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The Breakdown Parables

Trailer for The Breakdown Parables by Emil Benjamin

In early 2020, Flavorlab began talks with a film team at Columbia University for sound design, mix, and music clearance. They were about to wrap production on a dark comedy short film, the thesis project of writer and director, Emil Benjamin of Irrelevant Media, entitled The Breakdown Parables. Set in a seemingly normal casting office, the short follows five groups of actors coming in to audition. Each unravels to their most toxic forms, stereotypes of the acting world. Meanwhile, the receptionist begins to fall apart as she acts as the gatekeeper between reality and a purgatorial audition room.

An actor himself, Benjamin met many of his cast members at drama school. As director, working with his friends and longtime collaborators, gave him much needed insights to poke fun at these more harmful archetypes. “The Breakdown Parables is the result of years of conversations and observations surrounding micro aggressions, internalized racism and misogyny, and the often-misconceived weaponization of woke culture we find in rehearsal rooms, tv & film sets, and, in this case, casting offices,” he explains.

I always view my actors as co-authors of the characters they play, but it was particularly important to create a collaborative space for this piece as it covers some topics that dwell outside of my own lived experience.

Emil Benjamin, Director

By picture lock, the short had graced every screen in the Flavorlab office. Taken with the comedic pacing, eye-catching cinematography, and wild characters, both the sound and music teams were eager to get started. Audio engineer, JC Chao, dove in just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic. “Initially, we were targeting to finish within the month,” says Chao, “But the scheduled screening was cancelled and, now, I was working from home with a whole new set up.” Mixing was postponed indefinitely as long term plans – in office or at home – were figured out. With ADR still to complete, eventually actors began recording. Some did remote recording with the sound team, some even sent in voice over from their phones. While a momentary quality hiccup, Chao didn’t miss a beat achieving consistent mix and moving on to the real star: the sound design.

“The film ebbs and flows between naturalism and absurdity. Earth and Hell. I wanted the sound design to mirror that,” says Benjamin. While largely set in reality, amidst rotary telephone rings and underscore, there are some intense, and otherworldly, sound experiences. Probably the most notable example of this is the “purgatory” introduced in act three. At this point, the walls and doors of the casting office pulse with a blinding light, coursing with holy, but demonic energy. Given notes like “the door of an airplane being ripped off” and “a bitter cold wind,” JC got creative with this vivid starting point. The key here was layering. He combined many ominous layers: choral dissonance, howling winds, screaming, and whispering, to name a few.

“It was a really organic process where we both got to try out new ideas. The film wanders between the real and surreal, and so, too, does the sound design.”

JC Chao, Sound Engineer

Another blend of sounds occurs in a battle between two women. As they jealously argue and tension builds in the scene, a reverb slowly washes in. One ends up on the floor, experiencing what seems like a possession. Chao played with pitch shifting, phase shifting, and a touch of the delay effect, EchoBoy, to give her a voice from the beyond. The other takes on a powerful, super-human sound – stomping away with large, booming footsteps.

In addition to sound design and mix on this short, Flavorlab music supervision team provided music clearance. Featured prominently is Mozart’s “Hm! Hm!” from The Magic Flute. The piece underscores the most outlandish, comedic moment in the short, as well as its most emotional. Benjamin sought these powerful polarizing emotions to highlight the archetype and reality, Earth and purgatory, of The Breakdown Parables world.

The Breakdown Parables premiered at the Bushwick Film Festival in October 2021. Following our work on this short, Flavorlab is working with Emil Benjamin once again on Films With A Purpose‘s upcoming documentary, Oyate, following the people of Standing Rock and the activists involved in #NoDAPL.

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