Creator of Sounds as Shapes: Andrew Keith Plain (1953 – 2013)Helen Macallan March 2014 Feature Articles Issue 70 Andrew Plain who died at the age of 60 in Sydney in December, gained his national and international reputation as one of Australia’s most distinguished film sound designers because of the high quality and innovative nature of his work on feature films, documentaries, shorts and television dramas. Andrew was born in Melbourne in 1953. He was educated at Marion High School in Adelaide and attended Macquarie University in the mid-seventies, graduating with a BA (Psychology). He worked as a government psychologist for two years but his long-held interest in film – he had helped found a flourishing film society at Macquarie – gained impetus when the New South Wales Institute of Technology (now the University of Technology, Sydney) implemented the BA Communication, the first degree of its kind in Australia. He was in the first intake, completing a BA Comm. in 1980. To read the long list of directors with whom Andrew worked is to read a ‘Who’s Who’ of eminent figures in the Australian cinema, while the high esteem in which his peers held him is also evident in the number of nominations and awards he received from the film industry. He played a significant part in shaping Australian film culture. In a film seminar last year he was described as ‘One of the linchpins of the industry over the last two decades, and a mentor for many’. Andrew is widely regarded as one of the first of the ‘moderns’ in Australian film sound because from the time of his early soundtracks in the 1980s he reconceptualised the role of sound in feature films. Whereas traditionally sound has played a subservient role to the image, his innovation was to pay detailed attention to the relationship between the sound and image tracks, giving sound equal status. While such a relationship is now common practice, it was an approach that brought a new freshness and depth to Australian films in the pre-digital era. Although he had a huge interest in and knowledge of film history and global cinema he was also famous for his unwavering commitment to keeping the Australian film industry strong and on-shore. Thus, while a career elsewhere would have allowed him to enjoy much larger budgets, he chose instead to support the Australian film industry by gathering around him at Huzzah Sound – the company that he created and co-directed with his partner, Adrienne Parr – a group of highly talented award-winning film sound personnel. At a relatively early age, Adrienne had been one of Australia’s most innovative producers and their marriage was a true partnership of equals, so their creation of Huzzah Sound as a hub of creativity came as no surprise to their colleagues and friends. As a baby boomer, Andrew was born into a world where NASA was already declaring it to be only one tiny universe among a multitude. And the rapidity of the changes that he was to witness during his lifetime was astonishing. Once when we were talking about children’s fiction, he commented that many of the tricks from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven series that he had enjoyed putting into practice when a child were not longer feasible. Writing with a pen dipped in lemon juice and then ironing the piece of paper to reveal its hidden secret couldn’t be done because there are no longer pens with nibs. Similarly the trick of escaping from a locked room by strategically slipping a piece of cardboard through the gap between door and floor and jiggling the key on the other side with a pointed instrument so that it fell on to the paper and was then drawn back, wouldn’t work in an age where the kind of big old-fashioned keys that were left in locks are rarely to be found and houses are no longer built with sufficient gap between door and floor. Andrew began his career in sound in the cinema’s analogue age and he was a pioneer of the digital era. He made the transition from cutting to clicking, from hands-on editing to the manipulation of digital audio files on a computer screen with ease, although he ruefully noted that those born in the digital era were technical whizz kids, able to interact intuitively with the new technology whereas he had to ‘learn’ it. But he was aware that his grounding in analogue practice bought with it invaluable knowledge of both the benefits and limitations of digital technology. Among the pluses, the revolution of the technical systems of delivery into the theatre meant that he now had the opportunity to deploy sound precisely to the speakers and therefore to put into practice a long-held dream that had been almost impossible to achieve in the analogue era – creating a sense of sounds as shapes. And he welcomed the way new techniques of placement and more complex layering allowed for other new expressive possibilities in the construction of the narrative and its characters. However, he was cautious about the push towards ‘perfect’ sound and image, a push that has accompanied the acceleration of digital technology, noting high production values do not have the power to redeem an otherwise unimaginative film. He regretted the turn away from ‘adult’ Hollywood cinema which he saw as happening from the early 1980s and by which he meant the disappearance of filmmakers who relish the use of language, the good script and working with actors able to deliver it, rather than the emphasis on images and fast cutting primarily in order to dazzle. And for similar reasons, he found attempts to sweep the audience along with ‘big sound’ all too often results in a kind of hollowing out, giving the audience a false sense of fullness and contributing to the easily digestible but forgettable quality of so many contemporary films. One of his many generous acts during our thirty-year friendship was to agree, despite a gruelling work schedule, to give a number of guest lectures on sound and cinema at the University of Newcastle when I was teaching there. He was in huge demand for his lectures and master classes all over Australia and I quickly found out why. Not only was he a speaker of great wit, clarity and substance but his long experience of gathering and working creatively with sounds meant that he understood the vital difference between hearing and listening, and this was evident in his everyday interactions – he was a highly attentive listener. He was also exceptionally attuned to the idiosyncratic rhythms of give and take that characterise true dialogue. For these reasons, he was capable of coaxing coherence and insights from even the most tongue-tied of students and it is no exaggeration to say that he inspired a generation of students to specialise in film sound. While a good number of those who waylaid him after his lectures were taken on as interns and sometimes later as staff at Huzzah Sound, his mentoring also involved generous advice and assistance to film study students. Andrew and I shared a common interest in bridging the divide between theory and practice and his visits to Newcastle were the catalyst for a collaboration which was to produce a course on sound and cinema, articles and a chapter for the MIT anthology Voices. It was also to yield a massive pile of notes on sound and film, the content of which we variously described while it grew like an out-of-control plant thrusting tentacles in all direction, as a research project, a history of sound and cinema, then at some point more precisely, a book on war films. Although our dillydallying in delimiting was one of its delights, the long period of time spent simply viewing and talking was to provide the kind of background context that there is rarely time for any more outside the scholarly thesis. And the project gradually took its final shape as a book on ‘the war on terror’. We were working our way through this genre at the time of his death. Andrew easily moved across theory and practice, partly because his introduction to film theory had been enmeshed with film practice during the late 1970s when he was a Communications student at UTS, but more importantly, because he had a rare fecundity of mind, an ability to think from a technical perspective but also creatively and critically. He was interested in our modifying the conceptual language we used for talking about film by attempting a kind of synthesis based on what we judged as the most appropriate terms used in industry practice and in film theory. He found, for example, the binary logic of a key theory term ‘diegesis’ inadequate to the task of describing the complexity of the interaction of sound and image especially in the digital era. Critical of many aspects of Hollywood cinema, he nonetheless loved the best of it although with the caveat that even most of the great films want to have things both ways, torn by their desire to offer a critique of American culture and yet at the same time to validate it. Of the films that have emerged over the past decade related to ‘the war on terror’ he saw The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008) as reflecting this kind of equivocation. On the other hand, he viewed In the Valley of Elah (Paul Haggis, 2007) as one of the few effective contemporary anti-war films because of its refusal to hedge its bets, to lend any compensatory meaning to national chauvinism or to the terrible consequences of war. Andrew loved the films of Robert Bresson and Jean-Luc Godard. What drew him to these very different filmmakers was their ability to uncover unexpected yet strangely right affinities between things and because both understood the power of silence. When he was doing a preliminary reading of Alex Proyas’s script of Paradise Lost for which he was to provide the sound, he was particularly concerned about how he could represent Satan’s voice without falling into predictable hamminess. I got a text from him asking me to check if he was simply imagining it or whether in his book of aphorisms, Notes on a Cinematographer, Bresson made reference to Milton. I found and texted back the following lines: To find a kinship between image, sound and silence. To give them an air of being glad to be together, of having chosen their place. Milton: Silence was pleased. He was delighted that his memory had served him correctly and even more that Bresson’s quotation turned out to be from Paradise Lost. He read the epic poem a number of times and asked me to get hold of any critical commentaries on it, especially those that treated the theme of silence. When at the 12th hour the project was aborted by the studio executives on the grounds that the budget had blown out, he drily noted that it must have finally dawned on upon them that a film based on a poem by Milton might not after all be such a big hit with the evangelicals. Among the future projects that we planned was a study of what he termed ‘the quiet thriller’ – films such as Roman Polanski’s Frantic (1988) and Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton (2007) which he thought were undervalued was because of the current fetish for big sound. Andrew had a deep sense and grasp of the past. G.K. Chesterton’s observation that ‘too many people live as if on a pinhead’ was for him a wonderfully apt description of those who live as if performing unwittingly a kind of balancing act in a perpetual and precarious present. He was very conscious of the function of film and the electronic media as technological memory, one of the reasons that he saw our writing on ‘the war on terror’ films as of value. But he also saw the loss of a sense of history over the past two decades or so as a technocratic culture came to dominate, occurring in other small but telling ways. He related the 1980s elevation of the director to star status through the newly coined credit, ‘A film by’, to the arrival of an individualist ideology of achievement and saw it as symptomatic of the general cultural shrinkage of historical memory. Thus the separate credit for the director heralded for him a weakening of the sense of film as a collective endeavour that had previously been inscribed in the workman-like lists of production credits which took place after those of the actors. When I queried him about the lowly positioning of sound on this list, he wasn’t in the least concerned, viewing it as an interesting consequence of the era of silent film. And he wryly added that the perception of sound as a relatively unimportant dimension of film gave those who worked in this sphere a certain degree of creative freedom. Andrew liked the film sound theorist Rick Altman’s comment that every generation has its own sound and he was aware of the irony that precisely at the moment when sound has achieved a clarity that was once impossible, the current generation, including his own dearly loved daughter, Isra, often experiences a movie only in a degraded condition through a bootleg copy or a mobile. But he held great hope for this generation because he saw Isra, her friends and the students he met as creative and questing in their own time as previous generations have been. In 2001 he received the Centenary Medal in the New Year’s Honours, ‘For service to Australian society and to Australian film production’, a fitting acknowledgement of his high public and professional standing and his dedication to Australian film. His overall vision was of a society in which creativity, critical thinking, technical skills and professional integrity, along with commitment to issues of social justice, are highly valued. He will be remembered as an important film sound designer, innovator, writer, educator and advocate for the Australian film industry. He was also a generous and very brave man. He suffered chronic pain of an excruciating nature due to a rare form of osteoarthritis, and he underwent an extraordinary amount of surgery over the last decade. So it seemed shockingly unfair to his colleagues and his many friends that he also had to do battle with melanoma. But he never succumbed to self-pity, approaching the illness with his customary and unique mixture of equanimity and black humour. Up until the end he remained in life, vitally engaged with the issues and events of the world and interested in the lives and welfare of others.