Bernhard Zorzi is an award-winning sound designer and re-recording mixer based in Vienna, Austria. He’s lent his sound expertise to numerous projects ranging from documentaries to film and television. Most recently, Zorzi sound designed the documentary Sea of Shadows from executive producer Leonardo DiCaprio. The film follows a team of scientists, conservationists, undercover agents and the Mexican Navy as they put their lives on the line to save the endangered vaquita porpoises from being hunted to extinction by the Mexican drug cartel and Chinese poachers.
Zorzi previously worked The Ivory Game, for which he received a Golden Reel Award nomination for Best Sound Editing from the Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE). The project was also executive produced by DiCaprio and premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was nominated for the People’s Choice Award, before being released on Netflix.
Recently, Zorzi took some time to answer Post’s questions about his career path and experience as a sound designer.
How did you become interested in sound design? What were your early interests and education that led you down this path?
“My initial interest in any kind of sound began with music. Studying music in combination with sound engineering and musicology allowed me to explore sound in more detail and get acquainted with its anatomy.
“I then found that working with cinematic sound was ideal for immersing myself in that sphere. While writing my Master's thesis on Western sound culture and the deterritorialization of music, I also began to shift my work from producing music to my current passion — sound design.”
What was your first job and assignment?
“I was a sound effects editor for the Austrian TV series, Copstories."
Can you tell use about your career path?
“After spending time on the road with a Shaolin performance troupe as a sound engineer, I landed my first jobs recording, editing and producing in several sound studios in Vienna, Austria. I eventually graduated to producing sound for TV and film, becoming more familiar with surround sound and its world of possibilities.
Then came along one of the first European films to utilize Dolby’s new immersive surround system, Dolby Atmos.
“This experience in crafting surround sound environments prepared me for The Ivory Game (2016), my first film with Richard Ladkani, for which I received a Golden Reel Award nomination for Best Sound Editing from the Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE). We teamed up again for Sea of Shadows, which won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2019. The film was immediately picked up by National Geographic.
Bernhard Zorzi and Helen Parkes
“Simultaneously, my love for outer-worldly sound design was satisfied by collaborating with artist Helen Hideko (aka Helen Parkes) on the mystical experimental short, Ykcowrebbaj, which was nominated for Best Anarchy Short Film at Slamdance earlier this year.”
How did you first start working with Richard Ladkani?
“In 2015, we did sound design for a feature film with a nature-documentary approach produced by Terra Mater Factual Studios in Vienna. Authenticity of the soundscape was crucial. They liked my work and decided to introduce me to Ritchie. That led to The Ivory Game, an Austrian-American co-production with Kief Davidson as the second director and Leonardo DiCaprio as the executive producer.”
What did your work on Sea of Shadows entail?
“Sound editing, design and re-recording.”
How did Sea of Shadows compare to other projects, such as The Ivory Game?
“They were similar in regards to the quality and condition of the production sound. All kinds of recording devices had been used throughout the shooting of the film (GoPros, mobile recorders, conventional booms, etc.).
“Just like with The Ivory Game, the main task for sound design post was to maintain and reproduce the original soundscape of the locations as closely as possible. I therefore used as much of the production sound as possible to build my 7.0 surround ambience, used key sound elements typical for each setting in the film, then combined them carefully with compatible layers of my own sound library in order to flesh them out.
“One of the differences sound designing Sea of Shadows compared to The Ivory Game was the juxtaposition of the urban soundscapes to natural ones at sea, which work as a transition, giving the viewer room to digest and let a lot of the information sink in.
“Another big one was that we prepared and mixed Sea of Shadows for Dolby Atmos Surround Sound. That allowed me to create my sound design natively in this format, which is inspiring and challenging at the same time.
"Since you have to work in a full-scale resolution setup with more surround options it sometimes can be even more of a curse than a blessing when it came to killing one's darlings.”
What are some of your favorite projects to sound design?
“My favorite projects are those where the soundscapes can be at least as rich and dynamic as the visuals.
We live in an overwhelmingly-visual age, and when sound is used properly as a more emotionally-driven medium, it can help tell collective stories in a more visceral manner while stimulating one's personal imagination.”
What projects would you like to work on in the future?
“I would love to continue using my experience in designing natural soundscapes and sound design for documentaries or feature films. But as my work on Ykcowrebbaj or the Italian sci-fi movie Creators - The Past have shown me, I can use those same sound design skills and my ever-growing sound library to produce more exotic and abstract sound design, and the inspiration and possibilities to play are endless.”
What excites you about the future of sound?
“I’m still very interested in the evolution of sound production and sound post production. New plug-ins and tools with artificial intelligence algorithms based on psychoacoustic knowledge and experience give us so many new options for a more efficient and focused workflow - thus freeing us up to get down to being imaginative and innovative.
“Also, my experiences of working with the immersive surround sound format Dolby Atmos taught me that a new era is being introduced, inspiring directors and filmmakers to engage in new spheres of (cinematic) sound concepts for film or other genres like VR etc.
“I very much look forward to joining them on this promising journey.”