Sound Designer James LeBrecht Works Auditory Wonders
The founder of Berkeley Sound Artists takes the power of sound seriously.
Sound designer, editor, and mixer, LeBrecht is a genius at his craft.
Photo by Pat Mazzera
Many years ago on Fresh Air, Bay Area editor and Academy Award-winning sound designer Walter Murch recounted his protracted search for the perfect thud of the door closing with finality and foreboding on Michael Corleone’s wife at the end of The Godfather. It was a small detail that only a few moviegoers would consciously register, but for Murch, it was essential to the scene’s thematic and emotional power. Contemporary audiences are slightly more attuned to the craft and sophistication applied to auditory component of movies, at least with respect to narrative films. However, nearly everyone is oblivious to the practice of sound design in documentaries, the domain where Berkeley sound designer, editor, and mixer James LeBrecht reigns.
“Every film has been edited with stylistic choices,” LeBrecht said, referring to the images. “Sound is allowed to be the same thing. There are some films that we don’t do a lot of embellishment; maybe the film doesn’t call for it, or it’s the style of the presentation that the director wants. But sometimes it’s necessary to add a few things here and there to help fill in the sonic shadows of an environment. In other words, filling in what the microphones [on location] just could not capture but that we feel it’s important for the audience to feel and experience.”
All movies—even documentaries—work as illusions, as different kinds of magic tricks that manipulate and massage time and space. LeBrecht, who got his start in the theater before founding Berkeley Sound Artists in the mid-1990s, appreciates that today’s moviegoers are savvier about sound’s integral contribution to the overall effect. At the same time, he noted, more and more people watch movies on laptops, tablets, and phone with earbuds and lose most of the aural and spatial depth that the sound team spent so much time constructing.
“If you didn’t hear or experience Birdman in the theater, you missed about 40 percent of the experience,” LeBrecht declared. (He didn’t work on Birdland, but has no hesitation about touting work he admires, like the 2015 Oscar nominee for Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing, and winner of Best Picture.) I’ve always wondered what Beatles producer George Martin, who spent months painstakingly recording and layering every track of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, would have said about an artless adolescent hearing “A Day in the Life” on the mono radio of a Chevy Impala.
Music is an aural experience, of course, while for most people, movies are overwhelmingly visual. There are moments in every film where it’s necessary for the sound to call attention to itself—to direct the viewer’s attention, for example, or to evoke action occurring off-screen—but most sound work aspires to be seamless.
“I think a lot of us don’t want people to necessarily notice what we do,” said LeBrecht, whose behind-the-scenes pragmatism nonetheless leaves plenty of room for joyful creativity. “I remember a film I did where there was an extreme close-up of somebody’s eye. The eye moved, and I needed a little sound to go along with the movement. I made it with my mouth, moving my tongue away from my cheek, and it was just a little, wet movement. It tickled the death out of me that it sounded right for that extreme, extreme close-up.”
LeBrecht’s route to the movies, and Berkeley, was as unexpected as that bit of inspiration. He was born with spinal bifida, and growing up in Westchester County outside of New York City, he fell into a drama clique in high school. LeBrecht discovered an interest in audio, so he applied to UC San Diego to study acoustics. Part of the attraction, he freely admits, was no longer having to navigate a wheelchair around snowdrifts and across ice patches.
In the summer of 1979, LeBrecht worked at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, where he met Berkeley Rep artistic director Michael Leibert and resident sound designer Paul Dixon, on hiatus while the theater, then on College Avenue, was being renovated. LeBrecht’s graduation from UC San Diego (where he helped found the disabled students union) coincided with Dixon’s departure from the Rep, so he applied for the job.
LeBrecht tells the story that managing director Mitzi Sales, recognizing the theater’s limited accessibility, asked Dixon, “How’s he going to get around? He can’t walk.” Dixon replied, “Mitzi, he’s the best damn sound designer I know.” A few years later, Dixon confided, “Jim, you were the only sound designer I knew.” LeBrecht explodes in laughter, then gives the yarn his unique spin.
“I grew up in a split-level house, so I was used to climbing stairs. I didn’t use a wheelchair in my house. My parents just kinda thought, ‘He’s managing so far.’ It actually prepared me really well for what you need to do as a sound designer in theater, which is climb around and walk around listening from different angles from different places in the theater. So I was able to make that work. And when they moved to Addison Street in 1980, access was a lot better.”
LeBrecht’s years at Berkeley Rep led to a book about aesthetics and process, Sound and Music for the Theatre: The Art & Technique of Design, written with his friend Deena Kaye and now in its fourth edition. His work at the sound board on corporate films and numerous social-issue documentaries by Bay Area filmmakers Peter Nicks (The Force and The Waiting Room), Ruby Yang (The Blood of Yanghou District), Dan Krauss (Extremis), and Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk (Audrie & Daisy) has honed his ability to maximize sound’s ability to enhance a moment, a scene, and a story.
“The task of the sound designer is to make, create, and develop sounds that feel like they are plausible for the visuals but also have the emotional content that you need,” LeBrecht declared. “Every sound has a function, and every sound has an emotion. And if you understand those two things, you make really good decisions.”
The time and energy required to establish a career in the arts compelled LeBrecht to put disability activism on the back burner, he admitted. But he’s fully engaged now, from pressuring festivals to making stages accessible for filmmakers in wheelchairs to lobbying the International Documentary Association to include people with disabilities in its emphasis on diversity. Most poignantly, LeBrecht has excavated a chapter from his past for an upcoming documentary.
A decade before he headed off to college, LeBrecht attended a New York summer camp for the disabled run by hippies. In the anything goes spirit of the late ’60s, campers were encouraged to take chances, try new things, and share their experiences (and peeves). Some fell in love, a few had their hearts broken, everyone experienced a blast of independence.
LeBrecht and co-director Nicole Newnham have unearthed archival footage from Camp Jened that brims with hilarity and awkwardness, and dovetails with the film’s politically incorrect title, Crip Camp. The filmmakers have chosen veteran Berkeley editor Andrew Gersh to cut the doc with an eye on a 2019 festival premiere and release. One thing we know for sure about Crip Camp: The sound will be incredible.
This story appeared in the April issue of our sister publication, The Monthly.