The sound category at the Oscars is no stranger to war epics and extravagant musicals, but this year’s winner Sound of Metal shows us something new about sound design for the silver screen.
When we think of sound design in a film, we are not to think of music. Rather think of the lightsaber hum in Star Wars, the clicks and gurgles of Predator and the screams of Marion in Psycho.
While industry professionals and casual movie watchers alike can understand and value the difference between an editor, cinematographer and set designers, they are often still mystified by the intricacies of sound.
Creating sound for film involves a plethora of moving parts: foley, dialogue, effects, ADR, re-recording – just to name a few. But during Oscar season, the big two that you hear about are Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. Despite popular belief, these two categories are very different, here’s a quick break down:
Sound Editing: Think of each individual sound you may hear in a film: a door closing, a gun cocking, a wolf howling, an actor breathing. The sound editor selects, gathers and prepares every single sound needed in a film, whether it’s through recordings on set or in a foley space.
Sound Mixing: Sound mixers then manipulate, combine and layer sounds to create an overall ambience for a film. They may adjust volume or tempo, add effects so the audio sounds distant or confined and decide how audio needs to fluctuate to hit the emotional beats of a scene. They may even eliminate sound completely.
Actor Riz Ahmed and Director Darius Marder on the Set of Sound of Metal
The language of silence in Sound of Metal
The Oscar-winning film Sound of Metal, uses revolutionary techniques by sound artists, editors, mixers and engineers to immerse audiences into a non-hearing world. It’s the inaugural winner of the Best Sound category at the Academy Awards.
This is a film where sound — and its absence — is intrinsically linked to the story. Sound editor Nicolas Becker and re-recording mixer Jaime Baksht led an incredible team of artists to create a visceral auditory illusion of hearing loss.
Often Sound Oscars go to films with extravagant soundscapes — think of the warzone created in Saving Private Ryan or the depth of music editing in Chicago. Sound of Metal, rather, follows heavy-metal drummer Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) as he loses his hearing and needs to shift his life into the non-hearing world.
Sound of Metal explores deafness as a contrast between sound and vibration, which dictates the sonic impression of the story. People who are hard of hearing experience sound through vibrations which are transmitted to their brain and translated into noise. To mimic this sensation Becker used stethoscope microphones, which he placed on surfaces to pick up their reverberations and any surrounding white noise, rather than using artificial sounds.
He even attached the microphone to Ahmed’s skull, which recalled all the inner sounds of the actor: his heartbeat, blood pressure, the movement of his tendons and the sensation of tinnitus. At one point in the film, you can hear the sound of Ahmed’s eyelids opening and closing.
Becker also created a small underwater microphone (known as a hydrophone) that he placed inside Ahmed’s mouth that captured vocal vibrations, which replicated how deaf people experience their own voice.
Toward the end of the film, Jaime Baksht created the cold, synthesised sounds Ruben hears through his cochlear implants. By separating sound into different components — harmonics, noises and transients — and then recomposing it, Baksht creates a ‘Frankenstein sound’. This feels like an uncanny valley rendition of voice and music that totally transforms the way you experience the film.
The film also carefully modulates the absence and reintroduction of noise. You experience Ruben’s frustration as he tries to understand muffled dialogue, and his pain when he realises the distorted output from his cochlear implants will never completely replicate how he once used to hear. The moments of silence are carefully chosen and devastatingly rendered.
Sound of Metal is an important film for sound, bringing to light an element of cinema that is so often taken for granted. Even in this medium, where visuals are dominant, sound and its absence have a subliminal ability to shape our experience.
One golden statuette for sound
George Lucas has been known to say that 50 per cent of the film experience is sound. However, the industry and movie fans alike often turn a deaf ear to the complexity and creativity sound design requires.
This indifference is largely realised come Oscar season, where the gear (like Dolby) often receives more praise than the sound artists themselves.
“It seems unfortunate that we recognise the wide and varied contributions to the visual side of filmmaking with several awards, yet the other 50% of a film goes undervalued” — Boom operator Heather Fink (Get Out) for Variety.
Sound design was first split into two Oscar categories in 1963, with Best Sound and Best Sound Effects awards offered to designers. It wasn’t until 2002 that the awards were reshuffled to Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing.
However, for the 2021 Oscars, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing were combined into one category: Best Sound. The decision sparked mixed reactions from industry sound engineers.
To a number of sound artists, the decision was treated as yet another insult to a craft that already doesn’t receive enough recognition. When the Academy created Best Sound, they essentially reduced the numbers of Oscars awarded for sound by 50 per cent.
Oscar-winning sound editor Mark Mangini — who worked on Mad Max: Fury Road, Blade Runner 2049 and Raiders of the Lost Ark — believes the decision severely undermines the talents of sound engineers. According to Variety, he commented:
“I don’t think the decision is in line with the Academy’s mission. The decision minimises the opportunity for members to recognise unique and distinct sonic contributions to filmmaking by combining two separate art forms into one award.”
However, other sound professionals believe the change was inevitable, even overdue. To sound designers like Richard King (Dunkirk, Inception, The Dark Knight) the separation of the categories was a relic of a pre-digital age that failed to recognise the evolution of post-production sound.
He believes sound editing and mixing in modern cinema overlaps so much, they are essentially a unified job. A lot has changed since the days where movies were spliced and taped together on flatbeds, and audio could only be sourced during filming.
If you would like to watch an incredible example of sound mixing and editing, to discern for yourself if the category should be kept separate or unified, check out the first ten minutes of Gravity (2013).
Though technology is evolving faster than ever, it is truly the creativity and talent of sound designers, editors, mixers, engineers and artists that are revolutionising the way we listen in film. When we look at the aural environment created for movies like Sound of Metal, we are reminded that the most impressive sound design are those that propel the story and intimately affect the viewers.