Did you know that Pondicherry-based Kunal Rajan is the only Indian sound designer who has been working in mainstream Hollywood as well as Indian movies, while living in Los Angeles? Rajan, 35, is also the first sound designer in Asia to have mixed a movie — Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam (2013) — in the immersive 3D sound format called Auro 3D, not to mention his robust portfolio of 150 films in the last decade-and-a-half.
Kunal Rajan has worked with industry stalwarts such as A.R. Rahman, Resul Pookutty, Karthik Subbaraj, Atlee Kumar, and Vijay Sethupathi, as well as Oscar-winning sound mixer Craig Mann on projects like Uttama Villain, a Tamil music drama. In Hollywood, his work can be heard in Jon M Chu’s Jem & the Holograms. Ranjan also bagged a Streamy Award for Best Sound Design for the 2009 web series, Fear Clinic. We catch up with him for a conversation.
Tell us what exactly a sound designer does.
A sound designer is responsible for the entire sound of a movie. Every sound effect that one hears in a movie is added by the sound designer. For example, when you watch a character driving a car, the sound of the car is added during the post production process. Once the film editor has finished editing the movie, the sound team starts adding sound effects for each and every thing we see on screen. How we make those scenes feel realistic is process, followed by taking these sounds to make scenes more impactful and bring the director’s vision to life.
How did you develop an interest in this and take it up professionally?
Sound was always a very intriguing part of cinema for me. When I used to watch up, I was always amazed by the sounds moving around the theater in ‘surround sound’. There came a point when my friends and I used to discuss how good the sound system of a theater was, and how good or bad the sound effects in a movie were. These were some of my earliest memories of finding interest in sound. Eventually, I found out that there is something called sound design and sound mixing, and that’s how I decided to pursue it as a career.
Where and with whom have you trained?
I have been lucky because I got to study sound in three different countries — I did a course in sound in Chennai, followed by courses in Singapore and Los Angeles. This was a great starting point, but like most other fields, most of my learning was on the job as I started working on smaller, independent films. Every project is different, and every story has a different requirement. I still learn something new every day.
How did Hollywood happen?
After my course in Los Angeles, I started working on student films. When film students needed sound design help for their graduation or thesis films, they would seek an up-and-coming sound designer, who would be willing to work for free. I happened to hear about one such project. Once I worked on that, people kept recommending me for other projects and slowly over time, I was able to put together a small team to handle more complex projects and continue to work with my team.
And what about your work in India?
Over the last 15 years, I have worked on around 15 Indian films, including Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam, Uttama Villain, Karthik Subbaraj’s Mercury, Petta, Jagame Thandhiram. I have had the opportunity to work with people like Kamal Haasan and A.R. Rahman, whose work I grew up watching, and I am very thankful to all the film-makers from India who take the extra effort to come to Los Angeles to do sound for their movies. Sound in Indian cinema has drastically improved in recent times, as more film-makers are taking the effort and time for quality sound.
What has been the biggest turning point in your life?
The decision to get into the entertainment industry. Without any family in the business, this can be a difficult space to navigate, especially during the early days. Even though I didn’t have any family or connections in the entertainment industry, my family encouraged me to pursue my passion for sound, and so I consider my decision to become a sound designer as the biggest turning point in my life.
What projects are you working on now?
I just finished working on a documentary about Magic Johnson for Apple TV Plus. I have also started work on my first Hindi film as a sound designer — the project is produced by Red Chillies Entertainment, starring Shah Rukh Khan, and directed by Atlee (Arun Kumar).
The most challenging and rewarding part about your job?
One of the bigger challenges we face is the lack of knowledge about sound among a majority of producers. A lot of them go through the process of sound design and mixing just for the sake of doing it. Most people don’t know how good use of sound could drastically make a movie watching experience so much better. This lack of knowledge leads to less time and budget for sound designers. But things have been changing over the years, and I hope that more producers and directors devote time and effort to sound. The most rewarding part of my experience is always watching the movie I worked on the opening day, in a theater full of audience.
What would your advice be to youngsters who want to make a career as a sound designer?
Sound is a very broad profession — you could focus on sound for movies, music, live sound for concerts, or broadcast sound. If anyone is interested in sound, I think they should narrow down their interests before deciding to get into it. Consider what it is that makes you want to get into sound. For me, it was my love for cinema. Unless you are extremely passionate about one of the areas where sound designers or sound engineers are involved, do not get into it. Sound is hard work. So, make sure you absolutely love it before you make the decision.
(Featured Image for representation purposes only)