When a documentary is comprised of a variety of source material, the film requires a lot of sound editing to create consistent audio levels for a soundtrack that flows without distraction. But how many viewers know that a lot more goes into the sound design of a documentary, especially one made up mostly of archival footage?
The award-winning documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is co-directed and produced by James “Jim” LeBrecht, whose career primarily consists of doing sound for nonfiction films. His wife and fellow producer on the film, Sara Bolder, is a veteran Hollywood dialogue editor who worked on such blockbusters as Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Obviously they’d want this new film to have the best sound design possible.
For the job, the couple (along with co-director and co-producer Nicole Newnham) hired someone very close to them: Jacob Bloomfield-Misrach. As the sound supervisor for Crip Camp, he managed the sound team of an ambitious project mostly made up of early video material as well as an array of news footage, all of which together chronicles an experiential history of the disabled rights movement.
Following the film’s debut on Netflix, I talked to Bloomfield-Misrach on the phone to discuss all the work that went into making Crip Camp not sound like a lot of work was involved at all. Here is our conversation:
Nonfics: What is your history with Jim LeBrecht?
Jacob Bloomfield-Misrach: Jim and I basically co-ran his sound company, Berkeley Sound Artists, together for a couple of years until he sold me the company. I then ran the company, first for him and then together. So, Jim and I had a really special friendship, and working relationship, long before we dove into the sound design for Crip Camp.
What was it like working for Jim and Sara, since they’re veterans of film sound?
Both Jim and co-director Nicole truly had 50/50 equal say in the direction of the sound design for the film. My team and I were expecting that Jim was going to take the reins and say, ‘I have been a sound supervisor myself for 25 years, so clearly I’m going to have the most input.’ But they were actually pretty amazing at collaborating in terms of just discussing what they were expecting, what they wanted, what the feeling should be.
And when you take a step back from it, it actually makes sense because they both have equal experience with the film and have equal visions for what they’re trying to achieve. They both had a lot of valuable input to us in our spotting session in regards to how to direct our work.
Did you know how much sound design Crip Camp would entail when you came aboard?
No. I did not expect there to be the extent of sound design for archival specifically that there ended up being. Until the day we all showed up for work and actually started working on the film. I was like, ‘Oh, there’s a lot more archival footage in this film than I previously thought. That was fine. Our head sound designer, Bijan Sharifi, and I readjusted our schedule and allocated time for archival restoration, and sound design. But it’s a very archival-heavy film. I think they use it beautifully. And it all came together very nicely. But I was not expecting quite as much archival as there is.
What exactly did the film’s sound design entail?
We actually touched pretty much all of the archival footage in the film. And the key to what we do is always staying transparent. For news interviews and TV archives, you have to be very invisible. Because you really don’t want to make the viewer feel like it’s been tampered with. But that being said, if there’s a crowd of angry protestors in the street and the archival audio just isn’t emotionally charged enough, even if that was already on ABC 10 years ago, we still felt the need to enhance some of the power of the sound that could be there so you really feel engaged and close to the subjects of the film. So we did actually sound design the entire film from start to finish. My job was to make sure that William Sammons and Bijan Sharifi, our sound design team, had what they needed to do a fantastic job. And they certainly did!
Can you detail more of what you had to do as far as the Foley sound went?
We did a lot of Foley, and one of the things unique to Crip Camp was the variations of wheelchairs over the decades because if you think about it, wheelchair technology changed from the ’70s to ’80s to ’90s from a manual chair to different types of electronic motorized chairs. So not only did we have to go out into the world, we borrowed some different types of wheelchairs, we had to put them on gravel, on concrete, on grass, on wood. And record all these different types of chairs on different surfaces.
Then what happens is, if you try to just take that sound you’ve recorded and put it on top of the piece of archival footage from the ’70s, it sounds very out of place. Because all of the surrounding audio is old and sounds old. That’s when distressing comes into play. We’ll take our footage and add some hiss to it and some crackle and we’ll distort it a little bit. We’ll EQ it so it sounds like an older microphone recorded it. Sometimes we’ll even run it through a tape machine that will get us closer to an authentic recording. Then all of a sudden it blends in seamlessly and you never know that we were there.
Do you try to mostly work with authentic sounds, like wheelchairs for wheelchairs? Is that a priority?
We’re always trying to be authentic. We definitely do our homework. And we sometimes get production audio that might have a chair in it, but let’s say the microphone was just too far away. You barely hear it. Or it just sounds garbled, and it’s not selling the film. We’ll enhance it, we’ll sweeten it. And a lot of times we’ll get archival audio or footage and there just is no audio at all. Lots of archival library content is just the picture. If you see someone walking through the street or you see a wheelchair rolling along, you want to hear it, you want to feel it, feel close to it. That’s why we go in and either take a reference to make sure we’re being pretty accurate without any new sounds that we’re adding in or sweetening what’s already there.
What are some interesting sounds you had to create artificially?
There’s a scene at the end of the film that shows Jim in the Berkeley Repertory Theatre when he’s working there as a sound designer — must have been the late ’70s or early ’80s — and we did Foley for all of that stuff. We actually recorded our own sounds. There is a scene where he is putting cables into a patch bay, and then there’s a scene where he’s climbing up the stairs or ladder. We have to be creative and think outside the box a little bit. We’ll use a sound that isn’t the sound at all. We’ve taken a paint mixer, run it across the keys of a keyboard and you get this great clacking sound that has nothing to do with what you expect it to come from but might work for a fan or a bike going by or some sound that is totally unrelated to its actual source.
Is the amount of sound design work you had to do with Crip Camp normal for an archival documentary?
Yes and no. We work on a lot of feature documentaries every year; that’s sort of the main thing that we work on. And I say almost 80 to 90 percent of them have some amount of archival footage because a lot of documentaries are referencing what’s happening today to things that have happened in the past.
This film, in particular, Crip Camp, is a story that really was embedded in the ’70s through the ’90s and the movements of people who made a change for accessibility and people with disabilities. So it was much heavier in the archival footage than a lot of the documentaries we work on. That being said, our process is the same and we do pretty extensive sound design and Foley work for almost every film that we work on.
It seems like there are more and more archival documentaries lately trying to make the material seem new or at least more consistent.
It’s possible today with tools to make archival audio feel cinematic, and that’s important if you’re going to watch it in the theater because you want to be immersed in the film and I think the only way you can do that is with a proper sound design and mix, even if it’s archival heavy.
But also documentaries that aren’t playing cinematically, a lot are being watched on devices with headphones and audiences notice good sound more as a result of that.
Yeah, for sure. Another good example of a film that we worked on last year that was similarly invisible but a lot of work went into it is Minding the Gap. That needed to feel, again, very authentic and like no one had touched this raw document, yet we mixed that and we did all kinds of audio enhancing and sound design and it was a balance of keeping it raw and still make it feel big and cinematic and personal. It’s a balance on every film to make it powerful and authentic at the same time.
Did you guys have to record yourselves skating?
I think we did a little bit of skate sound design, but one thing that was really interesting about that was Bing Liu, the director, even though the raw recording of him and his friends skating was kind of rough around the edges, he really didn’t want us to touch that element of it too much. He wanted that specific piece to stay just raw and intact and then sort of instead of sound designing skating itself, we sound designed streets they were on, environments, cities, and friends, so the world around the skating was able to be cinematic and embellished and immersive. But the skating itself we didn’t really touch that much.
Are there ever concerns about documentary purity in that you’re not giving the audience the original real sound with the real visuals?
It’s an interesting thing. A lot of filmmakers come in and they say, “We don’t want any new sound; just clean up and mix the production sound that we captured.” And we say, “Great, no problem, but let’s just have a conversation about that.” Then we can show them some before and afters and all of the work that we do when we’re adding sound design. It really is invisible, and all we’re doing is enhancing a subconscious emotional quality to the picture. It’s because the brain makes these incredible connections that allows you to think something is closer to you or more present or just more authentic if you’re sending your brain more details in a subconscious auditory way.
A lot of documentary filmmakers go out and they either have a boom mic or a lav. If you’re listening to someone talking on the street and they’re wearing a lav mic, you’re seeing an environment of cars going by and there’s maybe pedestrians walking and there’s general crowd ambiance. And you’re not hearing any of it. Because all you’re hearing is a tiny little mic underneath someone’s shirt standing in the middle of the street. So, it’s in some ways more authentic to add some of those natural environmental sounds. Because that’s what was happening. It wasn’t just a person in a box.
You need the environment to fully build the world that’s being captured. Once we do some A&B and show them that no, if this is going to be played in a theatrical environment that’s a surround sound environmental piece of filmmaking that you’re putting out there, you want to hear some of those sounds and you want to be immersed in the environment. Almost every film we work on, the filmmakers say, “You know what? That’s right, let’s just do it subtly. Let’s do it delicately.” And we end up sound designing it at the end.
What was the microphone like for the extensive Camp Jened video footage?
It was the Sony Portapak, which was a consumer handheld microphone that recorded to VHS tape in the ’70s, and that was really unique audio to work with. Here we have a bunch of kids at camp, having fun, being kids, passing around a microphone, laughing, screaming, talking into the mic. There’s handling noise, there’s wind noise. It’s by no means a professional crew of people recording sound.
And yet there’s so much character and heartfelt sort of innocence in the recording. So Jim, Nicole, Sara, and I, along with Bijan and our whole audio team spent a lot of time discussing how we were going to handle that. Sure, you want to clean it up a little bit so that noise isn’t distracting or taking away from the story, but at the same time some of that noise is the story that we’re capturing, these kids, and it’s just an honest moment.
We really went frame by frame through all of that Camp Jened footage and decided, okay, this little bit of rumbling mic-handholding noise, it’s on top of the words, it’s distracting, let’s take it out. But this other little moment where this kid takes the mic and is just laughing and screaming into it and it’s all distorted, we could have taken out that distortion but that would have taken some of the character out of the moment. It was really a balance of keeping the integrity of the original audio while also making it sound like a polished film. I also have to add that Jim did a brilliant job in the final mix putting all of those elements together.
Do you ever need to replace dialogue with overdubbing?
We don’t do that, no. We don’t mess with archival dialogue. The only time that we might enhance it is if it was background dialogue. If there was archival footage where someone is talking on camera but behind them you see some kids playing or talking or laughing. We might add a little bit of background chatter or playfulness or dialogue or whatever is happening in the scene. But for primary dialogue, we don’t really mess with that too much.
One thing we might do occasionally in the dialogue edit is, if a line is delivered poorly or if the microphone cuts out for whatever reason in a piece of archival footage, we might go and take syllables from other words within that dialogue spoken by the same person, re-edit them to fill out the gaps of a bad recording. That gets a little bit forensic. But it’s fun to do dialogue surgery like that.
Your work is supposed to be invisible, but would you like there to be more recognition given to documentary sound or is it rewarding just for viewers not to notice what you’ve achieved?
A good sound mix for a documentary is if no one is noticing or paying attention to the fact that any work was done whatsoever. It’s different for narrative films and commercials because you get to go a little more outrageous with the sound design. But a documentary, the sound design always has to be behind everything else.
We’ve run our company for 20 years solely on word of mouth, and I think that’s because people don’t watch a documentary and say, “Gosh, that was a great mix.” They walk away and say, “What a story,” or “I didn’t know about this thing; that was so incredible.” They never stop and say, “Man, that Foley that I couldn’t notice was there was sure well done.” It’s a testament to our team that for 20 years we’ve stayed in business just on word of mouth because our work is invisible.
Crip Camp is now streaming on Netflix.