Within film production, there exists a behind-the-cameras position of chief importance and in several ways, it’s a lot like fishing.
“We capture the “fish” from the field, bring it back and cut it, then cook it,” said sound designer Xiao Hou. “We communicate with customers, who usually will be directors. They will tell us how they want the fish to be cooked.”
It’s a clever interpretation from one of today’s foremost sound practitioners for film. Hou hails from Zhengzhou, China. He specializes in creating immersive soundscapes that place audiences in the best intended position to consume a cinematic story.
Hou, known for his auditory work on Lionsgate’s “Compadres,” Xuexue Pan’s “Once” and the award-winning films, “Until the Dust Settles,” “God Save the Queen” and “Welcome to Sugar Town,” describes his artistry further.
“It’s more like a sonic “visual effect.” For example, we can create a sound environment that brings you to another space, such as New York Grand Central station. We can also create sounds that don’t exist in our world, such as spaceship and alien voice.”
It’s a valid point. As stories traverse locations and introduce any form of character, with it comes the need for believable and poignant sound that enhances the total viewing experience. It’s a tried and true practice with filmmaking, from the terror on the high seas that was “Jaws” to the terror in the shower scene in “Psycho” to the galactic battles unfolding in “Star Wars,” each is brought to memorable fruition through the stalwart efforts of talented sound designers.
Hou grew up an aficionado of technology, audio, cinematography and storytelling. His father is also an audiophile, which gave Hou access to hi-fi audio equipment since childhood. Combining it all together revealed to Hou his passion, something he refers to as the creation of a “sonic sculpture that’s multidimensional.”
Speaking on some artistic influences, Hou, who received a Master’s Degree in Sound Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design (Ga.), said, “I believe all the art forms are associated, so my early influences are actually from the concept of Minimalism, which was applied in a lot of oriental arts. Simplicity in sound design could be my early inspiration, along with such artists as Joe Hisaishi and Ryuichi Sakamoto.”
So where then does it start for a film’s sound designer?
“It always starts with a pair of good ears. Knowing how to listen is the key to any good sound engineers including sound editors and designers. Also we have to be patient, because sometimes the director will come back and tell us to change all the stuff we just spent days doing. We need to be patient and help them achieve their goals.”
It’s the subtle details that play a big role in going on to reach the variety of elite achievements that Hou has. “In order to train our ears, we have to listen a lot of works that were done by other great engineers, and absorb as much as possible,” said Hou. “That’s why equipment is important in ear training process, so we can hear the way the work intends to be heard. Talking about being patient, we need to understand this is director’s work, editors and designers, and we shouldn’t be in the way of film creation. Audiences walk out of the the theater cheering about the film, but nobody will dance about how realistic the airplane sound is.”
Last December, Hou engineered the sound for a Los Angeles Clippers commercial commissioned by Chinese communication kingpin, Tencent, that advertises the streaming availability of NBA shows via smartphones. “It was a pretty challenging environment of recording dialogue from a moving basketball player in the Clippers training center,” he said. “The place is huge and very reverberate. It requires a very directional microphone plus good boom operating skill. I spent time listening and trying to eliminate all the noise sources, and finding the best spot to place the microphone.”
Showing his versatility, last April, Hou engineered the sound for a DIDI commercial starring Paris Hilton. DIDI is a Chinese transportation company comparable to Uber. “In this commercial, basically by using 360 degree camera, we created a virtual tour with Paris Hilton. She becomes the driver and guides the audience to different famous locations in Los Angeles such as Santa Monica and The Grove. This commercial was shot inside of a Hummer limousine. The huge space will naturally make the dialogue sound roomy. So I had to use both the lavalier microphone and shotgun microphone to capture her voice, in order to get a optimal result.”
With sound design for film, the ante is upped even further with ongoing barrage of production challenges, differing locations, extended shooting, challenging sequences and more.
In 2015, Hou served as sound designer for the short film, “Once,” that went on to be selected for screening at the Festival South Film Expo, Three Cities Festival and Conference, the Long Island Film Expo and the HollyShorts Film Festival, among others.
The film follows the story of an old man who lives in loneliness and numbness and who tries to reach for a blackbird pin that carries the best memories of his life.
From the sound design perspective, Hou pointed out, “A lot of people wouldn’t notice how many sounds are happening around us everyday, even when then the quietest moment. But when we remove some of those sounds from them, such as air conditioning sound, fridge sound and city low rumble sound, people start feeling there is something missing, even thought they have no idea about what’s missing. My goal for “Once,” was to rebuilt a natural space that has all the sound elements that happen around us all the time, to let people really immerse in the film. They wouldn't notice the sound design exists. They only to watch and feel the film.”
The profound theory was influenced by the fact that “Once” has no dialogue and limited music. Sound design then takes on a huge role. Hou captured and put into the film seemingly nondescript sounds such as a breath or a bottle rattling that are imperative in matching the memories being experienced by the lead character.
“For such an intimate, quiet and insular film, his work enhanced the true realism, the loneliness and emotional poignancy of the film, as his creative approach in recording and balancing these sounds provided subtle cues for the audience in relation to our main character,” said Pan. “I am truly thankful for his work throughout this film, and cannot imagine we would have earned the same successes had we sought out the work of another sound designer.”
For the production of “Compadres” — an action comedy directed by the award-winning Enrique Begne that grossed more than $3 million domestically — Hou manned the role of sound editor, a title in Hollywood that’s synonymous with sound designer.
Versed before in the genres of documentary, drama and horror, “Compadres” represented the first foray into comedy for Hou. “It’s challenging. The sound design has to be more exaggerated,” he said.
The production called for Hou to work with Martin Hernandez, a two-time Oscar nominated supervising sound editor known for his work on recent hit films such as “The Revenant” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and “Birdman” starring Michael Keaton.
“He’s very nice and kind,” Hou said. “He left me a lot of space of doing what I wanted to do for the sound of “Compadres.” It was a great experience!”
Hou’s sound design on the 2013 short drama, “Until the Dust Settles,” was a completely different venture. The film, directed by Alexander Gangi, is set in 1932 and tells the story of a father and his two sons who reconnect while traveling through the heart of the American Dust Bowl.
“Since it’s based on a story which happened in 1930s, there are some specific sounds that were needed to be designed in a certain way to match the same era, such as the city ambience, wood cabins and horses,” said Hou. “In order to make the most customized sound effects for the action happened on screen, I ended up recording a lot of sound effects in my kitchen and bathtub.”
Hou’s creativity paid off as “Until the Dust Settles” went on to win the Savannah Film Commission Award at the 2013 Savannah Film Festival. It screened at other festivals including LA Shorts, the Macon Film Festival, Cincinnati Film Festival, Big Bear Lake Film Festival and more.
Lending directly to the success of “God Save the Queen,” a short news documentary about Colony Collapsed Disorder and the disappearance of honey bees, Hou sound designed the film and edited its dialogue. The project was written and directed by Leah March and won the 2015 Gray's Reef Film Festival Ocean Gold, Emerging Filmmakers award.
With a catalog of achievements in sound showing up in more than a dozen films, Hou is poised to continue his superb track record in productions to come. He will collaborate again with Hernandez on a 2018 film that is to be announced and is being produced with China’s Ningxia Film Group. Hou has also been working on the forthcoming “Wheels for Warriors” TV movie written and directed by Michael Feifer and starring Dean Cain, of “Lois and Clark” fame. Hou is also sound designing the short comedy, “Magical Sunglasses” from writer-director Yucheng Geng.
For more information and to check out Xiao Hou’s work, visit: www.xdecibel.com