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Cristinel Șirli, the sound engineer in charge of one of the top studios in France: „I didn’t come to France to do sound, it was a matter of life and death.”

photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

Born in Oravița and going to high-school in Bucharest, young Cristinel Șirli was dreaming in the ‘80s of becoming a cinematographer. At the age of 20, a horrifying diagnosis that gave him only a few months to live, would change his destiny.

Today he is one of the most important film sound engineers in France, owning his own studios, at the highest level, in the center of Paris.

“In Romania they gave me a 5 months chance of survival. My uncle, Vasile Șirli, composer, was here, in France, he looked into it and here they gave me around 8% chances of survival with a 9 months treatment that involved full-time hospitalization.

So I came here for treatment, but my visa was only for three months, they didn’t want to extend it and I either went back to Romania and was done for, or stayed here with 8% chances to live.”

He remained in Paris, knowing that he could never return to Romania, where he would die. A long period of recovery followed and for eight years he carried on fighting the illness, but he also started a new life. When he left the hospital, he was committed to learn French and finding an occupation.

„Because of my health issues I couldn’t work as a camera operator, so I thought I’d do something else that I enjoy, also connected to film.”

Being related to Vasile Șirli, a well-known theater and film composer, he ended up studying sound.

„I went through the necessary stages and after 4-5 months I was already working. I worked a lot, mixing many television shows, documentaries.”

He started as an assistant sound engineer and then worked as an engineer at an independent studio until 1998.

Cristinel Șirli/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

„Then I thought that it would be better if I became a freelancer, to be able to work with more independent studios. I worked a lot and in 2000 I realized that I had so many clients, I wanted to start my own firm.

But because I didn’t have the means to build a studio, I rented. Two years later, my old employer went bankrupt, I went to the courthouse to pay off his debt and took over his studios, 4 at the time.”

That’s how he started building what today is one of the most appreciated sound mixing and sound design companies in the world of film.

“There was an old cinema in Paris, Le Grand Pavois, which had gone bankrupt. I bought this cinema and turned 4 projection halls into 4 sound studios for cinema.”

It was successful very fast and I then looked into making a bigger sound mixing studio, I was looking for a place and I found this huge space and I wanted to build my studios here.

I planned everything and found financing. We’re talking about a 10 million euro investment, I have never had that kind of money.

One of the Dolby Atmos studios owned by Cristinel Șirli/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

Anyway, in France, even if you have money, you still get a loan. It’s much safer, financially. If you can’t keep your car, you sell it and then you don’t lose all of the money. I know that this mentality is not present in Romania. But western logic is different.

If I have a million euro in my company account and I want to open a studio that costs 1 million euro, I go to the bank and get a one million euro loan. Sure, French interest rates are not that high. But we never make investments in cash because you never know what tomorrow brings.”

So we found Cristinel Șirli working, in one of the most performant sound studios in Paris, in the 15th arrondissement, close to the Eiffel Tower.

Cristinel Șirli and Eliza, his daughter/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

At the front desk we were welcomed by his daughter, Eliza, who is working behind the front desk until she finishes her studies. On the walls in the mixing rooms we can see posters of some of the films that had the sound mix done there, at Creative Sound – “Respect” or “Fast and Furious”.

Alexandra Tănăsescu and Cristinel Șirli/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

The first thing that the Romanian sound engineer wants to show us is the fascinating hall in which sounds from films are created from scratch. It looks like a storage place for all kinds of objects, but it’s a place filled with crativity and passion.

Cristinel Șirli in the foley studio/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

In order to understand the universe of sound, Cristinel explains the main pillars.

“Ambiental sound is what you hear on the footage – birds, the city, the train. Sound effects are door sounds, electric equipment, water flowing from the tap, etc. And foley refers to these sounds that we remake in the studio. We are in a foley studio and the ones who create these sounds are foley artists.

If a character from a film moves a chair, the foley artist remakes that movement watching the footage. You can’t learn this in school, it’s a thing that is passed on.

Then, if a chicken passes through the frame, they make chicken sounds. They are true artists.

And finally, sound design is everything that doesn’t exist and we create, abstract sound. For example, what does a space ship that doesn’t exist in real life sound like? We imagine and create that sound.

The Foley studio / photo: Creative Sound

In our studios we cover all of those categories.”

Minding every detail, as a manager, Cristinel is 100% involved so that his studios reach perfection in sound.

“This is a cabinet from the ’30s. An Ikea wardrobe cannot sound the same as this cabinet. The same with wood floors. Here we have a wooden floor that is over 200 years old. It’s really noisy, I bought it from an antique store and it was originally in a hotel.

The 200 year old wooden floor/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

Here there is a Parisian window, that has a particular sound, unique, the wooden frame sounds some kind of way.”

Parizian window/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

Many Hollywood films end up in Cristinel șirli’s hands or other engineers using his studios, to be dubbed in French. Among these there is Oscar winning film The King’s Speech.

„It’s a film that touched me because it was also about language. I try to stick to the original version as much as possible, that means 100%. And the voice of the actor cast here, the interjections, everything came out perfect. The French version of The King’s Speech is one of the best French dubbed films.

The dubbing industry here is colossal, bigger than the film industry, because all films must be dubbed. We have thousands of actors and other people working behind the scenes, thousands of jobs.

French actors demand that the dubbing is done here, in the central studio. Some directors demand it too. The most recent, working here right now, is Roman Polanski.

Polanski also did his last film here and told me << Cristinel, you have exceptional studios and trust me, I know what I’m saying.>> Last evening Polanski was here, he’ll be here this evening again.”

Cristinel Șirli/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

He is also a constant collaborator with George Lucas’ studios, and business is prosperous both individually, as well as for the entire company Creative Sound. He currently owns 12 studios and is working as a sound engineer and as a manager for all the studios.

„When they have to send american films to be dubbed in French, the people at George Lucas’ studios reccomend me. I have reached this level being a Romanian, and Romanians don’t have a good reputation when it comes to sound. I am happy and proud of this.”

One of Cristinel Șirli’s studios / photo: Creative Sound

His evolution is even more impressive as he works with directors from all over the world and is doing sound mixing for many foreign languages.

„Some had doubts, not because they were racists, but because they were not convinced that I understood French words in order to work on the sound. Then, the transition from television into cinema was a bit weird for the French, it’s not a common thing.”

At a recent reunion of French sound engineers, the person who had done the sound mixing for the French film that won the Palme d’Or this year (Anatomy of a Fall – 2023) and someone said that he was the third French sound engineer with a Palme d’Or.

–              What about me?

–              Oh, you did a Romanian film.

–              But it was mixed in France, it’s my film.

–              Yes, but it’s a Romanian film.”

He did the sound for the film that brought the Palme d’Or to Cristian Mungiu, 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days. He is also a supporter of Romanian filmmakers, every time they have asked for his help.

„A lot of people say that you can’t hear Romanian films. Indeed, there are several problems regarding this issue.

First – the cinemas are not calibrated. Sound has to be perfectly calibrated in order to work, and in Romania, there aren’t any specialists who can calibrate sound in cinemas. I saw a film that I had mixed here in a Romanian cinema in a mall, and it wasn’t calibrated. It’s not ok.

Cristinel Șirli/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

Then, historically, Romanians have never had a good sound school. Russians had a good school. Romanians are extraordinary when it comes to cinematography, with the lighting and visual aesthetics, but the sound has always been a problem. In Ceaușescu’s time it was the same.

And, not least, there aren’t any studios. If we sum all these up, you get bad sound in films.”

Despite all of the above, Cristinel Șirli continued working on Romanian films, from the desire to give back to people he admired as a child and encourage the new wave of filmmakers.

He has worked on some of the most relevant Romanian films in the past 20 years, such as California Dreamin’, 4,3,2, Beyond the Hills, Child’s Pose or Aferim!, awarded in Cannes or Berlinale, but the Romanian label has not always been associated to success in cinema.

„I was working with a director and he came one morning with the Liberation news paper, he put it on the table and the front page read “Romanians are coming to break our parking meters.”

I said:

–              <<Why did you bring this?

–              Aren’t you Romanian?

–              I am, but not like them.>>

That was a joke, nothing serious. Somebody once said to me:

–              <<Are you Romanian?

–              Yes, I am Romanian.

–             And you aren’t tanned, like they are?

–              When I go to the beach, I am tanned, I said laughing.>>

These things don’t get to me, I even make jokes on the matter. I have my pride, I never hide that I am Romanian, I keep my head high, nothing ever bothers me. The French are not racist and I treat jokes as such.”

He has worked with great French directors, but his biggest satisfactions came from working with Romanian filmmakers.

Alexandra Tănăsescu and Cristinel Șirli/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

„My greatest joy was working with directors like Mungiu, Netzer, Radu Jude, but most of all with the seniors – Dan Pița, Sergiu Nicolaescu, Stere Gulea, the ones that I admired in high-school. That was really magical. To have behind me, in this studio, Stere Gulea, on The Moromete Family part 2, to me was amazing.

We see a film as a child, we give it so much, we try to make it perfect, so it is hard for me to choose which one was the most important to me. Each experience is special.

Some directors prefer to come in once in a while, they see the advancements, they give notes.

Working on “Maria, Queen of Romania” in the Creative Sound studio / photo: Bogdan Iordache / Cultura la Dubă

4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days was special because it doesn’t have any music. Mungiu, when he first wrote to me, he said that he wanted the audience to be glued to their chair of fear, anguish, but that he doesn’t want any music, he doesn’t want any sound design, gust real sound. He wanted the truth in his sound.

When you think about it, no music, no sound design, then how do you show fear, stress? On a horror film, for example, if you remove the music, you don’t have anything. It was very difficult, but when I was in the cinema at the Cannes screening, it was extraordinary. The screening started at 10 in the evening and nobody left the cinema.

Mungiu’s style is that he sits next to you and doesn’t leave the studio at any time. You go out to the toilet, he goes out with you. You come back, he comes back with you.

Puiu, on the contrary, he wasn’t like that. He came towards the end to see.

This year I have worked on Călin Netzer’s latest film, he was in Paris and he would come at the end of the work day, he would see the progress and give notes.

Sound is very tiresome, especially if you don’t do it all the time. And it’s possible that you won’t get the necessary reaction if you are caught in it all day long.”

When he speaks about film and sound, Cristinel Șirli lights up. Although he doesn’t need the money, he continues working, he feeds on his passion as if it were a vital nutrient – “If you take this away, you kill me.”

Cristinel Șirli/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

For him, the day starts early in the morning, continues inside the isolated walls of the high-end Dolby-Atmos studios, and ends at night, when the Sun sets over Paris.

“When I get out of the studio and drive home, I put on classical music, to calm me down. We work a lot and it’s hard. We start at 7 A.M. and finish at 9 in the evening. I try to take care of myself now, but there were times when I would work even more.”

Cristinel Șirli and Alexandra Tănăsescu/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

On the list of projects already finished this year, there is Luc Besson’s latest film and the French version of Guy Ritchie’s latest film.

He hopes that his example encourages young people to chose his profession and the new generations lay the foundation for a Romanian school of sound.

Cristinel Șirli/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

“If a young Romanian is passionate, he should work in Romania. Maybe study in the West and come back to help Romanian cinema to have true value when it comes to sound.

When I visit my mother and I see empty villages, everyone gone to Germany, Spain, Italy, it hurts. There used to be good people, and because they didn’t have the means to remain in Romania, they went to do construction work in other countries. Human value is lost.”

***This story is part of the “France Week” series, a Cultura la Dubă project supported by BNP Paribas.

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