Flashback! High Art



In 1997 Dig It was selected to do the sound editing for Lisa Cholodenko’s first feature film, High Art, starring Ally Sheedy, Rahda Mitchell, and Patricia Clarkson. We were very excited about the project from the start. My good friend and business colleague Jeff Kusama-Hinte was producing the film with some other notable producers and had been talking about the film with a glimmer in his eye, like he knew he had something special brewing. I also heard that the band, Shudder To Think, was going to be scoring the film. I heard they were some interesting Rock and Roll characters with real talent. It all seemed to be adding up to something special.


We were informed that not only would Dig It be sound editing and sound designing the film, but the production company also wanted us to work with the band in finessing the score, editing and premixing it all to picture. I had just recently moved Dig It Audio to it’s then newly constructed location on Varick Street, and we were ready to rock. 


We started the sound editing work on the film, and at the same time I started to have studio sessions with Shudder To Think to work on the score. There were three members of the band working on the score; Craig Wedren, Nathan Larson, and Stuart Hill. Both Wedren and Larson have gone on to score numerous hit TV and film projects in the years since High Art.


As soon as we started working on the music it was clear that wine glass tones were pretty much the primary instrument.  These tones were crisp, clear, and elongated. The movie begins with them and then intermingles bending guitar notes and some other minimal elements. I think the Dig It crew was inspired by what we were hearing in the music sessions and started to formulate how the sound design would work with this ethereal and minimal score.  The sound team at Dig It consisted of Damian Volpe, Jonah Lawrence, and myself. Since the score was ethereal, we wanted the sound design to follow suit. The movie opens with Syd viewing slides with a loupe and sliding them into a plastic sleeve. We wanted the sound design to be just as crisp and clean as the score. The production recordings of this scene were too noisy to be turned up to the level we wanted, so we decided to completely drop the production audio and just use foley and sound effects to fill the scene. It really just consisted of ambience and foley of all of Syd’s movements.  We did the same with the next couple of scenes as she leaves the building and proceeds down into the subway.  We cut all the production sound and just used FX and foley. Then we could really control the elements and stick with clean specific sounds. This was achieving the desired effect, so we took this strategy to other areas of the film. 


One of the scenes I remember working on most was the lovemaking scene between Syd and Lucy when they go up to the country house.  This is probably the peak scene of the film, and we wanted it to sound great and have that same clean and ethereal feeling. The problem was that even though the production audio was well recorded, the sounds of the sheets moving was very sand papery sounding and abrasive, and the kissing was covered with loud snaps and unattractive mouth noises. Fortunately, the dialog sounded good and they mostly stopped moving when they delivered the lines, so we could strip out the production audio in all the moments when they were on the bed, except for when they talked, and replace it with careful sheet rustle foley and kissing foley. If I remember correctly I think it was Jonah who agreed to be the guy to do the kissing foley. We put him in the recording booth, and he rolled up his sleeve and made the kissing sounds by making out with his inner forearm. This gave us the chance to do several takes to picture and really create some soft and sexy kissing devoid of mouth snaps and pops.  


Damien Volpe chose some great ambient and FX sounds for scenes throughout the film. He made a conscious choice to make the backgrounds have softer more elongated ambient sounds. Sweeping “car bys” and bass heavy rumbling “truck bys” played a big role. Also, I remember that he envisioned Lucy and Syd’s loft building to be near an elevated highway like the BQE. He chose one particular ambience of cars going over a metal divider in the road, so the sound was a rhythmic thunk thunk of each car passing by. It became the signature sound of Lucy’s loft when things were quiet.


In an effort to stay with a high art sound concept, we really sought to keep all of the atmospheric effects clean, smooth and on the ethereal side. We avoided loud car honks and people shouting outside and anything that broke with this softer more airy esthetic. 


We mixed the film at Sound One, with Rob Fernandez. Rob was a new young mixer there at the time (he has amassed quite the resume since then). It was a good fit for our team at Dig It. I mixed a few films with Rob before taking over all of the mixing at Dig It in the years since.


High Art was a great experience. Even now when I look back I am happy with the way the sound turned out. I’m not sure we realized it at the time, but I think creating the soundtrack for the film took a measure of restraint. Often when we sound design a New York City film, we fill the backgrounds with busier and more punctuated city sounds, but the aesthetic was set by Lisa and the guys from Shudder To Think, and we just found our groove in the mix.

Thomas Efinger