Fresh Ears on The Inland Sea’s Exquisite Soundscapes

Criterion audio supervisor Ryan Hullings, photographed by Grant Delin

When director Lucille Carra and producer/editor Brian Cotnoir set out to make The Inland Sea (1991)—a poetic travelogue just released last week in a brand-new Criterion edition—they had a strong vision for how they wanted their film to sound. They knew they wanted the viewer to hear the movie’s journey as they’d experienced it, as a tapestry of enveloping sounds: the low churn of a ferry’s engine, the volley of distant bird calls in a serene forest, the hectic din of human activity in a busy fish market. During the film’s three-and-a-half-week shoot, Carra, Cotnoir, and cinematographer Hiro Narita traveled around the islands of the Inland Sea—the body of water surrounded by the Japanese main islands of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu—observing the rituals and textures of daily life in the remote region, a trip inspired by author and Japanese-cinema expert Donald Richie’s classic 1971 memoir of the same title. Also along for the journey was soundman Tom Hartig, who recorded the audio nonsynchronously and in stereo, so that the film’s soundscape would be as fluidly immersive as its arresting visuals. In postproduction, two additional aural elements would be added to the mix: a reflective score by Woman in the Dunes and Ran composer Toru Takemitsu and a scene-setting voice-over by Richie himself, reading passages he had adapted from his own book.

After it was in the can, The Inland Sea went on to enrapture viewers, garnering acclaim at Sundance and other festivals, and during a subsequent commercial run through venues that included the venerable New York art house Film Forum. But when it came time to begin preparing the film for its Criterion edition, audio supervisor Ryan Hullings immediately noticed that things were nonetheless not quite sounding as they should. After reviewing the film’s master, Hullings identified two issues in particular that went beyond the usual audio cleanup that Criterion performs in advance of its releases, which includes attenuating noise and analog distortion and manually removing impulse noises—like clicks, pops, and thumps—resulting from the physical deterioration of film elements. “The Richie VO had a number of problems with it,” says Hullings, “and the stereo audio that had been recorded in the field was very unbalanced and out of phase.”

Carra and Cotnoir had all along been aware of problems in the voice-over. Richie’s narration happened to have been recorded in two different settings with two vastly different recording setups—a more informal session in which a single microphone was used, and a more professional studio session in stereo, though with one of the two microphones of a noticeably inferior quality—leading to a narration without a uniform sound. In addition, the voice-over had been edited in such a way that the track cut out altogether when Richie was finished speaking, where typically the “room tone”—the particular quality of the silence of the room where the recording had taken place—would carry on, on its own, in the background. After The Inland Sea showed at the Hawaii International Film Festival, where it was awarded the best documentary prize, Roger Ebert publicly expressed his love for the film, but privately took Carra aside to talk about its soundtrack. “He said, ‘Well, you know, there’s a sound problem,’ and it was the audio dropout on Donald’s narration,” Carra says. The film went into its theatrical release—and later on its release on VHS, laserdisc, and then DVD—with this problem unresolved.

Combing through the soundtrack’s dialogue “stem”—the isolated audio track that in this case contained the voice-over—in Avid’s Pro Tools program, Hullings set about smoothing over these distracting qualities, a painstaking process that wound up taking him many hours. After he separated out the better-sounding microphone from the stereo session, so that the voice-over would be monaural across the board (though it would ultimately be presented in dual-mono fashion, across both channels), it still “tonally sounded nothing like the mono recording session,” he says. At that point, a little “EQ-matching”—or digitally equalizing the frequencies of the two separate sessions—did the trick. Hullings’s final step was editing in some additional room tone, eliminating the dropouts that Ebert had flagged back in the early nineties. “The voice-over doesn’t throw you off now,” Hullings says. “It sounds like the same person talking the whole time, in the same place.”

The video clip below demonstrates the subtle but nonetheless palpable difference. The first half presents a moment from the film’s original soundtrack that draws from both the informal and the professional voice-over recording sessions during what is intended to be a continuous passage, while the second half features the same moment with the restored audio. (Headphones are recommended for both illustrative videos in this article.)

A portion of the film’s voice-over before and after restoration

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