The sound design of The Swimmer

Sound designer Paul Davies on creating an aural montage conveying a sense of Britain for the short film The Swimmer, director Lynne Ramsay's contribution to the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.
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Sound designer Paul Davies on creating an aural montage conveying a sense of Britain for the short film The Swimmer, director Lynne Ramsay's contribution to the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

The London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics are under a month away but the supporting events designed to show Britain's cultural and artistic side, away from sporting endeavour, have already begun. These come under the umbrella head of the London Festival and include four short films commissioned from leading directors to examine the country's image of itself.

Among works by Asif Kapadia, who directed the acclaimed Senna, Streetdance duo Max Giwa and Dania Pasquin and the grand old man of English social comedy-drama, Mike Leigh, is The Swimmer, directed by Lynne Ramsay, whose most recent feature film was We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011).

Ramsay describes the 13-minute short as a "stream of consciousness" that follows a young man on an endurance swim through a shifting background of country rivers and urban waterways. As he powers through the water, British songs and tunes intermingle with snatches of dialogue from classic UK films of the 1960s and 70s.

Because of this the sound design is as much a part of The Swimmer as the moodily sharp black and white images shot by Argentinean cinematographer Natasha Braier. The audio was designed and compiled by Paul Davies, who has worked with Ramsay since her first feature, Ratcatcher, in 1999.

Both are products of the National Film and Television School. Davies was a few years ahead of Ramsay and graduated as she was arriving but does remember her coming in. From 1995 to 2000 Davies worked at the now closed north London audio facilities house Videosonics, where sound for Ratcatcher was post-produced.

Since going freelance he has supervised the sound on Ramsay's next two features, Morven Callar (2002) and We Need to Talk about Kevin, in between working on other films and TV series, including The Queen (2006) and Shameless. In the eight years separating the release of Morven Callar and the start of production on Kevin, Davies says work processes have changed slightly and this was more fully realised on The Swimmer.

"I was working on the sound at the same time as the pictures were being cut and there was even more collaboration with the picture editor [Adam Biskupski]," he explains. "I use Nuendo and everything is now file-based, so I could provide Adam with clips as we went along. That helps the picture cut and fits in with the very organic, fluid way Lynne likes to work. Having the sound alongside informs the edit."

Usually Davies is a step removed from the shoot but for The Swimmer he spent four to five days on location, something he says he had not done since leaving film school. The main filming took place at a reservoir in Devon, where Davies recorded wild track audio - he does not think there was any sync sound - on a Marantz PMD660. "It was nothing fancy," he observes.

The images are primarily a mixture of shots of the swimmer of the title, played by Tom Litten, and scenes along the riverside. There are also point of view shots from the water; as well as seeing what the swimmer sees, the audience hears what he hears. Davies recorded underwater using a DPA 8011 hydrophone hired from Richmond Film Services and mixed those tracks with old songs like The Very Thought of You by Al Bowley, which were processed in post to sound waterlogged.

The sound-track also features Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, the theme from Peter Brooks 1963 film version of Lord of the Flies, composed by Raymond Leppard - the recording of which Davies describes as "very lo-fi" - and excerpts from other British films such as Billy Liar, Walkabout and If, which convey a decidedly bitter-sweet and edgy sense of Britishness.

Davies also contributed two electronic pieces he wrote and recorded at his home studio. Tracks were assembled on Nuendo and taken to Halo Post Production in London for mixing in the big Studio 1 on its AMS Neve DFC Gemini. "Everything was played live from Nuendo through MADI cards connected to the DFC," Davies explains. The film was mixed by dubbing engineers Andrew Stirk and Jonathan Rush.

The Swimmer was co-commissioned by BBC Films and Film 4 and so will also be shown on television as well as theatrically. "Because of that the stereo TV mix was important," says Davies, "but the focus was really on the Dolby Digital 5.1 for the cinematic release."

The Swimmer is showing in Picturehouse Cinemas round the UK until 9 September.

Written By: Kevin Hilton


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