Behind the Books

Read our interview with LBB about the sonic craft that went into our latest work for Amazon Books.

Original article

That Reading Feeling Awaits: Creating Sonic Landscapes for Imaginary Worlds

The team at String and Tins reveal how they designed authentic sound, composition and mix to celebrate Amazon Books

That Reading Feeling Awaits: Creating Sonic Landscapes for Imaginary Worlds

Amazon Books has released its global campaign, That Reading Feeling Awaits, to celebrate the place of books at the foundation of culture. With six different scenes, each depicting a different genre, 20 different illustrators came together to create the artwork, with String and Tins on sound design, music composition and mix.
In this interview, String and Tins sound designer and composer Culum Simpson joins creative directors Joe Wilkinson and Lawrence Kendrick to discuss the inspiration and craft behind the work.

LBB> This piece brings together both sound and music, with String and Tins having worked on the sound design, music composition and mix. Can you tell us about the ideation stage and inspiration behind the piece?

Joe> We spent a lot of time with a basic animatic picture shaping the palette for the sound design. The readers’ voices were a key ingredient, as we knew it would take some care so that they would land and not feel like an audiobook. The level of projection, pitch, loudness, and performance were all taken into consideration; we tested with multiple voices and reads, and also didn’t rule out having no voices at all. After a lot of tinkering, we found a structure that felt good for each reader:
- 1st stage - A strong focus pull in the soundscape, filtering out the ambient sound- 2nd stage - Soft, whispered reading, on the edge of intelligibility- 3rd stage - An explosion of detailed sound design as the books come to life
This allowed us to go to town on the rest of the mix, keeping those little moments of quiet reading time guiding us through!
Lawrence> It was clear from the beginning that this was going to be a special film. Films with multiple visual mediums are rare and tend to have so much opportunity for creative expression that we thought it was a great opportunity for us to split up the scenes and have a little window to add our own personal touch to. We then all dipped into each other's scenes to add little ideas and flourishes that came to mind. I focused on the manga fight scene. I’ve enjoyed anime for a long time and love opportunities to introduce little references from it into the work like this. The ‘WACHING’ sound at 17 seconds is a reference to the Evangelion series for example. Tom Noakes, the director, was keen on the detail, like the subtle delay between the impact and the audio reaction, another common trope in anime to imply scale.
Culum> The main balancing act in the spot was making the action feel like it was imagined as a part of the reading experience instead of playing out around them like in a film or video game. It meant that everything had to be punchy and believable but set back ever so slightly. This can be seen clearest in the reading of the books, they couldn't be performed like an audiobook but still had to garner excitement for the viewer. It was a tricky balance but a worthwhile one to pursue.

LBB> You mentioned that you researched and tried to source authentic sounds where possible, such as a Japanese technique for the Manga scene. Can you tell us about this process?

Lawrence> The methods behind creating anime sound design in particular are well documented and an absolute blast to generate, so we were super keen to use the techniques ourselves. Frequency shifting (not to be confused with pitch shifting, which maintains the relationships of the harmonics of a sound), combined with creative use of reverbs produces some wild and really abstract results. Ahmed and Chris, the creatives on the project, referenced One Punch Man which has some insane OTT sound design. I’m a big fan too so couldn’t wait to get things pumping and crunching for the sequence.
Culum> Haha, I’ve been researching SciFi for nearly 37 years now! But in all seriousness, Lawrence got deep into making some authentic anime 'shings' and with all the other crash bangs, it made that sequence feel just right! For me, I lent more into the SciFi scene. I've been a large fan of the genre since I was a kid and wanted to make it as interesting as possible without it getting too esoteric. It was all about detail, every click needed to be clear so the scene felt believable. There's so much visual business happening in the scene, creating sound for each little bit of animation felt almost pedestrian in solo but when you add them all together you get a soundscape we’re just not used to hearing. With that taking care of the realism, it was very easy to add the big crash bang wallop sorts of noises that gave it the weight it needed.
Joe> The Manga scene really stood out as needing to be as authentic as possible. For the vocal elements we used genuine Manga library sounds which we then processed using bit crushing and analogue delay to give it the classic feel. For the horror scene, we drew inspiration from the iPad game Limbo as well as others; it needed to feel elegant but also jarring. The end result has a classic monster flavour to it but with a little bit of strangeness!

LBB> What are your personal favourite scenes - sound-wise - and why?

Lawrence> Oooh that’s a tough one! There’s a lot to love. The sequence that goes back and forth between the horror and the period drama was really tricky to nail tonally. Joe took that one and I think he did an amazing job on the creeping nightmare monster. I love the boat on the sea too, there’s just a tasty balance and it really works emotionally. I also have a soft spot for the nice punchy crunch in the opener. Is three cheating?
Culum> To work on? Got to be SciFi and the manga sequences. It's so rare to be able to flex those particular skills as they come around so rarely! It's so fun to just go to town on something like that! In terms of emotional reaction the tragedy sequence is so emotive, it really chokes me up.
Joe> It’s such a sonic treat to hear so many different types of sound design in one short film. If I have to pick I would say the manga section - Culum and Law did such a good job on all the character moves, it’s so punchy combined with the authentic touches. I really enjoyed putting together some of the moments in the second half - the transition from city to sea scene required a very selective approach, from the siren to the perfectly sad pup!

LBB> What was most technically difficult to achieve and how did you come up with solutions?

Lawrence> I could pick one of a hundred challenges here but the whispering/reading was a really interesting creative choice from the team at Droga5 and needed a really fine touch, both with regards to the mix, the performance from the actors and the writing (which was refined and tweaked many times as you can imagine). Figuring out what was best for the film felt like a real collaborative effort between us and the Droga5 team to get it sitting well. Three engineers across a job is a little unusual but in this case it worked so well. The nature of it meant it was a bonus to get as many ideas in as possible and made coming up with solutions a real collaborative process.
Joe> The film was a delicate balance throughout as there were so many sonic elements. The whisper, sound design and music all had to have their moments. We made a call on the music direction early and our composer Ioana Selaru wrote a beautiful, minimal piece which really helped the mix, allowing us to dramatically push and pull with the storytelling. Mix-wise, it was really important to let each moment sing and hear the most potent sonic material, so we spent a lot of time fine-tuning each detail, dramatically cutting away sounds that weren’t important at each moment.

LBB> Tell us about your reaction to the final spot and the feedback you’ve had overall?

Culum> I mean… from the off I knew, it was going to be a belter! The idea was just so strong, but the whole project came together so beautifully. It must've been a Herculean task to bring together so many disciplines in 60 seconds. The guys over at Droga5 did a wonderful job of keeping everyone in check without it feeling too prescriptive. It is a wonderful testament to the creative force you can achieve when everyone pushes in the same direction. It really is greater than the sum of its parts... and all the parts were fantastic to begin with!
Lawrence> It’s rare that I’ll send a link to my mum and dad these days but I had to send this one through to the family chat. It’s just a lovely film, a worthwhile message and a beautiful showcase for creativity, both in its conception and execution from those involved. I love it and I think it’s one I’ll keep revisiting.
Joe> I’m really pleased with how it turned out. It’s a visually stunning piece. There were a few key creative decisions with the sound that allowed us to really push it so a big thanks to Droga5 and Tom for giving us the freedom to put our stamp on it!

LBB> Anything else you’d like to share?

Lawrence> I hope we continue to see more fresh, creative work like this. Any excuse to make some more WACHIIIINGs!