For Kunal Rajan, it is a double treat as his 150th film is also a silent film. The sound designer of Karthik Subbaraj’s silent film Mercury terms the experience quite a challenge. “When Karthik approached me, it is not like I could check other films for references. The last silent film came thirty years ago (Kamal Haasan’s Pesum Padam), and that wasn’t a thriller. Even in Hollywood, the last silent film I remember watching is The Artist, again a completely different kind of film. It was challenging and scary but we did what we felt was right.”
Despite being brought onboard during post-production, Kunal Ranjan reveals that a lot of effort was put into the sound production and design. “While we work only for 2-3 months on an Indian film, we worked for around five months for Mercury. Since there is no dialogue, the sound has to tell the story,” he said. There was a lot of back and forth between Karthik Subbaraj and himself, revealed the sound designer. “I would give an idea, he would listen to it, come back and ask me if we can try something else. For most of the important scenes, we had four or five different options. We can’t miss any details. it was challenging,” remarked Kunal.
It is all about finding the right sound, that can take the scene to the next level, from whatever source it might be. “There are two scenes in the film which are very complex. We had to create something new and memorable so that when the audience hears it again, they will recognise it. I probably have 50-60 versions of the sound effects for that one particular thing,” said Kunal.
The greatest objective of sound design, unlike other aspects of cinema, is to blend in — be organic. For that to be done, a sound designer has to work closely with the other engineer in the film’s sonic sphere, the music director. And working with Santhosh Narayanan, the music director was a breeze, said Kunal Ranjan. “Since we invested a lot of time, Santhosh and I had the space to refine and blend in our work through multiple drafts. I used to send rough drafts to Santhosh who composed over it and when he sent it back, I tweaked it even more.” The line between sound design and music is very thin in Mercury, he explained. “The exchange happened multiple times to make the mix stronger and nothing stands out. You won’t even know where music starts and sound design stops.”
Kunal, who has worked on several Indian films such as Vishwaroopam, Thoongavanam, Uttama Villain etc, has also worked on Hollywood projects such as Race to Witch Mountain and Fantastic 4. The styles are extremely different when it comes to films in the West, revealed the sound designer. “If I did an Indian movie the way I did an American film, it would sound horrible in Indian theatres. The volume levels set in theatres for a Tamil or any other Indian film is different from the volume levels for a Hollywood level.” He further added that films here always go for the larger-than-life effect. “You would hear things that you probably don’t hear all the time in reality. Right from a gunshot to footsteps, everything will be at the same volume. In the West, they root for subtlety. Sometimes you don’t hear a few things because that’s the way it is real life.”
Despite the technological advances, Indian filmmakers still don’t explore sound extensively, said Kunal Ranjan. “They spend months on filming and editing. Sound effects mixing is the last step before it goes to the theatres. At that time, makers are out of time and money. So they just want to get it done. Sound always gets affected in India.”