Luxembourgish craftsmanship - Philippe Kohn

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On the white walls of the Philophon company, posters of successful or Oscar-nominated films set the tone: Philippe Kohn, its co-founder, has worked with the biggest names of the European movie scene. From their studios, he and his team create, edit and mix the sound for the next movie you will see at the cinema.

The sun is shining in Bettembourg. The weather is perfect for staying outside. Yet, at the end of a small alley, a modern house made of large windows and wood makes you want to go inside and have a look. On its doorbell is written Philophon, the name of the house. You barely have time to ring it and the owner is already there.

The cream of European cinema

Philippe Kohn welcomes us with sunglasses on his head. He is smiling and direct. Contact with people seems easy to him. This is not surprising as he works alongside some of European cinema’s greatest names. "Philophon does everything that is necessary to create a sound for a film; the editing – the sound design –, the recording of sound effects and finally the mixing of the whole thing", he explains. A unique offer in Luxembourg.

The entrance hall, like the rest of the house, is covered with parquet flooring. On its white walls, countless film posters set the tone. The Bad Banks series, the film Le tout nouveau testament with Benoît Poelvoorde or the Luxembourg movie Io Sto Bene; projects in which the company, or some of its members, have participated. "The studios are currently busy. We'll go and see them afterwards", explains Philippe. He crosses the corridors, goes upstairs. Our eyes are riveted on the posters that follow one another. "I don't have time for that anymore, but I've worked on film sets, on movie shoots, to do the live sound recording, so mainly the dialogue." Amongst these, some of the most mainstream films he has worked on are JCVD and Boule & Bill, which was shown in the Grand Duchy’s cinemas dubbed in Luxembourgish – "against my will! (laughs)". He has very fond memories of these films.

Upstairs, a sort of loft awaits us. A large family table, a convivial kitchen and a sitting area with vintage wooden furniture fill the landing, which opens onto a balcony. Philippe smiles: "I love working with wood. I built most of the furniture myself." Posters are still ubiquitous and a corkboard displays Polaroids and funny, straightforward messages, including a cigarette pack that reads "Zemmour – le fascisme tue" (fascism kills).

From a St. Nicholas gift to the film sets

The coffee machine finishes humming, the coffees are ready. Philippe invites us to drink them on the rooftop terrace of the house. "Don't sit in the middle of the bench or it will crack – I still have to fix it!" he laughs before putting on the sunglasses that were previously on his head and explaining how he came to work in the still very unknown craft of sound. "I knew this question would come up!"

"I have a sort of memory of having received an electronic kit from St. Nicholas with which you could build a lot of things, like an alarm for your room. But there was one thing inside that really stood out for me: a simple amplifier with a microphone. I used to play with it a lot, it amused me." In addition, Philippe made a lot of music as a child. Linked to sound in many ways, the choice of his studies was an obvious one.

"I soon discovered that there were other very different things to record and mix than music: there was also sound for pictures."

Philippe Kohn

"When I finished my baccalaureate, the question of what I was going to study came up and the answer was sound engineering." He then chose the Institut des Arts de Diffusion (IAD), a film school in Leuven, Belgium. "There, I soon discovered that there were other very different things to record and mix than music: there was also sound for pictures. I wasn't a film buff at the time, but I liked movies and continued in that direction."

In high school, Philippe had obtained a degree in art. Merging his interest in visual art with his passion for sound seemed logical. "And, in sound, there are many very different jobs", he explains. "A sound editor is not a sound mixer. I had a passion for doing the recordings live, on the set." His path then took the direction of sound engineer. "We had internships as part of our studies. In my last year, I did it in a company similar to the one we have here in Brussels. It was a revelation for me to see all these processes at a professional level, to be able to follow them." His first internship was on the set of Shadow of a Vampire "with Carlo Thoss, who at that time was already a sound engineer and who is now a partner at Philophon, too."


Philippe Kohn tells how he found the direction of the sound for pictures.

*in Luxembourgish

After obtaining his Bachelor's degree, Philippe still had the title of trainee on one or two films. "And then, little by little, you become a sound assistant." He's the one who goes around with the boom microphone. You think it's a stupid job, but you need a lot of training and knowledge of the image to keep out of the way and not create shadows." Until he was offered his first job as a sound engineer: "It was Andy Bausch's Le Club des Chômeurs (The Unemployed Club)."

The thing he was most passionate about was that "whatever the situation, you have to find a way to record a good sound. It can be very tough sometimes (laughs), but it's a challenge." Especially since the equipment from 20 years ago was not the same as it is today, "even though the microphones used today are still those designed in the 1970s. There has been an evolution, but the principle has not changed."

At the helm of Philophon

Today, the days when Philippe walked around the film sets with his boom mic are long gone. With his company, he has moved from the field to the backstage, but he still enjoys the world of sound. "It better be interesting to me! (laughs)". When Philophon was founded in 2007, he was still accepting freelance projects, but "at one point, the company grew so big that I had to make a choice. I couldn't disappear for two months because of a shoot anymore…"

From freelance sound engineer to his own company, "it happened just like that". When he started in 1999, "the film industry in Luxembourg was completely different. I was trying to keep my head above water with small productions. Then, I invested in a computer system and did some projects from A to Z. At that time, I still had an insulation in my parents' garage." A first studio was set up at his home, he then joined forces with two friends in 2004, a second house was added and finally another studio within Filmland in Kehlen. "It has grown over time", says the Luxembourger.

"It's always a great pleasure when a film is very successful."

Philippe Kohn

Philippe Kohn is now the manager of Philophon. But even though he manages a company that works with sound, he "doesn't really touch sound much anymore. I organise the projects" which can come in various forms. "Sometimes we get a sequence from a film that has already been shot and sometimes we get a script before the project has even started." Each film has its own challenges and specifics: "My job is to find the right formula and the right team to deliver the best possible sound for the project."

Among his proudest achievements, Philippe names those nominated for major awards: Collective – "a qualitatively great Romanian documentary that got two Oscar nominations and won a number of other awards" – and Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn "which won a Golden Bear in Berlin." This year, "Corsage, a Samsa film, is in Cannes, as well as Rebel and Le Petit Nicolas, out of competition. It's always a great pleasure when a film is very successful."

In the shadow of the cinema

In a way, companies like Philophon are the shadow craftsmen of cinema. "When a film is shot, the sound is recorded. But it still has to be cut cleanly and cleaned up, depending on the parasite noises", explains Philippe. "Sometimes it's a microscopic job. You want to isolate dialogue and other sounds separately to get them as clean as possible so you can dose them individually later."


Philippe Kohn about what Philophon offers.

*in Luxembourgish

The sound engineers on the shoots already prepare the work as well as possible when they record. "If, for example, someone is walking around, they put a carpet on the floor – if the carpet is not visible in the picture, of course. The footsteps will then be created and added at the foley." It is also important to do this in order to have "a sound with everything but the dialogue" so that the film can be dubbed into other languages.

Philippe glances at his watch: "The studios should be free by now. Shall we take a look around?" He walks around the kitchen and down a corridor with glass offices on the left and studios on the right. "These are our editing studios. We have eight of them here. It's nothing more than a guy behind a PC, with a projection screen in front of him and a speaker system like in a cinema. In sound editing, we place the sounds so that they are in sync with the image." Editors have to be meticulous. "For example, we're sitting outside, we have a road next to us with cars going by, we also hear birds and maybe in the distance we want to hear a dog. Well, that dog is an isolated sound that we have to place." That's an easy example. "Right now, we’re doing a movie with a lot of war scenes and he's got a session with 1,400 audio tracks – that could be a record for us!"

Off to the mixing studios, down to the groundfloor. "We have two here and one in Kehlen, which is the biggest." Mixing is the stage that follows editing. "Once we've put everything together, we mix it. That means making sure that all the sounds are balanced and distributed in the space." After that comes the music, which also has to be given the right dosage. "Basically, it means making a finished film that works from all the sounds that have been constructed." Building sounds is the famous art of foley. "Nico, can we come and see what you're doing?" The foley studio is turned upside down, filled with mess. "It's a bit of a mess", jokes Nicolas Fioraso, a freelance sound engineer. We don't know where to look. Tiles, parquet, concrete. Stan Smiths, half a car and three doors. Curtains open or closed for a more or less persistent sound. It's fascinating.

"In English, we call noisemakers 'foley artists' because they are artists who can play not just one instrument, but 10,000."

Philippe Kohn

"There are no rules in foley and, above all, there is no training to become a noisemaker", says Philippe. "In English, we call noisemakers 'foley artists' because they are artists who can play not just one instrument, but 10,000." Nicolas takes an endive in his hands and breaks it down: "That's the secret to a good disgusting bone-breaking noise! (laughs)" To cover 15 minutes of film with sounds, it takes him an average of 1 day… but now it's lunchtime and Nicolas earned his break.

A job in its own right

Having visited the 3 types of studios, our interview also comes to an end. Philippe follows Nicolas up the stairs. "For me, it's important to stress that it's a real job. Just because you work with computers doesn't mean it's easy. You have to study in this field, because it's a complex subject. It's like any other craft. We talked about wood – I like working with it, but I'm not a carpenter." Moreover, the Chambre des métiers approached Philophon recently. "Perhaps it's because we represent a more special job that is less present", argues its co-founder. "There are obviously fewer film post-production houses in Luxembourg than there are bakers, painters or carpenters. I think they want to show that there are still other professions and motivate young people to take up this job."

With no expansion plans in mind (yet), he looks to the future with the aim of maintaining the quality of his business. "There are always things to improve, but for the moment everything is fine. I want to keep what we have. We have a great team with a great atmosphere." Upstairs, the table is set and the whole team shares a meal made by themselves in a family atmosphere. In the near future, Philippe is looking forward to his next movie releases. "I'm going to see as many as I can. Here, as in Cannes, I try to see as many as I can." As for his dream project, he is unanimous: "A long holiday! (laughs)"