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Listening to Hammond Peek, Sound Recordist
by Osanna Vaughn

Osanna Vaughn with Hammond Peek and his Oscar from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.On the occasion of an international conference in Innsbruck this summer, I had a chance to sit down with New Zealander Hammond Peek and ask him a few questions about his life and work as a sound recordist in the film industry:

I suspect that back in the days when Hammond Peek made beaded jewellery to sell on the streets of Christchurch, New Zealand, he never once imagined that close to thirty years later he would be receiving an Academy Award (Oscar) for Sound Mixing on the third instalment of Peter Jackson's epic The Lord of the Rings film trilogy – The Return of the King. Life is full of surprises. The success has not, thank goodness, gone to his head: he's an easy-going, friendly guy, who definitely knows his business and is happy to talk about it.

It was back in 1976 that Hammond was asked to join Telenion Productions, a company founded by four friends who had been commissioned to produce six documentaries on New Zealand mansions. Tragically, the sound recordist of the foursome had fallen ill and passed away quite suddenly, shortly after the first of the series had been completed. Hammond took on the challenge and, following a brief but intense training, stepped in to fill the hole. The company did well for three and a half years, but as things began to slow down, the four decided to close shop and go their separate ways.

Hammond was keen to stay in the business in New Zealand, but recognised that a move to Wellington or Auckland would be necessary. He was offered an opportunity with a sound post production company in Auckland and moved there with his wife, Renata, and two small kids. That first year, of the twelve years the family ended up spending in the north, gave Hammond the chance to meet all the professionals in the business, including Roger Donaldson – an Australian who emigrated to New Zealand in 1965 – who went on to direct movies such as The Bounty, No Way Out, Thirteen Days, Dante's Peak and The World's Fastest Indian (currently in post-production). After the year was up Hammond went freelance, working in all disciplines: documentaries, commercials, TV drama, etc. He was involved in his first feature film in the eighties: Heart of the Stag.

By the early nineties Hammond and Renata had five children. Unfortunately, Renata had experienced kidney failure and was on dialysis waiting for a transplant; Hammond had to make a major decision about the future. One choice was to retrain and move into a completely different field, working “sensible” hours. The other was to stay in the film business, with its chaotic schedules and time away from home. The only way to follow the second and preferred option was to move back to Christchurch where there was a network of support to help care for Renata. They chose to return home; but being at a distance from the heart of the New Zealand film industry was not easy, and Hammond admits to some years of struggle.

In 1994 the unforeseen break came. Peter Jackson planned to make Heavenly Creatures, starring Kate Winslet and based on a true story; he wanted to film in the original setting, and that was Christchurch. Hammond knew of Peter Jackson as the “splatter king” and was not terribly keen to work with him; however, ten weeks' work, based at home and with a decent salary, were a strong incentive to at least read the script. It was the script (later nominated for an Academy Award) that hooked him.

The rest is history. Hammond has gone on to work on all of Peter Jackson's subsequent movies: The Frighteners with Michael J. Fox, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and, currently, King Kong. They appear to enjoy an on-going relationship of mutual respect. As Hammond says: “You don't call Peter for a job. He calls you.”

King Kong went into pre-production before The Return of the King was even finished. Why no break for a well-deserved rest, one might ask? As Hammond points out, The Lord of the Rings trilogy has been responsible for enormous growth in New Zealand's film industry, and not a few house mortgages. He suspects that Peter Jackson has a great sense of responsibility towards all this extended family he has worked with. Over 50% of the King Kong crew is the same as LOTR, and of the rest, many simply could not make it for professional reasons – like Ngila Dickson who was responsible for all the stunning trilogy outfits.

King Kong has had about 9 ½ months of principal photography and is due to be released just before Christmas. Hammond tells that distributors were flown into New Zealand to watch about 18 minutes of rough cuts and were blown away; even though not all the special effects were completed yet. Andy Serkis (the actor behind Gollum) lends his formidable talent to the main character, fulfilling Peter's vision of giving the giant gorilla a real personality; and that, says Hammond, is what ensures that this version of King Kong is going to knock the viewers’ socks off. While sticking close to the 1935 storyline, it is no longer just a remake of a monster movie; it is a tale driven by strong characters. The gorilla does not speak, but his vocality is so expressive that there is never any doubt as to what he is trying to get across. Together with the magic of motion caption, it sounds like we're in for a real treat. At the same time there are incredible action sequences where King Kong fights with a T-Rex.

In fact, much of the behind the scenes production has already been revealed on the website, including a piece on Hammond and his team in the production diaries, day 115. While The Lord of the Rings was subject to incredibly tight security so nothing could leak out in advance, the strategy here considers that, seeing as it's a remake anyway, why not delight the fans with the chance to follow the production? It seems like a good idea and is unlikely to affect the final number of movie goers – on the contrary.

Finally, speaking to Hammond about young people wanting to get into the business, he told me that there are two key positions that can give you the broadest experience: boom operator and assistant editor. The boom operator – part of Hammond's sound team – is the guy who holds the microphone on a long pole to pick up the actors' voices. Looks simple, you may think. Think again. He or she needs to know the script better than the actors (to know when to move the mike from one to another), needs to understand space (to get the best sound), lights (no unwanted shadows please), camera angles (remember when you've spotted that mike hanging at the top of the frame!), and so on, giving the boom operator a wide overview and experience of the whole film. The assistant editor gets all the insight into how to bring the whole thing together.