Mar 28, 2022
“The ear is much more creative than the eye.”
— Robert Bresson
“Back in the days when I was a teenager,
Before I had status and before I had a pager,
You could find the Abstract listening to hip-hop,
My pops used to say, it reminded him of be-bop,
I said, “Well daddy, don’t you know that things go in cycles?”
— Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest)
Sound as Character in “A Lo-Fi Blues”
by Ed Ntiri
When people share their favorite moments from the films they love, they’ll often talk about images. For me, it’s always been sounds. Like in The Battle of Algiers, when the intensifying sound of drumbeats heightens the tension of the three women planting their bombs. Or how Walter Murch used the shrieking sound of a subway car to amplify the infamous restaurant scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone kills the man who tried to kill his father. Or Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, where all I remember from the film is the sound of cups clanking against a hand-rail, amplify the haunting monotony of being trapped in a prison cell.
Each of these moments resonate with me more than images themselves ever have. Films are as much a sonic experience as they are a visual one. That’s why when I began to develop my first film, I focused on sound before script, images, or casting.
Our film, A Lo-Fi Blues, is the story of an aging blues musician who believes that his late wife is trapped inside of a song. The film follows his relationship with a young lo-fi hip-hop producer whose ability to sample music becomes the only thing that can save her.
My fascination with sound started early. I grew up in New York during the golden era of hip-hop music, and its ethos informed nearly every aspect of my personal and professional life. It taught me the importance of voice, how limitations can become strengths, and the value of community. Officially, there are four elements that make up hip-hop culture: the emcee, the DJ, the graffiti artist, and the break-dancer. The one they always forgot, in my opinion, was the producer.
Producing hip-hop music seems simple, but it’s actually a science. The sample-based method involves finding old albums, carefully selecting bits and pieces of them, and creatively processing and re-arranging them into new compositions. Sampling, when done creatively, breathes new life into old songs. So, a tune like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ “A Chant for Bu” becomes A Tribe Called Quest’s “Excursions.” Or, you find a record like Roy Ayers’ “Searching” only to later hear Pete Rock flip it into his bass-heavy interpretation.
Developing the story and the sound of the film began with an exploration into the ways that hip-hop evolved from jazz, which evolved from the blues, which evolved from spirituals, which were the only way slaves could keep their language when they were taken from the shores of West Africa. The frequencies within our music hold this history. As I developed a closer relationship with the records that I would sample, I became fascinated with the idea of music as a language we unconsciously carry.
The SFFILM Makers community has helped tremendously with developing a script to support our sound. As a musician, I treat each version of the script as a remix, which we continue to evolve until the tone sounds right. Embedded within the script is the music that we’ve developed with our music supervisor, Jason “Asonic” Garcia, and SmartBomb, a collective of lo-fi musicians here in Oakland.
The majority of the characters in our film are already musicians, so part of our process has been how to create a distinct sound for each of them. We started by writing music profiles for each character, including their favorite albums, mixtapes they’ve made for friends, and a list of three albums each of them would bring if they were stranded on a deserted island.
A film I thought of a lot while having these discussions is another film shot in the Bay Area, American Graffiti. What I love about this early George Lucas film is that every character is listening to the same radio station throughout the night, turning music (in his case, early Rock ‘n Roll) into a character of its own.
In A Lo-Fi Blues, we’ve taken a similar approach. We created our own fictitious podcast that everyone in our film listens to on various devices. Unlike American Graffiti, which was made when licensing songs was much cheaper, we are not licensing anything. We decided that since we’re all musicians anyway, that we’ll create our own score.
Using our connections to the music community in Oakland, we began composing all of the original jazz, soul, and blues music that you’ll hear throughout the film. For example, when we introduce Leonard, we’ll hear this record. We’re also composing the beats that the young producers make from samples of the songs made for the film. When we’re in the studio with one of the younger beatmakers, you’ll hear one of their actual beats playing. The idea is that even if you choose to watch our film with your eyes closed, you would hear sounds progress, distort, and transform, which embodies our theme of letting go and embracing new life
The camera is a tool of magnification. A wide shot establishes a scene. A close-up makes you feel closer to what a person is thinking. A handheld shot can give an impression of chaos or uncertainty. Sound achieves the same. The amplification of inaudible sounds is the magic of sound design. The creative manipulation of sound can be as impactful as a great line of dialogue, or a beautifully composed image. We should employ this magic and give our ears a treat so that they can go on adventures as rich as those designed for the eye.
Images dominate our consciousness. We intake more images today than at any other time in history. When you sit down and watch a film, the experience is made up of the juxtaposition of both images and sound. To study their craft, some cinematographers will watch a film on mute, in order to isolate the image. To study my craft, I often close my eyes when a film is on, to see how the story plays out in sound.
In an interview in Robert Bresson’s book Bresson on Bresson, he explains that if you can replace an image with a sound, always use the sound. Because the ear is more creative than the eye. As storytellers, it’s our job to invoke all of the senses in order to give viewers an emotional experience that they’ll always remember, in more ways than one.
Ed Ntiri is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker who has been based in the Bay Area since 2007. His work has been featured in Vice, WaxPoetics, the Oakland Museum, and the Berkeley Art Museum. In 2017, Ntiri wrote and directed his first short film, Snow Mountain, which won audience choice awards at the SF Urban and Liberated Lens film festivals. His first feature, A Lo-Fi Blues, was awarded a SFFILM Rainin Grant for screenwriting in 2019. He is currently completing a SFFILM FilmHouse Residency in 2020.
For more information about SFFILM’s artist development programs, visit sffilm.org/makers.