Red Stewart chats with Jacob Ribicoff…
Jacob Ribicoff is an American sound designer and sound editor who has been working in the film and television industries since the late-80s. He is best known for his work on movies like School of Rock and Manchester by the Sea, as well as most of acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burn’s documentaries.
Flickering Myth had the privilege to interview him, and I in turn had the honor to conduct it:
I’ll just jump into it – your resume is beyond amazing. Based on the press release that was sent to me, I thought you were just involved in the documentary field, but no you’ve done so many movies I love. You did School of Rock, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Manchester by the Sea, and of course The Vietnam War miniseries. Is there a particular difference for you between doing a fictional movie versus an animated film versus a documentary, or do you take the same approach for each one?
A little of both. I think there are some commonalities all across the board, like a combination of a work ethic and an aesthetic ethic, if you can call it that: a dedication to wanting to tell a story the way that the director wants to tell it. So that obviously transcends whatever genre that you’re working on. You’re going into work with an approach that says “okay, what story is the director telling, how do they want to tell it, and how can I help the sound?”
But then, they all have their own individual characteristics and quirks, and it’s almost harder to even generalize between narrative, documentary, and animation, especially with Ken Burn’s documentaries, which are more complex and actually borrow from the narrative world of sound more than your average documentary. If you would consider that many documentaries are verité or reality-based, it’s almost like whatever you see there on the screen is basically what you’re going to hear, like if someone is talking or the camera is venturing into some environment.
But with Ken’s projects, he goes far beyond because we’re, going back to The Civil War, putting sounds to photographs, to stills, to archival footage that really doesn’t have sound to begin with. So you’re building out a world. And you could almost draw a comparison to animation where the images have no inherent sound that comes with them.
With Ken’s work, you’re finding yourself doing that, and in Vietnam in particular, we were provided a new dimension. I’ve been working for Ken since 1995, and this was the first time that he really decided to add this more abstract, emotional dimension where we could create sounds for, and try to lend a voice to, that realm that is usually reserved for music only. We were told go for it and come up with sounds for that kind of thing.
So, just to go back to your original question, in a narrative you have post-sound process, recording foley, recording ADR, adding sound effects- those are things that are known to mainly be done for narrative films, and not documentaries. But foley, sound effects, and going back to the studio to record voices were things that were very important for us in putting together the sound on Vietnam.
That’s very interesting to hear. I hadn’t thought about the subtle connections every film medium shares in the sound department, and it’s amazing that Ken Burn’s works move to blur the lines. Now you mentioned working with Mr. Burns since 1995. However, according to IMDb and the press release I was given, I was under the impression that your first collaboration together was on Prohibition, which came out in 2011.
Okay, the first one was The West, where he was a producer, not the director, but that was still a collaboration.
So, on The West in ‘95, I was a sound effects editor. The next one after that was Thomas Jefferson, also sound effects, and then Jazz, where I was a music editor. I’ve been a music editor on many of them, including Jazz, the Jack Johnson documentary in 2004 [editor’s note- Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson], then The War, where we won an Emmy; on those I was a music editor. And then there’s Baseball, The 10th Inning, there’s Prohibition, there’s The Roosevelts, and Central Park Five, which is one of my favorites as it was deeply moving.
So, with The West and Thomas Jefferson, I did effects, and then I slid to music because they knew my interest in jazz, and having done some playing myself as a musician, that kind of put me on the music editing track with them for a good 15 years. And then, when Vietnam came around, they knew that, outside of Ken Burns, I didn’t do a whole lot of music editing: it was mostly sound design and supervising sound editing and sound effects editing. They knew that I did all of that, and they said “why don’t you be one of the sound designers on Vietnam?” And I said “oh, definitely,” I jumped at that chance.
And that’s kind of my history with Ken.
That’s fascinating to hear. It’s always nice to see long-standing friendships like this in Hollywood, especially between crew members. Going off that, let’s talk about the Vietnam War. This was a huge eye opener for me. I obviously didn’t grow up during the 60s or 70s, and my parents were immigrants so they didn’t experience the American version of it. As such, I learned a lot.
I’m wondering, though, what was your own experience with the Vietnam War like, and was there something about your views that you wanted to personally convey in the documentary?
When the Vietnam War was taking place, I was a little kid: I was like five-years-old. My parents were anti-war protesters, and they would bring me to moratoriums and rallies, and of course watch the Nightly News broadcast from the war, which was so incredibly graphic. It’s well-known how the government and media have backtracked since the war in terms of what they were willing to show you and what kind of war footage made it into people’s living rooms via television. So that was a frontier that has since been abandoned.
But as a kid, to see these bloody images…I have this queasy, anxious-feeling that I can summon up just while I’m talking to you now, that I remember as a kid. And I remember that feeling in the air, and add that to the late-60s where huge important figures were being assassinated; there was this sensation of violence and it was a strange, disturbing feeling for a kid at that time, and that really really stays with me. That’s very formative- that’s a part of who I am in the sense that I have that foundation of emotions. So, while I was too young to know a lot of the facts as they were playing out, I was still very vulnerable at that young age to certain feelings that were in the air. And that was there when working on Vietnam.
And then, this may be going beyond your question, but another connection would be watching those veterans on all sides. You know, one of the amazing things about this documentary is that they were able to go to Vietnam and interview people on both the North and South Vietnamese sides, and add those voices and stories into the mix, in addition to getting the families of people who fought, and then the veterans who fought themselves.
But it’s their recollections filtered through all these intervening years, and I’m so impressed and in awe of the people in the documentary telling the stories; that they can sit here today and so lucidly recall what happened with a certain analytical layer to it that they would not have had at the time, but do now just due to the passage of time. Very emotional recollections that they can put into words.
And I don’t know, I guess somehow my experiences as a kid helped me in a way to feel. That’s very important for me when doing sound design. It’s almost like being an actor: it’s vital for me to be able to feel what I’m doing. And this goes for any project- you watch a movie, you kind of say “how do I feel, how does this make me feel?” And it could be the gamut of emotions, from horror to laughter to drama, excitement, whatever it might be. And I do believe I was able to tap into some feeling I probably had carried around with me, some emotional aspect to the Vietnam War.
I mean, I don’t even know how to respond that. That’s a heartbreaking story to hear about your experiences as a child. But I’m happy that doing this documentary helped you come to terms with the past. And to your point about the violent images on television, it reminded me of when Wes Craven was making The Last House on the Left. He was apparently inspired by the contrast on television: how you would flip between seeing horrifying images on the Nightly News and then Bewitched. It was this weird feeling where people would be watching violence and peaceful, idyllic stuff.
Now, the soundscape for this miniseries was absolutely phenomenal. Compared to Ken Burn’s Civil War series, sound played a bigger part here because of all the tension. You have to emulate or fix up gunshots, soldiers moving through brush, secret conversations, helicopter blades twirling, and so forth. One of my favorite moments was when this one veteran, his name unfortunately escapes me, but he was talking about how he has to sleep with a night light because there were times where he had to stand guard in pitch black while Viet Cong soldiers were moving quietly or underground around him. And you and your team did such a great job of putting us in his nightmare. Did you guys experience any challenges during the editing when it came to conveying the nature of those intimate war scenes?
I’m really happy that you brought that scene up, because that was one of the ones that I worked on. That was at the beginning of episode two. John Musgrave is the gentleman who was talking –
Yes, John Musgrave!
Right, and he’s this amazing voice throughout the entire documentary. I mean really, truly, a great emotional storyteller, humorous at times. So that was honestly one of my favorite moments of the episodes that I worked on. I also worked on episode six, which was the Tet Offensive, and that was huge for just getting into combat and recreating battles on a large scale and for a long time on-screen. Erik Ewers had spent two years cutting picture and designing an intricate sonic combat architecture that puts the viewer right in the midst of battle. I was able to contribute additional points, sweeteners, and textures to that.
But the John Musgrave story of his experience of being in the jungle: he’s on a listening post in Con Thien, it’s pitch black, there are enemies around him, and he hears them whispering, and the fear….it was an amazing opportunity. It kind of goes to the essence of what we’re always trying to do in sound design. So, here’s a man who is sitting in front of you telling his story- and you could be at his house, you could be sitting at a bar, but he’s telling you his story.
If you listen to the story without any sound added it’s already very powerful. But we were afforded this opportunity to sort of add another dimension to his storytelling and really put the viewer as if you were there with him. So it’s almost like a radio play, where you have nothing but him telling a story, and then with sound you can create all this imagery. And he talks about using his handset and clicking what the code was for responding and answering in the affirmative, and so the challenge was, “okay, how can we put the viewer there, but also do something to conjure up the emotions that this guy is going through?”
There were different ways that I was able to do that. One was that there is a helicopter sound that I mixed with the heartbeat sound, so the “thwamp” of the helicopter blade mixed with a pulse that was derived from a heartbeat. And then I did some things like EQ and pitching and bending and twisting to blend the heartbeat with the thump of the helicopter blades, and then have that speed up and slow down and then, by the end of his story, almost go into double-time. That was one aspect of it.
Obviously, there were some more little sounds like the nighttime insects, the jungle crickets, that was part of setting up the scene. There are distant explosions, and at one point they do cut to an abstract piece of footage of a nighttime explosion, just a burst of orange, and so there’s a muffled explosion. And then he’s hearing the whispering of the Viet Cong, and we did recording sessions with native Vietnamese speakers of various ages, and men and women and so forth. We did like two or three days of that, and that stuff was invaluable, and so I used some of that whispering for that sequence.
And then there were just other things, like some drawn-out breathing sounds, some sounds played backwards, some more abstract tones. I did work with Roger Waters on his [Roger Waters: The Wall], a concert documentary, and in-between some of the songs he goes back and visits the gravesites of his father and grandfather, who both died in wars, World War I and World War II, and they had asked me, for some of those sequences, to come up with these abstract ideas like the sound of spirits or the sound of death. And so I was able to just create tones and intervals. And some of that went into this sequence of Vietnam.
And then while I was doing that, it was the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that was also incredibly haunting and is the bath for all of these actual sounds. It’s an alchemy of all of these things together and the story being told that makes that moment very powerful.
So I’m grateful that you pointed that out, because when I go back now to watch the things that I’ve worked on, I think that that’s almost my favorite. A lot of great moments, but that one was definitely very powerful.
And it was definitely powerful to experience. It’s fascinating to hear about the different sounds you put into the production process, because it’s cool how seemingly small noises like whispers and heartbeats can be combined to create a visceral moment. It’s a testament to how integral sound design is to a project and how talented you have to be, like yourself, to make the best out of it.
I also noticed on IMDB that you are credited as the music editor for the entire Vietnam War miniseries. You talked about this position a little earlier, but overall what duties did that entail compared to being a sound effects editor?
So, I don’t really get to participate in choosing the music- in all the Ken Burn’s documentaries, that happens really early on. Sometimes the music is even written into the script: the cues have already been thought of. So I really wasn’t that involved. Occasionally, here and there, I think they asked for my opinion, but most of that had been chosen and approved. It’s amazing that they were able to get permission for everything from those years, including the hardest stuff like The Beatles and Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones, it’s all in there.
But my job really was to…it was a bit of a technical job, though it could also get creative where, in their process of cutting picture, they cut into the music to the degree that, by the time they had finally finalized their picture cut, the music had gotten really chopped up. And they were also ambitiously trying to hit visual moments: cuts, points in the narration, they were trying to hit them with certain events that occur in the music.
And they cut that so that the events of the music were hitting with the visual events, but in-between there were musical problems, so my job as a musical puzzle solver was to make sure that the music as a whole, whether it was any particular cue or score or source, was really working musically. Because if it’s working musically, it’s actually going to have an optimal impact on the viewer, whereas if it’s not working musically, even if the viewer is not sure why, it is going to somehow fight with the picture and detract.
So a big part of my job was that and, if it there was a score or multi-track and it was kind of wrangling the stems of the score for the mixer, in this case the great Dominic Tavella, I had to make sure that he was able to mix it in the best possible way.
But, being involved in music, I was privy to some information or just great stories, and I know certain things like they had a policy that anything you hear that was a popular song and not score had to have been released on or before the time period that was being depicted in the documentary. So like, for example, at the end of one of the episodes, they finished with a much-lesser known Sam Cooke song. And I said “what about ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’?” That’s such a powerful song for the Civil Rights era at that point in the documentary. And we researched and we found out that that had been released like only several months after the end of that episode, so they said “you can’t use that.”
They were very strict and documentary-like in adhering to making sure that the music used had already been used by the period they were depicting. So that was interesting.
That’s actually very intriguing to learn about. I definitely hadn’t thought about music editing as a whole, but learning about how vital it is maintaining the immersion of a series makes me want to dig deeper into the field.
My last question, are you at liberty to tell us about any future projects you’re working on, and what to expect from the sound there?
Right now, I’m doing sound design and supervising the sound for Escape at Dannemora. That’s a Showtime miniseries, a narrative piece that’s based on the real-life prison break that occurred in 2015 where, at the border of New York and Canada, there’s a maximum security prison where two inmates managed to escape with the help of a shop foreman women, whom they had gotten involved with sexually. And she was able to get them the implements for their escape. The director is Ben Stiller, and it’s really well-realized and well-acted. Benicio del Toro and Paul Dano play the inmates, and Patricia Arquette plays the woman who works in the prison.
That’s one project. A couple of things that are coming out this Fall, both will be at the New York Film Festival and then will get a release, are two more narrative films. One is called Private Life, directed by Tamara Jenkins, a great kind of comedic drama about a couple who are going through the process of trying to conceive and having to resort to medical solutions for that, and it really explores that in a humorous but serious way- what that’s like, and the toll that that takes on a relationship, and the people involved who are trying to do that.
And then there’s another movie called Wildlife, directed by Paul Dano in his directorial debut, and that’s also another relationship, intimate film about a husband, wife, and 14-year-old son which is set in the early-60s, around 1960, in Montana, and it just deals with the break-up of their unit. It’s all told from the point-of-view of the son. It’s got amazing ensemble acting, and a very quiet sound design, like very very, effectively quiet sound design that Paul wanted for that.
So those are the projects, and that’s pretty much it. It looks like I will also be doing another television series called the Godfather of Harlem for Epix. That’s a job I haven’t started yet, but that should be coming up soon. That’s pretty much it!
You’re going to be very busy for sure! Wildlife, that’s the movie with Jake Gyllenhaal, right? I’ve heard of it.
Yeah, Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan and then this young actor named Ed Oxenbould. They’re all just incredible.
And I’m looking forward to anything you do. Thank you so much Mr. Ribicoff for everything. You’re a very talented person and I hope your career continues to be prosperous as it is now.
Yeah, thanks for the kind words, I really appreciate it!
Flickering Myth would like to thank Mr. Ribicoff for sitting down with us. The Vietnam War is available on DVD, Blu-ray, Netflix, and iTunes. Escape at Dannemora is set to premiere on Showtime on November 18th.
Special thanks to Charles Martin of Impact 24 PR for making this interview possible.