The Exploding Sound Recordist
It’s an understatement to say that North Korea’s technology has not developed in tandem with the rest of the world. The country exists outside normal market frameworks, shut off from international trade by sanctions, and held back from inside by famine and poverty. This has affected its film industry, which still uses the kind of technology we associate with early Italian B movies.
Drama interior being shot at April 25 Military Film Studio: Pyongyang
The North Koreans still shoot on celluloid, which I find both romantic and beautiful – like vinyl records.
When I filmed director Ri Kwan Am making his military thriller on the deck of real-life captured US spy ship The Pueblo, I got to study the country’s film gear up close. They were shooting 35mm film on Arri 435s, with no sync sound. They used hand pushed dollies, hand-held diffusers, a bespoke steadicam rig with a heavy metal vest, and some expensive looking German lights. Ri wanted to make it clear that North Korea is ‘going digital’, just like the rest of the world, but the only evidence I saw of this was a mini dv Ri used to shoot a flashback scene, in the engine room of the Pueblo.
Gaffers rig lights on the deck of the USS Pueblo
Other North Korean filmmakers I met confirmed that special effects are done in camera (not on computers), and they still cut most of their movies on Steenbecks. I did see one digital editing set-up while I was at the Pyongyang Film Studios. It was running software I’ve never heard of, which the editor said came from – of all places – America.
The most old fashioned aspect of North Korea’s filmmaking process is Sound. No dialogue is recorded on set – not even guide tracks. There is ‘so such thing as a radio mic, a lapel mic, or any other mic – let alone a Nagra. Or even a boom pole. The dialogue for North Korean feature films, even today, is post-dubbed by actors in a studio. Which is why I knew it was vital, before my DOP Nicola Daley and I went in for our access-all-areas North Korean film shoot, that we had a great sound recordist.
On the recommendation of an excellent soundman I know in Hong Kong, I booked a Beijing-based recordist, who I’ll call Sam, for our shoot. We had to lock him in four months before the trip, because it takes that long for North Korean customs to vet your information and decide to let you into the country. Sam was super efficient: booking the gear Nicola needed in Beijing so we could pick them up on our way to North Korea, and securing special battery powered lights to cope with Pyongyang’s random power-outages. He did everything a professional soundman is meant to do.
Cut to Beijing, when Nicola and I finally met Sam in person, the day before our flight into Pyongyang. This was an important day – we have to brief Sam about what we could and couldn’t say in North Korea, drive around Beijing to pick up our gear, meet our Associate Producer Nick Bonner at Koryo Tours, and most crucial of all – front up to the North Korean embassy to get our visas.
Koryo Tours Office entrance: Beijing
Sam met me in the lobby of the Red Hotel, a gaudy but charming joint in the old part of town. He held out a trembling hand, his pupils like pinpricks. He was high as a kite. All the way to the North Korean embassy, he kept up a fast-paced crazy babble about how he wanted to get drunk in the revolving restaurant of our Pyongyang hotel, and swim naked in the pool. When he asked Nicola if she’d brought her leopard-print bikini, so they could have “an awesome time together”, we knew we had a problem.
Things got messier when we stepped into the embassy and started filling out forms, under the cool gaze of the North Korean visa officer. Sam could barely hold his pen; Nicola had to read the questions for him; and when I asked if he’d brought his passport photo, he exploded. We’re talking a full-blown tanty, right there in the middle of the North Korean Embassy, with armed guards outside, an increasingly curious North Korean officer, and the Dear Leader’s smiling portrait on the marble wall.
Sam was screaming, waving his arms, and frothing at the mouth: “WHAT passport photo? You never told me I needed a fucking Passport Photo! Your whole outfit totally sucks. You got retards working back in Australia. They’re fucking hopeless. You’re lucky you got a professional like me on the team. No one EVER told me about a photo. EVER. Not once. I mean, fuck. FUCK. FUCK!!!”
I calmed Sam down and got him out of the building. He stumbled off to get a passport pic in an instant photo booth. He said he’d be back in thirty minutes. I went back into the Embassy. The customs officer gave Nicola and I a long look. Then he grinned and stamped visas in our passports, including Sam’s. I guess no one’s ever behaved like that in the North Korean embassy before.
Nic and I walked out into the Beijing heat and waited for Sam. He never came back.
He had vanished, with the van, our Sony F3 camera, and $20,000 worth of PL lenses. We couldn’t call him – his contact details were in a folder in the van. We had to stay where we were, and pray. Two hours passed. The heat was horrific. Every time we tried to sit under the tree on the pavement, the armed North Korean guard would wave at us to stand.
Just when we thought the shoot was doomed, the van trundled back, with our camera. But no Sam. The driver was grumpy and couldn’t speak English. We pleaded with him to take us to Sam’s house, wherever that was, but he dropped us back at the Red Hotel. It cost me a lot of money, and a long argument involving a Chinese dictionary and hand-drawn stick figures, to persuade the driver not to leave, and to take us to the hire place to pick up our gear. He refused point bank to take us to Sam.
Nicola and I spent the afternoon hiring sound gear in case Sam didn’t show, and leaving messages on his voicemail. Nick Bonner, who had vouched for our ‘good character’ to get us into Pyongyang, was concerned. We were booked to stay at the top of the Yangakkdo hotel, an aging skyscraper with windows that open straight out over the Taedong river. The North Koreans will pack foreigners back on the early plane to China, simply for photographing the Dear Leaders’ portrait at the wrong angle.
The Yangakkdo Hotel, Pyongyang. We stayed on the 47th floor
I imagined Sam deciding to take a dip in the Taedong, by diving out of the top of the Yangakkdo, or dropping the F-bomb in front of soldiers at the Dear Leader’s Statues on Mansudae Hill. I agreed with Nick that it was probably not the best idea to take in a sound recordist on drugs. Which is how Nicola and I found ourselves pushing three trolleys of gear to the Air Koryo check in counter, and praying they’d let it all on.
As we were loading our boxes onto the conveyer belt, Sam finally called, full of apologies: he wasn’t “the right man for the job”. We felt sorry for him. He was clearly a good guy, who was going through some personal stuff and had gone on a bender to cope. Unfortunately, he’d done it the weekend before a job in the most paranoid nation on earth. Sam blamed it on anti-depressants he was taking, which could not be mixed with alcohol – but I think the fact he was about to go to North Korea had something to do with it.
And now, we were going to a country that doesn’t record sound: with no sound recordist.
DOP Nicola Daley with lots of gear and no sound recordist: Pyongyang airport
There were many times in North Korea when we wished Sam had been there. From all reports, he is extremely good at what he does. Thankfully, his no-show didn’t end up wrecking our shoot. Our ever-helpful North Korean fixers gave us an extra crew member, who we taught how to swing a boom.
He was very good at it. But when his mobile phone rang, I had to take over – which is why some of the sound in the North Korean parts of AIM HIGH! is a tad ropey.
Our hard working North Korean crew at the Taekwondo Palace of Pyongyang