We’ve all heard of Jackie Chan, Wong Kar-wai and the like. But there’s more to the Hong Kong film industry than just the few big names in bright lights. More than 16,000 people work in our city’s motion picture and entertainment services and the small folk are just as essential for the creation of a great film as the star actor or big name director.
In this series we take a look at the less heralded individuals working in Hong Kong’s greatest creative arena. This time, we speak to Ip Siu-kei, a man who, working as a sound designer, operates in one of the least appreciated areas of moviemaking. Additional reporting by Priscilla Lee
Photo: Calvin Sit
Interview: Ip Siu-kei (葉兆基)
So what does a sound designer do?
We’re part of a film’s post-production. When filming wraps up, other than the lines that are delivered, all the other sound effects – sounds from cars, guns and footsteps – are all added in post-production. As well as adding in the sound, we also have to balance them out.
Is there an interesting fact about your work the public may not know?
My kind of work is often neglected. When you watch a film in the cinema, most people don’t pay special attention to the sound details, or they’re simply taken for granted. But these are things that my colleagues and I will have spent a tremendous amount of time and effort on.
What are the most challenging sound effects to add?
Those would be scenes with punches, kicks and bullet showers. The industry in Hong Kong is still pretty behind those abroad; countries like South Korea have more layers to their effects and the sound is much more powerful. In Hong Kong I feel it’s less impactful. Sometimes, from a professional point of view, you could even say it’s pure noise.
Where do you get certain sound effects from? Like guns. Do they come from real weapons or from programme mixers?
Due to environmental constraints here in Hong Kong, we don’t have live fire ranges nor are we allowed gun licences. Many of us in the industry buy from overseas sound libraries where they record sounds live on firing ranges. We would gain the rights to these sounds and adjust and mix them in our studios according to our needs. Obviously, it’s not ideal since we can only purchase what these libraries have on hand and edit accordingly to suit our scenes.
Andy Lau in Shockwave, one of Ip’s most recent films
Are there any scenes or films that you’re particularly proud of, where you feel your work made a particular difference?
I don’t have any as of now. When I watch the final product, I always think there’s room for improvement in many areas. And I feel that we should avoid having the mentality of being satisfied with or proud of our own work. Many in this industry, like the directors and actors, are rarely satisfied. We have to finish by our deadline and then try to bring any lessons over to our next production and try to make it even better.
What’s one film that you found to have excellent sound design?
The sound and picture of the recent film Blade Runner 2049 was really well done. They compliment each other extremely well and I think there’s a lot for me to learn from that movie.
Having been in the industry for seven to eight years now, how has the local film industry evolved?
Personally, I feel that what was a niche skill a few years ago, is something that everyone possesses now. It’s rather challenging – how do we stay true and be proud of our own profession when more and more people can do what we do. For example, I’ve seen a secondary school student produce and finish a song in a span of a train ride from Sheung Shui MTR station to Hung Hom station. Many people now carry around a camera or simply use their smartphone and can produce a video with it and have it uploaded online after some simple editing. It’s different from the past where you need proper equipment, a whole crew and to select ways to release your work. We need to be constantly learning. We need to find a niche that means people will still be willing to pay for our services in the future.
Lastly, what kind of changes would you hope to see in the industry in the near future?
I’d love to see more time allocated to all aspects of post-production, be it sound, editing or special effects. Recently, I read an article on Star Wars: The Last Jedi. They had 19 months to work on post-production! In Hong Kong, it’s a steal and we have to pop champagne if we get nine weeks to work on it. It’s so different in terms of time allocated. We need time in order to produce truly quality sound and pictures.
Want more behind the scenes interviews?
We speak to Chan Hoi-yan, a veteran of nearly 40 years in the local film industry. A man who’s worked on award-winning films like Paradox and with legends like Sammo Hung, we hear his insights on what it’s like to perform one of the most physically demanding roles on set.