How Sound Editor Ai-Ling Lee Creates Immersive Soundscapes for Movies

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.

S2: But Damien Chazelle, the doctor may go like, you know, in this one rocket launch sequence, he wants it to feel like Saving Private Ryan or Das Boot. I kind of like Doctor Who with like film references that is like, totally not what you think. It makes me try to think of the box.

S3: Hello and welcome back to working, I’m your host, Karen Hahn,

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S4: and I am your other host, Isaac Butler,

S3: and whose voice were we just listening to?

S4: So we were just listening to the voice of this week’s guest, Ai-Ling Lee. She is a prolific, very highly acclaimed and in-demand sound editor. She’s actually even been nominated for the Oscar, I think, twice. Who worked on La La Land, First Man, Free Guy, Jojo Rabbit? I mean, it’s a really it’s a really wide filmography. She’s worked on literally dozens of movies.

S3: That’s amazing. And so what do Slate Plus listeners have in store for them this week?

S4: So Slate Plus listeners get a couple of bonus tidbits from the interview that were left on the cutting room floor. First off, we’re talking with Ai-Ling Lee about what Soundscapes or kinds of movies she’s never worked in that she’s always wanted to try. And then we talk about how very big advances in sound recording and software technology have changed her job over the last 20 years.

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S3: It sounds so cool. So listeners, if you want to hear this and you are not a Slate Plus member, you can sign up today at Slate.com. Slash Working Plus is $1 for your first month and Slate Plus members get zero ads on any Slate podcast. Bonus content on our show and other shows like Slow Burn and the Culture. Get fast and you get full access to the articles on Slate.com so you won’t run into that pesky paywall. Last but not least, you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working again. It’s $1 for your first month, and you can sign up today at Slate.com. Working Plus. Now, let’s hear Isaac’s interview with sound editor Ai-Ling Lee.

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S4: Thank you so much for joining us this week, I’m working to talk about your process.

S2: I’m very happy to thanks for having me here.

S4: So I’m guessing many of our listeners don’t really know what sound editors and sound mixers do. I mean, they maybe see those clips at the Oscars, you know where they take all the sound out or whatever, but that’s sort of where it stops. So, you know, if you had to explain your job, like to someone at a party or whatever. What do you tell them?

S2: You know, it’s kind of like, you know, what I do is sound for a film so more for like in the post-production process, though. So that means this after the film has been shot, the ambience, those that you hear, the monsters or explosions or car crash, or even like the dialogue that you hear there are like no clean, pristine without any clunks here and there or the air, which is like dial up replacement and Foley movements like, you know, just even footsteps all the hand grabs. A lot of those sounds are then created or edited in post-production sound, and that’s where no sign of nerves comes in. And then all those materials would then have to be, you know, put together, decided on like, you know, what works, what doesn’t and that will be a sound makes this job rerecording mixers job.

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S4: So how did you get interested in in post-production sound work? Was there a moment when you realized, first of all, that this was a job that existed? And second of all, that it’s what you really wanted to do with your life.

S2: I’m from Singapore and growing up, you know, we love watching movies. You know, it can be, you know, Hollywood films or Hong Kong films and TV dramas and whatnot. But besides enjoying movies now as a teenager and well and growing up, I did like realize how sound could help bring an audience into the world of the scene of the movie, visual effects and all be. They all look great. But I sometimes I feel like, you know, the sound, you know, help makes it real. And even when you don’t see it, you hear it. Like, even like if you hear tracks like the foot stomps

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S4: with the water glass. Yeah, with the Jurassic Park, that does the ripples and stuff. That’s like one of the great sound moments of the 1990s.

S2: I just thought, Hey, man, this is really amazing, you know, wish I could be a part of, you know, filmmaking and eventually want in Singapore. At the time, they didn’t really have much of a film program. Mm hmm. This is about like 1994 or whatever. So then I went to audio engineering school more for like studying the physics of sound and also like recording and mixing music more often. So from there? I was still trying to find my way, like, how am I going to get through to this like filmmaking world? And so ended up like finding work in a small, like post-production studio in Singapore, but that’s mostly video, TV commercials and music. And so from that, I picked up a lot of experience and how it is like collaborating with other like for commercials like other producers and stuff like ideas and whatnot. But all in all, you know, I still wanted to do movies, so I decided to kind of like, No. Look through credits and note down like the names of the people that are like that work on and where they worked at and writing letters and introduce myself and unsolicited, but just to see if I could stop by and

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S4: and some people said yes to that.

S2: Yeah, I was kind of surprised. I guess I lucked out because I’m pretty sure lots of people try to do that. But so, yeah, so I just like to pack my bags.

S4: And so to talk about your your work today, how early in the process of making a film do you tend to be higher? Does it change from movie to movie? Or are you or is it usually around the same moment?

S2: Or sometimes I, you know, we’d start being hired before pre-production starts, but sometimes can be as late as once they have finished shooting a film and working on that the director’s cut.

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S4: Do you like having the long lead time or is there something about the compressed deadline that that helps fuel you? Inspiration wise,

S2: I mean, I do like to have more time to prep if you know we are hired on during pre-production, which means now before they have start shooting a movie or anything, you know, in a sense, it’s good because then I can read this script and note down. You know what research I need to do? And he sounds, I need to record an early discussion with the director. You know, if that’s any like reference films that they have for sound.

S4: Obviously, you recently worked on Cinderella, which has been in theaters recently, and the people can see you. Do you remember like what the initial points of inspiration were for that for that film, like when you were reading the script about sort of where your mind went to immediately?

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S2: So it’s musical. And of course, the fairy tale is is no like a twist, a new take on the fairy tale. So besides the period stuff and this fairy tale, you know, typically you may want to like lean more towards the Disney ask kind of thing. But just with the subject matter, how the twist this we try to. I think the sound scape, the sound palette, the ambiance environments, you know, wouldn’t be too. Disney ask is should be maybe a bit more grounded.

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S4: Can I just ask what a Disney esque sound environment sounds like lost?

S2: Like, really, really pretty like Tweety birds and like singing the songbird? Right? Things like that that turns out that, you know, can and the director also felt the same thing. Like so, so even the magic we do have, like chimes kind of sound for the magic. But we try not to make it too cute. Oh, look at that.

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S4: This is this is. And so in those initial conversations with the director, like, what do you find most helpful to hear from them?

S2: For me, it’s kind of like what I had mentioned earlier, like film sound references or if, say, if they have an idea of like, like, say, on First Man Damien Chazelle, the doctor may go like, you know, in this one rocket launch sequence, he wants it to feel like I’m Saving Private Ryan or Das Boot. Mm hmm. Things that are not like your straightforward like, Hey, here’s a rocket space movie. No, look at the right stuff. I mean, which sounds great, but I kind of like Doctor Who with like film references that is like, totally not what you think. It kind of makes me try to think of the box a bit.

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S4: And then do you go and watch those films and kind of deconstruct them to figure out what is sonically going on?

S2: Yeah. So definitely like once we, you know, say, if they have some film references, you know, I’ll start watching them and note down, you know, like maybe in that case in the podcast, but it’s more about how enclosed you are and how these submarines, you can hear are the groans and creaks. And it just feels so dangerous at any one moment and you could just think I’ll just die. And not one for Saving Private Ryan is about that Immersive ness in that sense.

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S4: I’m very interested in your research process, particularly for things set before the advent of recorded sound when we don’t have, we don’t really 100 percent know what they sound like. I mean, we have written records of what they sound like, but we don’t have, you know, a tape recording of 17th century London or, you know, whatever. And you know, technological change has had such an impact on what everything around us sounds like. So how do you research as part of your process?

S2: We besides that location and stuff, you know, like you said, like we may see, you know, like what tools say, if it’s a 17th century setting like, say, for Cinderella, right? We kind of like do some research. So but it’s like seventeenth century. But then the director wanted it to be more of an international kraut village. Mm hmm. You have to have horse carriages. There will be a lot of like ironworks going. And then when you’re in the village, you know, because of the international part of it. So we’ll have like Walla, which is kind of like kind of like kraut recording where you hear some like shout outs here and there of some what’s picking through in different languages like, you know, so besides, like the British English kind of language, we may have some Thai or Russian things that poke through. Yeah. And like horses and stuff, so. Right? Oh, historic thing that would be doing it like on cobblestone and stuff if we can.

S4: Yeah, right? Because a hoof on a cobblestone sounds very different from a hoof on asphalt. Yes.

S2: Oh, for real. Yes.

S4: So I assume correct me, if I’m wrong, you have some sort of like digital library of like hooves in mud, hooves on, cobblestone hooves on or, you know, whatever. Is that sort of the starting point is that you have like sort of a vast collection of of already existing sounds that you can play with? And then there’s other ones you need to go out and make.

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S2: Yes, exactly right. So, you know, we’ll have like what we call like a sound library, song effects library. Mm-Hmm. Carts are minor, at least the software that I use. It’s like a library. Such software, you can just call up like, say, you know, horse on cobblestone, and then they will show out a list of like, you know, dozens and dozens of options. And then you just audition them to see, you know, what could work, what could not work. But then, you know, sometimes they like on Jojo Rabbit because it’s like a World War Two era. So some like if I wanted to look for a World War Two German truck or something, I’m, you know, I may not get the specific thing that we may want. Maybe then, you know, we would. Then, you know, at that time, at least for that movie, you know, we talked to the production mixer who would then like he did extra recordings with the truck that they used for filming.

S4: Oh, so you would have some sonic options from the action? Yeah.

S2: And then, you know, it just lucked out, too, because oftentimes on movie sets, sometimes you may see a car, for example, like in the modern war or like a vintage car, an older one, especially even out of 20s or 30s car. They may look like it is, but the engine they are like modern engines so that they could run and function on set to be filmed, but for sound is not good for us. But in the case of say, like Jojo Rabbit, it’s like they were the right engines and everything. So, yeah,

S4: well, I never would have thought of that. Yeah. So, you know, for each of these sound effects you’re often reviewing, you know, dozens and dozens of ones, it’s such painstaking detail work. So I have to ask, do you take breaks? I mean, how long do you go? Do you get exhausted doing this, having to like, audition each of these things that are part where your brain fogs over? Because I think about like editing, writing, right, I’m a writer. So I think about when I have my page edits. There comes a certain point where I’m like, If I see another comma, I am going to jump out this window. Did you do you feel that way sometimes? How do you take breaks during your work?

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S2: Yeah. Good question. So, yeah, totally. We did get into that kind of face that those those moments, even even just like besides looking to the South, is also about assembling them and working on it. And, you know, sometimes some scenes are quiet, but sometimes they are like lots of explosions and gunshots and car chases. So it can be, you know, your years are kind of pounded by the large volume. So and of course, we have all those crazy tight deadlines and long hours, but it is good and important to walk away sometimes. To, you know, a clear brain or, you know, take a walk or, I don’t know, have a cup of coffee or tea, go make a tea or something. You know, you kind of like to have a step back and look at it again. And then sometimes it may go like, What the hell did I just work on that just too? I mean. Or, you know, or maybe you may have a new perspective or anything. Yeah. So it’s good to walk away sometimes.

S3: We’ll be back with more of Isaac’s conversation with Ai-Ling Lee after this. Listeners, we want to hear from you, whether it’s to ask us for advice on a creative problem or tell us a guest you’d like to hear on the show or share your own creative triumphs or all of the above. Drop us a line at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at three zero four nine three three work. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts. Now, let’s return to Isaac’s conversation with Ai-Ling Lee.

S4: So, you know, part of your job, we’ve talked about it a little bit part of your job is, of course, also creating sounds that aren’t real, that don’t exist in the world, whether it’s a magic spell or a laser gun and free guy or, you know, I know you weren’t the sound effects designer, but one of the films you worked on, you know, with Man of Steel, you’ve got all of Superman’s abilities. I mean, you know, there’s a lot of these things, particularly, as you know, comic book films and blockbusters take over more and more of the marketplace. A lot of your job is making sounds that aren’t real, that don’t exist in the world. How do you approach that? I mean, because is it a different process from finding the exact right half on a cobblestone?

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S2: Yeah. So we may see, like, you know, see if it’s a laser shooting out, you know, my first thing would be to go into a synth, a software synth, so it can be like I could use method for use reactor, you know, absinthe, whatever to on the keyboard, like

S4: midi, like a like a midi controller. Controller control. Yeah, yeah, totally.

S2: You said to help perform some of it and or and then after that, you know, maybe I’ll run it through some plug ins, like maybe some distortion plug ins or a plug into stuttering or Doppler Doppler. And like, you know, when the sound goes by one point source, it would the pitch would bend and stuff or, you know, you can’t even like ever use like guitar squeal electric guitar squeals and stuff before. Mm hmm. Just anything you know that may have a bit more of a musicality in it, I guess.

S4: Do you play music? Did you did you train to play music as a kid or take piano lessons or whatever? I mean,

S2: I mean, I was given a choice to learn piano or this like thing. They call it organ, but it’s not like the organ from churches like those Japanese, that Yamaha school like. They have this kind of organ thing.

S4: There was a composer with the very first episode that I ever did of this show was Miho Jaisalmer, a jazz composer, and she began her career learning as a student to play those exact words. So are longtime listeners will know the exact thing you’re talking about.

S2: Oh OK. Cool, cool. Wow, that’s impressive. So, yeah, so I thought a piano close to normal. So I picked the organ. And so I know as a kid, you know, so I thought, you know, that kind of, you know, give you a little bit of a skill set, you know, with the whole piano thing. And also, you know, some like electronic synthy thing and also with the paddles, it takes a lot of coordination. And, you know, in secondary school, which is kind of like high school here, I guess. So I was in like the school band, I played clarinet.

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S4: It’s interesting to me because that early, that early, you know, you didn’t become a jazz keyboardist or whatever, but that early training is still very relevant. You’re still, you know, changing the electronic sounds, using a midi keyboard. You know, it’s actually very relevant to your work life.

S2: Yeah, yeah. And also, I just feel like with music, you know, with what we do in even even like sample features, it’s not because I do mostly sound design and no rerecording mixing. So in a sense, you know, when you design something or when you build a scene, you know, it’s always good to have like to map it out to see what occurs and and oftentimes like the musical musicality of the pitch or when you have a break in, you know, it’s I don’t know. I think as a human, as an audience, even though you may not really quite equate like sound like not a car chase or, you know, a gunfight s like music. But in a sense, if sometimes you build it up at the, you know, it’s almost like you ramp up something and then you give it a pause or whatever. Those kind of musical sensibility, I guess, does no help.

S4: Yeah. And do you think about the pitch of the sounds in relationship to the pitch of the score? I mean, is that yeah, actively because I was thinking about, you know, in the Michael Mann film thief, there’s a there’s a heist scene where they’re burning a hole in a safe with a torch. And then there’s sort of not really music. And then when they successfully break the safe, the music starts him. And Tangerine Dream wrote the music to that scene, to the pitch of the torch. They figured out the pitch of the torch and then the music is in the same key. Yes, it’s the sound effects. It would really feel like it came together, so I didn’t know if that happens on the other end as well, if you think about that.

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S2: We try to do that. But you know, often times, you know, with what we do know when we start on the movie, the composer hasn’t really been on much either at that early either. And so, you know, we may get a lot of temp music, right that we would try sometimes, you know, try to stay out of the way of the music or see how we could blend in in. But you know, that’s why it’s kind of like great to work like, say, on Damien Chazelle movie where Justin Hurwitz, the composer he starts like early, like sometimes he starts during production or like day one of post-production, and his office is like, right, the composer’s office is like right next door. So all of these are really rare in filmmaking. And so when we start work on the sound business, getting the picture and the dialogue, we also have Justin’s early mock up score that like we can try to know design sounds that like, say, you know, on First Man, like even just how the rocket sounds, the spaceship sound and the silence of the drone of it would blended into his the start of this music and.

S5: Incredible, incredible. Yeah.

S4: So I have to ask, you know, being this hyper focused on sound. Has it changed the way you perceive the world? Like does your creative practice and how you walk around during the day? Is there? Is there overlap there? You just constantly noticing the Soundscapes you walk through?

S2: I guess so. I mean, you know, we’d be doing anything or just walking around, you know, even like in a garage, like a parking garage, like at the supermarket and then you walk by, you hear like, Hey, that light is like buzzing. Weird. Mm hmm. So sometimes like, you know, I have a little portable recorder in my purse and I’ll just like, whip it out and just record it. So even like when we’re on vacation, sometimes I’ll just like take off the recorder and just walk around. In case, you know, we catch something. It can be even anything as simple as even like a door close and open or, yeah, a toilet flush. And it was crazy. But yeah, so in a sense, I guess my husband has kind of gotten used to it like

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S4: it’s sort of like, you know, 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 company.

S2: Yeah, I like, you know, if I’m recording, he would go. You have to keep quiet for a while. But kind of, I think in a sense then like, you know, every so often he may, you know, run to something and he may say, Hey, doesn’t this sound interesting? You know, that’s a really interesting though know grown here. Oh, hey, this water pump is making a weird, like sucking sound that you know it’s good to get because you never know. Like years down the road, you know, you can like, pitch it down or something. It could be a part of a sound to a monster, you know?

S4: And do you feel like as you started to pursue this career more seriously, that you had to kind of train your ear in a particular way? Was there a sort of an active way you started to rethink sound or did it just sort of come naturally as you worked on project after project?

S2: My main thing is like, as I’m working on things because, you know, I feel like what I’m doing besides, you know, achieving like, you know, what my vision is is also what the directors the filmmaker’s vision is because of the that film. But oftentimes, you know. I try to make it so an audience, a regular general audience, would feel the same way about no sudden sounds or seeing as I do so. More of like my concern is like, does it does a regular person who like, see the scene? No. Have the same take away of it than what I had intended, so instead of like changing my, you know, way of listening, it’s more about maybe, you know, I love getting people like pulling people in to play things for them. Well, now it’s cold. It’s because I’m working from home, so I’ll be pulling my pull up in over for him to get his opinions on unpaid

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S4: interns like

S2: him. Or, you know, if like in regular times, you know, like I would just like get any co-workers to come by and like, play it and love to get different opinions.

S4: So that’s interesting because it’s like it’s like one thing you have to control for is your own expertise, right? 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.

S2: Yeah, because I may want something to sound like creepy, like a build up to something, but if people don’t feel that way, then it doesn’t matter. Or, like, say, in Cinderella, those the three might say, start singing along to Rhythm Nation. And so I just took like a bunch of like different Mos recordings and pitch them around to make them sound like they’re singing along. So, you know, I may just get people in to play for them was like, 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. Right? But maybe not to others.

S4: Yeah, I feel like there comes a point in most creative processes where you get so deep into whatever it is that you’re working on that you kind of can’t see it anymore. Yeah. And figuring out how to, you know, get someone else to see it or, you know, walk away from it long enough so you can see it again or trick yourself into seeing it differently. You know, like some writers, change the font to a really ugly font. Oh, really? Yeah, they see the actual word choices again, because they’re just used to being in Helvetica or whatever, and so they’ll change it to Comic Sans just to disrupt their way of thinking. But, you know, yeah, it’s like you get so deep into something you can’t even tell what you’re doing anymore and you need help.

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S2: Yeah, yeah, totally. Yeah. And yeah, whichever that gets, the No. Kind of want to make sure that I’m not thinking it. I’m not overthinking something that you know. Right? No one gets it.

S4: And of course, at some point you have to present this work to an actual, to your actual collaborators, to the editor, to the director. You know, things like that. We talk a lot about collaboration on the show, and I’m interested. I mean, obviously sometimes the different cooks in this particular stew might disagree. Writer director might say, Hey, I don’t think this is working, and you might not necessarily think the direction they want to go is correct or, you know, whatever it is. How do you think about or handled disagreement within the collaborative process?

S2: Yeah, I guess like say, you know what I would say, for example, like I would have done like a in a sci fi movie, I may have done the iris shaped like a round door with an as almost like an iris that opens and closes. And you know, I may have done the sound for it, but the filmmaker may go, Yeah, no, I don’t know. That’s too sci fi. I want it more like in aliens, you know, that’s what I remember. I was like, OK, I’ll still do my due diligence and, you know, to research and do what they want. And, you know, because sometimes some things are like. So long ago that in the memory is different. And what the real thing is, then I may then take that idea because the number also isn’t quite like slick as slick as how we’d like to be, but then I figured, OK, so it’s more about, say, metals rubbing against each other like a slight scraping sound. So I do my own version of that. So in a sense, then we may kind of like halfway.

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S4: Well, thank you so much once again for joining us this week to tell us all about your process.

S2: Sure, it’s been fun. So, yeah, got some good tips from you, Mike from writers.

S4: So thank you.

S3: This is such a silly question, but you mentioned at the top of the interview that most people don’t really understand what sound editing and mixing is, and I’ll admit that I am in that party. I don’t 100 percent understand what it is either, although I certainly understand it better now. How well did you understand the field before going into this interview?

S4: I mean, I sort of understood it. I think that people don’t understand it because it is genuinely confusing the sound departments, particularly on big budget movies. They have a lot of different jobs within the sound department. A lot of different people who are working on things, you know, from the Foley artists or the people making the actual effects to the on set mixers were the people mixing the audio that the cameras capturing the editors were supervising. The entire soundscape mixers were putting it all together. You know, I did this article for Slate on why every male actor talks like this, and when I did that piece, I interviewed in Audio Mixer to ask him about how it all works. So I got some sense of those jobs a bit. Cameron and I really wanted to book a sound related to Gaston. So researching that process, I had to learn a lot more about it then.

S3: That’s awesome. Sort of related to that. I’m curious if there is like a sound that really made a movie for you. Like, I think a lot of us will think about the music in a movie, and that’s like a lot easier to kind of register. But sounds are kind of tougher to pass out, but sometimes can be really impactful if used in the right way.

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S4: Yeah, totally. I mean, I used to dabble in sound design for theater, so this is the kind of question I believe, OK, Bragg, I’m going to. I mean, I wasn’t good at it, but I did dabble in it. I am going to go with the low budget horror film session nine. Have you ever seen such an Oscar?

S3: No, I have not.

S4: OK, so this is a movie came out in 2001. Shot on digital video like very not great digital video, low budget movie starring Josh Lucas and David Caruso. And it is effing terrifying, even though you almost never see anything scary happen in it. Like it is all just done with sound, with the layering of sound effects, with creepy voiceover. And it really takes like its budgetary limitations. Like you can imagine, they probably didn’t have a ton of money for special effects, right? And it does as much as they can within it. It’s about this hazmat crew who is cleaning the asbestos out of an abandoned, insane asylum so it can be turned into condos. And just like the sonic world of that insane asylum sort of starts to drive them crazy. Hello. Go ahead! Corey. This moment, I first discovered it because I was working as an assistant director on a play that was about hauntings and our fascination with horror, and the sound designer was like, This is the thing that I am using now as the template for this. We all watched it and it freaked the bejesus out of all of us, so I highly recommend it.

S3: I will definitely look it up. That sounds well. I’m like a huge weenie, so maybe I won’t. But anyway, your argument is compelling.

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S4: Watch it with the lights on.

S3: I really loved what Lee said about looking up, whose sound editors that she liked were like when she was just starting out and like finding out where they worked and writing these unsolicited emails to introduce herself as she trying to break into the industry, at least in media or a lot of jobs. Now, that’s no longer really a way to get a job like if you do that, it’s like unwelcome almost. And I’m curious if you’ve ever done that to try to get a job. And I’m guessing maybe not since you sounded really surprised when she told you that she tried that.

S4: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s a good reminder that her career started in the mid-nineties, which is when I think it’s like the last moment that you could do something like that. Now it feels like, you know, an arrested development. When Tobias is sending the headshots to the casting agents and he’s putting glitter in, he’s leaving notes that say things like See my show or I’ll kill your family. You know, I think it feels like that because now, thanks to e-mail, we get so many unsolicited requests for things. I did do this once, actually, though. In 2002, I wrote letters to a bunch of directors to see if anyone needed assistance. And I will say I did wind up getting a job from it with a guy who was legitimately nuts. And it was a really horrible experience, so I never did it again. And so I was I was happy to hear that someone did that and it worked, and it actually set them on their right, their life’s path. I mean, I find that really charming and wonderful that it worked out for her like that.

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S3: You have to tell me more about this job later. But for now, with regard to this interview, I thought that your question about quote unquote compressed deadlines is so funny. And I’m curious if you are someone who works better under that kind of pressure or if you appreciate having, like a longer lead time.

S4: I guess my feeling is, is that every project has like a sweet spot or like maybe a range that isn’t so long. You go completely off the deep end with research and preparation and fiddling about and fussing over every single decision. But it’s not so short that you feel like all your creative choices are happening under duress, you know? Yeah. In other words, I just don’t think it’s about like tight deadlines or long deadlines. It’s actually relative to each specific project. I mean, of course, you know this, Karen in freelance writing. The deadline is always at least a little bit sooner than that sweet spot, right? It’s at least a little bit. But I also find if I have too much lead time, I just go way overboard and I get all my head about it and it gets really hard to feel you

S3: overthink,

S4: overthink and especially over research because I was like, Why have the time to become an authority in this? And now I’m going to do that and it never leads anywhere good. Yeah, I’m curious about about you. What? What do you think? Because you’re having one of your first experiences with a really long deadline? Yeah, is the really short deadlines of freelance writing.

S3: Well, I’ve talked a little bit about this before, but it’s been helpful to have the chapter deadlines like I’ve had a deadline every month to make sure that I’ve finished X amount of writing, and that’s been really helpful. I operate pretty well under pressure. I don’t like it when it’s extreme pressure, even though like I still will get the work done. It just it’s the same principle of like, I like doing work, but I don’t like doing it when it stresses me out. You know what? I totally it’s like, that’s the kind of workhorse where I am, where it’s like, I enjoy doing it, but I want to be enjoying doing it.

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S4: Yeah, absolutely.

S3: Yeah. I also really liked what Lee said about liking directors who think more outside the box with regard to like the reference points that they told her to look for in creating these sounds. As a director yourself, do you think of yourself as someone who thinks outside the box, like, do you put together like these mood boards like for your cast and crew or anything like that?

S4: I mean, it’s been a long time since I’ve directed now. It’s been a few years. So with that that caveat, you know, no, I’m not a mood board guy. I respond really well to them and I want them from China’s. What I thought was really smart about that in terms of reference points is, you know, you’re really allowing yourself to be open to influence without being derivative. So they’re not looking at other outer space movies, they’re looking at submarine movies, they’re looking at things that are related. So, you know, I might be like, Oh, I love the rumpled shirts of all the president’s men or, you know, something like, Oh, that’s a movie that I love the look of that movie. Yeah, all the people are dressed in it. But you know, that might be for a project that has nothing to do with politics or journalism. I mean, references give you something concrete. You know, we can get so obsessed with originality that we forget that you need something concrete to hold on to particularly collaboratively. You know, like if I just said to you, Well, I want it to sound claustrophobic. Well, what is claustrophobic mean to you versus what it needs to be who? But if I say I want it to sound like the claustrophobia of Das Boot, you know, then there’s something there that we can hold on to. And I’ll say, you know, when you propose a non-fiction book, you know, when you’re writing a book proposal, you have to do that for the editors and for the serious people have to sign off on the book. You have to have your

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S3: life with any book, not just nonfiction.

S4: Yeah, yeah, totally, totally. But you have to have your list of titles. These are the books that are, like my book and you want to craft that list often with your agent in a way that’s like, these are similar, but I’m not doing the exact same thing. I’m doing the rest of that or, you know, whatever it is. And and part of that’s for very mercenary sales reasons. But part of that’s because like, I’m describing something that doesn’t exist yet. And so the easiest way for me to communicate it to you is to give you a list of things that do exist that it will remind you of

S3: and to jump from the beginning of the process to kind of the thick of it. You talk about how sometimes like when you’re writing and editing like one more, you usually think, Oh, if I see one more comma, I’m going to jump out the window. How do you take breaks from your work and how do you stop yourself from doing that?

S4: Can you tell that I was in copy edits when I did that? Well, I mean, first of all, there’s just life stuff. I have a dog, I have a child. I have dinner to cook. You know, those create natural breaks, and I became a writer. After all, that stuff was was true for the most part. You know, like if I were like a single 23 year old and I was in my room all the time and I complete control over my time or, you know, whatever, I don’t know how I would. I would have to create a structure, but like my life is creating a structure for me. I will also say, like as a freelancer, I’ve got four jobs, you know, so sometimes a break is actually I’m not working on my book anymore. I’m working on this podcast, but also it’s OK to sit down and play video games like that is like right now, Returnal.

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S3: It’s hard.

S4: It’s so I still haven’t gotten past stop

S3: being so frustrated.

S4: I know, I know, but it’s so good. But like, you know, you need time for your brain to shut off. You need time for your brain to be distracted. To think about other things. I will also say. Big fan of the power nap. Big fan of, you know, lying down for 20 minutes. Setting a timer for 20 minutes, lying down, waking up, drinking a glass of water and getting right back to work. I actually think that that sort of stuff really helps. I actually did that before a marathon recording session today.

S3: I’m very jealous because I feel like really there are two types of people in the world. There’s a like naps work for you and be naps don’t work for you. And for me, that’s just don’t work whenever I wake up. Just like, Oh, I feel like crap,

S4: really, if you like, only do it for 20 minutes. Yeah, set a timer.

S3: Oh yeah, it doesn’t mean anything.

S4: Don’t don’t nap, donut.

S3: And what do you what do you do when you hit that point where you’re too far into a piece of work? Because I think the feeling that you describe is something that we’re all familiar with, albeit probably in some smaller ways where it’s like, if you say a word so many times, it doesn’t sound like it’s a real word anymore.

S4: You know, sometimes you just got to step away like it. Really, you have to forgive yourself when it’s OK and you need to take time off and you need to goof off or watch a movie or do something fun. Or, you know, if it’s a big project, maybe there’s other work you have to do, like write emails to your interview subjects or, you know, read an article. You just have to have faith that your sense of the project will return to you and to not panic, and to be kind to yourself in those moments to just recognize like, Oh my god, I’m so swimming in it. I’ve just lost all sight of this thing. I just need to. I just need to take a walk or whatever. What do you do?

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S3: Weirdly, I feel like I haven’t really hit that point yet with any of the things that I’ve been working on. But generally thinking about that feeling, I would say that your advice is pretty much spot on. Like doing something else for a while is really the only way to step away from it, literally and figure out how to re-appropriate when you come back. All right, that is our show for the week, and if you enjoyed it, please remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and then you’ll never miss an episode. And now let me tell you how awesome a Slate Plus membership is. Slate Plus members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast, full access to all the articles and Slate.com bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and How to Do It. And it’s only one dollar for the first month.

S4: Thank you so much to this week’s guest Ai-Ling Lee, and thanks as ever to our wonderful producer Cameron Drews. We’ll be back next week with June’s conversation with curator Deborah Schmidt Bock. Until then, get back to work. Hey, Slate, plus, listeners, Isaac Butler here, thank you so much for everything you do to support us. Here’s a little bonus tidbit from my interview with Ai-Ling Lee. I hope you enjoy it. You’ve worked on many, many movies. Is there a kind of film or kind of soundscape that you haven’t explored yet that you’d like really like? Like, we asked a costume designer this question, for example, and she was like, I’ve never done a sci fi movie. I’d love to do a space opera, you know, whatever it is. Is there? Is there a particular kind of soundscape or world that you haven’t gotten a chance to explore that you’d love to take a crack at? Cavemen biblical epic.

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S2: Something I feel like I have gotten through a lot of the time period. However, I have not worked on like a medieval battle kind of movies or even though, you know, I had, like mentioned sci fi and this and that earlier. But it has been like quite a few years since I had last worked on those. So I do like to have a mix of genres every so often just to use a different part of a different part of, you know, my hopefully my creative muscle. So, so yeah. So I think it’s been a long time since I’d like. Worked on like a sci fi film, so, you know, I guess, sci fi.

S4: Sound technology. Sound production technology has come a long way since the start of your career. You know, I was even thinking about something like like isotope, you know, frequency editing software, for example. You know, imagine showing that to yourself in 1995 would be like one day you will get to work with this. What what are the kind of technological what are the biggest technological changes that have impacted your creative process?

S2: Well, as a good example, because it cleans up a lot of the, um, really noisy, nasty dialogue. But for me, I feel like is the change in like, say, no back when I started. If you’re editing your editing in a digital audio workstation and when you have the mix is another outboard gear. And with the change in technology like, say, you know, a lot of this digital audio workstations nowadays, you know, you can kind of like do a virtual in the in the box mix that is like, you know, to control the volume, the panning, the IQ, compression anything or even like, you know, limiting everything in the digital audio workstation. It makes the workflow, makes it possible for me as I’m editing and in the same platform, same machine to be able to carve likes to be very specific about like what sounds I want to hear here and there and how to know if it maybe it could be a dreamy, more muffled. Soundscape with a reverb going on and all that, I could just do it in the digital audio workstation. It used to be, you know, a lot more tedious and you can and quite, you know, do as much of the mics or pan things around as you want back then.

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S4: So it allows you to make kind of clear choices. Yeah. To the final mixing process. Hmm. Yeah, that’s interesting. And some of that impulse on your part to want to give a more complete draft to the sound mixer comes from being a sound mixer yourself.

S2: Yeah. I’m just like used to. Like, if I see something and have an idea, you know how I want it to sound in my head to try to create and craft it as close as what I have in my vision. So it’s just ready to be sent to the mic stage. So that by that point is maybe some fine tuning here and there in perspective to know the entire mix with the dialogue, music, everything.

S4: All right, that’s it for this week. Catch you next time,

S5: right here, I’m working.