TekkonkinkreetA SONIC JOURNEY INTO THE HEART OF ANIME 1/01/2008 7:00 AM Eastern
Tekkonkinkreet is the first Japanese feature film and, more to the point, the first animé to be helmed by a non-Japanese director, American Michael Arias. In late 2005, with the production already well under way, Arias invited me to supervise his film's sound design. I was initially intrigued by the story and design, and excited by the opportunity to collaborate on a traditionally animated film. Later, when he told me to get ready to work in Tokyo, I knew I was heading for a unique experience, a sonic journey to the heart of animé.
On my first trip to Japan, in April 2006, I had 10 days in which to spot the rough cut with the director and make location recordings. Armed with the screenplay, the manga on which the film is based, a Sound Devices 722 field recorder, and a Sennheiser MKH418S MS microphone, I left New York eager to jump into this project.
After arriving at Narita Airport, I made my way via underground shuttle and commuter train to Kichijoji, a western suburb of Tokyo and a center for animation production. It was a short walk from the train station to Studio4°C, Tekkonkinkreet's animation production company, which is well known for their work on The Animatrix, which Arias had produced. Over the next three days, he and I watched and discussed the rough cut. The film was to be completed in October so what I saw was about 80-percent animatic MOS. Arias verbally filled in the holes and beautifully articulated his aural vision for Tekkonkinkreet.
We had detailed conversations about Tekkon's historical and cultural context, filled with aesthetic references to films such as City of God, Blade Runner and Delicatessen, mixed in with discussions of Walter Murch and George Lucas's collaboration on THX1138. It was a stimulating and spirited exchange, the first of many to follow throughout production. I felt Arias was creating something special with this film and was excited to be a part of it.
Fortunately, Arias is a director who fully appreciates the role sound can play in film. We studied audio technology together as NYU undergrads, and our first professional collaboration was in 1993, when we created the score and sound design for Megalopolice, a five-minute CG “ridefilm” that he directed for game giant Sega. That was my first experience working with sound-to-picture and it proved instrumental in changing the focus of my career from music to post.
Tekkonkinkreet was Arias' directorial debut. It was also my first feature film, as well as the first film score for the composers, British electronica duo Plaid. Though veterans of our respective crafts, this was new territory for us all. We were exhilarated by the opportunity; it was our first movie, and we believed Tekkon had the potential to be a great film.
Tekkonkinkreet is animé for adults with a realistic aesthetic, set in a well-worn pan-Asian city inspired by 1960s Tokyo. Sound would be well-rooted in reality, emphasizing the weight, geometry and texture of the period-specific visuals, with departures into the fantastic as needed. I was asked to avoid animé/cartoon clichés and encouraged to use sound creatively to help tell the story.
Arias brought me to several Tokyo locations that served as inspiration for Tekkon. Over the next four days I recorded source material all over the city — on Tokyo wharfs, in smoky after-hours yakitori pubs, shrines, amusement parks and even a boxing arena. As we rode the trains from one spot to another, we discussed the scenes and logistical construction of Treasure Town, the city where Tekkon takes place.
Just listening to the material we recorded each day proved immensely inspiring. The gritty sounds of the bell, crowd and announcer I'd captured at a kickboxing event were so evocative they influenced Michael's construction of one of the film's key sequences. Our creative collaboration really began there.
Next came invention born from necessity. Given Tekkon's constricted budget and schedule, Arias felt the best way to realize the sound design for his still-evolving film was for me to set up my studio at Studio4°C's production facility. This way, he would be better able to interact with me, while still moving forward with the film's visuals and, later, recording actors' voices at various Tokyo dubbing facilities. Though concerned about the technical and acoustic aspects, I realized the advantages of this arrangement. Not only would it increase efficiency, it would also allow for a nuanced blend of sound and picture, and perhaps even open up more opportunities to mine real-world locations for sounds authentic to the universe of Tekkon.
We were aiming high, and both of us realized the effort required to pull this off. With little money to throw at problems, I would have to become the entire sound effects department.
I returned to New York and started planning. Working to my specifications, Studio4°C outfitted the “sound room” (a repurposed conference room) with acoustic foam, a large-screen plasma monitor, and a Blue Sky Pro Desk 5.1 monitoring system (the entire sound design/editorial workflow would be in 5.1). Meanwhile, I put together a “portable” Pro Tools HD2 system in a G5 tower with 2 x 750 GB SATA drives loaded with an extensive database/searchable SFX library.
Over the next few months I sporadically received short QuickTime clips from Japan via FTP and began the sound design in New York. By the end of July, I still had only 12 minutes of finished animation to work with. At that point, with just two months left to deliver, I packed up my rig and returned to Tokyo (praying nothing would get damaged in transit). After a 24-hour trip, I arrived at Studio4°C and assembled the studio. I got the computer up and running, calibrated the 5.1 monitors, set up video and, in a few hours, was ready to work.
With just 30 percent of the shots complete and 51 days to finish the sound design, I needed to maintain a pace of two minutes a day. Like all the animators, producers and the director on Tekkon, I wound up working 14- to 16-hour days, weekends included, through delivery.
Because I spoke no Japanese and had little free time, I often conversed only with or through Arias, my sole translator. It was a monastic existence, but it was energizing to be so focused on one common goal with the director and his team of animation artisans. With no budget for Foley artists, assistants or SFX recordists, I stretched my library to its limits and grabbed sounds whenever possible. People wandered in and out of my room and, more often than not, were pressed into service assisting me with impromptu Foley sessions. The feedback I received from visitors was positive. It was a unique situation for animators and background artists to have a sound designer on-site, and we definitely inspired each other in this final stretch of production.
My ideas for sound leading picture in a couple of scenes were well-received (a video game sequence and several scene transitions stand out in my mind), and editorial changes were influenced by my input on more than one occasion. The sound edit room became a place for the director to view the film from a new perspective. It was this dynamic process that Michael was hoping to achieve by having me at Studio4°C.
As my work progressed, however, I found myself wishing for original Foley material more than anything. I didn't have an isolated environment to record in, so I started pleading with the producers for access to a Foley stage. Michael and I visited both of the two dedicated facilities available and, just five days before the mix, I was granted one 24-hour session at Nikkatsu, an expansive but aging film studio, home to many classic Yakuza and soft-core “Roman” porn films of the '60s and '70s.
I packed up my Pro Tools rig and set up in Nikkatsu's Foley room, a former soundstage, piled floor to ceiling with everything from car doors to bowling balls, and equipped with a concrete-lined pit for water effects, and various floor surfaces. Michael drafted several of his animators as Foley artists. This ended up working out beyond expectations, because the animators were familiar with the characters' motions and possessed an innate sense of timing that's perfect for Foley. We worked 24 hours straight, and I captured some crucial material.
Over the next four days I cut the Foley, reconformed the sound to editorial changes, designed sound for recently completed shots, and started working with temp dialog and music tracks (the composers were experiencing a similar last-minute crunch in their London studio). With the cut all but locked and one of the composers flying in from London, I packed up my rig once more and moved to Tokyo Television Center, Japan's only THX film mix stage.
We had two days to premix and seven days to mix seven reels. I plugged into the DFC console and went to work on SFX. In the same room, dialog supervisor and mixer Tsutomu Asakura cut dialog on another Pro Tools HD rig, and composer Ed Handley mixed down his cues in Logic. Arias and the rest of us literally set up beds under the screen and didn't leave until the mix was completed.
In the end, many compromises were made. Though the director and I wish we'd had more time and resources, we are enormously proud of the film we created. It has been a critical and financial success in Japan and was well-received at many international festivals. The review by Variety from the Berlin Film Festival even called the sound design “top-notch.”
With the release of the DVD in the U.S. this past October, I was able to listen with fresh ears, and hear the new English-language dub.
Though making Tekkonkinkreet required sacrifices, and at times, total submission, it was one of the most creatively satisfying projects I've ever worked on. Arias is currently prepping his next project, a live-action film, again shooting in Japan. And I plan to return to Tokyo in Spring 2008 for our next collaboration.