How They Did It: The Radical Sound Design of Driftwood, Shot Without a Sound Crew

Close your eyes and concentrate on the sounds around you: the humming of the refrigerator, footsteps from the floor above, water running through the pipes inside the walls, a distant ticking.

Doing this was one of the first and most crucial steps to designing the sound for my Slamdance Grand Jury Prize-winning debut feature, Driftwood.

Driftwood is about a young woman (Joslyn Jensen) who mysteriously washes ashore and is taken in and conditioned by an older man (Paul C. Kelly). The character she portrays is an empty vessel. She speaks no words, makes no sounds, has no rational thought. She’s learning from scratch, as any newborn would. In the world of Driftwood the characters do not speak, but move, gesture and act with their bodies.

Sound is one of the most criminally overlooked and underappreciated components to a film. But in actuality it is really one of the most pivotal aspects of the filmmaking process. A good chunk of contemporary cinema relies heavily on dialogue to move the story forward, so it’s only natural that a bulk of the sound mix would revolve around that.

But in the world of Driftwood, devoid of dialogue, it became crucial to focus on the minutiae of the audio. This meant that everything our ears normally funnel on an unconscious level had to be brought to the forefront and mixed in a way that would make it stand out. This also meant that we had to control each and every sound with, well, psychotic precision.

We went into the production of the film knowing that we would shoot the entire thing MOS (“motor only sync;” basically, without synchronous audio) because of the lack of dialogue, which also eliminated our need for a sound crew on set. Generally, ambient noises, footsteps and other similar audio elements are added in post anyway. We also made it a point to abandon any reference audio we may have picked up, because it would have tempted us to recreate every sound we heard in-camera, which would have led to a flat, predictable soundscape. The goal was to fabricate something otherworldly, an atmosphere that would work in tandem with the strange story we wanted to tell.

Once my editor-producer, Alex Megaro, picture-locked the film, I watched it in complete silence, jotting down every sound I thought would be in each scene. This resulted in a spreadsheet crammed with an interminable amount of sounds and instructions that would gently guide the sound team, while at the same time leaving room for them to explore and experiment. Besides the most obvious sounds needed in the frame, it was also important to keep in mind any offscreen noises. These could be anything from bird calling to cricket chirping to the far-flung rumbling of vehicles. Placing the various pieces of audio on- and off-screen helped to expand the universe that these characters lived in and give the soundscape a three-dimensional dynamic.

Joslyn in Driftwood

Joslyn Jensen in Driftwood

Before we moved any further with the sound design, it was incredibly important for us to find a studio that would be interested in taking on a project of such magnitude—not just for a paycheck but to really utilize their skills and create something of resonance. They were to be the ones to give the film a pulse and finish our half-painted canvas. We approached the crew over at Silver Sound Studios in New York, explained a bit about the project and watched as their jaws slowly dropped to the floor. They jumped at the opportunity.

Silver Sound went back to the shooting location, a small cabin in the Berkshires, and re-recorded a good chunk of the audio, leaving the rest to be Foleyed or re-recorded in an even more remote area. This gave the film an authenticity that it wouldn’t have had if the recording was carried out in a separate location or even in their studio. Each environment has its own distinct ambience, and the objects that make up that location create sounds that are unique only in that particular setting. Had the audio been recorded elsewhere it may have been too cold or too warm, or at the very least something would have felt subconsciously out of sync.

Months later, when all of the sounds were finally compiled, organized and placed on the timeline, we went in for the final mix. This was where the fun—and agony—really began. We worked for a week straight, several hours a day, polishing the audio and shaping the world the characters live in. Some scenes were finished quicker than others; some took a full day and only amounted to a couple minutes or less of screentime. (To answer your question: Yes, we pulled all of our hair out.)

It was an exhausting experience, to be sure, but watching the film come alive right before our eyes, shot by shot, day by day, made it all worth it. It was also remarkably enlightening because we were able to witness first-hand just how important sound is for a film. In one instance during the mix, the sound team was unsure as to what was happening narratively within a particular scene. Without the audio there was no context! Once it was added in, the scene functioned; sound moved the narrative forward.

Besides controlling narrative, sounds can also portray characters feelings or desires—at the most basic level, their personalities. It may seem obvious to some, but when you’re constructing the audio piece by piece, you can really hear how the basic shift of a sound makes such a dramatic alteration of the meaning of that sound. It can completely transform the way the audience interprets the scene or character. For example, in the film, the older man eats, well, normally. In the sound design process, though, we decided to make the chewing grotesque and loud and almost comical. Doing that completely shifted the scene in a way that said a lot about his character: This is no ordinary human being. Had we added some generic chewing noises, the scene would have played out on a much simpler level. This is exactly why we shot MOS and disregarded our reference audio.

A week later, with us sleep-deprived, bald and sporting some badass bloodshot capillaries, the mix was finally complete. We had gone through the film in its entirety, shot by shot, adding and subtracting audio and designing it in a way that would result in a unique cinema-going experience. It was long and it was tough, but I’m convinced the film could not have been made any other way.

Plus, how often do you get the chance to add the sounds of baby foxes screaming into your film? Terrifying. MM

Driftwood screens on September 28, 2016, at ArcLight Cinemas Chicago, as part of ArcLight Cinemas Presents Slamdance Cinema Club.

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