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Influencers: Ai-Ling Lee, Aural Trailblazer

Taika Waititi talks why the sound designer and supervising sound editor of "Jojo Rabbit" is one of IndieWire's craftspeople shaping the art of cinema today.

Ai-Ling Lee

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

It’s the stuff of movie dreams. At the tender age of 19, movie-obsessed Singaporean sound editor Ai-Ling Lee decamped for Hollywood, armed only with some audio engineering training and a handful of local commercial gigs, intent on breaking into the mostly male-dominated world of film sound work. She papered the town with letters to studio brass, asking for the chance to simply sit in during post-production, all the better to learn her chosen craft from the ground up.

Two decades, two Oscar nominations, and an enviable assortment of projects later, Lee’s persistence has paid off. With her Best Sound Editing nod for her work on “La La Land,” she became the only Asian woman (so far!) to be nominated in the category. Even sweeter: the nomination was in tandem with her frequent partner Mildred Iatrou Morgan, making the duo the only all-female team to ever snag a spot in the category.

Filmmaker Damien Chazelle, who has worked with Lee on both his “La La Land” and “First Man,” is in awe of the ability Lee has “to combine the intimate with the epic,” no matter the project. It’s that depth of talent that has allowed the sound editor to so seamlessly move from a bright lights Hollywood musical to the introspective biopic about one of America’s great heroes.

“She’s always coming back with things that are muscular and tender at the same time, that are intimate and grand, that sound as big and robust as the heaviest duty action film,” Chazelle told IndieWire.

Lee’s resume speaks to her ability to span genres and tones with ease, from her first credited gig as a sound effects editor on Michael Almereyda’s crazy horror film “The Eternal” to recent sound editing work on films as diverse as “Tangled,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “Wild,” and this year’s big contender, Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit.” There’s no one type of film Lee makes, but all of them are better for her work.

“Ai-Ling’s ability to enhance the editorial soundtrack without distracting from the dialogue and overall story was incredible,” Waititi told IndieWire. “She took the film to another level by emerging the audience into Jojo’s point of view — a 10-year-old boy living in Nazi Germany — as well as the catastrophic world Elsa lives in. She immediately tuned into my aesthetic and made subtle choices — light effects when Adolf arrives or departs, discovering just the right sound for Elsa’s door, and building a battle sequence that exposes the disaster of war.”

Having watched her work over the course of two very different projects, Chazelle is familiar with the process that makes it possible, starting with her unmatched ability to do something seemingly basic: really hear things.

“It’s like she’s building these giant structures from the tiniest elements,” Chazelle said. “She’s able to overwhelm a viewer with this wall of sound, because she is so attuned to the subtleties and tiny little nuances that most people can’t hear.” He added, “Somehow, it always sounds like Ai-Ling.”

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