CAMPAIGN CRAFT: Technique; Sound designer shapes ads with a DJ’s expertise

Realism is not on Michael Cook’s mind, but creativity is. Michele Martin reports

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

studio microphone.

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

the moment.’

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.’

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