The Sound of Silence: Letessier on The Last Days

It would be a great disservice to say Claude Letessier is passionate about his work. The description doesn't come close. This sound designer/architect has worked on documentaries, blockbuster features, and over 3,000 tv commercials. Born in Germany and raised on the...
May 1, 1999

It would be a great disservice to say Claude Letessier is passionate about his work. The description doesn’t come close. This sound designer/architect has worked on documentaries, blockbuster features, and over 3,000 tv commercials. Born in Germany and raised on the Ivory Coast, Letessier now splits his time between Paris and L.A. His latest effort, The Last Days (executive produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by James Moll for October Films), won an Academy Award this year as Best Documentary.

Surprisingly, it was a project he considered refusing.

‘I didn’t want to work on this movie,’ confesses Letessier. ‘I thought: `Do you really need any sound on it?’ It was so horrific, and [the Holocaust] is so deeply implemented in our conscious and unconscious, that any sound you would try to put on this picture would try to manipulate your emotions. The same pictures with no sound, to me, were much more terrible, and much stronger.’

Once aboard, however, the question of sound was solved by its absence. ‘I came up with the silence design concept. I thought: I’m going to be very minimalist, and approach this from a different standpoint.

‘There is something uncomfortable about silence, but there is also something really serene. Silence can affect you in many different ways. Silence is a moment in time when you are shocked by the fact that sounds are missing. You can be shocked in a very awful way or a very uncomfortable way. If you’ve been very loud [visually] and suddenly you drop to nothing [with the sound]…whereas your mind was expecting to carry on into some kind of sound pandemonium, suddenly you have created a shock for your brain. This is where psycho-acoustics works in movies.’

Psycho-acoustics represented a natural evolution for Letessier. The designer began his sound career working with architectural acoustics – the sound of public buildings – crafting how the compilation of almost imperceptible sounds affects people’s emotions and disposition. Psycho-acoustics, Letessier explains, is ‘an approach to the understanding of how people perceive their aural environment. It is a group of several disciplines, including neuroscience, psychology, psychoanalysis, and acoustics.

‘What’s really interesting in psycho-acoustics is how the brain decodes the aural information it receives, in order to either identify a sound as being a sound, or a sequence of sounds being a piece of music.’ It’s a discipline which, in the case of The Last Days, was used to create unease.

‘I had in mind that, while the Germans committed this crime, the whole world was watching. No one did anything until a few years later. My whole idea was to try to make the audience some sort of a voyeur – and therefore make them totally uncomfortable and ashamed.’

Letessier is holistic in his approach to sound design, and works closely with his partner (and principle at Los Angeles-based Media Ventures), composer Hans Zimmer. The two recently collaborated on Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, for which Zimmer was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Dramatic Score.

The key to Letessier’s success appears to be the way in which he can blend not only sounds and music, but the vision of all the creative forces at work in a film. ‘I spend nights and nights watching and watching and trying things – putting sounds to the picture. Doesn’t work. Doesn’t work. Doesn’t work. Discussions with the director and the editor – what are you looking for? What are you trying to achieve? This is the baggage I’m carrying with me from architecture, because I strongly believe that just as each building should have its own aural signature, it’s quite obvious that a movie should have its own aural signature. In The Thin Red Line, there’s nothing really spectacular in the sound, but at the end of the day, the sound really belongs to the movie. It comes from deep inside. It’s organic .’

According to Letessier’s approach, sound should ‘poke through the music, and make sense with it. It should blend, instead of just having layers. At the end of the day, you realize – particularly on a project like The Thin Red Line or even Endurance [a doc about Ethiopian gold-medalist Haile Gbresselassie] – that it makes so much more sense, and it is creatively and economically elegant. What is sound? What is music? To me, the score is a combination of sound. I hate the border between music and sound.’

Letessier’s next film will be Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. In the meantime, he continues his commercial work, and teaches architectural acoustics and sound design in California.

Letessier, however, tries not to get too caught up in the science of sound himself, especially in filmmaking. ‘A movie is a creative space, and you have to find its right sound color – as if you were working on a cathedral.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.