Director Kirsten Tan and sound designer Lim Ting Li

The right sound for the right mood

Sound designer Lim Ting Li (left) and director Kirsten Tan first worked together on the award-winning short film Dahdi.
Sound designer Lim Ting Li (left) and director Kirsten Tan first worked together on the award-winning short film Dahdi.PHOTO: COURTESY OF KIRSTEN TAN

When you think "the taste of Singapore", you might think of certain flavours, most likely from hawker food.

But what sounds remind you of Singapore?

This might just be a parlour game to some, but for sound designer Lim Ting Li, it is serious business.

Sound is how she establishes mood, character and place in a film. For Lim, 32, a sought-after artist with several award-winning films under her belt, nothing sounds more like home than the piercing coo of the Asian Koel bird.

"I use it a lot, in early morning or late-night scenes. It's distinctive and it's such a nice sound," she says.

For Lim, who participated in director Kirsten Tan's Pop Aye (2017), Boo Junfeng's Apprentice (2016), and on the 7 Letters (2015) compendium, the Koel call does the job without calling attention to itself.

"Good sound design is when the audience is emotionally affected, but they don't know why," she says.

She first worked with Tan on the director's drama short film Dahdi (2014), about an elderly woman who takes in a refugee. It won the Silver Screen award at the Singapore International Film Festival and other accolades at festivals around the world.

In Pop Aye, a drama about a Thai man who deals with mid-life crisis by walking an elephant across the country, Lim added sounds that made Bong the elephant come alive on screen.

"Kirsten told me that it's sound that makes an elephant majestic. When you stand next to an elephant, you hear the heaving, the breathing, and you know why they were used by royalty," she says.

Bong is by nature a quiet animal. This was good news for sound recorders who had to capture actors' dialogue and also for Lim, who saw it as a "blank canvas". From the unhappy snort it makes when it is forced to enter a house, to the squeal of delight when it comes across watermelons strewn across a road, these are sounds she added from a digital library.

Tan, 36, says she was impressed by Lim's attention to detail.

She tells The Straits Times that Lim first conducted research on birds native to northern Thailand, the film's setting, before presenting her with a palette of avian calls.

Not only that, Lim made sure to match the bird with the emotion of the scene. "One part of the film is set in a deserted place, so that mood should be sinister. She used crow calls - it gives that vibe, without making it too explicit," says Tan.

Lim is a graduate of the Film, Sound & Video course at Ngee Ann Polytechnic and later studied at the National Film & Television School in Britain. She is a partner at production house Mocha Chai Laboratories, as well as its director of sound.

When she was in London, she watched Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo (2013) and heard a noise - one never noticed by people in Singapore, but picked up by the student far from home.

"The sound of bare feet slapping on a tile floor. It made me homesick."

John Lui

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2017, with the headline 'The right sound for the right mood'. Print Edition | Subscribe