On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with Oscar-nominated sound editor Ai-Ling Lee about creating the soundscapes for movies, including La La Land, Jojo Rabbit, and First Man. They discussed the relationship between sound editors and directors, how Lee’s training in music shaped her skillset, and the process of creating believable sounds for different genres. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Isaac Butler: Being this hyperfocused on sound, has it changed the way you perceive the world? Are you just constantly noticing the soundscapes you walk through?
Ai-Ling Lee: I guess so. We’ll be walking around, even in a parking garage at a supermarket, and you hear like, “Hey, that light is buzzing weird.” Sometimes I have a little portable recorder in my purse, and I’ll just whip it out and record it. Even when we’re on vacation, sometimes I’ll just take out the recorder and walk around, in case we catch something. It can be as simple as a door close and open or a toilet flush. I know it’s crazy. I guess my husband has gotten used to it.
It’s like when writers have a little notebook and they’re like, “Oh, I had an idea. I have to write it down right now,” in the middle of polite conversation.
Yeah, or if I’m recording, [my husband] has to keep quiet for a while. Every so often, he may run into something and say, “Hey, doesn’t this sound interesting? There’s a really interesting groan here. Oh, hey, this water pump is making a weird sucking sound.” It’s good to get, because you never know, years down the road, maybe you can pitch it down. Something could be a part of a sound to a monster.
Do you feel like, as you started to pursue this career more seriously, you had to train your ear in a particular way? Was there an active way you started to rethink sound, or did it just come naturally as you worked on project after project?
What I’m doing, besides achieving what my vision is, is also what the filmmaker’s vision is, because, after all, it’s their film. Oftentimes, I try to make it so a regular general audience would feel the same way as I do about certain sounds or a scene. More of my concern is, does a regular person who would see the scene have the takeaway that I had intended? Instead of changing my way of listening, it’s more about pulling people in to play things for them. Well, now with COVID, because I’m working from home, I’ll be pulling my poor husband over to get his opinions, but—
Unpaid intern slash husband.
Yeah. In regular times, I would get any co-workers to come by and play it. I love to get different opinions.
That’s interesting, because one thing you have to control for is your own expertise, and the way to do that is to get someone who doesn’t have that expertise to listen to it and make sure it sounds the same.
I may want something to sound creepy, like a buildup to something, but if people don’t feel that way, then it doesn’t matter. Say in Cinderella, the three mice start singing along to “Rhythm Nation.” I just took a bunch of different mouse recordings and pitched them around to make them sound like they’re singing along. I may get people in to play it for them and ask, “Hey, does it sound like ‘Rhythm Nation’ to you?” Because after a long time, if you’ve been listening to it nonstop, it would just sound like it to yourself, but maybe not to others.