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This week’s Smartcast guest: Rosita Lama Muvdi

This is Smartcast, the podcast that gives you a unique “behind-the-scenes” look at the world of audio post production. Each week we bring you in-depth conversations with the people responsible for creating the soundscapes of your favorite shows.

Larry Benjamin: Today we have a special guest with us. We have Rosita Lama Muvdi @RowZeeta

Rosita comes to us from AFI, she’s in the AFI Film Program and will tell us a little bit about her background – but will also be collaborating with us on her film called “LA SIRENA”.

So tell us what your background is – in filmmaking, and in life – and how you look at sound. How sound plays a role in the filmmaking process for you.

Rosita: Well, I grew up in Barranquilla, Colombia which is in the northern part of Columbia and I think ever since I was a kid I was always somehow involved in entertainment. In the sense that I was involved in school plays, I was singing, I was dancing, but always thinking more of “how am I entertaining people?” I think the first thing that I wanted to do was probably be an actress, but when I realized that I wouldn’t cast myself in my own movies I decided to start transitioning into directing.

When I was able to direct my first play in high school – or my aunt who had studied filmmaking of sorts and she taught me how to edit, so I started editing a lot when I was a kid and it was usually with two VCRs and working on the knobs and learning to hit record at the right time based on how the VCR would sound and that’s how I would know I could start recording that frame now, or when to press it – so I did become very attuned to how even sound would help me edit an image, even though having nothing to do with the actual sound of the show itself…

L: Just the sound of the mechanical nature of the equipment, when it was to speed or what have you.

R: So eventually I decided to go to Boston University to study in their undergrad filmmaking program. I graduated and went to New York for a little bit – worked at a post production house and then came to LA. I was able to work at what was formerly known as Scott Stuber Productions, or Scott Stuber Pictures I believe, but now is called Bluegrass Films.

But as an international student after one year of optional practical training I went back to Columbia where I started a company with a fellow collaborator – who I was formerly engaged to – and we did something call Coliseo Films where we started focusing on commercial work, music videos – things of that sort – a lot of promotional content, but the creative side of promotional content is usually… not so much there. But what I was able to do is edit a lot and shoot a lot, and we did a documentary that played in theaters – a short one, and one of the reasons why am so sensitive to sound is because when you’re interviewing somebody there can be a lot of “umms/erms” that can really slow down the momentum of something. So doing things like that has definitely made me appreciate a lot of how even in it’s simplest form, sound editing and even editing speech, can be so important.

L: I’m impressed in how you look at sound as an integral role in storytelling because with a lot of directors that’s not necessarily the case, it’s let’s focus on the picture – and sound is almost an afterthought, something that’s superimposed over the process either musically, sound effects wise, or even how the dialogue is edited – and all these decisions can be made early on – long before something is shot or even conceived.

R: Absolutely, especially because – I mean at least for me, I always loved the idea of music videos, which essentially made me think of how – at least starting with music, how the sound or the music is progressing in a way that almost progresses in the same way that tells a story. So even with my undergrad thesis film at Boston University I remember I was listening to a song first and the kind of progression of the song made me think of the images that would attach themselves and how important it was – much like a film, the climax of a song and how it progressed – was getting us to a place – and then being able to edit it that way almost. So now that I’ve been at AFI and I’ve been doing a lot more narrative shorts – so to speak – sound has been very important in terms of how I’m telling a story because I am sensitive to editing, and I am sensitive to how the sound is being edited along with that and how the world is created in terms of how we perceive it, and sound is a huge part of perception – it’s quite essential.

L: Well as a re-recording mixer I’m delighted to hear that because like I said – it’s often an afterthought, so it’s great – it can be a very powerful tool in storytelling and it sounds like this is something that you’re passionate about – you’re a storyteller and be it through people stories from documentaries, to a narrative, this particular film you wrote and directed.

So tell us a little bit about it, what was your impetus for – what was the kernel of inspiration that led you to it?

R: Well as things usually start with me, this film started with an image. About 10 years ago the image came to my mind of a naked woman standing in front of an ocean and the idea that we’re getting thrust into a film with this being the first image – and started obviously thinking about the story of this woman and what’s happening. So several years later – after developing a story based on my own life experiences emotionally – not necessarily verbatim in the film – because I would probably be arrested or dead.  I ended up coming with the idea of “LA SIRENA” being a psychosexual fairytale – or “LA SIRENA” being a psychosexual fairytale about Mia who is a woman who lives in a small fishing village and is having an affair with a married man. But then one day a mysterious woman – Mara – gets washed up on the shore naked and with a hook lodged between her rib cage and she forces Mia to face not only her destructive relationship, but her own inner monsters as well.

So we are definitely creating a world that exists on a subconscious level because we deal with the inner monster in the darkest part of somebodies soul.  I felt that the story couldn’t be specific to a location, but mostly the mood of that location. So in creating the film we’re really focusing on this idea that everything is overcast and foggy and in a way very contemplative, but on the darker side of things. Because this is where the character is living emotionally as well. So to be able to do that and feel it as an audience, not only do you have to experience it visually, but so importantly do you have to experience it audibly – or orally within a “you.”

L: Thank you for the clarification, especially in light of the subject matter. Yes, certainly the sonic palette is as important, in this case as the overcast day – we’re going to have sounds that are – as you and I were briefly talking before we recorded about – warm sounds or cool sounds, those can inform the emotions, and in this case cool certainly matches up with overcast and sometimes you want that dissonance and you can have warm against a cool image. But in this case it sounds like you want the – and I asked you an interesting question that you had a great answer for – what about the music? What will be the score? Well it seems that the sound – the sound design, the atmospheric sound effects that are cut, will be the score itself.

R: Absolutely. I’ve always loved the idea that the environment, at least in this film – because it is timeless, everything is meant to feel organic and with the idea that something is organic anything rhythmic, or melodious, or – just in terms of music – is coming from an organic state.

So how is the sound of the waves creating a sort of melody that really speaks to the emotional melody of her main character? How is the sound of a whistle that happens in the ocean speaking to the possibility of it being a “siren song” of sorts and how is our main character interpreting those sounds because we are living exclusively through her perception of things? One way that I like to talk about the soundscape of this film is as if you were more or less at around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, you finished having lunch and you start drifting off into kind of a siesta or nap time, but afternoon naps tend to have a very particular quality to them because most of the time I don’t think you fall into a really deep sleep. However the world is going on around you and very slowly you start to slip into a sleep state, but the sounds around you remain real – but your perception of them is altered.

L: Very interesting, so it’s a daydreaming state, but yet the sounds are still part of real time and so the way you perceive those you can even incorporate some of those sounds into that “day dream state.”

R: Day dream state I think is a great way of describing it, because everything again is happening so internally for the character the way that she would perceive the sounds around her being very organic, being very real to her own environment – really how her emotions are effecting that perception of the sounds and how they can create – because of the particular genre of this film – and there’s a lot of suspense happening in some thriller aspects to it, and a lot of mystery. How are the sound of the knife chopping fish effecting kind of a “drum like state” to it and I always love this idea of sitting in a theater and feeling the rumble of speakers because the rumble can so directly effect your heart.

L: Absolutely. Sound can be a very visceral experience and the frequencies certainly play into that. Low frequencies elicit a certain response – an often upset stomach, something’s discordant, something doesn’t feel right. You often get that when there’s a low-end, subsonic subwoofer of a car-by. It doesn’t even matter what the music is, it just illicits this response, this kind of “fight or flight” – something is urgent. The high frequencies can create a different element. Bernard Herrmann’s strings in psycho certainly – that kind of infamous – string plucks were very, very strident and that’s something that is shrill – almost like a scream – so the various ends of the spectrum, the frequency spectrum, can certainly play into how it makes you feel – emotionally.

R: Absolutely. I think that the first – one of the first instances where I first started to hear about the use of frequency to elicit a physical response in an audience, I may be very wrong because I heard this a long time ago, but the film “Irreversible” I believe that for the first few minutes of the film used a frequency that was similar to the frequency created by an earthquake and I mean the film is already very intense visually at the beginning, but if I remember correctly a lot of the audience couldn’t really handle the physical responsive of it because it can create a lot of nauseousness or nausea.

L: Absolutely. Low frequencies -especially the length of the wave form, are very long and it can actually go through you. It’s very “nondirectional”, so that’s why you can put a subwoofer pretty much anywhere in the room and you’re not able to tell where it’s coming from. Whereas high frequencies we generally can localize more easily – like a siren going by, depending on the slap that you get from the environment you can usually localize – if it’s towards the right, if it’s behind me. Low-frequency is a little bit more mysterious and it can certainly go through you and move your cells and create this response – this kind of noxious response that you’re talking about and we can use it intentionally – certainly composers do this in score and you’re using it as y an element, maybe a low-end rumble or something – and we’ll talk about these things as we collaborate more on the film itself. But I like how you are also breaking it up with the rhythm – be it chopping, or the waves – something that is almost like a drumbeat – a pulse – because it’s alive.

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