The sound of Gabbar Singh’s boots are so powerful it feels as if he’s about to walk on our head. We can feel the buckle of his belt around our ears as his boots stomp the rocky terrain below him.
“We wanted the sound of his boots to be very threatening, like thunder,” says sound engineer Gita Gurappa, taking a break from her Dolby Atmos mix of Sholay 3D, that’s set to release August-end.
Sholay may have been shot over 36 years ago, but the audio track (except for the dialogue portions) was re-done from scratch for the Atmos mix. “Most of the source material was destroyed. The dialogues were extracted and cleaned up from the film’s master print. Sound designers Parikshit Lalwani and Kunal Mehta have been working on it for two years.”
Gita’s tryst with sound began when she decided to change her course from Diploma in Electronics and Telecommunication to Sound and TV at SJ Polytechnic in Bangalore in the mid Eighties.
“I used to be an avid film watcher right from my school days. I used to wait for Chitrahaar and made excuses to rush to my neighbour’s place to watch it. I got a seat in Electronics but once I saw there was a department next door that had something to do with TV, I asked them if I could change my course. They were puzzled at my choice because everyone wanted Electronics and I was asking if I could change from Electronics to TV.”
And, it was still early days for television in India. The three-year diploma earned Gita a one-year apprenticeship at Sanketh Electronics, Shankar Nag’s studio, in 1988. And then, after six months in Lahari Recordings, she got a job at Prasad Studios in Bangalore in 1990. Everyone was using analog technologies when she got a job offer at Media Artists, one of the first digital studios in the country, back in 1993. (Late) H. Sridhar, chief audio engineer of Media Artists, was her mentor and guru.
“Everything I know is thanks to him. He taught us everything and assisting him was the greatest experience. It gave us exposure to song recordings in all languages, and we recorded all kinds of albums, including one with Pandit Ravishankar and George Harrison of The Beatles.”
The tricky thing about audio engineering was that before you got yourself familiar with one technology, another was just around the corner. Gita thought she had learnt everything about stereo mixing, when the film business embraced DTS 5.1 mixes. “We used to record on different kinds of tapes and analog mixers. Then Protools came in, new machines would come in, new technologies, new mixers, new versions of everything… You have to keep yourself updated as a technician. By 2000, everything became digital.” Today, 5.1 mixes have been replaced by Dolby Atmos 7.1 mixes with 64 objects while many studios have embraced Auro 3D 11.1 mixes.
But Gita looks at her job as a creative one and not as a technical task. “What we have done technically shouldn’t distract you from the story. The minute you say the bomb blast was good, we have lost you. We have to make you travel with the character and enhance your experience of that world.”
Unlike Hollywood, where sound is captured on location during shoot, most films here choose to fix sound only in post-production, with very few filmmakers choosing to work with on-location or sync sound. “You need to educate people on the sets to work with sync sound. You need to respect the sound guy on the spot who is recording live sound and everyone needs to have the patience to co-ordinate with him. The minute the sound guy says that the sound is not working, the team should be willing to go for another take. There’s a lot of freshness and spontaneity about sound recorded on location that nothing can match it. It’s up to directors to realise that they need to think about sound right from the beginning to plan for it during shoot, but most directors don’t even know when they are shooting. Then there are deadline pressures of films getting advanced and by the time it comes to the mix, everyone has run out of patience. You cannot say no because when you say no, there’s always someone else willing to do the job and deliver on deadline, given the competition.”
A telling story
“For Goa, Venkat Prabhu insisted on using sound to tell the story. So I suggested that we use stereo sound for the first 42 minutes in the film when the story is set in the village. And even within that, we used mono sound for the flashback bits of about seven minutes because the treatment was of an Eighties’ film when sound was largely mono. It’s only when the song starts and the film shifts to Goa, did the 5.1 mix kick in to heighten the impact of the vacation. I was thrilled when the film suddenly changed from stereo to 5.1... but the funny part of it was that when the film released, we got calls from all over the State from people complaining that the DTS surround sound wasn’t working for the first 40 minutes or so,” she laughs.
“Similarly, for the nightclub sequence, Venkat wanted to capture the ambience of a disco, so he said that the dialogue need not be audible and used dialogues through speech bubbles on screen. You can use sound creatively as part of storytelling.”
Chennai-based Gita Gurappa has mixed sound for over 350 films (and been an engineer individually on 60 films) at Media Artists for two decades. She is the first sound designer in the country to mix sound on Dolby Atmos native (where the sounds were created from scratch to be mixed on Atmos) and also among the rare few women technicians in her field.
Here’s a pick of her works favourites
Mad Dad (Malayalam)
Epic Of Abba (Sinhalese)