Alexandru Dumitru, sound designer: When I work on too many realistic films, I feel the need of a horror

19 May, 2020

Born on 22nd of November, 1979 in Tulcea, Alexandru Dumitru is one of the most active sound designers and editors in Romanian cinema, having worked so far on more than 70 films (short and feature films, documentary and fiction), most of them Romanian productions.

He graduated from Law School and between the ages of 16 and 23 he worked as a DJ. In 2011, he took an internship at Chainsaw Europe and realised there’s nothing else he’d like to do. He has remained at Chainsaw and is still part of the team.

Alex has received the GOPO trophy two times, alongside fellow colleagues – first time for “Closer to the moon” (2014), and the second time for “6.9 on the Richter Scale” (2018), both directed by Nae Caranfil. He received many other nominations. 

Other notable works are “Trading Germans” (dir. Razvan Georgescu, 2014), Why Me? (dir. Tudor Giurgiu, 2015), “Orizont” (dir. Marian Crisan, 2015), “Breaking News” (dir. Iulia Rugina, 2017), “Marița” (dir. Cristi Iftime, 2017), “The Story of a Summer Lover” (dir. Paul Negoescu, 2018), “Soldiers: Story from Ferentari” (2017) & “Ivana the Terrible” (2019) – both by Ivana Mladenović.

Alexandru Dumitru

What are the main differences between sound design and sound editing?

A sound editor chooses the sounds and inserts them where they fit, while a sound designer creates the atmosphere of a film. It can be a realistic sound, just like in most Romanian movies, or sounds that you create and add in scenes where maybe you wouldn’t normally hear them, but they contribute to that scene, to the character’s frame of mind, for example..

The Oscars have two categories: Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing – mixing is more about how poignant the sounds are, how high you raise the volume on something. Sound mixing comprises them all: dialogue, effects, ambiance, and so on. 

In what stage do you enter a project?

Many times in pre-production, but this is the ideal case. I read the script, note down some important things that should be taken into consideration during shootings. There are many types of sounds specific to a place, that I might need for some scenes. For example, if there are cars in a scene, I want all the possible sounds you can get of the cars used on set, so I can play with them later. It’s easier to play around with sounds that already exist, than to recreate everything in the studio, and it’s also less time-consuming. 

Next, I send my notes via e-mail to the producer, director, sound department, 1st AD, and sometimes to the DOP, too. 

But of course, there are times when I’m asked to join the project after the shootings have ended, or during the editing stage or when the movie has already been edited; so I watch the movie, write down some stuff, especially where I notice sound-related issues. I also make notes on how I see the general atmosphere and then scene by scene, and I meet with the director to discuss them. Depending on what’s decided, I start adding sounds and look for the best options. 

And what do you do in the situation when the recorded sound is almost impossible to use, if for various reasons it wasn’t recorded properly?

It’s quite tricky. If you work with a director who’s okay with post-sync, then you might have a shot. You get the actors in the studio and re-do everything – depending on how long it has been since they finished the shootings, it can last from a few days, up to a few weeks. Those actors have to go back to their characters, relive the whole experience. I had cases where in the film they had to talk while climbing the stairs, so I had them do some squats or push-ups, in order to get that fatigue effect on their voices. After dialogue and lines, you recreate everything else – ambiance, foley, sounds effects, and so on. 

What’s your role in a project where the director cares a lot about the realism of the sounds?

As long as you, as a spectator, don’t feel I intervened anywhere, then it’s great – it means I did my part. Otherwise, it means I did something wrong.

What type of film stimulates you more?

I’m happy to work on lots of films that are quite different from one another. When I happen to work on two very different films, like one that’s hyperreal and the other’s pure madness, sometimes I jump from one to the other, so I change my state of being, my state of mind.

When I work for a long time on a realistic film, I miss the car crashes, trauma, blood on the walls, horror films; and it works the other way around, too. For me it’s much more interesting to just create sounds – and it usually happens when I work on genre films, like those bizarre ones, or with a lot of violence. On the other hand, recreating the heavy atmosphere of an apartment can be quite challenging, too.

Is the artistic quality of the film important, when you choose working on a film?

Not really. If a director, or a producer chooses me for the sound mixing, then I do everything I can to make sure that film will sound good in the end. I get attached to every film I work on, they all have their charm. 

I’ll give you an example – a fight scene where the acting is not good enough, means that I could add some fighting sounds, amplify their breath, or similar effects, which will make the viewer pay less attention to the actors.

However, when I feel I can’t have any contribution to a project, I pass – and it happened a few times; either because I didn’t like the film, or I couldn’t communicate with the director. There’s no sense going forward, if we see the film in a different manner. Yes, you could work like that, but then you’re just following orders, you don’t actually have an artistic and technical input.

How do you collaborate with the composer of the film?

Sometimes I just receive the final score and I use it, and sometimes I have brainstormings with the composer. As I progress with the sound mixing, I send him some works in progress and it goes the other way around, too. The purpose is to have the sound and music intertwine. 

Does it bother you what the vast majority says about the Romanian films – that you cannot understand what the actors are saying?

It did at the beginning, but not anymore. There are two problems here: the director’s intention and the way the dialogue was recorded. 

Now, you can’t change the director’s intention. There are directors who want to keep it fully realistic; like, for example, if two people walk on the other side of the street and they’re talking, then the dialogue must be inaudible, even though it might be important for the narrative of the film. And there are some directors who will go for the Hollywood type of film, where the distance doesn’t matter – if the dialogue is relevant, that it must be heard.

When it comes to the sound recording on the set, it all depends on the budget and team’s implication, to name a few. For a very long time there was this misconception – „let it be, they’ll fix it in post-production”, but that’s not an option every single time. There are directors  who don’t even want to hear about re-recording or post-sync, even if the process is quite simple or getting the dialogue right on the set is much more difficult. There’s always a compromise you have to make. 

And even if all this new technology can help you clean the sound, it has its limits. If you have scenes with really poor sound, nothing will help you – there are things you can do and things you cannot.

So there is some truth in the public’s discontent.

Yes, but there’s something else, too. A lot of people are fixed on this idea from ten years ago or even longer. Many of them won’t go to a Romanian film because they think it’s incomprehensible, but if you ask them what’s the last Romanian film they have seen, most probably it’s something from ten years ago. But things have changed. 

The New Wave has been replaced in recent years by a „new” New Wave – directors are not so fixed on hyperrealism anymore, they often break the convention, choosing new subjects or genres, and therefore, sound is constantly changing as well. 

But wasn’t there a technical problem as well?

No. Up to 2012, all Romanian films were mixed outside the country, only the pre-mix was done locally. You can’t argue that studios in Sweden, France, or Germany don’t have professional equipment. It was all about the director’s intention with his film.

How about a sort of inadvertence when it came to recording the sound?

That as well, sure. But, things have changed in this department as well, there are many more sound guys willing to do a good job, show their interest, invest in their equipment. But there are still people who don’t care, don’t have the equipment, or do not communicate, ask for certain things on the set. At the end of the day, their names appear in the credits, too. I can fix a lot of things, but not everything, and when you spend double the time you planned in a studio, then the costs double as well. 

I had worked on projects with such a bad recorded sound, that I’m embarrassed to admit I have worked on them. Sometimes cheaper sound recordists are chosen for the project, in favour of a better and more expensive one due to a fixed and small budget, but it can be a major risk – it can mean bigger costs in post-production.

What about the quality of cinemas – what role do they have when it comes to sound?

A big one. Regarding Romanian films, I’m not keen on the location everyone chooses for the night of the premiere – which is Cinema Pro. Almost everyone in the industry watches the film that night, they never go to the mall for a second screening. 

Cinema Pro, like many others, is an old theater hall where no one has invested in for a long time – that means the speakers are old, the frequency is inappropriate and the quality is poor. 

Another problem with cinemas is that the managers fix the volume by ear, they don’t follow the standards – even in big multiplex cinema halls. A few years ago, there were technical specs written on every DCP, now these are irrelevant.

Journalist and film critic. Curator for some film festivals in Romania. At "Films in Frame" publishes interviews with both young and established filmmakers.