Interview at IAFT Hong Kong

Last week I was interviewed by Katie Riley at IAFT HK because I am a mentor for their sound classes.

I felt this interview worthy of sharing on this blog.


KR: You recently partook in a project ‘Shades of Rogue’ that was entered into ‘The Freshwave Film Festival’, could you tell us a little about your experience working on that project?

UO: Yes, I partook in the Freshwave short film ‘Shades of Rogue’ as the Director and Script Writer of that film is one of my good friends here in Hong Kong, Thomas Lo, and he asked me to help with the audio and music post production for the film.

I wasn’t able to put in much time on this project and the audio post production work such as sound design and mixing was really “bare minimum” because I tried to fit it in between other music projects I was working on, while also having a scheduled leave to my home country Sweden.

I mainly focused on providing a music score befitting to the unique mood Thomas was envisioning for this film. I took traditional instruments, such as the violin and cello, and put them through guitar amplifier equipment to alter their sound while playing more “traditional” parts. This juxtaposition of “disturbing” sound design, but non-disturbing melodies created the exact mood for this film that I wanted to accomplish. It is quite unconventional and those who have seen/heard the film can be the judge if I pulled it off or not.

One production experience worth mentioning was on the last shooting day. Thomas had asked me to come to the set (location shoot in this case) to help out with the sound recording as it was a fairly intricate shooting set-up and he didn’t have an experienced sound mixer on his shoot crew.

We had one location in Jordan and then the last scene in an underpass at TST which incidentally was the exact place the original shoot-out with the “devil cop” ” Tsui Po-ko took place. It just so happened that on that exact date there was a Typhoon number 10 hitting Hong Kong. Due to actor scheduling there was pretty much no option in re-scheduling so we proceeded despite the rest of Hong Kong was pretty much hunkering safely indoors. Typhoon signal #10 capacity winds and rain aren’t exactly friends to a sound guy so the recording conditions were of the most extreme nature. You can both see and hear the windy conditions in the final film but it actually added to the mood of that scene and the sound was in the end useable, but it was ironic that the one day I acted as a location sound mixer was the first time in years and years Hong Kong experienced a typhoon signal #10…

KR: To date what has been your favorite project to work on? (I know it must be a tough question!)

UO: There have been many but one of my favorite projects was in 2005 and 2006 when I was assigned as the sound producer for a campaign to promote the 30 universal Human Rights (as laid out in the UN 1947 declaration of Human Rights.) This campaign had a very good cause as most people are not even aware of what the human rights are. We also had a very creative Director putting together the 30 resultant public service announcements. I was responsible for the full audio/music production which included sound design, mixing, narration, music production, etc. Each public service announcement was either 30 or 60 seconds long and each one was a little master-piece in itself. You can see copies of them on my YouTube account. It was 10 months in the making – not full time, but hundreds of working hours to put these together. Not only was the purpose behind them important and beneficial, but it was also a very creative experience working with creative people in harmony – ideal working project!

KR: Were you always interested in the sound side of post-production or was that the direction you ‘fell into’ as you progressed early in your career?

UO: No, I was always a “sound geek”. When I was 10 or so I picked cucumbers all summer long in a field out in the boonies in Sweden to make enough money to buy my first synthesizer. At the end of the summer I bought it and bought another one pretty much yearly from that point on. I put together my own little home studio and started making electronic music. I already had been classically schooled in playing the violin but wasn’t as fascinated with the sound of the violin as I was with the almost endless potential of electronic sound design. Around age 15 I became a DJ in my local town right around the time when “House Music” was born. Through house music and what followed with acid house, rave, techno, etc. as a DJ I started to combine the playing of vinyl records while playing synthesizers, samplers and sequencers. It was a pioneering practice back in the mid and late 80’s and I’m glad I was part of it.

I later enrolled at college and studied science civil engineering. As part of the curriculum we had in Sweden I was able to pick one subject of my own choosing which I would study and had to present a final work on at the end of the college terms. I chose the subject of film making. Due to the local A/V facilities being affiliated with our University campus, I had full access to cameras, sound and editing equipment which I could sign out and I spent almost every week ending out shooting.

Towards the end of the final term I produced a 1-hour video presentation on the subject of How to Make Video Productions, covering all aspects of film/video making. I was a bit lucky as during the time I was using equipment at the local A/V center, they got brand new editing equipment in which I helped set up. Most permanent staff there were middle-aged and not too hip on modern computerized equipment, so, delightfully for them, I was the first one to learn the operation of the equipment. Due to this I was able to work out a fair exchange with those boys that I had unlimited access to their equipment, for free, if I also taught them how to use it and in the interim also help them editing projects which came through their facility. This gave me tons of hands-on experience with many genres and categories of film/video and was an essential experience leading to my future full-time career in that same area.

After I graduated university I worked for less than a year in Gothenburg Sweden trying to make a living, which was hard, but kept up my DJ job as well as working for a radio station. Less than a year after I graduated I had secured a job at an LA studio which sponsored my visa and I left for the US and worked in studios there until 2010, when I moved to Hong Kong.

KR: What is your dream? Is there something you’ve set your sights on that you are yet to achieve?

UO: It was always my dream to work with music and audio/sound and that’s what I have done my entire life. I’ve also had a dream to be able to change conditions in the society for the better through my artistic work in film and music. This will never be accomplished as a “done” but rather is a continuing action. Many projects I have worked on were in direct alignment with this purpose, like the Human Rights campaign I mentioned earlier, but unfortunately many projects were just done for entertainment or for profit, meaning marketing or sales. I have not yet been in a position where I financially can simply pick and choose what I work on, but if there was an unaccomplished dream, it would be that of only working on music or projects which are creative, with honest, sincere and caring co-workers for a cause that helps to improve humankind in some form, while being able to fully support myself and my family while doing so.

KR: What do you like about living and working in HK?

 UO: Well, it HK has its pros and cons. Being a country boy from Sweden I’m naturally drawn to nature and big, wide open spaces as a preference which isn’t exactly abundant in HK, but the area which I live – Clear Water Bay – is quite nice and I like living there. I only go into “town” when I absolutely need to; otherwise I stay out of the crowded malls, MTR, etc.

As far as work I will say that the professional competition here is much less than in a city like LA which makes it easier to stand out and get job opportunities. This is a big plus for me. It takes some getting used to however. From what I have experienced so far in both the film and music industry here, Hong Kong is like this isolated island with its own ideas, rules and ways to go about things. Often they don’t relate to the rest of the world and often they even go against fundamental basics which I am used to and have worked with since the beginning. I have interfaced or worked in or with the majority of cultures and areas where films and music are produced around the world and though there of course are differences, certain aspects seem to be globally accepted and applied. Not so necessarily in Hong Kong. I am not sure exactly why, but this is what I have experienced personally.

For example, whether you’re in Sweden, the US, or pretty much anywhere in Western Europe or Australia many music artists usually make it because they have either good talent or some fresh new idea or sound to bring to the market. Especially in Sweden, artists usually write their own songs and they have a message to deliver. Here in Hong Kong the “artist” is more a marketing commodity which requires in most cases a good look and tandem work in film, TV as well as appearing in marketing campaigns. Only a handful of these artists are musically trained or trained as vocalists and a basic like having the ability to sing in pitch is not a requirement to become a “star”. There are examples of this in the Western world too, witness Justin Bieber and others, but it is seemingly the industry standard here. Except for some Indie bands I am not aware of a single male or female artist who writes his or her own songs.

This results in all music sounding pretty much the same, as it is written and produced by a handful of people. Those same people believe this is the “way” and therefore have no need of change as it is more of a business. This is how 80’s ballads are still mainstream in Hong Kong.

I believe this also is a factor why no Hong Kong music artist has any real International acclaim outside the Chinese market. Take some award winning artists like Alicia Keys and Adele. They write their own music and when they sing they sing from their heart – a communication from them to the listener. Yes they eventually gathered a huge marketing a publicity team as well, but it started with musical talent, good voices and having something they considered important to say.

I hope that my work in Hong Kong will eventually release the potential creativity I know exists with many talented people here and bring music and audio productions back into the field of the arts as opposed to a purely commercial enterprise. Maybe a bit naïve but nonetheless something I’m aiming for.

KR: Our students have mentioned that they loved, and really learnt from the very hands-on approach you take in your classes. Is that how you’ve learnt/do you think it’s the best way to learn in this industry?

UO: I’m really glad to hear this feedback. I am a big fan of the old “apprenticeship system” where a young apprentice does supervised, hands-on training on-the-job under a skillful master or sifu. This system proved workable for thousands of years but is almost nonexistent in today’s modern society.

Modern schooling, especially here in Hong Kong, is heavily focusing on degrees and exams. The students are bombarded with tons of theory and a rigorous curriculum. What is completely absent from the schooling however is the aspect of learning how to learn – the technology of studying itself.

How do your parents teach you something at home? Do they give you a 300-page cooking book and tell you to go off and read and then expect you to come back and be able to make your own dinner? I think not in most cases. Rather you would be standing next to momma preparing the dinners and observing and learning step by step. Eventually momma will delegate some aspects to you, like doing dishes and maybe cutting up the vegetables or cleaning some produce. Eventually you have experienced pretty much all aspects of dinner making and you can start taking over more and more functions – at first under momma’s supervision and later by yourself.

I believe the original intention by sending the young to school in the first place was to teach them to operate in society and being able to perform jobs and functions with understanding. It appears this is not necessarily the goal anymore as by evidence students are pushed for degrees and exam results but with little attention to their ability to actually apply.

Learning is a step-by-step gradient approach learning one skill at the time. It always starts with some fundamental rudiments:

  • The student has to be of the mindset that he doesn’t know everything about the subject already. If you already “know” everything, i.e. being know-best, the student will not learn a single new thing.
  • The teaching itself has to be done with a balance between theory and practice. Without demonstrating the practical application, ideally with hands-on drills, the theory will not be absorbed for a longer duration. You can learn to memorize something for an upcoming exam, or parrot some information for an oral exam, but two weeks later that knowledge is pretty much lost to the student as he never put the information into a practical context. When one has done so one retains that knowledge or skill for life. When you’ve learned to ride a bike, you never forget it!
  • At the beginning of every subject it is important that the student understands what the subject is about and why he is studying it. If he/she sees no use in the subject but just studying it because he is “supposed to” the student will never retain the subject and certainly not be able to apply it.
  • At the beginning of any new subject it is important that the subject itself is properly defined before further study ensues. This includes the basic principles and jargon. Unless that is fully understood first, the rest of that subject will be seemingly “ungraspable”. This is the problem with math and physics in modern schools. The students are not taught the basic definitions and basics of math and physics, so any consequent studies appear “over their head” and the students naturally “hate” the subject.
  • For a student to become a real master at a subject, it is important that the student is really enthusiastic about the filed which he/she is studying. Enforced study because of the will of a parent or some other supposed-to reason will never result in a true master. It has to come from the heart.

Not only was I taught this way at my university in Sweden, but I was also trained under various sifus at early age, including my grandfather who taught me to survive in nature, fishing, etc. as well as my Jeet Kune Do teacher while a teenager. It became very clear that putting each piece of theory into practical application made me retain the knowledge from there on out – step by step.

I have trained dozens of people in this way in the field of audio and taken completely green people and made them into professionals in their field, all by applying this system of hands-on apprenticeship coupled with a gradient-approach theory study, starting with the basics of the subject.

This is what I am trying to do at IAFT and hopefully will result in students being able to apply sound in their future film making careers.

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