Jacob Ribicoff on “Passing” – Conveying Interiority with Sound Design

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.

Passing IMDB

When Rebecca Hall first read Nella Larsen’s novella Passing, she just new it had to be made into a film. The book had a real impact on her, with parallels to her own family’s experiences.

Reading the story of these fictional women, Hall realised that her maternal grandfather had also passed as white.

“Suddenly, aspects of my family life that were tinged with so much mystery and obfuscation, there was a reason for that,” Hall says.

She came away from the book frantic with ideas, convinced that it had to made into a film.

Hall told IndieWire, “I was so struck by how — like any great art — it transcends the specificity of narrative plot points and becomes something so potent.”

Thirteen years later, Passing is Hall’s directorial debut. And it’s exquisite, particularly in an aural sense.

Jacob Ribicoff on forming the soundscape in Passing

Sound Designer, Jacob Ribicoff

Hall was forming firm ideas about the film in the making right from the off. She had visions of how it would look, the characters, the feel. She also imagined a constant “soundscape” that would help access the internal life of its characters.

Hall had very specific ideas about how Passing would sound. In an interview with FLC Luminaries she describes herself as “overly sensitive to sound”.

The sound design, by Jacob Ribicoff, focusses on the intense and personal. In interview with The Moveable Fest, Rubicoff commented on the halo effect in the film where you only seem to hear what’s within Irene’s immediate vicinity.

“There were a lot of things we did to achieve that goal of bringing the viewer along with Irene and trying to get viewers into Irene’s point of view, seeing the world as she’s seeing the world.

For example, breathing [became] a motif in the film where after Irene has an intense conversation either with Clare or with her husband Brian [played by Andre Holland] or her friend Hugh [played by Bill Camp], she winds up closing the door, the person leaves the room and she’s standing against the door and she’s breathless.

It’s a moment where she’s processing what just happened and it gives the viewer a chance to do the same and be with her because in a sense you’ve been in that conversation with her and now you’re taking a beat. So we recorded Tessa via ADR doing more breathing so we could put a button on that idea and that was really helpful.”

“Silence” was an important factor in the sound design of Passing, “space allows an audience to think” Hall said. Having said that, the silence in the film is carefully crafted, every bird tweet, every car horn is considered.

Ribicoff told The Moveable Fest “what I tend to do is put too much sound in at first and then thankfully I have good judicious directors to say, ‘No, no, no…that’s way too much.’ And that’s what happened.”

“After the first version I put together that had voices all over the place, both Sabine and Rebecca rightfully pared that down to a minimum, which makes it a much quieter experience, and the score is there as well, which is very important.”

Read the full interview with Jacob Ribicoff by Stephen Saito.

Devonté Hynes’ Score

When it came to the score Hall felt the need to break away from the traditional early 20th century style of heavily scored cinema. She wanted the score to act as a relief, rather than “emotionally underscoring” the film.

When Hall approached Composer, Devonté Hynes, she came to him with a big ask. The main theme was decided upon – a piece by Ethiopian musician Emahoy called Homeless Wanderer, which became “Clare’s theme, but stuck in Irene’s head”. Hynes’ task was to capture Irene’s sense of finding herself, with improvisational style music that slowly start’s to “catch” with Clare’s theme.

Hynes’ chose subtone trumpet to create an uneasiness that compliments the film with a slowing rising, tense theme.

Very deliberate sound design choices have resulted in a visceral soundscape in Passing that allows you to, in Rebecca Hall’s words “access Irene’s interiority”. The results are palpable and raw.

Watch the video below to learn how Dolby Atmos helped to enrichen the sound design of Passing.

Watch the full interview by FLC Luminaries in the video below.

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