Sound designers tend to till narrow fields. Specialists to begin with, they generally make careers in either film or television. Jim LeBrecht's story is a bit different. The San Francisco resident--he was raised in Westchester County, NY, but moved out west to study acoustics at the University of California at San Diego in the early 1970s--has extensive experience in theatre, film, and multimedia work. He is also the co-author (with composer Deena Kaye) of Sound and Music for the Theatre: the Art and Technique of Design, and has been a visiting professor at Yale University.
LeBrecht has a lifetime of experience crossing barriers. Born with a case of spina bifida that paralyzed him from the waist down, he has waged battle against the outside world's perception of the disabled, on personal and professional territory. "I wouldn't say that I've ever felt an inordinate sense of bitterness, but I've seen the questions in people's faces--'Can this guy do the job?' and even, 'Does he know that he can't do the job?'
"Things are better than they used to be, and I have to say that people have also hired me in order to help a disabled person, risks they might not have taken had I not been handicapped, so it goes both ways," LeBrecht continues.
One of his first opportunities came immediately after graduating from college. Having worked summers handling sound at various theatres, LeBrecht landed a position at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts. "Back in the 70s," he recalls, "the position of sound designer as it's currently known didn't exist. You simply sat down with the director and stage manager and they told you what they wanted: 'The actor fires a gun in this scene, give me a gunshot!' There was no drawing the sound designer into the concept in order to add sound to the palette of creative tools, mainly because our technology was so limited. Instead, the master electrician was simply given a list of sounds to get, and the title of sound designer had a big slash after it, as in '/technician.' There was very little imaginative work to the process."
After spending a year at the PCPA, LeBrecht met Paul Dixon, who at that time was the resident sound designer at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. When Dixon left this post a year later to form a rock band, LeBrecht took on his old job. He stayed at the Rep for 10 years. During his tenure, LeBrecht won numerous awards, including the San Francisco Bay Area Drama Critics' Circle Award for Outstanding Sound Design, which might as well be renamed in his honor, since he's won it five times.
Feeling that he needed to expand his artistry--and fatten up his bank account--LeBrecht began inquiring about sound designer positions in the film community, and he eventually made professional contacts with several people working at the highly regarded Saul Zaentz Film Center. "I really had to take a step back to put myself in a position to move forward," laughs LeBrecht, whose initial assignment at the Film Center was as an intern on the John Larroquette/Kirstie Alley vehicle, Madhouse.
"I was doing plain grunt work on that picture, including sending out presents for the editors at Christmastime. I had done some high level, very interesting theatre work, and I exchanged it for the opportunity to make $50 a week taking care of people's needs!" He hung in there and worked his way up. Today, LeBrecht's own company, Berkeley Sound Artists, is housed in Zaentz's Fantasy building. His credits include supervising sound editor on Barney's Great Adventure, Slam Dunk Ernest, and an unreleased film, Existo, which he raves about. "It's really a gem. Existo 4 was directed by Coke Sams. It's a wonderful comedy about an existential performance artist who leads a revolt against the right wing."
LeBrecht has worked as sound editor on numerous films, including David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. He was interviewed at Skywalker Sound, where he was working on Pitch Black, a science fiction film directed by David Twohy, who wrote the script for The Fugitive.
LeBrecht spoke about the way sound design and music work together to help tell a story: "The most critical part of the whole process is having the good fortune to work with a director who truly understands the contribution that sound design can make. Let me give you an example. I designed some sound effects, although I wasn't the sound designer, on a picture called Waking the Dead [scheduled for an October 99 release]. This film stars Jennifer Connelly and Billy Crudup, and it was directed by Keith Gordon, who also directed Mother Night and A Midnight Clear.
"Gordon truly understands the possibility of sounds," LeBrecht continues. "He can lead you in a direction that makes sense. I created a lot of abstract sound, things that dealt with paranormal events. The lead character's girlfriend is the victim of a political murder. Later, he runs for Congress and thinks he hears her voice. I had to create sounds that suggested his state of mind, and I'd take my preliminary work to Keith. His immediate responses were always very good, such as 'This is too intimate a scene, the sound effects are overblown.' He was very clear about why something didn't work for him, when that was the case, and that's what you want. Also, he understands the frequency range, and will ask for low-end material to suggest foreboding. Not necessarily earth-shaking, but that reveals his awareness of the language of sound.
"The music was composed and produced by tomandandy," he adds, referring to the avant-garde music house responsible for scoring movies such as JFK, Natural Born Killers, and Killing Zoe. "They delivered about 32 tracks to the soundstage. Keith was able to hear, through all the tracks, whenever something wasn't quite right. He actually remembered the synth patches they had used in their original demos. Mark Berger was the supervising rerecording mixer. He's an Academy Award winner, and he really worked the tracks well. You know what? Most of my stuff wound up being cut. Not because I did a lousy job, but because Keith had gotten the music right where he wanted it, and lots of sound effects just weren't needed. I wasn't upset at all. The first job of a sound designer is to be a team player."
First theatre, then film, and eventually, multimedia work entered the mosaic that Jim LeBrecht created for himself. "I wanted another source of income, and back in 1993, I felt that multimedia was going to happen big. As it turns out, multimedia hasn't become the cash cow that I'd hoped, but the business is picking up. 1998 was our best year in multimedia, and the work is interesting and fun."
The Broderbund Living Book production of Ruff's Bone, produced by Colossal Pictures, was LeBrecht's first multimedia assignment. "The idea is that a dog's master throws his bone too far, and Ruff has to go to all these interesting places to retrieve it. I did a lot of that work at my house, using an early ProTools system [he currently owns three ProTools systems] and some E-mu samplers."
Theatrix, an educational software company, also became a client. LeBrecht has worked on about a half-dozen titles for them over the last several years, and his job scope on the projects has expanded. "Initially, we only created sound design. However, we ended up doing everything but the music on others, including creating the sound design, assisting with casting and recording, and in some cases, handling directing and editing chores, plus finding a composer. If you have a CD that is dialogue-driven, and has several compelling characters that have different things to say, you can spend several days recording dialogue. I've worked with so many talented directors that it's been fun to try and coax the best read out of actors on some of these multimedia projects. I've even put my own voice in on several occasions!"
Perhaps his biggest multimedia client is Sony, whose PlayStation games are generally developed in Japan for an internal market. When they come to the States, LeBrecht often handles the English dialogue sessions. Sony titles he has worked on include Bloody Roar, Contender, and Star Ocean II.
The first edition of the book he cowrote was released in 1992. "Deena had come from New York to compose music on a production of A Touch of the Poet at the Berkeley Rep. We hit it off real well and have maintained a friendship ever since. Before she left Berkeley, we decided to write the book we wish we'd had in college--not too technical, more the aesthetic approach to sound design, with the answers to real-world questions: What paperwork do you really need? What about top-of-show preset sheets and sound plots? How should you list your faders? We worked on the book over a period of about five years."
Their labor turned out well. Sound and Music For the Theatre: The Art and Technique of Design is required reading at many colleges and universities, including the California Institute for the Arts, and Yale. Later this year, the two will be delivering the second edition of their tome, which will include ample coverage of digital technology and its role in current theatre productions, plus a roundtable with a panel of sound designers and composers, including David Budries, who teaches sound design at Yale, and composers Todd Barton, Michelle Dibucci, and Richard Peaslee.
All in all, LeBrecht has had a varied career, with his later work springing from early training in the theatre. "Starting out in the theatre was a great basis for being able to branch out into other areas, especially since I had the opportunity to work with a resident company like the Berkeley Rep." he says. "So many different shows, concepts and angles--it makes you well versed in working all areas of the theatre, from very straight plays to the most abstract. That training lets you leap into different areas with a gut sense of what sound can contribute. Film, television, multimedia--each medium has its own unique set of needs. Learning them takes some time, but the theatre was a fabulous place to start."