Mexico is Loud: An Interview with Pamela Casasa, Sound Recordist & Designer
Born and raised in Mexico City, sound recordist and designer Pamela Casasa knew that she loved sound from early on. She began her journey working on any sound job she could find before moving to Liverpool UK and completed a BA in Sound Technology followed by a Masters in Audio Production from Westminster University in London.
She's since taken her career back to Mexico and has amassed plenty of experience as a sound mixer, designer and editor. She kindly took time between jobs to talk to us about some of her experiences as a professional in the sound department.
When did you start working in sound and what first interested you about working in this field?
I have always been fascinated with sound and technology. I first started working in audio before university (I took two gap years) I worked in anything sound related from live sound, studio recording, production sound, sound editing. Then I moved to England to study a BA in Sound Technology at LIPA (Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts) and then did an MA in Audio Production at Westminster University in London.
I remember editing the sound of an animation that recreated the famous Frankenstein -”it’s alive” scene but Frankestein being an animated pencil. I edited all the sounds that should ‘work’ for the scene. I had the thunderstorm, rain, electric sounds, evil laugh, everything that was on picture but it just wasn’t scary. So I tried something different, using a lion’s roar and pitched it down and sync it with the thunder strike, and it worked! It was so subtle but it gave you the chills and it actually felt scary. This experience opened my ears to a whole new world of sound processing and psychoacoustics. I was thrilled by this by how our brain groups sounds; how we feel and react to certain sound effects. This is how I fell for this field of audio.
You've worked on documentaries, TV series and shorts as well as doing sound design jobs. Which type of projects do you prefer working on and how do the challenges compare?
"Recording in Mexico City with 9 million people is quite a challenge..."
I enjoy doing production sound for documentaries. It takes me to many new places and I get to know interesting people and their stories. I alway try and find some time to explore and record beautiful atmospheres for my sound library too.
Documentaries in Mexico are very challenging, even beyond the techie side. In Mexico there are a lot of dangerous places because of narco-states. Even though there are many stories that need to be told and documented, there are many projects I hesitate to take because they are too risky. Having said this I still love making documentaries and try to help as many voices and stories to be heard.
Sound design can be challenging and hectic. By the time we receive the final cut they are already behind schedule so it's a constant (and fun) challenge of keeping up with it without sacrificing quality.
Do you enjoy the solitude of sound design work? Though from what we can see your cat Sora keeps you distracted whilst you're in the edit zone!
Sora definitely distracts me while I’m editing but she helps whenever I get a creative mental block. I feel the solitude of sound design allows me to be more creative, productive, and to focus and be more ‘in the zone’.
What's it like to work in sound in Mexico, specifically? What other countries have you worked in and how do they differ to working in your home country?
"The challenge we face with Mexican productions is to help them understand the importance of production audio and silence on set."
Uffff, tough one. Mexico is loud. Recording in Mexico City with 9 million people is quite a challenge. Especially with wireless kits, you can scan all you want but it [finding a free channel] is not ever guaranteed. Imagine having the airport in the city (!), so our best friend on shoots are the Flight tracking apps. However this also happens in the countryside. I have been in an open field in the middle of nowhere and still have issues with the wireless.
The challenge we face with Mexican productions is to help them understand the importance of production audio and silence on set. The UK is very different, things tend to be more organised. Productions have a good understanding of the importance of production sound and have better budgets too.
I’ve had the opportunity to work and collaborate with different productions in Mexico, UK and Germany and enjoy each of the different challenges I face. The beauty of working in Mexico is the diversity and variety of projects there are.
When heading out into the wild to record ambient sounds, what essential items do you bring with you that aren't necessarily related to audio?
I always carry with me water, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, a hat, snacks (seeds and nuts), small torch, a powerbank and a book of short stories.
Recently you posted a video of you recording a wicker hut burning; what was the story behind this sound recording project?
That is an ongoing documentary of the Afro-mexican community on the coast of Mexico, Guerrero. It is a German and Mexican co-production that we started shooting a couple years back.
I got excited for the scene so I was pretty close. The flame was so high and hot that I thought I was going to burn. That’s why the video is under a minute I had to grab my stuff and move back about 10ft (thankfully my Windbubbles survived!).
On a few recent posts you've hash-tagged #WomenInSound. Do you find any particular challenges working in what could (still) be described as a predominantly male industry?
Being a woman and working in sound it's extremely challenging. The main reason is that most people are not even aware that they are sexist. As in many industries we face the same problems with pay equality, equal opportunities, etc. I use that #WomenInSound to create awareness and show the presence of women in sound with the hope to encourage more women to do sound. I always focus on the quality of my work and make sure my clients do too.
It’s motivating that nowadays we see more and more women in tech departments although people still find it odd. I was once involved in a project where all the heads of department were women and the crew started asking if it was meant to be an all female crew. Women should be looked at because they are great at what they do, not because they are women.
Have you got any sound horror stories you could share? Ever lost a recording or had your mics destroyed by fire, or similar?
I’m always very careful with my equipment so luckily I haven’t had any horror stories. The only loss I've had was during my last shooting, a street dog took my softie momentarily and stole my tennis ball (I use it to protect my boom poles’ end). It was definitely one of the dogs from the following picture.
What's been the best moment of your career in sound so far?
There are two moments I can think of. Recently I had one of the most magical and memorable nights shooting in my career. We spend the night on a tiny boat in the open sea with a full moon. There was so much silence it was beautiful. The moon was lighting up the immense sea and the water would light up with a fluorescent green due to the luminous plankton. All I could hear was the slapping of the waves on the boat and a small cricket that somehow made it onto the boat (word of advice: when shooting at open sea make sure you check the boat for crickets before you sail!).
Sound can be ambivalent, I have been fortunate enough to be able to help with my knowledge and equipment in extremely difficult times. The 19th of September of 2017 a massive earthquake of 7.1 struck Mexico, we lost 369 people. This has been one of the hardest and worst experiences I have ever had. Many of the buildings in my neighbourhood collapsed. A bunch of production recordists friends and I took our sound gear and went to the collapsed buildings to aid the search for survivors. Together with the ‘Topos’ rescuers, we inserted the mics through the debris and listened for any trapped survivors. We ended up working together with the Scientific Division of the Mexican Federal Police.
Any cool projects on the horizon?
I have a few cool projects coming up soon. I am doing production sound for a documentary that starts in Mexico City and finishes in Banff (yes Canada!)...