When you think of film it’s likely that you think of the visual grandeur that the medium presents. If you were transported back to the time before sound became such an integral part of movies it would be blatantly obvious to you how important this aspect is in your experience. Jifu Li has built a career in Film Editing, Sound Design, Music Design…essentially any variety of components that involve sound in film. The world in which he exists and that he manifests for us the viewer is an often unassuming yet drastically important part of the way which filmmakers deliver and audiences receive the emotional intensity of a story. A professional such as Jifu is a team player, unfocused on personal recognition by the masses yet often recognized by his peers and coworkers. As Li likes to profess, when he does his job exceptionally well those seen onscreen look even better. Just as every film has a cinematographer that captures your attention and elicits “oohs” & “ahs”, Jifu works his magic in the world of sound with the same response but in a much more covert manner. The more you understand about how sound affects the emotional investment of the audience and impact of the story, the more you’ll appreciate what an immensely talented professional Jifu Li actually is in the industry.
Director Jonathan Sheldon is more aware than most about the influence of sound in films. Sheldon is both a filmmaker and the founder and lead singer of the band American Bloom. Jonathan sought out Li to serve as Sound Editor and Music Editor for his film Swing State. The film includes music from American Bloom. Along with the musical director, Jifu carefully selected music with the same mood and meaning as the story beats in the film. In addition, he also recorded and pre-mixed all the characters’ voices in the film focusing on a cohesive tone so the production recording sound blended perfectly. The process if quite layered. For example, in one scene the male and female leads have an emotional interaction in the street. Because the ambient noise during shooting was so oppressive, ADR must occur in a recording studio afterward for clarity of the dialogue. Following this, postproduction work is done recreating the proper environmental noise as well as Foley. Music is then added to increase the emotional intensity of the scene. During this process Li uses an Isotope plug-in to match the frequency and emotion of these factors. From a sonic perspective, Jifu’s role is something akin to being cinematographer, lighting engineer, and camera tech all rolled into one. It’s a great deal of effort for something most movie goers don’t truly recognize but that’s the nature of Li’s profession.
Swing State’s director had Li in mind for the film long before he created it. Jonathan’s father Chris Sheldon had worked with Jifu on the Talent International Media film Skiptrace starring Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville. This coordinated Chinese & American production introduced American filmmakers like Sheldon to Jifu’s talent. The benefits of this type of collaboration are mutual. Li notes, “I spent a lot of time with Jonathan discussing the film’s direction as well as his band’s music and how we would integrate it into the film. I always enjoy the process of speaking with another creative person and considering their perspective of how to manifest this idea that they have about a story they want to tell. It’s reaffirming that art is a common language that we all share. In our case it is film. Yes, there are cultural differences between the US and China but if a movie is truly a good movie it will work in both locations. I always focus on a great product rather than worrying about cultural differences.” Giving credit to this attitude, Swing State received nominations from the Catalina Film Festival (Best Feature film), and awards from both the Downtown Film Festival Los Angeles and the Palm Beach International Film Festival.
For his Editing & Sound Design work in director Siqing Zhang’s “The Home Gleaners”, Jifu received the Dingrun Award for best sound design. The film itself received the Golden Horse Film Festival award for Best Short Film. Zhang declares, “It was clear from the start that Jifu’s skills and talents were above and beyond anyone else’s in the industry as he could adapt quickly to any changes and had a complete understand of the material that he was piecing together. Jifu knew exactly what would work and what did not work while also knowing what he was going to do ten steps ahead of everyone else. He was the true leader during the film’s post-production and everyone rallied behind him as he showed confidence and unmatched skill throughout the entire process. I credit Jifu with really bringing the film home in terms of completion and producing a final product that everyone was extremely proud of. This film would not have turned out as successful as it did if it was not for Jifu’s talent.”
“The Home Gleaners” takes place in Xiamen amidst ancestral temples and alleyways. It’s an authentic and transfixing view of the culture of the region. The visuals are captivating and Li was determined to match these with his work on the film. His contributions were much more than simply adding sound design during important scenes for dramatic purposes. The sound design is intertwined in the layers of visuals presented. In one scene that shows a young boy being chased by a man, we hear the hurried footsteps mixed with the crackling sparks from the incense vendor outside a Buddhist temple. It’s this auditory painting, the creation and craft of integrating sound, image, and movement that is the source of Li’s joy and satisfaction in his work…and also resulted in his award and accolades for this film.
Professing his love for his chosen vocation, Li communicates, “The sense of reality is the most authentic factor in actual sound. It is about how people express their emotions and feeling in the context. Big budget films and smaller films each contain facets of their individually process that call upon different approaches. No one would say that only one type of process is correct for communicating a story and the same is true for the sound that is part of that creation. Working on a wide variety of films keeps me growing and evolving. I love this process because I love being a part of the art of telling stories and entertaining people. One of the most gratifying thoughts is that someone I will never meet will have their day made a little bit better because of something I’ve done on a film.”