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Q&A with Sound Designer Ajeng Canyarasmi – Representing Women of Color through Film’s Sonic Worl

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the projects you’ve done?

My full name is Ajeng Canyarasmi but I go by Jay. Born and raised in Bandung, Indonesia, I moved to Los Angeles four years ago to pursue an MFA in film production. After graduating from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, I have been working as an independent re-recording mixer and sound designer.

For the past couple of years, I have worked on numerous projects in a span of mediums: narrative, documentary, TV series to podcast episodes. I am grateful that many of my works have been widely acclaimed in screening platforms and festivals for their visual and sonic craftsmanship.

I have collaborated with people who worked in major studios such as Warner Bros., Disney, 20th Century Fox, Skywalker Sound, Pixar, and HBO, just to name a few. One of the artists I look up to the most in this field is Stephen Flick, sound designer for the award-winning Robocop (1987) and Speed (1994), with whom I had the honor to work and collaborate win the recent past. Under the wings of some of the best people in the industry, I have adapted many skills in the sound design and re-recording mixing field and developed creative ears on what’s aesthetically pleasing to different audiences of different genres.

One of the defining projects for my career is Perfectly Natural, a dystopian sci-fi short directed by Victor Alonso-Berbel. It was a challenging yet exciting opportunity for me to design the sound of a future smart home for a working-class family, creating the sonic touch of technology in the middle of a nature-embraced environment. I worked with a group of wonderfully skilled cast and crew, and the fine work everyone put in has been internationally acknowledged. Perfectly Natural is currently being distributed through Dust, a sci-fi content channel, with over 3.8 million views on YouTube. It’s also officially selected for the Catalina Film Festival in California, Bio-Fiction Science Art Film Festival in Vienna, and International Independent Film Festival of Mexico City.

How do you select your projects? Is there any topic you’re especially interested in?

I love to work on films that have solid stories and touch on topics I care about. As a woman of color working in the film industry, I also try my best to find other female artists to collaborate with. Therefore, when Courtney Grace (director) and Kathleen Gardner (producer) approached me with their movie Cupcake, an amazing short story that comments on societal oppression of young women’s sexuality, I fell in love with the story and immediately agreed to work with them as a sound designer and re-recording mixer.

Cupcake is about a young woman in a catholic high school being slut-shamed for expressing her sexuality -- a journey that I feel strongly connected to. Growing up as an Indonesian woman, I constantly experience discomfort living inside my body. Women in my culture are often thought to be just like a cupcake, a sweet dessert whose value only exists in its fragile, perfectly “untouched” presentation. Living in the gaze and judgment of the society is unfortunately a universal tragedy that women still have to endure.

One of my most cherished moments working on Cupcake was producing and editing foley for the opening scene, when the teacher brings a cupcake for the class to destroy as a metaphor for women’s bodies being “used”. I wanted to create the right soundscape, as we introduce our heroine Simone to the audience, to reflect her emotional journey as she endures, and later finds a way to move forward from being ridiculed and shamed.

I felt a responsibility to use my skills to tell this story, and to address the shame women still go through day by day. Designing Cupcake’s auditory world was meaningful not only because the story resonates with my personal experience of womanhood, but also for the message of empathy and courage it carries to approach this important social issue. Cupcake is now officially selected for multiple festivals including the Diversity unit in Cannes Short Film Showcase. I’m incredibly proud to work on this project, and I'm glad it’s getting recognized.

Given the fact that there’s still not enough exposure for female filmmakers in the industry, it’s uplifting to hear about women supporting each other. Who have you worked with that inspired you?

Yes, exactly! I have learned so much from all the people I’ve collaborated with, and I’m incredibly grateful to have worked with another talented female director Nina Guzman on a short comedy film called The Trip. She is extremely passionate and talented in comedy, and has opened my eyes through her determination to close the gender gap within the genre.

Our collaboration started with her casually pitching me the “high” concept of The Trip, a comedy about two teenage girls going on a trippy journey in a magical water park. It’s witty, nonsensical, and completely out of this world. I’m very grateful for this opportunity because Nina’s vision is what I would have wanted to watch as a young woman: two funny girls with completely different personalities, talking about friendship, valuing each other, mitigating differences and living life to the fullest. I wish women were given more platforms to express ourselves, our quirks, our pride, joy, fears, all the things aside from romantic interests.

The Trip is currently still in post-production, and hopefully it will be out sometime this year. I had so much fun creating this unique and magical world, and I know this movie will both be entertaining and well-received. Look out for The Trip’s release date!

What are your plans for the future?

Right now, I am planning to stay in Los Angeles and continue my work in sound design. In light of all the recent crisis, it’s not that easy to envision the future, but I consider myself lucky that I am at least still receiving work. If I’ve learned anything over the past four years, it’s that hardships don’t slow me down or reduce the quality of my work. I’ve been experimenting with ways to practice sound designing and re-recording mixing at home while maintaining the quality as close as possible to when working or mixing in a stage facility.

As of now, all we can do is to stay extra vigilant, keep communication open with our collaborators, and make our “home-office” as comfortable as possible. I have faith that the film industry will eventually recover, and I’m grateful that I’m able to use this time to advance my skills and work on projects that challenge my workflow.

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