Margit Pfeiffer: I AM Velvet Buzzsaw
Margit Pfeiffer is a sound editor with an enviable career. She has collaborated with the most prolific contemporary directors of our time—Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds), Gary Ross (Hunger Games), Dan Gilroy (Night Crawler), Ridley Scott (Prometheus)—just to name a few, and was the Supervising Sound Editor on the recently premiered Velvet Buzzsaw directed by Dan Gilroy, a Netflix horror film that showcased at Sundance— starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton, and Toni Collette.
Pfeiffer discussed her creative process when working with the best directors in film on their iconic works, and her secret ingredients to creating killer sound designs for cinematic masters.
In your own words, can you describe what you do to bring a Director’s vision to life
MP: I focus on understanding the director’s taste and artistic vision, the specifics of the story being told, and how to best support that with sound. Some directors have very precise ideas of what they want to hear, others a more hands-off approach. My job is to make sure the film gets the best possible soundtrack that immerses the audience and helps tell the story.
Early on in the process, we discuss and experiment to find the right tone for the film, design key scenes and edit the production sound. Throughout the various stages of the director’s cut, test screenings, and studio playbacks, we keep evolving the soundtrack and adjust for incoming visual effects. By the final mix, the film score arrives and we work on finding the right balance for each scene, overall building tension towards the end.
Another thing I try to keep in mind is that a lot is at stake for filmmakers with each and every movie and preferably I want to make sound post one of the few things they have to worry about.
Sound and Music are, at least, half of a film. However, even industry professionals can underestimate the importance of Sound. In your opinion, what can make or break a film in terms of Sound?
Velvet Buzzsaw official trailer - © Netflix 2019
MP: Sound for film is mostly desired to create a perfect illusion, as if it had always been there. What people don’t realise is that on a movie set only the dialog of the actors is recorded, and pretty much almost everything else is recreated and designed in post.
Up to a thousand or more sound tracks, sorted by categories—Sound Effects, Foley, Backgrounds, Loop Group, Dialogue and Design Elements such as creature voices, underwater worlds, spaceships, alien languages—things that don’t even have a sound in real life!
Depending on the film’s scope and budget, sound crews spend from a couple of months to up to a year perfecting and obsessing over every single element. Every sound has a purpose and helps bring locations to life that have often been nothing more than a green screen or studio set.
What can hurt a film is bad production sound. If the audience is struggling to hear the dialogue and wondering if they’re missing important story points, it will take them out of the film. Especially a low budget production can stand out from the pack with a proper soundtrack.
Your latest film Velvet Buzzsaw is your third collaboration with Dan Gilroy starring Jake Gyllenhaal as an art critic. Tell us about how that project came about, what the creative vision is behind the sound design, and what we may not have been aware of that helped to create the tension and chills in the film
MP: While still working on Dan Gilroy’s previous film, the script for Velvet Buzzsaw got the green light. Right away—the unique style and tenor of this story stood out. It’s exceptionally well written and a most exciting sound opportunity. So of course, I wanted to be part of the film and was thrilled to get to work with the Gilroy’s again.
I was the Dialogue & ADR Supervisor on Nightcrawler, Dan’s directorial debut. And with every film, I have grown to understand and also predict Dan’s taste and sensibilities better. His brother and film editor John provides a well thought-out guide in his AVID tracks, that serves as a framework from which we start to design.
One scene I had exceptional free reign with was the ‘Sound Room’.
Jake’s character Morf finds himself in an empty room, a sound installation inside an art gallery, and is suddenly haunted by the negative reviews he wrote as an art critic. There was no template for us to go by, no location sound, and no mockup track from John or Dan.
Rarely in film do you get a chance to design an entire scene from scratch, that is specifically written to be all about sound.
Velvet Buzzsaw is a horror film that at times feels like a satirical comedy - which is really hard to do. How did you balance the horror vs. comedic aspects of the film through sound?
MP: Music takes the leading role in setting the mood. During several temp mixes and previews the balance of horror vs. comedy was tested. The result effortlessly interweaves one with the other.
With sound design, we supported story elements such as Dease travelling through his art and committing the murders. For which we created a foreshadowing yet an identifiably human element, an embellished heartbeat, that can be heard throughout the film when the art observes the viewer.
The Sphere art installation leads into a scene with happy furry sounds, then escalates with a slowly winding up saw blade and the bloody gore accompanying Gretchen’s death. Sweet, fun and vicious.
Let’s talk about working with actors. What is the key to capturing great sound - in terms of both the technical process and working with actors - and what do you wish actors would know to make your job easier?
MP: An often overlooked, yet key element to a professional soundtrack, is hiring a great production sound mixer. Too many productions skimp on the sound budget. What is poorly recorded can sometimes be fixed in post, but not always.
Having actors redo their lines in a studio is not only costly and time consuming, but for them to match their performance weeks or months later in a sound booth with no one to play against, is a real challenge and doesn’t always yield the best results.
I’ve had overwhelmingly positive experiences working with actors. Some really excel at ADR and others dread the experience. For best results, I try to make them feel comfortable in the studio.
Some, for example, don’t like to see themselves on screen. In that case, we turn off the picture and provide sound playback only. I can always fix sync, but the vocal performance has to be right to blend in seamlessly with the rest of the scene.
Having worked with so many directors of note in multiple genres from large-scale studio films to smaller independent projects, can you describe the difference in approach between an auteur film like Inglourious Basterds and a studio film like Hunger Games?
MP: The major differences for sound are budget and timeframe. More resources and larger crews are needed as most studio films rely heavily on visual effects to create entire worlds. For sound designers those offer a great playground, but also require a lot of imagination and skill.
Often designing a quiet scene with few visual elements to go by requires more thought and experimentation. The mix becomes about the delicate balance between dialogue, backgrounds, and of course score.
Do you have any favourite projects or collaborations and can you tell us any personal stories about your best and worst professional experiences?
MP: On Velvet Buzzsaw the teamwork and collaboration has been the best I have ever experienced. From Netflix to Dan and John Gilroy, all the way to my fantastic crew. So much of this business is deadline and budget driven with all the pressures, politics, and sometimes egos that come along. To get to work with the best of the best, build something meaningful together and leave as friends, is truly a rare gift that I am very grateful for.
My worst experiences have been on uneven crews—one bad apple can really spoil the whole bunch and cause so much friction or chaos that others have to compensate for, that the film gets shortchanged. Why divert energy on unnecessary politics and distractions instead of serving the filmmakers and their movie with full focus?
I’m a big believer of hiring the right team for each job. First and foremost, people need to be experts in their chosen field, but secondly, I look for team players. When we work well together we all win.
In order to work with the best, you have to be meticulous in your work. How would you describe your creative process?
MP: Whatever I take on I do with full dedication and effort. The way to the top requires long work hours, being able to navigate the politics of each project and establishing client relationships. The best case scenario is working with excellent directors and on interesting projects that allow you to grow and explore.
Something that comes easier now than early on is negotiating what I need. Being honest with others and with yourself will steer you in the right direction of your life and career.
You’ve worked with the best, but it’s clear that you’re also primarily working with men. How did you successfully navigate that male-dominated cultural environment?
MP: When I started in the film industry I was aware of the male-dominance, but I wasn’t going to let that discourage me from forging my path. There were less women at the top to gather advice from, but I’ve always felt comfortable in male-dominated areas. I like the competition and drive.
Being able to draw on different experiences and perspectives only benefits the end result. Film is a collaboration after all.
As far as my career, the main hurdle to climb always seems to be getting a chance to prove that I can do a certain job, in order to rise to the next level. I try and keep that in mind when I hire people. Training and promoting talent benefits our business as a whole.
Finally, if you could offer any advice to aspiring directors and sound editors in the industry, what would it be?
MP: Have fun, tell bold stories, take creative risks, inspire us and don’t forget to treat people well.