Interview: David Lawrie, Music Producer

Posted by David Diley, Director, August 12, 2015

Of Shark and Man is already receiving wide acclaim for it's soundtrack and use of music. David Lawrie, music producer on the film gives us a unique insight into his approach and history.

Interview: David Lawrie, Music Producer

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is David Lawrie and I am a music producer. Since I embarked on my career seven years ago I have written/arranged music for and with different artists, released my own music, recorded and mixed many projects, as well as created sound design for theatre and film.

How did you and David meet?

David and I first met in 2012 through a mutual friend who knew that we both admire sharks. David and I decided to first work together on my debut music video. We worked really well together and, more importantly, we got on swimmingly, and so it was a natural progression from there for me to be brought into the Of Shark And Man “inner circle.”

David Lawrie

What was your involvement in Of Shark and Man and why did you decide to get involved?

I did the sound design, foley, additional location recording, and overall mix of the audio for the film. I also composed the opening theme, and pieces from two of my albums appear in the soundtrack. I had done sound design for a mimed theatre show in the past, so I was confident that I would be able to apply those skills to film. Like David, I have had a passion for sharks since childhood; so being asked to work on a film about sharks was just too serendipitous for me to refuse.

For any people who don’t know, describe what is meant by “sound design”

In film, Sound Design and Foley constitute, in essense, the art of creating a believable sonic environment, which allows the audience to be immersed in, rather than distracted from, the visuals. I think that is the most concise way I can describe it.

How do you approach such a complex job as creating sound design for a feature length film?

It certainly is a very complex process. In the case of Of Shark And Man, the film contains, from a sound design point of view, elements of a documentary; a Hollywod movie; and animation. The last item in that list might seem a little odd, especially seeing as though there is no animation in the film, but I will address each one individually.

Obviously this film is, predominantly, a documentary. There is a lot of dialogue and voiceover, of which both have to take the priorty in the overall mix, so making sure all of the dialogue was well recorded (or adequately replaced), edited, and perfectly synchronised with the visual was the first port of call. This was a time consuming task, which is largely uncreative from the perspective of the sound engineer – all of the creative work was done in actually telling the story.

David Lawrie

The first truly creative part of the process, for me, was when I started to stylise the already recorded elements from the filming locations. This was the “Hollywood” part of the process. Because a pair of microphones is not the same as a pair of ears, the location/nature recordings that are captured during any filming process rarely, if ever, represent the true ambience of the environment, so blending other location/nature recordings with the already present recordings can create a much fuller, richer sounding environment that matches the visual (or, if so desired, completely contradicts what is on the screen). Then comes the task of picking up on the visual cues that don’t have a corresponding sound. That is where the foley comes into play.

Whilst I had many reference points for the sound design and foley for the segments of the film that take place above ground, the underwater sequences were presented to me with no sound at all – just as an animation would be, which meant that the entire underwater environment had to be created from scratch. I am not a diver, and so I didn’t have too much of a reference as to what the environment sounds like in reality, so I talked in great depth with David to get an idea of the overall “feeling” of being underwater at Shark Reef, rather than chasing a description of the actual sound, so that I could attempt to create an overall sonic environment which would heighten the emotional impact of the sequences, whilst still suiting the visuals.

How does the sound design in OSAM differ from other documentaries and shark films?

Sharks and shark films aren’t the only occupants of the space in which David Diley and I overlap. We both have a bit of a thing for old Slashers and B-Movies. There is something addictive about being totally immersed in a film whilst, at the same time, feeling uncomfortable and on the edge of your seat. It was agreed, then, that we should approach the underwater world of Of Shark And Man with a nod to those kinds of movies.

The narrative of the film portrays the sharks of Shark Reef in an honest way. To paraphrase part of the film, David was not interested in the “Dolphinisation of Sharks.” He didn’t want to portray them as cuddly toys in order to win the hearts of viewers. No. They are not harmless animals, but rather, they are beautiful apex predators that need to be treated with caution, and most importantly, respect. One should never allow themselves to be too comfortable around these creatures (in the same way a tiger might be OK with being petted, but one would be a fool to not pet with caution), and so the underwater environment needed to incorporate this feeling of caution and unease to the extent where it could dynamically and seamlessly flow from serenity to chaos. In essence, the water itself had to be one of the main characters in the film. Working towards that goal was very challenging, but ultimately rewarding. I am really proud of how it turned out.

What particular challenges did you face when working on OSAM?

Because I was not part of the actual filming process, I was not able to make sure that all of the ambient sounds the film needed were recorded. This meant that I had to “fill in the gaps,” so to speak, with location recordings of various beaches, waters and cities etc. I have captured and collected over the years. The fact that I have never been to Fiji meant that I didn’t have much of a reference as to what the place actually sounds like, other than the fragments of recordings that were presented to me. This initial sonic “colour-boarding” required a lot of conference over the Internet with David in order to hone in on a convincing soundscape.

Another challenge was to sonically represent the “character” of each shark species. In-keeping with the characterisation of the water itself, the sharks needed a sonic presence in order to create a symbiotic relationship between the animals and their habitat. This took a lot of abstract descriptions from David, along with hours and hours of manipulating found sounds, in order to arrive at that point where we felt that the personalities of the sharks were adequately represented.

David Lawrie

David worked closely alongside you, how was that as a working experience? Did it help?

Being in such close contact with the director throughout the entire process made it very easy for me to get a good idea of what he was imagining for the film. Because David is an excellent collaborator, it meant that I had the free reign to present to him completely off-the-wall ideas –  many of which he agreed worked. David comes from a musical background, so it was fairly easy for me to decypher, in musical terms, what I understood from his ideas, as well as describing how I saw ways of adding to, and improving them. In fact, the whole time we discussed the sound design, we were talking about it as if it were a piece of music in itself (isn’t music just organised sound, after all?).

Towards the end of the process, when everything was being brought together, David and I spend the best part of two weeks in the same room, 15-17 hours per day, pulling the 20 or so sections together and adding the soundtrack. The whole process was an exhausting, but ultimately very enjoyable experience. The team of people makes the difference, and with this film, the team just seemed to work perfectly.

David Lawrie

Talk us through what instruments and techniques you used to create the sounds in the film

Gosh. There are so many details in this film, which (hopefully) seem like they came into existence without any effort at all, but in actuality, so many of the sounds are comprised of layers upon layers of other, completely unrelated sound sources. There are too many to list here, so I shall just give one example:

David describes the bull sharks as being “like a heavyweight boxer” in the film. The eventual foundation of the sonic character of the bulls was made by dragging a rubber mallet along the ridged side of an empty plastic roof-rack carrier. This was accompanied by the sound of a chest freezer’s lid being slammed shut. Both of these sounds, together, have quite a thunderous, muscular quality to them. Of course, left untreated, these sounds would be quite comical when thrust upon the sharks, so I then manipluated the sounds to create dark, sinister groans and drones, with the distant rumbling poking its head through.

I had a lot of fun walking around with a microphone, some headphones, and a portable recorder. There are some great sounds just waiting to be discovered at home.

Do you have a favourite moment in the film in regards to the sound design?

As much as I enjoyed working on the underwater sequences, I think my favourite piece of sound design is when David is being shown around Suva. At one point I decided to really blur the ambient sound in order to create a dream-like sequence. It is probably very subtle, and a lot of people might not notice it on their first viewing, but I really wanted to punctuate how overwhelming David description his experience of exploring this beautiful place is – the realisation that his dreams are becoming a reality.

How would you describe your experience working on OSAM?

Exhilerating; Exhausting; Rewarding; Mind-opening. I am thrilled to have been able to marry my music production career with my childhood passion of sharks.

What do you think of OSAM now as a finished piece of work?

It is difficult for me to be objective about the film so soon after completing the sound. There are always going to be elements I wish I had done differently. I can tell you this much, though. When I first saw rough cuts of the film’s sections, before starting my work on it, I could see that it was going to be a very, very important film for shark conservation. I hope that my involvement has helped to elevate it, along with the awesome visuals, to a very, very important film for shark conservation that people will really want to see, and tell everyone they know that they need to see it, as well.

David Lawrie

How would you describe David as a Film-Maker?

David is certainly a skilled film-maker. It is clear that he had a strong vision for this film from the start, and he never compromised on the quality of the film in order to make things easy for himself. I think the film speaks for itself in that regard, but behind the scenes he is just so easy to get along with. So much so that he and I have also worked on other projects whilst Of Shark And Man was being made.

Finally, is there anything you’d like to say, anything at all?!

This film came about, not because one person chose to actively pursue his dream, but because one man pursued his dream and worked with others who, in the past or at the same time, did the same. Creating films, music, art and anything else, which isn’t a 9-5 job, requires massive sacrifices, but by surrounding yourself with yay sayers, rather than nay sayers, you can create truly amazing pieces of work, and dreams really can come true. I hope this film inspires many others to follow their hearts.

Posted by David Diley, Director