The "Belfast" Perspective: Sound Through The Ears of a Child
Niv Adiri
Oscar-winning audio artisan Niv Adiri reflects on working with his sound colleagues and writer-director-producer Kenneth Branagh

Among Belfast’s (Focus Features) seven Oscar nominations are three for writer-producer-director Kenneth Branagh--Best Director, Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. The latter two make Branagh the first to receive Academy Award nods across seven categories in his career. He had previously been nominated in the Director, Lead Actor, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay and Live-Action Short categories. Branagh thus surpasses George Clooney, Alfonso Cuaron and Walt Disney who were each recognized in six categories.

The other four current Oscar nominations for Belfast are in the Supporting Actress (Judi Dench) and Actor (Ciaran Hinds) categories, for Original Song (“Down to Joy” by Van Morrison) and Best Sound (sound supervisor/re-recording mixer Simon Chase, sound supervisor James Mather, re-recording mixer Niv Adiri and production mixer Denise Yarde).

In contrast to Branagh’s record-setting career category tally, on the sound side Chase, Mather and Yarde are first-time Oscar nominees. Adiri now has two career nods, winning in 2014 as part of the team on Gravity.

SHOOT caught up with Adiri who got the Belfast gig in part because of his prior working relationships. He had collaborated with Branagh on the feature delving into the last days of William Shakespeare, All Is True. Adiri worked with Belfast editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle ACE, BFE on several features over the years including All Is True. And Adiri has also teamed with Mather on such films as Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and House of Gucci.

Belfast required a special perspective that the sound artisans had to reflect and capture--that of a child, in some respects that of Branagh when he was a boy, specifically the sounds he remembers as a youngster. A coming-of-age tale set in late 1960s’ Northern Ireland, Belfast introduces us to Buddy (portrayed by Jude Hill), a lad living with his mother (Caitriona Balfe), father (Jamie Dornan), brother (Lewis McAskie) and grandparents (Dench, Hinds) during “the Troubles” when neighborhood streets turned into war zones as unrest grew between Catholics and Protestants. Belfast shows us this era as seen largely through the eyes of a child, Buddy, and has a semi-autobiographical bent informed to some extent by Branagh’s experiences in his youth. The story first and foremost is about the love and resilience of a family, showing how that deep bond survives universal struggles.

Creating a soundscape reminiscent of childhood is a challenging proposition. The audio is essential to bring viewers into the small street that Buddy lived on and to help them hear what he heard and felt during that time. Conveying that emotional dynamic are subjective touches such as adding the roar of a train as the film’s first riot erupts in what had been a tranquil neighborhood or pitching down a police officer’s voice to make him sound more frightening in the perception of a child.

This is a trickier proposition that creating a soundscape for an action movie, where much is literal, what you see is what you get, observed Adiri. For a film like Belfast, you instead have to build a world that you don’t necessarily see. The world within a boy’s mind--how he perceives a parents’ argument, a riot, the community around him, the sound of a helicopter above.

Young Buddy’s love of cinema also comes to the fore as we see him in the movie theater as he and his family watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with wonderment. (While Belfast is shot largely in black and white, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang appears in color in Belfast, along with some other select scenes.)

Adiri explained that the decision was made to amp the volume up on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. “We played it super loud, bright and all around,” he related. It had to feel “overwhelming through a child’s eyes (and ears).” Adiri said that while a local theater in Belfast back in the 1960s would have had a mono, fairly unimpressive sound system, the audio had to be depicted as impressive, massive and enveloping--because that’s how it would have seemed and felt to Buddy.

Helping the sound team immeasurably was Branagh who shared what he remembered hearing and experiencing back in the day. “In the final mix, we literally had him (Branagh) there with us from the morning through the evening--which is quite unusual,” said Adiri. Branagh could convey his memories of sounds, help guide the sound team and make decisions on the spot. This close collaboration over a couple of weeks with Branagh made for what Adiri described as one of his favorite professional experiences. “We were there doing it together and he was very inclusive in his process. He would listen to what you have to say, listen to your ideas and match them with his ideas.”

The Belfast experience helped to reinforce much of what Adiri believes contributes to a great mix process. “We had a great collaborator in Ken, someone who experienced and remembered what he heard--and very easily explained all that.” With that kind of collaboration, continued Adiri, you don’t need four, five or six weeks to do the audio job. On Belfast the job was done in less than two weeks. “It says something about instincts, your first or second thoughts, the first or second pass. Listen, be open to ideas--that’s the recipe. It’s not like that every time in our profession. Belfast was just a joy.”

As for what’s next, at press time Adiri was about to embark on Pistol, director Danny Boyle’s TV miniseries on the Sex Pistols.

This is the 12th installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. The 94th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland in Hollywood and will be televised live on ABC at 8 pm ET/5 pm PT and in more than 200 territories worldwide.

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