In 1987, Michael Cimino was editing his film The Sicilian, and his American sound editors were having a hell of a time adding the sound of the trampling of panicked horses. Too much confusion, too much dust, too many hooves; impossible to properly synchronize the sound with the images.
So, without saying anything to the director, the French film editor, Françoise Bonnot, took the sequence to Paris, and showed it to Jean Pierre Lelong, the awesome sound effects engineer.
In two or three movements, Lelong, assisted by his faithful Mario, much as Terry Gilliam in The Quest for the Holy Grail maybe didn’t clap together coconuts , but took out a few unlikely instruments out of his surreal bags…
Cimino was so impressed that he gave all the film’s sound effects work to Jean-Pierre.
To get an idea of Lelong’s extraordinary work, take a look at this short clip from the making of A Very Long Engagement.
In the 60’s and 70’s there was no such thing as a “sound designer” equipped with computers. It was the sound effects engineer, in his studio, that did everything that hadn’t been captured on the spot, or which needed to be redone to be played over foreign language dialogues.
But where Jean-Pierre Lelong was a pure genius is that his work resembled a number from Cirque du Soleil. Indeed, not only did he recreate sounds and totally realistic noises with objects that have nothing to do with the sounds, but he had the unique distinction of directly syncing them perfectly.
He looked once or twice at the image, spotted the location of the sound to be made using the numbers running under the image, and he was off.
It was rare that he had to do anything twice. He crushed crates to smash a pontoon for The City of Lost Children, twisted the wheels of a salvaged supermarket trolley to make the swing squeak in Amelie, threw nuts and bolts on drumheads for the pills Ms. Interligator spat out in Delicatessen, and waltzed with a dancer’s step on the studio’s wooden floors, wearing his old rotten shoes, that even Charlie Chaplin would snub … to bring a subtlety, as if by magic, to lame Matilda running through the grass.
And all that perfectly synchronized to a 24th of a second!
It was quite a sight to see. But about noon, when hunger set in, it was not a stomach growling that you heard, but this colourful guy glaring at you and pronouncing “Stomach!”
Jean-Pierre worked on all my movies. The last few years were less happy, because technical advancements had made his genius of syncing a little obsolete. But he worked all his life for the masters. He even won an Oscar and worked on several James Bond films, always with the same sense of perfectionism.
His last film was TS Spivet and I’m proud to have stayed loyal to him.