Interview with Sound Designer Udit Duseja, Cinema Eye Honors Award Nominee
Sound designer Udit Duseja began his journey with music and sound in his hometown, Gwalior, in Northern India, which is well known for its classical music tradition. Since then, he has worked in Mumbai’s film industry and studied at the University of Edinburgh, where he studied sound design. He is known for his collaborations with filmmaker Garret Bradley on the acclaimed short film America, and the documentary series Naomi Osaka, streaming on Netflix.
Most recently, Udit’s work can be heard on the 2021 essay film by Theo Anthony, All Light, Everywhere, which received a Cinema Eye Honors nomination for Outstanding Sound Design.
We spoke with Udit about his multicultural experiences with sound and music, his collaborations with filmmaker Garret Bradley, and his process for creating sound.
How has your background informed your success as a sound designer?
I was born & brought up in a small city called Gwalior in India, a place famous for its north-Indian classical musical traditions and rich cultural history. My journey in sound began in this very town. As a child, I learnt and practiced classical music for 4 years, which laid a good foundation for my understanding of sound and it trained my ear at a very early age. Many years after, I moved to Mumbai, which is the centre of the Indian film industry. There, I met filmmakers and artists, and started learning on the job with industry professionals. I then moved to Edinburgh, UK, to attend a sound design masters program at the University of Edinburgh. Being in a different country and in a university setting helped to me think out of the box and push the boundaries; it opened a lot of doors for my sonic exploration. I currently live and work in London.
My work has been very diverse & is often collaborative. I work very closely with artists, directors, editors, composers, sound editors & mixers. Over the years, I have worked on a variety of projects which range from Independent films, sound installations, documentaries, major Indian film productions and recently on Netflix shows.
How did you see your role as a sound designer for All Light Everywhere? Do you typically see your roles as more artistic, technical, or as a mix of both?
The sound design work on All Light Everywhere was an extremely collaborative effort. The director & editor Theo Anthony & the producers at memory.is Riel Roch Dector, Sebastian Pardo & Jonna McKone worked very closely with me to build & sculpt the soundscape. The sonic space / tone of the film was already set by an atmospheric score by Dan Deacon which had been broadly composed before I received the cut.
Their initial brief to me was to create a minimal, atmospheric, sci-fi documentary soundscape for the film, to create, unexpected connections between technology, weapons and surveillance. The outcome was to illustrate critically the effect they have on our real lives. This was beautifully crafted in the edit where the structure of the narrative was interacting between archive images, close up shots of computer screens and corporate video style scenes. My role was to interpret the sophisticated and invasive nature of surveillance technology through sound.
Sound is very short lived and is intrinsically ephemeral; its not visual but its visual in its essence and this was the purpose of sound design on this film: it was to make the audience see the world in its invisibility. The soundscape was built using a number of components: ‘room tones’; occasional police radio-crackle-beep; when you’re close to a cctv camera or a computer screen and you hear subtle electromagnetic sounds; off screen mouse clicks; camera handling rattle; and soft tape machine crackle for transiting into the archive sections, amongst many other sounds. All these sounds were very carefully placed & mixed around the voice over, dialogue & the score. This organically became the sonic language of the film. It added tension to the scenes and contextualised the spatiality of the film.
I see my role on any project mainly as a collaborator. My primary job is to realise the directors vision by telling their story through sound. Through my practice I am constantly exploring how sound can be used as a form of artistic expression and a material; and with every project I aim to find possibilities to develop a fluid sonic language to express ideas, which can shape audiences subconscious narratives and create immersive experiences. I feel as ‘designers’ we should look at ourselves as problem solvers: both technically and artistically.
What is it like working with collaborators Garrett Bradley & John Akomfrah? Could you tell us a little bit about your working relationship with them, specifically on America?
John Akomfrah is a hugely respected artist and filmmaker and I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with him on a few projects now. John’s multi-visual layered work is always accompanied with a powerful and fluid sound score, which is usually constructed alongside the picture edit. There are several layers playing out of at least 7.1 speaker systems if not more. These complex layers are interpreting various emotions, characters, physical spaces of the formed narrative. Amongst the natural sounds, the design is usually infused with ambient tonal textures, exploring the intersection between sound & music. What I love about working with John on his projects, is that he encourages a lot of freedom of expression and my process for creating these layers is very instinctive: I thrive in that environment. My most recent collaboration with Akomfrah is on his latest work, ‘Five Murmurations’ which was exhibited at Lisson Gallery, NY, last year. https://www.lissongallery.com/exhibitions/john-akomfrah
I met Academy Award Nominee Garrett Bradley, the director of ‘America’ through my work with John Akomfrah.
The film America explores the intersection of race, history, and visual storytelling through a series of 12 silent, black and white, 35mm films, chronologically starting from 1915 to 1926. AMERICA is both a film and a multi-channel video installation. The AMERICA installation has been exhibited at the New Orleans Museum of Art, The Contemporary Art Museum Houston (CAMH), the Museum of Modern Art in partnership with The Studio Museum, The Momentary and upcoming, The Geffen Contemporary at MoCA
When Garrett approached me, the picture wasn’t laid with any sync sound. Initially Garrett wanted me to do a sound mix with Trevor Mathison’s score and some minimal sfx, which were put together on the edit. I watched the cut and intuitively started filling some space. I added some natural sounds, ambient tonal layers and uploaded a mix for review, to which she responded very positively and from there on we started to build the soundtrack layer by layer. Every sound you hear now in the film is added in post production. Again this was a very free and collaborative partnership, through which we co-developed an incremental practice of constructing a memories in layers.
The film reinterprets lost African-American cinema. We wanted to represent this flow of time using sound, reimagining the reality of the past, to give a sense of disorientation. The film was shot beautifully on 35mm and I wanted to challenge the singularity of the medium where the sound seeps through the deep core of the visual medium, through the veins of the images, leaving audiences with a physical and an immersive experience. The sounds in America are ‘self-conscious’, where every sound has a meaning and a purpose, to evoke emotion and transform memory. The film is currently showing on https://fieldofvision.org/
Since working on America, Garrett & I have worked together on a few projects, the latest of which is the Naomi Osaka documentary currently showing on Netflix.
When you are assigned a new project, what is the first step in your process?
Watching the cut / reading the script, depends on what stage of the project I get hired at. Communication is really the key, where I like to have many initial conversations with the director, spotting the film scene by scene and also be in constant conversation with the editor and composers. This simplifies the workflow and gives me a lot of clarity on to what the filmmakers are expecting from sound and in which direction the final mix needs to pushed.
It’s been restated many times but getting involved as a sound supervisor / designer on any project as early as possible, when the first draft of the script is written, gives the director and the production plenty of time to think about sound. Obviously, at that stage they are more focused on getting the visual language right but your involvement can actually inform how they shoot the story and can make a huge difference when they are cutting the picture.
Who is your dream director or creative to work with?
The list is very long and I wish to work with so many amazing filmmakers and artists from around the world. It would be great to work with filmmakers who want to use sound as a storytelling tool to provide an alternative point of view.
What 1 sentence of advice would you give to aspiring sound designers professionals?
Start building your library of sounds! Watch a lot of films from around the world.