a plane.
You could say we do it for ourselves. So we’re satisfied that everything’s been done properly and the director likes it. Maybe 10 percent of viewers appreciate our work. But if the sound is truly good, then you don’t notice it. It has an effect on you, it drives your story, it tells the story, but as soon as you start noticing the sound design, something’s wrong.
How do you work with a director to think up the audio concept for a film?
It differs from film to film. With simple conversational films, there’s nothing to think about. Like every other crew member, I have to read the screenplay first and determine where the tricky parts are. Then I start talking to the director about how to approach it: Are we going to try to get purely contact sound? Are we going to use prerecorded playbacks? Are we going to adjust the costumes for microphones? With Marhoul, for example, the sound design was actually part of the screenwriting process, which is the best-case scenario.