Realism is not on Michael Cook’s mind, but creativity is. Michele Martin
Michael Cook, co-founder of the sound company, M62, does not like being
called a sound designer. ‘The term was first used in the US six or seven
years ago but has made it across the water in the past two years. So I
suppose I’m stuck with it,’ he says.
But the title is useful in describing exactly what Cook does.
Primarily, it marks out the dreadlocked 33-year-old from the industry’s
more conventional dubbing and sound-effects technicians for the creative
way he uses sound to interpret film.
Working for top directors such as Tarsem and David Fincher in the four
years since starting M62’s Los Angeles office last May, a London
outpost, Cook has consistently shunned absolute realism in favour of
sounds that enhance an ad’s creativity.
He has overlaid the apocalyptic sound of a helicopter on pictures of a
rock star diving into a crowd for Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s recent Polaroid
ad and even used a bucket of raw beef in a Vauxhall Calibra ad to
emphasise the grotesque- ness of a lizard licking its lips.
‘The way I relate to pictures and sounds is very personal. I try to look
into my subconscious and pull things out,’ he tells you, relaxing on an
outsized sofa in his Soho basement office. ‘Some people won’t understand
why I’ve used certain sounds for certain images, but they don’t need to.
The point is, it works.’
The creative slant of Cook’s work is evident as soon as you walk into
his studio, which houses a guitar and a wall of 60s and 70s analogue
synths as well as the usual mixing desk and computers. He spends much of
his time experimenting, something he says bigger companies cannot do.
‘I’m not paying back a million on equipment so I can afford to spend a
week messing around,’ he says.
The breadth of his creative influences is also apparent from his other
job as a dance DJ. His passion took him to LA in the late 80s and still
takes up his spare time in London, providing him with material that
feeds back into commercials projects.
The differences between working with Cook and a more conventional sound
engineer become apparent from day one of a job, when creatives and
directors are invited to include him in their pre-production meetings.
The philosophy explains why he often works with people familiar with his
intimate way of working, most notably Tarsem, whom he first met in LA
during the director’s film school years. The relationship has given him
the scope to work unhindered to produce one of the year’s most inventive
soundtracks for the recent Polaroid ‘rock star’ spot.
The dialogue-free commercial shows a singer at a rock concert captivated
by a girl in the audience who throws him a self-portrait. Cook decided
against using a music track on the commercial so that sound effects at
key points in the story could be heard and the brand would not be
defined too closely.
The spot opens with shots of the concert ending and the crowd going wild
for more as security men strain to keep people off stage. To communicate
the pack mentality, Cook underlays the shouting and applause of the fans
with library sounds of wild animals such as bears and tigers. ‘You don’t
always notice they are there, but they add texture,’ he says.
The film cuts to the first glimpse of the band’s singer, emphasised by
one of many flashbulbs, which explode at vital moments. To mirror
Tarsem’s use of the vivid white visual, Cook developed a similarly
arresting sound, using flashbulbs, a firework fizzing, an electronic
drum machine and a gas cooker igniting. All were slowed down and
processed through a delay sound-effect unit to give the resulting depth.
After the introductory scenes, the film lapses into end-of-gig chaos,
complete with a series of war-like sound effects from Cook. The noise of
an aircraft passing overhead is heard as the singer throws his arm
triumphantly in the air to ‘make him almost superhuman’, while another
member of the band throws himself off the stage to the sound of a
‘He lands on his back in the crowd with his arms outstretched and looks
like a war casualty,’ Cook explains. ‘I thought of Vietnam and
Apocalypse Now, which is why I put in the helicopter.’
The film then cuts to shots of the girl in the crowd who takes her self-
portrait with a Polaroid, throws it on to the stage and looks the singer
straight in the eye. Cook added emphasis by using a technique gleaned
from his DJ work. Instead of turning up the noise of the crowd, he cut
it out altogether, leaving only breathing sounds he created himself on a
He explains this ‘less is more’ technique by saying: ‘As a DJ, you can’t
play music that’s hugely energetic through a four-hour set, you have to
have peaks and troughs. And you can adapt that idea to sound effects.’
In a final tribute to that philosophy, the ad ends with the singer being
dragged off stage in a hail of flashbulb sounds and feedback before
cutting to an appropriately silent end-frame saying: ‘Polaroid. Live for
It is commercials like this that have started to build M62’s reputation
among London agencies, with the company’s current showreel including
GGT’s recent Capital Radio ‘static’ ad and a Vauxhall Calibra spot.
But as far as Cook is concerned, bagging big brands like these is only
part of the story. He would rather keep the company small to work on
projects that give him a free rein to do what he wants. ‘There’s no
language for communicating sound, you can’t say ‘this sound’s blue’ or
‘this sound’s red’ and it’s hard to say what’s wrong if you don’t like
something,’ he warns uncompromisingly. ‘So if you’re going to hire me,
let me get on with what I’m good at. It’s a question of trust.’
Cook broke into sound design through ‘a series of happy coincidences’
after leaving school in 1979 at 16 to become a DJ.
His first break came when he moved to Los Angeles in 1987 and was asked
to do the soundtrack for a skateboard company promo after its owner was
impressed with Cook’s inventive answering machine messages.
In 1989, he met the former 10CC member and director, Lol Creme, who had
recently installed a home sound studio and invited Cook to run it,
forcing him to mug up on technical basics in just three months.
Two years later, he met the director, Tarsem, socially and helped him
with the sound-track for his end-of-year film-school reel. Cook got his
first break into commercials in 1992 after pitching successfully to
Wieden and Kennedy for a Nike job with a friend, who failed to secure
the directing assignment. He used his first paycheck to set up M62 in LA
with a business partner, Rico Conning, and came back home last May to
establish a London office to handle European business.
Cook and Conning still work closely together through ISDN lines,
swapping sounds and creative ideas. The LA business turns over dollars
500,000 annually and Cook has similar aspirations for London, adding: ‘I
don’t want to run a factory.’