Essays: Joaquim Pinto on working with Manoel de Oliveira (pt.1)

Joaquim Pinto is the director of celebrated films like What Now? Remind Me and Fish Tail. In the 1970s and 80s, however, he was also a sought-after sound engineer and collaborated with many of the great directors of the period. Here, he shares his memories of working with Manoel de Oliveira.


I first met Manoel de Oliveira while still at film school. On his earlier films, Oliveira had either done the sound himself or with his wife, or with other people which often became frustrating experiences. When we met, we talked about sound. But he was skeptical, perhaps because of my young age. The only way I could earn his trust was to have him listen to my mix while shooting. After a few days of this, he grew so comfortable that he simply would not shoot without his headphones.

We became close during this 8 month shoot of The Satin Slipper. He would expect me not only to interpret his sound vision, but to interact with the actors, to advise them on their rendering of the dialogue, to be an active participant in the creation of scenes. Since the film was shot almost entirely in the studio, I was able to experiment for the first time with digital recording, when the equipment was still bulky and the technology was in its infancy.

I begun studying the monumental Paul Claudel play (on which the film was based) months before to prepare for the shoot. I would frequently get lost in the parallel storylines of the play and the dozens of main characters, and would wonder how exactly he would make this work. But Oliveira had developed a humble approach to filmmaking; film was not a language in itself, it was simply a mechanical device to register greater forms of art, the performing arts.

At that point in his life (he was in his late 70s), Oliveira had completely mastered his particular “language.” During the making of The Satin Slipper, which was to become a 7-hour film, I never saw a moment of hesitation on his part. We would rehearse each long take in detail and then immerse ourselves in the shoot. I rarely used wireless microphones. Even in scenes where boom poles weren’t possible to use, such as in boats or where the ceilings were visible in the frame, I would use an array of hidden microphones and then mix them as in a film score, according to the actors lines and their stage perspectives.

Through Oliveira, I learned the history of film and sound. He had started his career in silent cinema and his experience introduced me to the intricacies of an almost lost memory. He had lived and had been influenced by different movements, from German expressionism to the Nouvelle Vague. His words and explanations had a clarity that astounded me.

Our last film together, The Cannibals, was proof of his confidence as a director. Being a filmed opera with a limited budget, I had to record the orchestra in 2 days, edit the score, and separately record each of the singers and solo violin in another studio, then mix the whole piece and have it ready before the shooting began. The composer, João Paes, was living in the US, so I couldn’t rely on him for advice. Oliveira did not intervene, he expected me to deliver the final soundtrack. His open, happy smile when he first listened to the final music mix was his most sincere gift.

After 1988, I started producing films myself and my shedule did not allow me to accept his invitations to work on his later films, but our friendship remained.


Photo: On the set of The Satin Slipper. Joaquim Pinto is at the center (in a brown jacket), Manoel de Oliveira is dressed in a period costume with a fake beard and glasses, on the right.