You have probably benefitted from the work of Zheng Jia, but chances are, you haven’t heard her name. Jia is a sound editor, working on many of your favorite films and television shows. She is part of the reason you may not like a character, or be ‘shipping’ the relationship between two others, just from the decisions she makes. Sound is, in reality, half of what makes watching movies so great. The choices she makes at her desk can make or break what she is working on, but as one of China’s best sound editors, she is known for her outstanding work.
Jia has put her touch on countless television shows and movies throughout her esteemed career. She has worked with production companies like Warner Bros. and HBO, greatly contributing to the acclaim of everything she takes on. She constantly impresses all those she works with, and Trip Brock, the CEO of Monkeyland Audio where Jia worked for much of her career, believes the sound editor was one-of-a-kind.
“Zheng is a consummate professional. A great sound designer not only needs the technical knowhow, but other just as important skills which are much harder to teach. Zheng has them all. An unteachable sense of style, an eye for specific detail, and a way with the client that let’s everyone involved rest easy knowing she fully understands and can translate their specific sound wishes into something unique and original every time,” said Brock.
Currently, Jia is one of the main sound effects editors at the NBC Universal TV sound editorial department. This department is so far one of the biggest and best sound editorials in the all of Hollywood, with numerous big-name productions, including the major one Jia is working on, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, one of the longest running primetime dramas in television history.
Working on the iconic show, Jia is the sound effects editor. She started in season 18, and currently is working on season 19. Her job for the show is to create all of the sound effects for different scenes, locations, and worlds, as well as all of the actions including cars, guns, fights, crowds, and more. The footage they record on set only includes dialogue from the actors; it is up to Jia to create and build the different environments from different scenes from the audio perspective. What each location sounds like tells the audience a lot about the story and the characters that live in it – the police station is always busy, in the center of New York City, and that tells how much work all the detectives have to do every day, how close their roots are in this city, and what kind of working environment they are in. Jia uses the raw sound materials from the massive sound library of Universal combined with her own collection, to build layer by layer what each different world sounds like.
“Each sound, no matter ambience or a certain sound effect, all has its own character that either helps tell the story better, build tensions, create suspense, or simply just make ordinary objects sounds more interesting, and helps to tell certain things about characters,” said Jia.
Working with supervising sound editor Larry Mann, Jia works to have all the sounds be more modern and realistic, compared to the “old school” sound that is heard in the first 17 seasons. Her work is the key factor that helps shape this style, making it as dramatic as it has always been, but also more realistic, connecting to more recent viewers.
“Zheng is a pleasure to work with, bright, eager, and anxious to learn both the technical and creative aspects of sound editing and also understands the deadlines and pressure that are usually placed in front of us. Zheng really enjoys sound editing and takes a keen interest on improving her skills and creativity that is essential to the profession in which she is in,” said Mann.
When working on an episode, Jia begins once the footage has all been shot. She starts with background and ambient sound, of each different location, building the world. Her work is what truly takes you inside the police station, outside on the street, and in the courtroom. Each different world needs a completely different set of sound all working together in order to sound realistic and natural.
“A specific thing about the background of this project is that majority of the story happen in NYC, so we treat New York City traffic ambiance very seriously, and want to make sure that the audience could feel the city wherever they are. Sometimes it also adds to the intensity and chaos of the scene/story, sometimes it just simply sells that this is NYC, the busiest city in the world,” Jia described.
Once background sound is complete, Jia moves on to the hard effects, including cars, guns, crowds, and occasional off-screen activities when they characters are at specific busy locations. Building all this is way more complicated than it seems, but Jia makes it look easy. Each element needs multiple layers of different sound to work together.
“When I make decisions about what sound to play, I always think about what message of the story is and what is this moment about. I think about what kind of emotional experience the audience should have and how I can help with that. For example, there are many car engine sounds that I can choose from; when editing sound for the police car peeling off then speed away catching the bad guys, I need the engine that is powerful, growling, roar, full of energy. So, with that in my mind, I then can make choices that’ll serve that purpose,” she explained.
Jia truly enjoys building different worlds through sound. Working on Law and Order: SVU allows her to do this every day, with something new in every episode. Working on the legendary series, she constantly experiments with different elements and styles, refining her craft. She loves what she does.
“It is a great show with great characters and stories. As a sound editor, and more importantly, a filmmaker, it is always my dream and priority to work on great stories with great characters. After all, stories and emotional experience is what cinema, or any entertainment format for that matter, is all about,” said Jia.
Be sure to check out Law and Order: SVU on NBC to hear some of Jia’s extraordinary work.