The film “Trains of Thoughts” by Timo Novotny is an audio-visual essay that compares and reflects upon the different subway systems around the world. Subway systems and the ground they run through are fascinating: the structure, sounds, people and experiences that all take place under ground, daily. We talked to Timo, director and writer, to learn more about the film itself, as well and how they went about with doing what they did.
Music represents an essential element in your work. Does every subway have its own sound and rhythm?
Timo Novotny: Yes, they all are indeed very different. In Moscow the trains generally move very fast, and the tracks and wagons are very old. So when you turn the volume on your iPod all the way up, you can barely hear the music. If you did that in Tokyo, it’d be incredibly irritating for the person sitting next to you. Talking on a telephone is also a huge no-go there. Tokyo’s ahead of other cities in that sense too. Speeds and sounds are extremely characteristic, and right away I always knew which of the Sofa Surfers I would have do the music for a certain city. I’ve worked with them for a while now and know them extremely well, which is how I knew who would be good for what task. I don’t make music with the Sofa Surfers myself, sometimes I put together pieces of the other loops, add voices or sounds, but I wouldn’t call myself a musician. I’m on stage with the band as a visualist only and do the videos and CD covers? – everything that’s visual. At the same time I’m right there when the music is made, and since I put together so many live images, I’m very good at working with rhythm and visual material. That was extremely helpful for this film.
What is so special about the music of the movie?
The movie was not shot in 5.1.! Basically a 5.1. audio recording is just done with the “ambience” (also known as atmosphere, atmos or background) which consists the sounds of a given location or space. But voice and music are always recorded extra with a interview mic for example. Later in the post the mixing is done, where you decide where to put the 3 big parts of your Audio! In most films the voice always comes from center speaker. The music should be only in the “side fills”, which would be left and right – but in hollywood production they are also on the back fills, that is why I use to sit on the very last seat in the theatre to have less music from the back. Sometime I can feel it too much in my neck! And atmo should be in all the other speakers.
Train of Thoughts doesn’t use more music than regular Hollywood films – you could say it is not typical for a documentary – but what we could see as very special isthe creation of the track out of atmo (sound recording) – which sometimes needs to be re-edited. If the musician starts to use atmo that tight on the beats you have to edit the image after this again.
There is this very particular scene where you created some music out of the atmosphere sound of the recording, around two minutes into the trailer…
The Poet is a very good example for this work. You record him, like you would record every other person on the world. A good micro and 2 cameras (if possible). After this the sofa surfers have the patience to realize the pace of the recording. This is unique in some point to build a music pace out of a “regular interview”. When the poet would be “out of sync” you have to trick these situation with not showing him. Since you cannot change the frame-rate you are trying to go other ways visually. As an editor you need to follow your visual according of the track which is created out to the original Interview (and even atmo)!
How is it possible to shoot in the tight space of a subway?
In New York I wanted to talk to as many people as possible. In those cases we often asked right away if we could bring the camera along and left it up to the individual whether they slept, read, or just sat there. The New Yorkers were extremely open. In Tokyo and Hong Kong our approach was similar, though we sent two interpreters ahead with a camera, and then another two of us stayed in the background with a telephoto lens. When the interpreters thanked the interviewees and they relaxed, we were able to shoot that moment of relaxation with the telephoto lens. Those are often the most honest moments, because the awareness of being filmed always makes people a little less natural. So we found a solution that was legally OK and gave naturalness a chance. The crew was always small; we needed interpreters, of course, but we weren’t allowed use tripods or lighting, and large cameras would scare off the subjects, so there were just a few of us. I was waiting for this Japanese single-lens reflex camera, I ordered one right away and then we could get started. This camera was a godsend, you hold it like a normal camera. Again and again we tried to pose as a couple of tourists to be as inconspicuous as possible. And I can understand that people feel that their privacy’s being invaded on subways. In New York especially, where, as I said, the subway ride is often the only time in the day when people can withdraw into themselves.
We hope you not only look at “Trains of Thoughts” but also pay more attention next time you’re taking the train – you might hear, see or discover something new, and that is how life should be.