"God is in the details": Emmy-nominated sound editor Jacob Ribicoff on his work on 'Fahrenheit 451' and Ken Burns' 'The Vietnam War'
The Emmy nominated sound designer and editor details his work on HBO's 'Fahrenheit 451' and Ken Burns' 'The Vietnam War' in this exclusive interview with Meaww
As viewers, when we are engrossed in watching a film, it's rare that we are actually thinking of the individual components that add up to make the full cinematic experience. It can be very easy to forget that often nothing except for dialogue is actually recorded sound-wise during the shoot of a film. It's a team of sound designers, mixers, re-recording engineers, foleys, music composers and editors that layer in each individual element to finally produce the cohesive product that we get to see, hear and feel on the screen.
It was a fact I was constantly reminded of during my recent interview with sound designer/editor Jacob Ribicoff, who has worked across multiple sound and music departments with some of the industry's greatest, including Darren Aronofsky, Wes Anderson, Roger Waters, Ken Burns and more. Jacob won his first Emmy for his work on Ken Burns' 2008 documentary 'The War.' He's also worked on an eclectic range of projects, some of which include 'Manchester By The Sea', 'The First Purge', 'The Fantastic Mr. Fox', 'The Wrestler' and the upcoming film 'Boy Erased'. He also is the concert sound designer for Roger Waters' currently ongoing 'Us + Them Tour'.
Next week, Jacob is up for two nominations at the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards - one for Outstanding Sound Editing For A Limited Series, Movie Or Special for his groundbreaking work on HBO's dystopian adaptation of Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451' (starring Michael B. Jordan and directed by Ramin Bahrani); and the other for Outstanding Sound Editing For A Nonfiction Program for his work in Burns' highly acclaimed 10-part documentary series 'The Vietnam War'.
In this exclusive interview with Meaww, Jacob details his impressive work on both projects, the unique challenges he faced and the role that sound plays in evoking emotional responses from the audience, among other things.
But before we could dive into Jacob's work on the projects, I had to get one thing cleared. The distinction between Sound Design and Sound Mixing is one that is particularly hard to understand, especially for industry outsiders. And who better than Jacob, an expert in the field who has worked under both departments with legends from the industry to set the record straight.
"The difference between those two is that sound design is a more general, all-encompassing term. It's a more recent term. And you could be a sound designer and a mixer on a project," Jacob explains. "The sound designer sits down with the director and comes up with a concept of how the movie is going to sound. Then that concept is executed through sound editors and through the mixer. So everyone participates in the sound design of the film but the mixer is not usually the sound designer. Usually, you have three distinctions - Sound Designer, Re-recording Mixer and Supervising Sound Editor."
"Nowadays, the line between the three are blurred. For me personally, the lines are very much blurred," he added, talking about how there were specified watertight roles in the old days but how with the digital age of sound design and mixing, the roles have indeed gotten quite flexible.
With that mildly confusing topic taken care of, we proceeded to discuss Jacob's most recent Emmy-nominated work. Both 'Fahrenheit 451' and 'The Vietnam War' posed unique challenges to Jacob, with one project being an exhaustive look at a crucial part of America's past, and another a hauntingly realized portrayal of a possible future. But they do share a certain commonality. Both projects, in a sense, looked closely at what humanity is capable of inflicting upon itself. Jacob spoke about the experience of working on such distinct projects, not just sound-wise, but also logistically.
"The two projects were very far apart in time in terms of me working on them both. We worked on 'The Vietnam War' from the winter of 2015 all the way into the summer of 2016 and it wasn't aired till 2017 and here we are talking about it in 2018," Jacob says. He also spoke about how he's been working with Burns for over two decades now and how tightly organized his projects are, with things being planned well in advance. "When they call you for a project, they tell you almost a year in advance. And then the schedule never changes. It's very unusual in our industry."
"Whereas with 'Fahrenheit 451', it all happened very suddenly. I got a call for that job literally several weeks before the job was about to begin. I met with the director Bahrani and we clicked immediately, and then the job just took off. The two were totally the opposite in the sense that for Vietnam we had so much time to prepare whereas for Fahrenheit, things were so accelerated. But both of them have many, many layers of sound in them."
The logistics apart, the actual sound design of the two projects are poles apart as well. And Jacob explained the distinction with the detail and passion that only somebody at the top of their game can do. Addressing his work on 'The Vietnam War' and the unique 'Ken Burns model', which he says employs a very different approach to the soundscapes of documentaries, he elaborated: " The way you work on Ken Burns' projects... you bring a level of detail that you would normally ascribe to a good job on a narrative film. We're bringing that to a documentary setting. Often times, documentaries have a minimum of additional sound added to them. It's about verity... just cleaning up either archival tracks or rough field recorded tracks... that kinda thing.
"But in the 'Ken Burns' model, he's always hired a sound effects editor, a dialog editor, a music editor, all separately. So in that sense, it kind of brings a more narrative sensibility to the sound process."
Apart from the sound editing, Jacob also handled the music editing for the documentary series. Stretching across ten episodes that cover a period in time that produced the most iconic rock 'n roll and protest music in modern music history, the playlists for the individual episodes read like an all-time greatest hits of rock music.
The docuseries features more than 120 iconic cuts from the era, with artists like Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Marvin Gaye, Simon & Garfunkel, The Byrds and more featuring on the soundtrack. As the liner notes for the show's music aptly puts it, "Together, the [tracks] comprise a defining, musical account of one of the most convulsive and transformative periods in American history and, by inevitable extension, the world's."
Jacob revealed how the team meticulously obtained the rights to such a huge list of iconic tracks and admitted that it was no easy task. "It's quite amazing that Florentine Films were able to obtain the rights to all these tracks. Given their policy on pre-recorded popular music... the fact that you're talking about the likes of Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Bob Dylan... It's amazing that they were able to get the rights to all of this music."
"Neil Young, for example, was one of the hardest for us to get on board... his representatives at least. We wanted to use his song 'Ohio', which is never allowed to be used for any film or anything other than as a recording on its own. But since the use of it is directly related to the Kent State shooting and what the song is actually about, they eventually agreed but I know it was a long process to get them on board." Jacob also told me how Jimi Hendrix's estate, which now manages rights and royalties on his work, did not want any of his music to be associated with violence. But when a representative saw some of the clips of the docuseries, they got on board as well.
As Jacob pointed out to me, Burns' attention to the chronological detail of the series also applied to the music selection. The team apparently had a policy where, as the timeline plays out in the series, they would not use a track that wasn't released at the time yet. Jacob narrated an interesting anecdote in relation to the policy.
"Every episode ends with an end-credit song. There was one episode that ended with a Sam Cooke song," Jacob says. "As the music editor, I remember thinking 'A Change Is Gonna Come' is such an amazing, powerful Civil Rights era song and it made so much sense with what was going on at that point in the film. They had a more obscure Sam Cooke song in place('Mean Old World', which plays at the end of episode 2). And I remember going 'Hey guys, can we use 'A Change Is Gonna Come?' So we looked it up and we found out that it had been released three months too late to fit with that time-period and we couldn't use it," he trails off, half-amazed by the rules by which he played the game.
The series also features new, original music written and recorded by Academy Award-winning composer Atticus Ross, and curiously enough, Academy Award-winner and Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, who Jacob especially took note of. "The Trent Reznor stuff is really powerful. You wouldn't think that it would fit for a project like Vietnam, because it's of a different era and it's largely electronically regenerated right?" he paused rhetorically.
"But it worked incredibly powerfully, and emotionally," he added. "I found that there was a link between the fact that... you had these veterans telling their stories in the present. So they're sitting in front of the camera, having all these years between their actual experiences and the present day. And there was something about using Trent's brand of music that kind of underscored the present day and the past and their reflections are very emotional, but also very lucid. Reznor's music had an emotional present-day way of tying the past and the present, which I found really interesting."
While 'The Vietnam War' took a critical look at the country's dark past, 'Fahrenheit 451' is on the opposite end of the spectrum. The HBO film adaptation of Bradbury's classic dystopian work is set in a bleak future where "Firemen" destroy any and all cultural tokens by setting them ablaze. In fact, 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns, which is how it gets its title. Explaining the sonic aesthetics of the film, Jacob explained: "There's kind of a retro, yet futuristic look to the film," Jacob says. "If you look at the uniforms of the firemen, they have a kind of classical, old look to them. Ramin [Bahrani, the director] and I sat down and talked about coming up with sounds that were familiar to viewers in the present, and then tried to infuse those sounds with something futuristic at the same time."
"For example, the sound of the fire engine. When you look at the fire engines on screen, they're not that futuristic looking. It looks like a classic fire engine. But we wanted to view that sound with some elements that people would recognize, but also something futuristic. And then, on top of that, something that gives them a kind of animal ferocity. They are these menacing vehicles that carry these 'firemen' who are agents of destruction.
"So I looked for the most full-throated engine sounds that I could find and combined them with some jet turbine noises to give it a futuristic feel. And then I was able to find some animals sounds, like some growls of bears and lions or something like that. All of that combined went into the sound of the fire engine," Jacob explained as I listened amazed, almost unable to wrap my head around the level of detail in the design.
"We did something similar with the flamethrower," Jacob continued. "It's sort of a regular flamethrower sound. But I looked for some reptilian sounds, like serpents hissing, and I was able to weave that sound into that of the flamethrower. So when you first see the flamethrower in a film... they're demonstrating it in front of a group of school children. Or later you hear them when Montag (Michael B. Jordan) has to burn down his own apartment, I was hoping for a solid emotional component to the sound. I think that worked out well for all of us," he concluded.
Here's wishing Jacob Ribicoff and the rest of his team the very best for the upcoming nominations at the 2018 Emmys. You can catch the Emmys live from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Monday, September 17 at 8 pm ET/ 5 pm PT on NBC.