Stefan Azaharioaie, sound designer: “Paying special attention to sounds is extremely important”

6 April, 2021

Stefan Azaharioaie is one of the most talented and appreciated young sound design specialists in Romanian cinema.

Among the films he worked on as a sound designer is the short film “4:15 P.M. The End of the World” (2016) and the feature film “Thou Shalt Not Kill” (2018), both by Catalin Rotaru and Gabi Virginia Sarga, the documentary “House of Dolls” (2020), by Tudor Platon, and “Heroes’ Way” (2020, unreleased yet), by Sergiu Prodan.

He also collaborated on “Mia Misses Her Revenge” (2020, dir. Bogdan Theodor Olteanu) as a sound mixer. He also worked on the sound or editing of some of the short films made by director Octav Chelaru (“False positive”, “Occupied”, “Private party”). He also worked as an editor on the feature film “Erwin for Mayor” (2017), by Mihai Nanu.

He was nominated for “Young Talents” Category at Gopo Awards in 2020.

Born on December 20, 1991 in Piatra Neamt, Stefan Azaharioaie studied classical music at the “Victor Brauner” High School, instrument: flute. He went to the National University of Theatre and Film “I.L. Caragiale” in Bucharest (UNATC), the Multimedia Department: Sound-Editing (2012-2015). There, he also got a master’s degree in editing (2015-2017).

What are your to-dos when you have to record sound for a movie?

In general, when I start a project where I do both sound recording and post-production, I read the script several times, trying to understand the direction and atmosphere of the film. There are many ways one can use the sound recorded on the set to recreate an atmosphere that takes the film to another level, that helps the script a lot, maybe even creates emotions that were not originally in plan.

What do you look for in a script?

The atmosphere, for example, the mood in that sequence. Obviously, the dialogues and the action come first, but, above all, you have to get the feeling of the sequence and the way that emotion flows from one sequence to another. You need to find the element that would tie the whole movie together, sound-speaking. That’s very important.

On the set, once you have the script in your head and more or less a vision of that feeling, you start listening. As a sound guy, it’s very important to listen. Always pay attention to this aspect. Even when you go out for a walk in the park with your girlfriend. When you work on a film for three months, you pay attention to certain sounds. You start hearing certain things. You come up with ideas and make new connections, new sound textures that you can experiment with. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Field recording is a good training for anyone who works in audio post-production, because you learn to really listen, all the time.

What are your discussions with the director at this stage? Do you come with suggestions? Do you wait for him to give you some guidelines?

In field recording, you just read the script and go do your job, you record the dialogue on the set as best you can. You can also record other sound elements that you think would help the film, that sound good and that can be found on location. But maybe you don’t find anything extra and you just go record the dialogue itself, because that’s what’s important for the film. That’s the job, basically. But if you find other ambiances and textures on location, all the better. If not, you work on it in post-production. It’s called re-recording, when you look for a certain sound texture, which you go record either in that location or in other locations.

What do you need to take into account when you’re on set, so that when you get to post-production you don’t have unpleasant surprises, for example a dialogue that wasn’t recorded properly?

First of all, you have to do your job very well – choosing the right type of microphones and putting them in the right places, working with a good boom operator with whom you can have good communication throughout the shooting. But besides that, I think it’s extremely important that you get along very well with all the department heads on the set. When you announce that you don’t have the right conditions to record the sound, they must understand and stop filming. It’s important to stand up for yourself. There is no room for compromise here. OK, if the director agrees from the beginning with shooting in a very noisy location and then we do a post-sync on the whole sequence, then yes, I can work with that.

In general, there isn’t a budget for post-sync as well, and for most actors it’s much harder to get into character in a studio. On the set, they stand face to face with their colleagues and react on each other’s lines, they have that particular space and the team behind which give them a certain energy. In the studio, their ears are covered, they watch the footage and try to get in that mood, but it’s very hard. It’s much harder to direct an actor in post-sync. It’s hard for the actors, as well as for the directors.

But, even if it’s harder and more expensive, you can do post-sync without the viewer realizing that the sound was recorded in the studio. I think that a bad performance on the set can be greatly improved only by voice, diction, the way a word is articulated.

How do you work in post-production? What happens when you realize you still need some sounds that weren’t recorded during filming?

In post-production, including projects where the sound has been recorded on the set by a different person than myself, you always need some additional sounds, in order to create the necessary atmosphere, leaving aside the foley and SFX. I even have some sound-effects libraries that I use, but I try not to repeat the sounds from one film to another.

What does that mean, having a sound-effects library?

There are libraries you can purchase and there are personal libraries. I always have a recorder with me that records stereo ambient sounds very well. Every time I go out of town, but also when I’m in Bucharest, I’m after all kinds of sounds.

But what does a good sound mean, a sound worth recording because you know you might need it at some point in the future?

For me, a good sound is a sound that is speaking to me right then and there, that means something to me. It helps working with sounds I like. Even the most ordinary sound, for example an ambulance siren, if it resonates from a distance, across the city, then it turns into music. I like musical sounds. They are real-life sounds, but there’s a certain musicality to them, they seem to come alive. So I record them. There are sounds in real life that might seem fake when used in a film.

There are sounds that we don’t pay attention to when we walk around the city, but the moment we hear them in a film, we perceive them differently.

That’s why I said earlier that paying special attention to sounds is extremely important. We hear them all the time; some might have something to say, others do not. But if you don’t pay attention, you miss out on them. It often happens to me, when my mind is on other things.

Is this a skill that you cultivate? Do you need to do something special to acquire it?

When you’re interested in something, your attention automatically goes in that direction. The ear begins to distinguish between sounds. There’s always a lot to learn in post-production. The journey with sound is very long and vast. That’s why there are many post-production sound departments. There are so many things to look out for. Let’s just take equalization as an example – you can do just that your whole life and still have things to learn, like distinguishing between audio frequencies in your mind, cutting them out and listening only to them. You could go crazy (laughs).

But it’s very discouraging to work in sound, especially in Romania. After you finish a film, you will hear it differently each time, depending on where you watch it, and therefore listen to it. At Cannes, in 2016, I had an incredible experience, because the short film 4:15 P.M. The End of the World sounded better than the version that I worked on in the studio. It played in a huge room. In Romania, I think that no film would be heard with such clarity in a room of that size. But there, it was actually phenomenal. I think they have some amazing sound guys.

What do you think about the public’s perception that Romanian films are flawed in terms of audio quality?

I think they’re absolutely right. I’m with them on this one (laughs). Yes, often enough, they are hard to hear. I think it’s a production and budget issue, too. It also depends on how much you care about the sound in the film. Many of the people in the major departments – directing, production – leave the sound at the end. That is why the dialogue is hard to understand, because a lot of compromises are made in this department, starting with money and up to studios, equipment, people.

That’s one thing. But I guess it also has to do with the poor quality of the movie theaters where Romanian films usually end up being screened.

Yes, that as well. We will always have this problem. But I think if a film is mixed properly, it should be heard even in the speakers of a car. You should be able to hear the dialogue. If you play an American film and you can hear it clearly, but when you play a Romanian film, you don’t anymore, then the issue is not with the movie theater. I think the main problem is that a lot of compromises are made in the end in most projects.

How much freedom and creativity can you have when working on sound in post-production?

I recently finished working on a movie that’s rather commercial. Made in Romania, but with a lot of music, with the foley made in Russia and the post-sync elsewhere. It’s a different style from the classic Romanian film. It was an experience I learned a lot from. It’s a working system that’s worth knowing. You can be very creative here too. There’s been a battle between ambiance, SFX and music. They practically had to blend in a balanced way. One goes up, one goes down. Because it’s a commercial film, it has to hold the viewer’s attention all the time.

What about working on a realistic Romanian film?

In this case, the later recordings are very important. As a workflow, I first clean the original sound recorded on the set, the dialogues, to the best possible version of that draft. After that, I watch the film and it feels like a silent film where there’s only dialogue, nothing else is heard. And I imagine the atmosphere that should exist in the film. What things could be heard in the background. I make some lists and then I go record different sounds. For example, recently, I went at 3am with the director in a village somewhere to record the first movements of the morning, the transition from night to day. It was very interesting, especially since there were some very big pipes in that place and they amplified some sounds.

What do you think you need to do this job?

I think you have to be curious. Then a passion for film. I find it very important to watch a lot of movies. Apart from that, you have to want to bring something new, to feel that you can do something more. To have a goal. To really want that. And to like it. Personally, I like it very much.

How did you come to apply to Sound and Editing at UNATC?

My father is a flute teacher. He listened to classical music all the time. He had a lot of tapes, vinyls, pickups. My sister has been a pianist since she was five. I began playing the violin when I was five, then the piano, then the flute, in high school. Then I quit (laughs). I always liked music.

My family had no connection whatsoever with cinema. We watched movies, but we didn’t know anyone working in the field. I remember watching the interviews on the Hallmark Channel they aired between movies. That’s how I saw interviews with directors, for example Spielberg, actors, editors, sound engineers. I was fascinated by the people who were interviewed, and I felt that I needed to be there, to relate to them. I liked their way of thinking, the way they spoke. I could see myself there. That was in the ninth or tenth grade. Then I found out about the Film section at UNATC.

What was university like?

The first two years were very important. Our teachers gave everything, from time to energy, to work with us individually. I really learned a lot: to be patient with other people, to work in a team, to see things in images that I couldn’t notice before, to listen.

In the third year I started working on my thesis. I had already started having my first projects outside of school. Working on films was a different kind of training. Real life is different. There you simply have to work much harder to understand on another level how to communicate with people, how to express your ideas. It’s very complicated. I think that 40% is communication. You can think of all sorts of things, but it’s all for nothing if you don’t know how to communicate them, how to reach others.

You only worked on a few short films and a feature-length documentary as an editor, although you did a master’s degree in editing. And it looks like you’ve accommodated very well in the sound department. Would you like to work more as an editor as well?

There were simply more projects working as a sound recorder/designer. They chose me. I took this road, but I do like editing as well. I’m fascinated by it. If someone comes to me with an editing project, I won’t say no. I do miss editing sometimes.

In fact, for me, the connection between editing and sound is quite close. In the editing process, apart from the visual aspect, it’s very important to also imagine the soundtrack that will be added to the images. At least have an idea about it. And that’s because when the soundtrack is created, a lot of things change about the rhythm, the actors’ performances, the general mood of the film. The sound can either damage the editing or improve it.

How does working on the sound for a film stimulate you? What does it offer you?

It’s a profession that combines technique with creativity. Each project gives me a lot of satisfaction. It’s a nice feeling when you manage to get the job done. When I’m in a project for a few months, I feel that my overall mood is influenced by the sounds in that film, which I hear countless times a day. And every film is different. The diversity of each project always gives you the feeling that you are always doing something new and different. That’s what keeps you alive, helps you evolve.


Photo Credit: Dragoş Hanciu

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