Victor Zottmann is a sound designer and editor currently working at Ignition Immersive, a cinematic virtual reality production company. We recently had the opportunity to ask him about his experiences working on the sound design for VR and 360 degree films. Enjoy!
Let’s start with the usual first question, tell us a little about yourself and how you got started in the sound design industry.
I’ve been passionate about classical music since I was a kid and my dream was to become a film composer; however, I never pursued musical training. When I was 14 (2006) I discovered that I could create personalized ringtones and put them in my cellphone (this was pre-iPhone). I don’t recall exactly how this subject popped up in a talk with my dad, but after we spoke he introduced me to a DAW called Audacity and showed me how to use the simple editing tools. It was my first contact with an audio workstation. Fascinated with the technology, I immediately downloaded my favorite songs and began experimenting by trying to cut them down to 30 seconds.
As I began analyzing film scores, I would download the soundtrack and try to edit them as they were edited to fit a particular scene or the end credits, for example. I kept on practicing it just for fun until 2010, when I decided to do a course on video editing at a Brazilian school called OZI Escola de Audiovisual. That course was a game changer: I found what I wanted to do. Two years later, I enrolled in a film degree at college. It wasn’t music composition, but I’d be close enough from that department. However, as the course progressed I’d find myself always turning to sound instead of direction and production. In 2014 I got the opportunity to attend the Sound Design for Visual Media program at Vancouver Film School, and so I took a break from college and embarked on the most satisfying and incredible experience I’ve had so far. There, I studied a bit of everything; from field recording, to post audio editing, sound design, mixing and game audio as well.
In a way, the course at VFS was responsible for kick starting my journey into the sound design world, but that was just the beginning. When I went back to Brazil, I decided to quit film school and pursue a degree and career in audio overseas.
On a bio written about you, it mentions that your passion for sound is owed to The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Disney movies of the 90’s. Is there something specific about those movies brought about your passion for sound?
My relationship with The Lord of the Rings and Disney animations is that of absolute and unconditional love, not only for the stories, but essentially for the creative value and dedication put into those films. When The Return of the King came out in 2003, I remember very clearly that it was the first time that I got really immersed into a story through music. I left the theatre amazed at how beautiful the score was. As soon as I got home I began revisiting the first two movies, as well as others I liked just to have a closer listen at the scores. By analyzing them thoroughly I began to realize that what would give me the goosebumps was the combination of sound design and the score, and how they can tell a story either by being together or apart. For that matter, I’m particularly fond of the use of silence represented by subtle sound design or music, and The Lord of the Rings does that very cleverly. A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to watch one of those live to picture orchestral performances of the trilogy, and the experience was far more profound than watching it on a TV screen. As the orchestra is playing the score live, the mix ends up being entirely different; you’re able to listen to the music as it was originally scored, as if no sound design decision was made.
Thirteen years after my passion for the trilogy began, a life-time dream happened–that’s Sam’s house in the Hobbiton movie set in Matamata, New Zealand:
As for the Disney animated features, Aladdin was released when I was born and, as my parents recall, it was the first movie I had ever seen. Aladdin was responsible for my deep appreciation and respect for animation. Not to mention, of course, The Lion King, Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, A Goofy Movie and Mulan, amongst many others. If I were to choose a different dream job to music composition, it’d be to work with sound for animation. I’m constantly making bizarre noises and being goofy with close friends. Imagine a world where you could do that every day! Animation also kicked off a passion for dialogue editing, which has been my primary job for a while now.
You are currently working at Ignition Immersive, a VR film production studio based in Melbourne, Australia. How did that opportunity come about?
When I arrived in Melbourne I didn’t know anybody. I came to pursue a degree in audio at SAE Institute and my initial plan was to focus solely on my education. However, it came to my attention that during the first year I wouldn’t do any post production work, so I decided to get out there and network as much as I could. I came across two great Facebook groups; ‘ANZac’ (Australia and New Zealand Audio Crowd) and ‘VRCC’ (Virtual Reality Content Creators) and requested to join, despite not knowing what VR was all about. When the VRCC hosted its very first meet up, I was introduced to Darius Kedros, a sound designer specialized in sound for film, theatre, installations and, most recently, VR. We really got along and a few months later he invited me to assist him on the location recording of a 360 film. There, I met with Darren Vukasinovic, founder of Ignition Immersive and we got along as well. About two months after the film shoot, I attended the studio’s inauguration party and that was the moment when I was invited to join the team.
Working on the sound design for a VR film must present challenges that you have not faced before. What are some of these challenges, and how have you overcome them?
One of the biggest challenges I’ve been facing lately is understanding the medium as far as storytelling is concerned. Does it need to sound as close to real life as possible or can I make decisions on whether a sound must be heard? If it does, what will the audience think? Will it be adding up or damaging to the overall experience? A VR film is very different from an interactive VR experience. Whereas in an interactive experience you can move around the room with controllers and pick objects from the ground, in film you’re just receiving information, passively. Another contrast is the amount of time a story needs to be told in VR. An audience can comfortably go through a 2-hour film. In the case of VR, videos usually last an average of 10 minutes.
I strongly believe that before understanding the role of sound in linear VR, we need to get more knowledgeable in narrative and how it can be efficiently told in a 10-minute experience. Essentially, sound designers are not just synchronizing and designing sounds to picture, we’re telling stories. We’re filmmakers.
My way of overcoming these uncertainties is by embracing failure and just keeping on taking risks. The way I see it, linear VR is yet in its experimental stage and I believe it will eventually find its place on the market. Until it gets there I’ll remain creating and trying things out.
Ignition Immersive says that they are designing advanced spatial sound for their VR films. What exactly does this translate to in the work that you do at the company?
What’s been embedded in the company’s culture since the day I got there is the hunger for taking risks and pushing the boundaries. With that in mind, the team has been working hard into crafting great looking and sounding 360 videos. So far, the audio team has been working mainly on documentaries. While we didn’t have the opportunity to fully explore 360 sound design just yet, it’s been serving as a solid preparation towards the challenges we’re about to face in future projects.
In terms of how does it translate to my work, the most crucial requirements are those of keeping myself up-to-date with the technologies currently available to us, as well as always making sure to be supportive to the team and maintaining a positive attitude whenever we fail. We’re also fortunate to be working closely with video editors and software engineers, which gives us the flexibility and opportunity to fix problems faster, as well as to contribute to the development of our own tools.
Do you use a special microphone while filming that is able to capture sound from all directions?
An advantage of Ignition Immersive being in its inception is that the audio team has been able to work on the location recording for some of the projects. In traditional film, the production workflow is the one we’re all used to seeing and doing; the director generally sits behind the camera monitor, the boom operator usually stays close to the camera operator, and the rest of the crew stands behind the action. In 360 that’s not possible as the camera sees everything around it, so what the crew must do is hide behind walls or trees and monitor the filming equipment via Bluetooth apps. For sound the process is exactly the same—recorders such as the Zoom F8 and the new Sound Devices Mix-Pre series allow you to do that. If you’re using recorders without Bluetooth connectivity, then you must set the gain to a level you think is going to work well and hope for the best. We’ve been working with the Sennheiser AMBEO microphone, which contains four capsules right next to each other in the shape of a cube. Each capsule corresponds to an audio channel that is then summed up to a single audio file with 4 channels. In addition to the ambisonics microphone, the actors are also recorded with lavalier microphones. As soon as we begin working on the spatialisation in post-production, we must find the correct rotation of the microphone using a plugin called Sennheiser AMBEO Converter, and synchronize it to picture while making sure that it’s in phase with the lavalier recordings as well.
For the 360 videos Ignition Immersive creates, the viewer has control over the video and where to look. How does this affect your sound design for the video? Does the viewing perspective affect the sound?
It certainly does. Whereas in traditional film sound you have absolute control over what you want the audience to hear and feel, in 360, you don’t. You can’t predict where will the viewer look at. However, it is possible to manipulate the audience into looking at a specific direction by exploring psychoacoustic phenomena, such as ITD and ILD (Interaural Time Difference and Interaural Level Difference). These phenomena refer to the amount of time a sound takes to travel from its source to our ears, as well as its loudness and frequency distribution.
We’re currently using the Facebook 360 Spatial Audio Workstation (FB360), and there’s an interesting feature available called ‘Mix Focus’. Imagine that you’re in a street with plenty of things happening around you. Right in front of you there are some people speaking; on your right there’s a musician playing the guitar; on your left there are some kids playing with dogs and behind you there are some cars passing by. What Mix Focus allows you to do is focus the mix in the direction you’re looking at, while filtering everything else around you. So, if you turn to your right, the people speaking will get quieter and the musician will now be focused, and so on. It’s a very powerful feature, despite not supporting automation yet.
Looking back on your work so far, what project are you most proud to have been a part of?
Honestly, I’m proud of every past and current projects we’ve been working on. If I were to pick one, I’d choose one of the episodes from WildEyed VR, Keppel Falls. I worked on the dialogue edit for it and it was particularly hard to get right due to phase cancellation issues. Because most of it was shot right beside a waterfall, the amount of white noise present in both the ambisonics and lavalier recordings was paramount, and the noise would almost entirely mask the dialogue captured by the ambisonics microphone, therefore making it challenging to find the correct rotation. The noise issue made this task quintessentially difficult to accomplish as I could barely hear from which direction was the dialogue coming from.
One thing to keep in mind when editing in 360 is that if a there’s too much noise present on an actor’s microphone, the viewer will notice when he speaks, as the noise will come along as well. Imagine that you’re watching a 360 film where there are 2 people talking right in front of you and all the sudden you hear a burst of noise coming from your left. It doesn’t work. In the case of Keppel falls, instead of adding a burst a noise, whenever I applied a rather harsh de-noiser to the lavalier dialogue for instance, I could clearly hear a dip in the sound.
Eventually, the solution I found was to move the ambisonics a couple of frames to the side in order to minimize the phase cancellation problems and apply moderate de-noising to the lavalier microphones. It didn’t work perfectly, though it isn’t something the audience would notice unless they saw my editing session. But now you know (laughs).
You can have a listen to the episode below. Use Google Chrome and headphones!
And finally, what’s your best advice to those looking to get into the sound design industry?
Always look for challenges that will get you out of your comfort zone. I’ve always been shy and introverted, and at times I would think that I’d never be able to find a good opportunity. What got me to the position I am today was my insistence on attending all sorts of events (sound, VR, business, filmmaking, creativity, and so on) and asking questions. I already have ‘no’ for an answer, so what’s the problem with trying? Furthermore, I’d recommend beginners to familiarize themselves with industry terms, technologies, challenges, sound professionals located nearby where they live, not to mention filmmakers, game designers and so on. And, above all else, be yourself.
Sound Ideas would like to thank Victor Zottmann for taking the time to answer our questions for this interview!
You can find Victor on Twitter & LinkedIn, as well as see his past and current work on his website: