From The Rock’n’Roll Spirit to the Cannes Award – Tamás Zányi, sound designer of Son of Saul

Sound designer Tamás Zányi, who recently received the Vulcan Award in Cannes for the sound of Grand Prix-winner Son of Saul, started his career as a high school music teacher and jazz-blues musician. He claims that his musical past plays an essential role in his success as a sound designer.

Having a rock’n’roll spirit in his heart and an exceptional musical ear for the world, Tamás Zányi first started out as a high school music teacher by day and a guitarist by night. It was only after a couple of years that he ended up becoming one of the most influential and most unique Hungarian sound designers in Hungarian film history. For his latest work, the 2015 Cannes Grand Prix-winner, Son of Saul (dir: Laszlo Nemes), he personally received one of the prestigious Cannes awards, the Vulcan Award for Technical Artist, for the “outstanding contribution of sound to the narration of the movie”.

His story appears simple: “I was a bit overwhelmed with teaching music so I left the school, sold my double bass, my amp and my banjo and applied for the first-ever Sound Designer programme at the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest”, Zányi explains. He soon became very popular among other students, not only because his first shooting gear consisted of a microphone attached to a bright orange window cleaning pole, but also because he was always up for any crazy, unofficial and unusual film project.

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This was one of the main reasons that his schoolmates and other emerging directors, like the Berlinale Grand Prix-winner Benedek Fliegauf (Dealer, Milky Way, Womb) and the Karlovy Vary and Sundance-winner György Pálfi (Taxidermia, Freefall), chose to work together with Zányi for their first movies. Though Pálfi’s first feature film, the almost dialogue-free and musicless Hukkle (2002), would have provided a huge challenge to even the world’s most experienced sound designers, Zányi, a beginner in the field, successfully created a highly memorable sound for the movie (it immediately received the prize for Best Sound at the Hungarian Film Week). Hukkle, though one of Zányi’s first works, already displayed many of his strengths.

Thanks to his exceptional sensitivity for natural and acoustic sounds, he is able to build rich and meaningful sound textures by mixing several layers of natural sounds together, from the windy sounds of a wheat field to the ringing sounds of a corridor. “I had received a very thorough but liberal musical training. I was more interested in my jazz and blues classes than in the conventional Hungarian musical training, the strict Kodály method. I think that this has helped me a lot in discovering that even noises can have their own melodies and own pitches. I use this a lot in my work, many times unconsciously.”

Because of this musical background, he approaches sounds in a more analytical and complex way, which means that not only he hears an interesting melody in every door slam, but he is also able to convey and enhance all kinds of moods and emotions through sounds or through series, textures and patterns of sounds.

His latest, award-winning work in the powerful Holocaust movie Son of Saul is a typical, yet outstanding Zányi work. Since the camera sticks to the face of the main character during the whole movie almost, we don’t see much of the scene or of the surrounding actions. Due to this, sound plays an unusually important role in showing everything that we cannot see on the screen.

“In films where you see everything on screen, sound usually has less importance. It becomes redundant information, as in many cases it only repeats what we can already see on the screen. For us the magic usually starts when there is less shown visually, where you can use sounds to alter or to expand the meaning of certain things, where you can show what’s not visible on the screen and where you can create whole worlds simply by adding sounds to the film”.

In Son of Saul we see all of this in action. The film is said to have received the most sound post-production work in the entire Hungarian film history. Tamás Zányi and the young director László Nemes worked for four months in a row on the sound of the film. “Nemes is a very thorough director. Just like me, he really believes in sound, and he cared so much that he sat next to me during the whole four months of the post-production. He was not only supervising the process and enriching it with his thoughts but he was almost like a sound designer and sound assistant too. When I was busy editing a certain part, he was going through my sound bank looking for additional sound samples that we could use. It has been a great adventure.”

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They ended up using more than 270 tracks in the sound mixing programme. “I know it sounds like a lot, but these add up easily. For example, there’s the crematorium, a dominant scene in the movie for which you cannot use a ‘crematorium sound’ because there is no such sound. So you start to mix together sounds like crackles of fire, growls, hisses, people’s shouts, screams and in the end you end up with 12-14 layers, only for the ‘atmosphere’ of the crematorium.”

With its unique world of sound, it was no surprise that Son of Saul received the Vulcan Award for Technical Artist in Cannes, on top of the Grand Prix. The reviews of the film were celebrating Zányi’s work, and as one critic pointed out, “Zányi does his work on a Hollywood level of quality but with the sensitivity of an Eastern European artist.”

So what does a rock’n’roll-spirited sound designer think after receiving one of the world’s most prestigious awards in his field? “I really appreciate this award, it means a lot to me. But I don’t think it will change my life. I will continue making films and waiting for the next crazy, unusual film project to find me so that we can create something interesting again.”

by Barna Szász

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