Syllous Mai on Crafting Emotion in Sound

Photo courtesy of Caffrey Chen
Photo courtesy of Caffrey Chen

  The sound of love and its loss, what exactly defines this? Does each culture have its own unique take on this and if so, is it recognizable by those from different places? Syllous Mai is very familiar with this concept; not because of personal experience but because she has worked with it in a professional capacity with great success. As one of the industry’s most in-demand recording engineers and sound editors, Syllous has used her skills to manifest the sonic presentation of numerous productions which present romance as well as its obstacles. These range from the English language productions Americans might be very familiar with to those from other parts of the world like Mexico and South Korea. Without question, US viewers have developed a more complex entertainment palate which opens a new world of viewing opportunities. Syllous Mai has found herself being called in to bring the English language to these productions in a believable way. 

Syllous Mai

 The idea of a pop music idol falling in love with a college freshman is the sort of surreal world that is intoxicating enough to attract even the most jaded viewers. The South Korean series Doona! recently came to Netflix US after achieving incredible popularity in its native country. Harrison Xu (of Netflix’s All of Us are Dead and Primetime Emmy Award–winning TV series Grey’s Anatomy) finds himself in the fantasy come-to-life situation of having one of the most popular and admired pop singers of the day (portrayed by Suzy Bae) falling for him. Anyone who has fallen deeply in love (or infatuation) with another can quickly relate to the state of the main characters. It often feels as if the rest of the world has taken a backseat, which is precisely the approach Syllous took as the audio editor for the English language version of this show. The emotional perspective of the characters is entwined with the audio as Syllous describes, “The dialogue of the main characters must stand out amongst a crowd of course but the choices of the volume levels can serve as an indicator of how different characters feel and what the hierarchy is for their feelings. When the action of a scene transitions from the interior of a car to the outside, it’s very important that I manage the dialogue volumes to accommodate this shift effectively. I want the viewer to feel as if they are alongside the characters. I recall one scene where a character was running and the character’s position in relation to the camera shifted from a distant perspective to a closer one. This transition presented a challenging task in terms of managing the corresponding adjustments in volume and spatial audio considerations. The goal was to ensure a seamless and immersive audiovisual experience for the audience, despite the dynamic change in the character’s physical location within the scene. There’s a great deal of attention paid to easing the audience as well as the characters into a world that feels entirely plausible and emotionally accessible.”

  A vastly different emotional personality was desired for A Deadly Invitation, also available on Netflix. This mystery/thriller also possesses comedic elements in a story about divorce and revenge within a family. The film stars Maribel Verdu (of the Oscar Award–winning film Pan’s Labyrinth) as Olivia Uriarte, a wealthy woman who has invited a group of visitors to her yacht to uncover the truth about a murder. The English version of this film is even more remarkable when one understands that Syllous’s grew up in China not speaking English but was tasked with making sure this Spanish spoken production was accurately dubbed for American audiences. Skill is proven to exceed language barriers in the final form Syllous achieved for this film. The process lies in attention to emotion as Syllous relates, “If a character is whispering, you create that type of sensitivity with microphone placement and sensitivity. If there is screaming and shouting, I’ll use a plug in to make certain the dialogue is clear but maybe let it push the limits to possess that intensity. One of the most complicated parts of my work on this film was in regards to making sure the sounds of laughter and the actor’s facial movements were perfectly aligned. It was painstaking adjusting each frame one at a time but that’s what is required to create the semblance of authenticity. Those types of challenges are what keep me continually engaged and interested in my work.”

Writer : Calvin Hooney