Technician Speaks : Sanal George speaks about his shooting experience at Ladakh

Team Cinemawallah

Team Cinemawallah

Sanal George hails from Calicut, Kerala where he completed his graduation before taking up his post graduation course in Sound Recording & Design from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. While at FTII, he was awarded the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) and Resul Pookutty Foundation Scholarship for academic excellence. He was also awarded the Asian Film Academy fellowship in 2013 as part of the Busan International Film Festival, Busan, South Korea. He started his career as an Assistant Sound Mixer in Shashant Shah’s ‘Chalo Dilli’ in 2010. Over the years, he has worked in various Indian and International projects including feature films, short films and documentaries as Sound Designer and Production Sound Mixer. Apart from this, he has worked on numerous AD films, web series and has been associated with Bollywood production houses including EROS International, Excel Entertainment, India Take One, Breathless Films, Aamir Khan Productions, and Balaji Telefilms as well as with international television channels such as the History Channel and the National Geographic Channel. Sanal was awarded the Kerala State Television Awards, 2016 for the Malayalam short film ‘Chaver’. He is the recipient of the 65th National Film Awards of India for ‘Best Sound Design’ for the feature film

‘Walking with the Wind’. He shares his experience of doing the location and sound design of the film-

I was very much thrilled to be a part of ‘Walking With the Wind’ ever since I got to know that it was a Ladakhi film which was to be entirely shot in Ladakh, the reason being my one earlier project that I had shot in Ladakh for a friend. That was a mind-blowing experience even-though the temperatures had dropped to -20 degrees, 40% less oxygen and altitude of more than 12000 ft above sea level. Though it was only for a week, the memories I had created in that short span were enough for me to grab this opportunity at the first go.

The crew consisting of 20 members reached Leh and after 2 days of acclimatising to the conditions there we had to travel a further 70 kms to reach our destination, Yangthang, a small village consisting of 300 villagers at the foothills of the Himalayas. The village lying in the route of the Sham Valley Trek had a couple of home-stays. It was a serene place totally cut off from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. The place did not have any mobile network and connectivity was possible only through the single satellite phone in one of the houses. The community was a self-reliant one and had their own agricultural fields and reared cattle, apart from providing home-stays for tourists.

 Yangthang is a beautiful village surrounded by snow-capped mountains and with rivers and streams along the wayside. One can always hear the sound of water gushing and flowing in turns and bends forming streams and lakes. The people in the village even had water mills for their daily usage. The crew had decided to stay in tents instead of home-stays to enjoy the scenic beauty of Yangthang. The location for the shoot was in and around the village and also within the adjoining villages of Likir and Hemis Shukpachan. Since the sun was harsh during daytime, we had scheduled shoots from morning 6 am to 11 am and then from 3 pm to 6 pm. Although we had expected camping in tents to be an exciting experience, the fact was that we were exposed to some extreme climatic changes. The temperatures dropped down drastically at night and most of us woke up with a minor nosebleed every other day. Morning, we had to take the icy cold water from the streams and heat them in large barrels before we could start using it.

 The first day of the shoot had initially got hampered because of the unexpected rain at Yangthang. Our Ladakhi line producer, Mr. Phunchok Tolden however remained optimistic and said that it was a good omen to start the project. So once the rains had stopped, we went ahead with the shoot and got ready with our settings. However, as we began to shoot the scene where Tsering (Sonam Wangyal), the child protagonist had to run carrying the chair, we realised that dark clouds had by then cast a shadow over our location. Our experienced cinematographer, Mr. Mohammed Reza from Iran had immediately suggested that we wait for some time to take the shot. Mr.Reza is a well-experienced cinematographer and has worked with several critically acclaimed directors like Jafar Panahi. Our director Mr. Praveen Morchhale had preferred to have long shots mostly for this film. I had by then realised that shooting at Yangthang was not an easy task considering the unpredictable weather and the climatic conditions. Since capturing location sound in this setup was difficult, I had several hours of discussion with Mr. Praveen to devise ways to capture sound effectively. Finally we identified better ways to do it by either hiding within the frame or by setting up from behind the nearby hills.

 After a day of exhausting shoot schedule, Padmaji who owned the Padma Home-stay treated us to a sumptuous dinner. He lived in Yangthang with his extended family and he was definitely one of the best hosts I have ever come across. He has been very cordial to us and had also constructed two temporary toilets apart from the tents for us to use. The taste of his wheat bread and curd with Himalayan herbs and his butter tea for breakfast, still lingers on in my tongue. In the evenings, we had a meet with all the crew members in order to review the days’ footage.

Ladakh is commonly known as Moonland Ladakh due to its barren topography. It is a very silent place and one can constantly hear the sound of water running in streams. Since we had a stream near our tents, it was a very soothing experience at night and it had a calming effect on all of us.

 Since we had decided against using background score for the movie, it was important to have a very rich soundscape in the movie. I didn’t want to use stock sound so I started recording the sounds from the village including that of the varieties of wind, the water flowing and the general village ambiance. During shoot, I could even capture the more soft sounds like Tsering’s breath, the squeaking of the chair, the footsteps of the boy, the donkey walking etc. It was really helpful, because recreating the same in a studio using foley artists was a more difficult affair.

The entire cast was from in and around the village and who had no prior experience in acting. The movie even has a blind man who was really a blind villager. The one thing that surprised me the most was the attitude of the localites. They were very adventurous and were ready to perform even difficult roles. They are born actors and took to acting like a natural process. Shooting their scenes was more like shooting into their real life because of the naturalness in it. The last few days, we went to shoot the Buddhist festival at Hemis. Although we had planned to shoot the festival in a particular way, we were not able to execute it due to the people who had gathered there in large numbers. So instead we had to capture the festival on the basis of our intuition. Returning back from the festival, we reviewed our rushes and were happy to realise that it had come out well. That is when I realised that as a team we have developed a great understanding and could successfully complete the project even under difficult situations.

 During postproduction, the biggest challenge was to recreate the quietness of Ladakh in the film. I didn’t want to use any non-ladakhi sounds and so I haven’t used much of stock sounds during designing. The effort was to find elements that can help the narrative and after watching the movie a couple of times, I figured that water is one such element. In Yangthang, water flows directly from the glacier to the village and and the villagers use it wisely for all their needs. They do a lot of farming for which they divert water in the stream and they even have many water mills for grinding wheat. So even though Ladakh is barren land you can hear a distant stream or river wherever you go. I tried to enhance certain emotions with the sound of wind or water flowing so as to stick to the originality of the place. I used the variations in the wind like light breeze, howling, gusty, wispy, creaky winds etc. I still remember the scene where the mother confronts the son and I used the sound of heavy wind blowing through the trees to enhance the effect. Here the real challenge is to avoid the cliche. I am not a big fan of when sound design becomes very obvious. So I always tried to select the sounds, which help the film’s narrative but never stand out.

 Also I generally like to use the sound of muffled or distant human sounds in my design. Usually when we do location sound we try and get a very clean dialogue track, which means that the element of life around will be mostly missing from the location sound track. Ladakh being a silent place, one can actually hear other people talk, even from far off places. I had therefore tried to use those distant, soft sounds in the film.

Walking With the Wind is a true Indie film I happened to work in after passing out from FTII. I consider it a privilege to have worked in this film and have also been lucky to have made some beautiful memories in the process.

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