The visual artist Saara Ekström and the foley artist Heikki Kossi collaborate to create a unique and all-encompassing sensuous viewing experience of the relationship between picture and sound. R&A Media interviewed the pair, who have worked together on four films, to find out where it all began.
The importance of sound in film narrative is a central theme in this year’s Helsinki International Film Festival – Love & Anarchy (HIFF) as the Nordic Flair Award, granted by the festival and the industry event Finnish Film Affair, is given to the foley artist Heikki Kossi who makes sound effects for films.
Kossi is known for making foley- and sound work for hundreds of films including Juho Kuosmanen’s Cannes-acclaimed The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (2016) and James Gray’s direction Ad Astra (2019). During the Love & Anarchy -festival, Kossi’s work can be heard in Mark Osborne’s animated film The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince, 2015), but also as a one of a kind entity in the film performance Sight and Sound: Ekström & Kossi, which showcases the visual artist Saara Ekström’s short films from throughout the years.
In Ekström and Kossi’s collaboration, the relationship between picture and sound rises to a new level of seeing and experiencing. The four films shown at the performance, Tailor (2016), Amplifier (2017), Body All Eyes (2018) and Biblion (2019), are each unique on one side, but at the same time very much alike in a magical way as they capture the viewers in an all-encompassing sense experience.
RECORDING A SILENT WORK, OR WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Ekström and Kossi’s collaboration can be said to have started out of a coincidence back in the day when the film Tailor was in its cutting stage. Ekström did not use to take advantage of sound in her work, and it was not supposed to be used in Tailor either.
– The editor Eero Tammi mentioned that we should absolutely get foley sounds to this. He also suggested that I should immediately ask the best foley artist Heikki Kossi to do it. This was the spark for our collaboration, Ekström says.
– I knew Saara by name, but we didn’t know each other. When I got my hands on Tailor, I was gobsmacked. It was a foley artist’s dream! I was able to scribble endlessly, Kossi laughs.
The film follows intensively, and even meditatively in detail a tailor making a suit starting from sketching the pattern and cutting the pieces of fabric to creating the first stitch. It is the details that attract Kossi.
– Every touch and thing has a significance in it – all the movements of the hand and the way in which the tailor treats the fabric. This was a unique opportunity to put on the shoes of this kind of a professional in order to make sound. This combines many great aspects – the tailor’s ability to concentrate, the handcrafts, the filming, and the cutting. The film grows as a masterpiece on every sector, Kossi says.
Kossi’s work in Tailor made Ekström to examine trough new eyes how the sound and the picture blend together and, secondly, how the sound adds almost choreographic elements to the picture.
– This was the first time that I concretely came upon the work of a foley artist. It was terrific to experience how the picture expands along with the sound. It is as if the movement continues happening outside the boundaries of the picture, and only a partially visible person grows full, Ekström explains.
According to Kossi, Ekström’s films have been also for him a refreshing jump past the world of the traditional narrative film where the rules for the synchrony of sound and picture are usually more limited.
SOUNDS AS THE CONSTRUCTORS OF SYMBOLS
In Tailor, the sound and the picture are synchronically intertwined. Although the amount of actual foley sounds is lower in the films Amplifier, Body All Eyes and Biblion, the importance of the soundscape created together by Kossi and the sound designer Pietu Korhonen is emphasised in a poetic way. The sounds create atmosphere, tell the stories entwined in the stories and represent the symbolic dimension.
I feel like the only real way to talk about a sound is to talk about its essence, feeling, tone or colour.Foley artist Heikki Kossi
For example, in Amplifier, we see a dancer moving in the empty spectator stands of the Olympic Stadium whose step looks light in the picture, but which is made to sound heavy using a sound effect. Body All Eyes, on the other hand, draws parallels between such things as airplanes and birds via the means of sound and picture. The parallelism and the juxtaposition of unconnected things and beings are essential for Ekström’s films.
– The associations leading to different directions and the combining of contrasting elements are interesting as they make us move against the obvious. Something extremely interesting happens in this kind of a collision point which creates an unexpected level in the relationship between picture and sound, Ekström describes.
– It is more metaworldly. It is very challenging to carry out symbolic sounds to things that are invisible, but Heikki has responded very perceptibly to these immaterial subjects, Ekström continues.
Kossi tells that he approaches sound through emotional states.
– I feel like the only real way to talk about a sound is to talk about its essence, feeling, tone or colour. In my opinion, we cannot talk about a sound as hertz or decibels. If we want a sound to carry love or a threat, we start making a concrete sound through those, Kossi says.
TRUST LEADS TO UNEXPECTED DIRECTIONS
Open dialogue is essential in the composition of picture and sound. Kossi mentions that the first conversation about an unfinished film is always an essentially significant starting point and a determining factor of the sound designing from the project’s start to finish.
– The first two or three sentences always contain the most. I feel that Saara usually starts with the most important aspect, Kossi says.
Although the pair has learned to know each other and each other’s working methods through several collaborations, the work or the outcome of the process is never foreseeable. Ekström emphasises the importance of trust and that by trusting the other, one can also trust their intuition and the different levels of creativity enabled by it. In that case, the work is the most fruitful.
– As Heikki underlined, communication is key, but a surprise momentum is also very important. Heikki reads things that don’t have words very precisely. It is a wonderful moment when a fresh sound is combined to a picture. Suddenly, the work just takes up a notch, becomes complete. When I come across situations where I’m empty-handed when it comes to the nature of a sound, Heikki’s and Pietu’s help is near, Ekström adds.
For instance, when Ekström mentioned during the making of Body All Eyes that she had filmed material of airplanes departing and arriving, Kossi made sure that the sound material of the planes was sufficient. However, when discussing the raw material of the film, it became evident that the sounds of the airplanes didn’t fit the atmosphere which Ekström tried to achieve with the film. The soundscape had to be constructed in another way.
Correspondingly, when Ekström felt that the advancement of only the picture was difficult during the cutting stage of Biblion, sound became the carrying element which clarified the process.
– I have learned that a foley artist is an alchemist who forges iron into gold – is a master of transforming an element into another. This is a fact that surprises and always disarms me, Ekström rejoices.
THE NEXT STEP
Ekström is currently filming a new film in Iceland. As for Kossi, he is working in Kokkola.
When it comes to future collaborations, Kossi tells that he’s already waiting for one of Ekström’s unfinished projects to his worktable. The director hints though that she needs a foley artist also for her new project whose filming is just starting in Iceland.
– I am willing to provide the sounds for your next film only if you come to visit in Kokkola, Kossi responds to Ekström with a smile.
– I have never been to Kokkola. It has remained a mystery to me what has happened at Heikki’s workshop. This needs to be fixed, admits Ekström. ■
Text: Suvi Nousiainen
Translation: Suvi Pehkonen