Feb 4, 2022
‘Sayo’, directed by Jeremy Rubier, is a film about a journey. Nagisa (played by Nagisa Chauveau) lost her twin-sister two years ago, and after months of prayer at a local temple, a chance encounter with a mysterious taxi-driver takes her on a profound journey to the land of the dead to reach out to her sister’s soul. It is a spiritual road-movie, taking the audience on an emotional ride through beautiful landscapes, sensitive storytelling and a ‘pilgrimage from childhood to adulthood’, rooted in a true story.
Released in 2020, and gathering acclaim at awards including Mint, Fantboi, Fantasia Film and Cinefantasy, ‘Sayo’ is a feast for the ears, as well as the eyes. Whilst the film features undeniably stunning landscapes, including a particularly memorable shot of Sado Island - Easter, the soundscape of the film is equally impressive. Featuring Final Sound Mix and additional sound design by Syn’s Alan Mawdsley, co-ordinated by Syn’s COO Yumi Tanabe Arnaudo and Syn CEO Nick Wood, the soundtrack of this film features beautiful original score - composed by Luci Holland - woven with subtle sound design.
But how does the process of mixing sound and contributing sound design to a fully-completed feature film work? As one might expect from a ‘road-movie’, the majority of which is set inside a moving taxi, large amounts of dialogue in ‘Sayo’ were recorded in a car. Even on the quietest of film sets and dedicated sound-stages, dialogue often has to be tidied (See our previous blog on ADR!), so one of Mawdsley’s challenges was tidying dialogue and reducing background noise, “The acoustics of a car are not good, it’s one of the hardest places to record, and you have the noise of outside traffic to contend with. The movie is very dialogue driven, so it was really important to be able to hear it and have nothing jump out at you. So the biggest challenge for me working on the movie was the dialogue”. Anyone who watches the film will agree, dialogue is key in this story, and this was something duly recognised by CineFantasy in Brazil where ‘Sayo’ won Best Screenplay.
Dialogue aside, the wider soundscape of this film features impressive diegetic sounds - from the sounds of the forest, to the crashing of waves, to the sounds of footsteps. These diegetic sounds are particularly poignant in scenes featuring shrines and temples, where sounds that would otherwise be foreign to many outside Japan, are shared in an authentic and mindful way. Blurring the threshold between our world and the next, textural sounds fill the soundscape with a sense of mystery, featuring drones, reverse sounds and textural atmospheres adding to the sense of mystery that is crucial to the film’s impact. Mawdsley continues, "I added some foley and additional background sound design - Jeremy (Rubier) has a great ear for sound and added some of his own sound design in there already, but I added some subtle stuff as well - it’s not the sort of stuff you’d notice unless you took it out. I did a lot of wind and footsteps. For me, good sound on a film is when you don’t even realise it’s good because you’re just immersed in the story. You only realise when it’s not good.” In a film that touches on the fantastical, it would be tempting to overload it with un-natural sound, but - in the words of Fantasia Film Festival - “It’s an almost spiritual journey with natural landscapes captured in all their splendour.” ‘Natural’ is the relevant word here, the sonic landscape of the film feels entirely ‘natural’, even where the sounds are clearly not rooted in the reality of the character’s space.
Jeremy Rubier was first introduced to Syn whilst working with producer (and Syn COO), Yumi Tanabe Arnaudo on ‘Dancing In Her Dreams’ in 2020. This award-winning film is based on the true story of the life of an owner of an authentic strip club in Hiroshima, unfolding his falling dreams through his dancers, and featured Jeremy Rubier as Co-D.O.P. Since then, a creative partnership has evolved, leading to Syn’s involvement with ‘Sayo’, including the final sound mix by Syn’s Chief Engineer, Akaku Takashi.
One review of ‘Sayo’ commented that, “I found myself wondering how they managed to deliver a full-length movie in just sixty-one minutes”. I think this achievement can be credited to many factors; excellent direction, powerful dialogue, beautiful photography and - in credit to both the team at Syn and Luci Holland (Composer), stunning use of music and sound. Watching the film for the first time, one experiences an immersive feast for the senses, with sight and sound transporting you into the landscape so you can effectively smell the forests and the coastal landscape. Syn’s contribution to this film, from sound editing to final mix, is palpably present.