Peter in Radioland

Disappearing Soundscape
Disappearing Soundscape

Sound design/composition work comes my way now & then. Audio is a hugely important part of my own work in film. In general I create my own soundtracks, so I’ve developed something of an ear for it.

Over time it’s become a transferable skill & I do enjoy making sure that sound is properly looked after.

I’ve  been working on a sound design job for a short film called Peter In Radioland. This 10′ documentary, directed by a focussed, talented film maker called Johanna Wagner was produced by Rebecca Day for the short documentary film scheme Bridging The Gap.

I’ve worked with Bridging the Gap previously on four very different films: Andrew Henderson’s The Rest Is Silence, Alice Nelson’s A Difficult Case, Hazel Baillie’s The Truth About Tooth & Astrid Bussink’s Ruckenlage / Upside Down.

(You are free to speculate as to whether there’s any significance in the fact that I was invited to work on films about death, schizophrenia/possession, tooth manufacturing & Nazi plots.)

All of these films are available to view online (click the film titles above).

Johanna → Door → Paper Edit
Johanna → Door → Paper Edit

Johanna Wagner’s Peter In Radioland is a beguiling, gently comical & unsettlingly piece of film making.

Ostensibly it’s an observational documentary about Johanna’s father Peter. It explores his love affair with analogue audio technology (radios in particular) & articulates his scepticism towards the unstoppable technological advances made by digital.

However, his frustration with the encroaching digital technology & his low level panic at the inevitable disappearance of the analogue soundscape seem to be symptomatic of a deeper psychological crisis.

‘I was Peter with a capital P, you know?’ he declares at one point. ‘I personally feel very small in this world. I can feel I’m shrinking’.

He’s depressed. His sense of powerlessness has mutated into a rage against the machine, or machines – of the digital ilk. His quiet fury at these changes is something that many will identify with.

For us it may not be digital devices – we all have our own demons – but for sure there’ll be stuff that we’ll aim our fury at as we reach the doorstep of our twilight years. Like Peter, we may find it hard to make ourselves understood.

Working It Out
Rebecca Day → Mark Jenkins → Johanna Wagner

Analogue radio signals have an intrinsically sympathetic quality. They are emitted as a constant stream & one can learn how to navigate the flow of information – with subtle alterations of the radio’s positioning or a tweak of the tuner.

Actively connecting to the network, one is engaged in processing its delivery, handling the medium. It’s the original ‘interactive entertainment’.

With digital however – that cold place of numbers, endlessly crunching away – it’s an on or off situation, with no room for the subtleties of fine tuning & riding airwaves. The user is somehow shut out of defining the quality of the information.

It’s sold to us as greater choice, but for Peter & many, many folk, it’s the end of the subtle details & the sublime ‘inbetweens’. Choice as defined by others is not really choice at all.

But this is nostalgia, isn’t it? Or is it actually common sense.

Let's Try It This Way
Let's Try It This Way

‘It’s the longing in between the zero & one that carries the emotions, warmth & affection’, Peter states at the close of the film, ‘and don’t forget love’.

Johanna was a tutee of mine for a term & a bit when I was still teaching at ECA. She made a hilarious film during that time called ‘The Red Dot Syndrome’ which featured Super 8mm film (shot by Peter) of her own birth. She seemed particularly drawn to my workshops in Super 8 film & how one might combine celluloid with digital.

I guess there’s a kind of natural link between her dad’s interests in analogue, my own 20 year long dedication to Super 8 film & her own ambition to combine digital & S8 film making.

Johanna combines digital with Super 8 very gracefully & articulates her father’s process of retreat into the cocoon of analogue comforts through the progressive layering of image & sound.

Folk talk of the acoustics of a space as being dry & of the warmth of vinyl recordings – these are physical descriptions of an invisible energy (sound). Similarly sounds trigger emotional responses & can be used to create emotional soundscapes.

My aim with the sound design for Peter In Radioland was to help draw particular sequences of the film into the heightened realm of Peter’s ‘imaginary inner space’, a process of exploring the connections between sonic qualities & emotional states.

Orkney's Unique Stand Up Editor
Orkney's Unique Stand Up Editor

Super 8 certainly seems like it’s back to stay for a good while, with fancy new film stock & all.

In the early 1990’s it nearly died a total death but I hung on in there because magnetic video tape produced such a horrible image & unlike Super 8, it was impossible to edit with it in a non-linear way.

Super 8 & digital are, as it turns out, natural bedfellows.

I’m proud to say that I was part of a modest but reliant turnover of independent film business that helped keep Super 8 a going concern during difficult times.

It’s great that it’s found a new wave of practitioners. It’s an awkward but seductive medium which needs a fair bit of practice – but can produce wonderful results.

Stromness
Stromness

I was flattered to be invited to work on Johanna’s film & was also particularly excited to learn that we would be working with an excellent editor, Mark Jenkins, who is based in Stromness (Orkney).

The initial ideas for the sound design were explored during a trip to Stromness & it was a real privilege to be involved (as sound designer) at these early stages of post production.

Rebecca Day was instrumental in making this happen & it’s great that we were able to go to the editor rather than expect the world to revolve around the central belt (that’s the M8 corridor, Edinburgh ↔ Glasgow).

For what it’s worth I totally approve of this approach. Scotland’s in a great position to pursue this kind of ‘remote working’. Just takes a bit of trust & imagination.

Stromness Night
Stromness Dusk

A different Rebecca – artist Rebecca Marr – (Mark’s equally dynamic but I beg to say bonnier other half) – deserves a totally proper & massive look in for making us all so welcome during that time & for creating the most amazing soups & lunches & for generally being a beam of sunshine & comedy & energy.

As for Orkney – wow. I am totally smitten.

I’m sad to say I only met Stromness but I can’t wait to get back.

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Peter in Radioland

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