by Ebba Wester
"Our instructions for that scene were that the sound had to be really disturbing."
Written by Kate Winter and directed by Tracy Matthewson, the 24-minute short film Ortolan is a bone-crunching and delectable ‘amuse-bouche’ with all the flavour of an all-you-can-eat buffet.
For those unfamiliar with the gourmet (and somewhat perverse) French delicacy, an Ortolan is a small bird typically cooked and eaten whole; 'bones and all', as the film’s Machiavellian sister Dot sing-songs to herself while serving up three cups of magic mushroom tea.
Three cups of tea, three sisters, and one haunted family home comprise the drama of this equally horrifying and hilarious psychedelic nightmare-trip. Painted in deep reds and blacks and Gothic chiaroscuro, this visually stunning short is incomplete without its ambitious and inventive use of sound. The boldly abstract and yet carefully fine-tuned soundscape constitutes an integral part of Ortolan’s world-building and character psychology, and is one of Kate and Tracy’s proudest achievements with the film.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with the film’s sonic masterminds Joe Murgatroyd, Janis Balodis, and Izaak Buffin to talk about their work on the film’s hyperreal approach to sound, from the unsettling score to the poetic and conceptual sound design.
EBBA: Kate and Tracy describe Ortolan as exploring ‘trauma as a horror genre’. Yet the sound, particularly the music, is strikingly different to what you would expect from a ‘traditional’ horror film.
The opening theme for example, is a bit light, a bit awkward, and evokes something more akin to Eastern esoterica. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that choice?
JOE: Yeah, that’s pretty accurate. For the opening I was trying to evoke something ritualistic in feeling. At least that’s my interpretation of what happens in the film, that the sisters all go through a form of ritual together.
I wanted the music to have something almost sacred about it–something that felt unusual and would bring out the tension beneath the surface.
Throughout the film I use a lot of diatonic sound – which is quite a technical musical term that just means something that’s not obviously in a major or minor key. Polytonality or bitonality, where you use different keys playing off of each other, can often create quite beautiful things but also very tense things. This was a sort of throughline in the film, having sound that always felt askew.
EBBA: It sets the tone in an interesting way.
Then almost immediately you have some really crazy, hyperreal diegetic sounds. The first one that struck me was the bite that one of the sisters takes into some food in a side-on close-up. It’s this horrifying crunch that sounds like crisp lettuce, even though it looks like she’s biting into meat…
IZAAK: Yeah it’s so gross right? The idea was to have you go like [he pulls his head back and makes his eyebrows dance].
JANIS: In the start you have all these hyperreal sounds that are very exaggerated. Even Kate taking the pin out of her hair makes an exaggerated audible sound. Then this continues into the scenes where they’re tripping. The idea was to blend, rather than distinguish between the repressed memories and present ‘reality’.
EBBA: It also evokes horror but in this particular and unusual way. It's disturbing but also really unexpected, even together with the film’s dark, Gothic images.
JANIS : The traditional understanding of horror is that you kill someone, and there’s blood and gore… and while I like those films, it’s not normally my style.
The kind of sound I work with… I work with footsteps, ambience, that kind of thing. My approach is more about playing with what you have. My job is then to synthesise all these elements with the score, to make all of it one piece.
So, when I heard ‘horror’ I was hesitant at first, but then Izaak reached out to me. Together, we were able to create this different kind of horror for Ortolan, the best kind of horror [laughs].
IZAAK : Yeah, what I do with sound is very different from Janis. What Janis does is like the fine arts, like what the Dutch masters do, fine-tuning and detailed. Whereas I’m more like an abstract artist. What I do is more like throwing paint at a wall.
EBBA: I have to ask…Do any of you have any experience with psychedelics that informed your approach?
IZAAK : Sure… It’s hard to say because the experience of tripping is not something you remember very clearly, you’re operating in a state of higher consciousness. So there’s this way that people can never get tripping right in films. Often it’s just hippies and peace signs and people going [Izaak gesticulates randomly].
That’s why Ortolan is so impressive. It really takes you to that ‘in-between’ place.
JOE : Simultaneously joyous and hilarious and at the same time terrifying and repentant.
IZAAK : Like in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s not all rainbows and ‘flower power’... There’s ups and downs, laughs and cries.
JOE : Yeah throughout the film, Ortolan lives in an interesting space where it’s funny, but also deeply unsettling.
IZAAK : The scene where one sister is looking in the mirror and says “my skin is so long” – that’s it right there, that’s the ‘psychedelic experience’ in one scene [laughs]. It was all there in the script and in the images already we just had to put fuel to the fire.
EBBA: There’s a disturbing moment in the build up of the trip where Jean hallucinates a repressed memory… Without giving anything away, what is the disturbing sound you hear in this scene? It sounds like eggshells crunching, or like bone.
JANIS : Our instructions for this scene was that the sound you’re talking about had to be really disturbing. Tracy and Kate encouraged us to be really creative, which is why the sound turned out so well in the end. It’s all about having room to experiment and move things around. I can’t even remember now exactly but, that one sound is something like 16 tracks.
IZAAK : We used as many sounds as possible of actual Ortolans themselves. We went through a huge sound library of bird sounds; bird’s scratching in cages, bird eggs hatching. All these sounds were then layered to create what was essentially a diegetic sound but that then functioned in a more impressionistic way.
KATE : [Piping up from the background] Just to add to that, the note that I had for that sound was 'stuffing a chicken'.
EBBA: Then there’s a cut to Jean in the bathtub, where this crackling, crunching meat sound fuses into the sound of splashing water. It suddenly makes the ‘natural’ sound of trickling water seem alien and disturbing…
There’s another moment where the music stands out, in the scene where the sisters are reading the will. It sounds like what I can only describe as some kind of arrhythmic jazz, being played by either drunk or dying people?
JOE : Yes! What you have here is several different instruments that are at odds with each other, to reflect the conflict between the sisters.
I took a lot of inspiration from someone like David Lynch. So classically you would use what’s called leitmotif in film music, where you have different musical themes representing different characters or feelings. Lynch does this a lot in something like Twin Peaks, to use a well known example.
In Ortolan, I applied this technique to the texture of the score, using a different instrument to represent each of the different sisters. So the instruments that are ‘arguing’ in the scene you mentioned, the resulting music is a direct reflection of the conflict in the plot.
KATE: I just have a question… Joe! What instrument was I?
JOE: You were a… cello. Dot was a double bass. And Ann was a viola.
Hungry for more? The good news is that Kate and Tracy are currently developing Ortolan into a full length feature and, in their own words, will look no further when it comes to the sound team they know will deliver that extra crunch.
You can check out other work by Joe, Janis, and Izaak by following the links in their names. You can also keep up with Tracy and Kate in the links pasted here. Build up your appetite for the main course edition of Ortolan at festival and festival – Coming soon, to a theatre near you.
Ebba Wester is a Copenhagen-based film critic and flâneuse