Documentarists of Japan, #15: Kubota Yukio (2/2)

5. Synchronizing emotion

KS: With documentary, I understand that if you were unable to record the sound yourself for some reason, the director or assistant director would often go out and do it themselves.

I’m sorry if I’m going all over the place here, but you worked on Tsuchimoto’s Minamata—The Victims and their World (“Minamata—Kanjasan to sono sekai,” 1971), didn’t you? There’s a moment in that film that’s really stayed with me, and I’ve heard this story about it secondhand, but there’s a scene where a child who was born with Minamata disease (mercury poisoning) is singing and doing a bit of a dance in the middle of a room. I heard something along the lines that this scene was not done at all with synchronized sound recording—do you remember this?

KY: Well, actually I don’t remember much of what went on (laughs). You’ve got me on that one...(laughs).

KS: When I first watched it, it appeared to have been recorded in real time, but afterwards I took another look at it from an assistant director’s point of view, and the use of sound is really just too wonderful. That scene with the child dancing and singing has stayed with me throughout the years.

I can’t help appreciating the wonderful quality of films from that period before synchronized sound recording, especially the works of Tsuchimoto and Ogawa.

KY: There’s a film of Tsuchimoto’s called Pre-Partisan (“Paruchizan zenshi,” 1969). It’s a documentary about the student movement and their leaders, filmed at Kyoto University and Osaka City University. There’s a scene where the students occupy a clock tower and are challenged by the riot police. Finally, the riot police bring out a fire engine and blast water from a high-pressure firehose at the students on the roof of the clock tower. At this point, the crew below who were recording all this could hear the students on top of the clock tower singing “Aogeba tootoshi” [a song traditionally sung at school graduation ceremonies in Japan—the eds.]. The students had realized that this as far as their opposition would go, and sang “Aogeba tootoshi” as they relinquished the building.

As sound staff, we definitely wanted to record that moment. But the students were too far away, and the only thing that would have ended up on the tape would be the noise from the helicopters and firehoses. But when we were putting the final touches to the film, we said that we wanted to include that singing, no matter what. So the director Tsuchimoto asked the Sanrizuka Youth Action Group to sing “Aogeba tootoshi” for us, and that came to be the audio that lives on in the film. So what would you call that kind of sound? It’s not synch sound, but then again it is.

KS: Synch emotion perhaps? (laughs)

KY: (laughs) That sounds about right.

6. The merits and demerits of
synch sound

KS: Well, in a roundabout way we’ve arrived at the topic of synch sound, haven’t we. Soon the era of synchronized sound, recording came around, and recording sound at the same time as the camera was rolling became standard practice.

When I’m using the camera, I assume that the bulk of what I hear with my own ears will be recorded by the sound operators, which is very reassuring when you’re filming. It makes a big difference whether you have a sound operator or not. There are of course times when you’re filming without one though. In these kind of situations people tend to presume that the cameraperson is paying attention to the sound while they’re filming, but in fact they don’t remember any of it afterwards. They might be roughly aware of the content of the sound while shooting, but when they see the rushes they’ll say “Huh? What was the sound for this bit?” Their attention is always focused on capturing the image. A lot of the time, what you’ve shot comes alive when sound is added. So in your case, you came from a background where you couldn’t record sound simultaneously, and then from a certain point everything changed to synch sound. What was that like?

KY: Well, I definitely prefer synch sound (laughs), that I’d have to say.

There was the time when we were making Kumai’s Deep River (“Fukai kawa,” 1995). There’s a scene featuring the Omizutori water-drawing ritual at Todaiji temple in Nara. A priest carrying a large torch trails a shower of sparks as he dashes along the temple decks. That’s the backdrop for the actors as they’re doing their scene, but the actual Omizutori ceremony took place six months before the shoot had officially begun. At that time it hadn’t been determined whether we could begin filming or not, so Kumai took just the camera crew with him to the ceremony and shot everything.

When we sound staff looked at the rushes during editing, we knew that there was no way that we could expect anyone to wait until Omizutori took place again the following year, so we had to create the sound ourselves. The sound of the torch and the monk running, with that kind of thing we could just ask the effects guy to create something for us. But we didn’t know whether the monk running with the torch was wearing sandals, clogs, or digitated boots. It didn’t matter who we asked, no-one knew. In the rushes it was too dark to make out what he was wearing, but naturally someone who was there would have heard the sound of him running, don’t you think? Not even the cameraperson knew.

KS: He couldn’t remember ? (laughs)

KY: Exactly. One person said “It sounded like he was wearing clogs,” then someone else said “He was chanting sutras as he ran.” Asking the director got us nowhere either. In these situations, it’s as if the director just isn’t thinking about the audio at all.

So at this point, how was I supposed to go about finding the right sound? I went to the NHK video library and searched there. They had several videos of the Todaiji Omizutori ceremony. While running around the temple, the monks were wearing sandals. Not clogs, and no sutras. And although none of the staff had mentioned it, the most striking aspect of it was the pealing of the bells in Todaiji, which never ceased during the ceremony. No one but the sound crew is going to catch this kind of sound. People become accustomed to it, and it just ends up going in one ear and out the other. When you go for the purpose of sound recording, you begin to become more aware, and start to hear things that perhaps you didn’t know were there before.

So when you look at the edited rushes and think about what kind of sound you need, you understand the tension in the images.

KS: I worked with you on Fujimoto Yukihisa’s Mining the Dark (“Yami o horu,” 2001), and if I’m not mistaken, these days everyone thinks synch sound equals dialogue. From my perspective though, having worked in director Yanagisawa Hisao’s time when sound was recorded roughly, it’s when there’s no dialogue, for example the noise of a coffee cup put down on a table, and that sound has been synchronized with the image—that’s when that tension and ambience you’ve mentioned really comes into play.

When you were working on my film After School (“Hokago,” 1997), you wrote down every cut in storyboard form. Then you started compiling the sound by looking at what you had written and deciding what sound would go where. So recording on location is one thing, but real movie audio is about complementing the motif found in all the images by the use of sound. Your notes, which have become known in the trade as “Kubota notes” (laughs) are for that purpose, and I think that way of doing things can’t be easily imitated. How did you develop this method?

KY: Thinking about it now, I guess it was like this. Even after leaving Iwanami, I was making documentaries, features, and corporate films. At Iwanami Productions, we had our own recording studio. So as far as working there and preparing sound was concerned, we could use the studio for as long as we needed it.

KS: Because it was just you and the studio.

KY: But after going freelance, if you took that much time, you’d be in trouble. Rental studios, you see. One day’s rental set you back tens of thousands of yen. You just couldn’t afford to spend hours in the studio working on your audio. So I thought about it a lot, and decided to draw pictures of all the cuts while rolling the film in the studio, and then I’d write down the sound to fit the image. Usually there’s a “cut list” made after the editing is finished, so I just decided to do that with images. Then I write in the sound. For instance if I was dealing with a scene featuring a steam hammer, I’d use the editing deck to check how many frames the part that required sound was from the head of the cut. After writing all that down, I put it all together at home. Naturally back then I had no projector, no film, so going on the pictures I’d drawn, I’d cut up the 6mm sound tape with a pair of scissors and went about editing it all together. That’s the kind of thing I did. Actually, it was an extension of the sound-only recording we’d started for doing feature films.

KS: So this is the process you went through before sound mixing, was it? You’ve got narration, well in some cases with a feature film there isn’t any, you’ve got your different effects and your music too. If you put all of that together, it’s mixing isn’t it. Before that, where you’re preparing to go into that part of the process, you need to figure out how to use the studio for the shortest time and in the most effective way, and that’s how the legendary “Kubota notes” came about...(laughs). So your notes, they’re a storyboard of sorts aren’t they.

KY: That way of anticipating your next move is more or less the same as using ProTools [digital editing software], which has now become the standard for film sound. That involves using a computer, but for me it was that 6mm tape and a pair of scissors. Recently, when I started using ProTools, I realized that it’s exactly the same method.

7. The evolution of equipment in
the audio world

KS: If I can ask you about the changes in technology over the years, in the past you were using a Nagra [magnetic tape recorder] and a 15 minute 6mm tape, weren’t you? It went through tape at quite a pace, and you’d often have to pause and say “Tape change!” Now DAT (Digital Audio Tape) is more or less becoming the medium of preference, so in short, it’s possible to just let the tape keep rolling constantly. As far as that’s concerned, for example if you’re shooting with video, you’re rolling for a very long time. But if you’re using film, you have to restrict the amount you use, so when you’re filming you’re battling with your own anxiety while envisioning how you’ll cut it later. How has equipment changed in the audio field?

KY: Recently DAT has become the standard. There’s nothing wrong with DAT. Basically, being able to record over an extended period is definitely a good thing. With documentary, you don’t know when the camera will roll. Therefore if you only record sound when the camera is rolling, which was the style up until now, you’ll always be a bit late in starting the sound recorder. With DAT you can record for one or two hours straight, so you can just let it roll. It’s great because you’re in a situation where you can record for as long as you like while you’re on location.

KS: So you can particularly appreciate its advantages for documentary films?

KY: That’s right. That way it doesn’t matter when the camera starts rolling, and when it does start there’s absolutely no risk of losing any sound.

KS: I see. Can you think of any other examples where you’ve felt a real change in the technology? What about microphones?

KY: That’s hardly changed. The combination of the Nagra recorder and a Sennheuser 416 mike, that didn’t change at all for about 30 or 40 years, so I guess that we’d found a good combination there. Then the recorder changed to DAT, and the sound editing style changed to ProTools. Come to think of it, someone said that Cinetape [Magnetic tape used for sound editing—the eds.] isn’t used anymore in the Chinese film industry, didn’t they.

KS: Oh, is that so? We’re still using it in Japan though (laughs).
I still edit a lot with video these days, but it’s a real pain. These days there’s non-linear editing, and you could say that as with 16mm film, you’re basically cutting and pasting but you’re doing it on a computer screen. From my personal point of view, it’s been a long time since I was an assistant director, but you know about how long it is and what the images are, and the sound is right there on Cinetape. Making films with this kind of sensibility, you could say that it’s a very comforting experience.

So some directors convert that film to video and edit it on video for the time being, then convert it back to film and when it’s screened on a projector the cuts seem way too fast. Sometimes I hear stories of people doing it all over again with film.

KY: There’s a lot of that these days. There are feature film directors who do it, and documentarists too. Finally when they’ve edited it on video then transferred it to film, often the tempo is way off. A video screen is small so the amount of visual information is low, even though it’s basically the same picture you’re dealing with. So you end up making shorter cuts. When you convert that to film the amount of visual information is that much more. I heard that in America they use a huge screen when they edit on video.

KS: That’s right. Sometimes I’ll show someone my own work on video, and they’ll ask me if I’ll have a screening of it for them. Actually, I never want to show it to them like that. Usually, after they’ve seen watched it in that state, we have a proper viewing on a big screen, with a large audience, and I usually attend. That’s when they start saying things like “I never realized that it was this kind of movie.” I get that a lot.

I think there’s two reasons for that. One is the experience of watching a film in a darkened room on a large screen with proper sound, and another is the fact that they’re watching it with a bunch of other people (laughs).

If I may return to my earlier question, I’d like to ask you about the differences between documentary sound and feature film sound.

KY: There’s a nice fat book called Ee oto ya naika—Hashimoto Fumio: Rokuongishi ichidai (“Good Sound, Eh—Hashimoto Fumio: The Life of a Sound Recordist,” Hashimoto Fumio and Ueno Koshi, Tokyo: Little More, 1996), and in there’s a part where Hashimoto is on location recording sound for a feature film. The author says that if you look sideways at Hashimoto while he’s working, he quickly pushes up the fader just before the dialogue begins, and right on the spot where they end he quickly pushes it down again. The book says that’s the mark of a real pro. Hashimoto himself has said that if he couldn’t pull that off properly, he couldn’t get good sound. When I read that I realized how different that was to documentary sound.

With documentary, you have to keep the fader up for as long as possible. You don’t know when someone will speak, who will say it, or what they’ll say. Therefore, that’s completely different. Even when I’m doing a feature film, I want to leave the fader up as much as I can. I think that’s something to do with the difference in our backgrounds. Starting out with documentaries, or having started out in feature films and stuck to them.

8. Sometimes narration is essential

KS: To change the subject slightly, with my first film, After School, I came to you with the raw footage and told you “I really want you to make this into a movie for me.” You watched it in the studio and listened to the rough sound that my staff had recorded, and then you turned to me and said “Kobayashi, you’d be better off not making a movie out of this” (laughs). That was a thoroughly big shock.

KY: Oh, really? (laughs)

KS: Then you said “Kobayashi, you could just show what you’ve shot as is, while running sound from a cassette, there is a way of screening it,” even though that’s basically what I’d been doing with it up until then (laughs). I asked you if we couldn’t make a movie out of this, because you were the only person I knew who I could ask since I met you when we were working on Sato Makoto’s Living on the River Agano (“Aga ni ikiru,” 1992), and yet when I asked you, you responded in that way... Then when I said “Well, even so I’d like to put some sound on this and make it into a movie,” you replied “Well, what we have to do is make it so that stands by itself, so people can understand it without you.” I’d just finished filming it, I had no narration or anything, and just when I thought it was enough to just film the kids’ faces, it became apparent that some explanation was needed, and putting in interviews with the mothers and fathers—there were all sorts of things.

It was a case of taking the sound and film that had been recorded separately by some young director and being asked to “put it together and make something out of it.” Times like that must be quite an annoyance.

KY: No, if I look at the images and like what I see, I’ll do the job. You were filming and directing at the same time, right? With documentary, I think the director’s primary task is to try and get close to their subject, see to what extent they can establish a rapport with them. Ogawa Shinsuke was particularly adept at doing this. The better you get along with your subject, the more they feel free to say anything. That freedom with which the subject was able to say whatever they wanted became apparent in his films, especially after he moved to Yamagata. Building that relationship is of the utmost importance for a director, I feel.

KS: And so it’s important to back that up with sound. Usually when you’re watching a movie, you really pay attention to who did the sound, right? But when I’m actually rolling film and making a movie, it’s all about sound. I want sound staff that I can rely on right through the production process, including the editing stage. Of course, there are directors who don’t feel that way. What are your feelings on this? I understand that you and Ogawa also worked together on sound and overall content in much the same way as you did with me.

KY: Before you begin editing, you discuss a range of things. In the final post-production stages you add music and narration. But young people today don’t seem to want to do that. One reason for that is probably the jarring narration you see in so many television documentaries. I think they regard that as unacceptable because it’s done in such an extreme way, but perhaps more than that they feel that it renders them unable to express what they truly want to say. So with documentaries made by young directors, a lot of them appear to be saying “We don’t need any narration!” (laughs). But if you do it that way you’re just tying up your own hands, and the way I see it that’s a failure as a director.

For example, there was Sato’s Artists in Wonderland (“Mahiru no hoshi,” 1998). In it there’s a 23 year-old with Downs Syndrome. His name was Shuji, and everyday he came home he’d head straight to his room and start building his own “Koshien” [the most famous baseball stadium in Japan—the eds.] He’d make little paper boxes about the size of a matchbox, out of scrap paper and such, and stack them up like bricks, building a model of Koshien. He kept building it for 10 years or more without finishing it, and while he was working he would without exception switch on both the radio and the television, as well as playing music on his CD player on top of that. However, you just couldn’t distinguish all of that in the sound we recorded on location. But this scene of Shuji enveloped in sound while he builds expresses what he’s feeling, so to me it was extremely important to include that information. In these situations, I can’t help thinking it would have worked better using a nice bit of narration (laughs).

KS: (laughs) Of course.

KY: Shuji kept on building, everyday. I heard that a year before we started filming his mother had gone into his room, and because it was so messy she unfortunately threw out the Koshien that had taken him ten years to make. The next day he started building again, and when they were filming he had already made a wall that was about 1 metre 20 centimetres tall. I’d want to put that kind of story in.

But there were restrictions on the length of the film, and with the “no narration” rule in place you couldn’t include that sort of thing. It was a shame, but that’s the way it goes (laughs). Of course there is a lot of needless narration out there, but I’m pretty sure that there are also plenty of times where it’s really necessary.

KS: When you’re watching a film, you know it’s a great one with well-matched narration when you don’t really notice that it’s there, and afterwards it leaves you wondering “Hey, was there actually narration in that movie?” Therefore I tend to lean towards keeping narration to a minimum, but I believe now you need to keep an open mind about it as well. That’s something I learned from you when I was making After School, and you made a real film out of it for me.

The next time we would work together was Bicycles (“Jitensha,” 1999). We had those interviews with the kids, which were overlayed with the images of them riding their bikes. That sound was actually recorded about one month after filming. When we were editing sound we discussed what to ask the kids, and you were polishing the audio the whole time. If we had, say, thirty seconds to fill, you’d create something that fitted in very naturally. At that point it really felt like a collaborative effort to me. There was nothing you couldn’t do when you were working with the sound, and you did it so well, there’s that kind of groundwork involved. That aspect of the sound profession isn’t conspicuous, but your support is such an essential factor, from a cinematographer’s point of view.

We often don’t have a chance to hear about filmmaking from a sound technician’s point of view, so today was very interesting. I know you’ve got to head back to putting the finishing touches on the sound for Mining the Dark, so all the best and please take good care of yourself. Thank you for today.

—Translated by Don Brown

Kobayashi Shigeru

Born in 1954. Became assistant director to documentary director Yanagisawa Hisao, and won the Japan Society of Cinematographers JSC Award for his work on Living on the River Agano (“Aga ni ikiru,” dir. Sato Makoto 1992). Cinematogra-pher of Reach Out for the Elderly’s Care (“Chiiki o tsumugu,” dir. Tokieda Toshie, 1996), and Mining the Dark (“Yami o horu,” Fujimoto Yukihisa, 2001). Has also held an exhibition of photographs of Ugandan orphans, “Born in Uganda” (“Uganda ni umarete”).

Selected Filmography

  1997_ After School “Hokago”
  1999 Bicycles “Jitensha”
  2000 Snowball Fight “Yukigassen”
The Children’s Sky “Kodomo no sora” (Compilation of his three previous works)
  2001 A Patch of Blue Sky “Chotto aozora”