Our writers pick the best sound design of 2020 and write about why its so key to the film’s success. This is part of our 2020 wrap up series.
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At Seventh Row, we have a passion for highlighting great sound design in film. We love to ask directors about their approach to sound, because it’s a part of the filmmaking process they’re so rarely asked about, yet one that the best directors work incredibly hard on. Sound is so essential to drawing an audience into a film’s world on an almost subconscious level.
As we discussed on our recent podcast episode on the film, we’re frustrated that Sound of Metal is getting so much acclaim for its subjective sound design when so many other great films use sound to draw you into a character’s subjectivity — it’s just less noticeable. Sound of Metal’s soundscape flits back and forth between what its deaf lead character can hear and what a hearing person would be able to hear, and thus the contrast between those two states draws attention to what the sound is doing. The three films we’ve chosen for this list are just as, if not more, creative with their sound design, but in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself.
We asked three of our writers to write about the sound design in one 2020 film, but before we get to their picks, here are some honourable mentions, plus links to our sound-related coverage: Ammonite, The Assistant, Bacurau, First Cow, and Swallow.
The first time I watched Another Round, I made the mistake of relying on my crappy TV speakers. It wasn’t until I watched again with noise-cancelling headphones that I realized how much I had missed. The moment Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) takes his first sip of vodka, it’s as if all harsh noises have been sucked out of the room. The prominent atmospheric tone is the velvety slip of ice, a sound akin to the feeling of alcohol entering the bloodstream. While voices remain in the soundscape, they linger at the peripheries and don’t command attention. Over time, they commingle with the resonant tones of a choral group and end on a note of deep melancholia.
Sound is used this way throughout the film — to telegraph emotional journeys and highlight moments that might otherwise be missed. The rattle of breath mints, clink of a bottle, and sniffle of tears all feature heavily at different moments, charting masculinity in free fall. The thwack of a skull on a door frame brings us back to reality after a string of events that primarily showcase alcohol’s positive effects. At one point, all sound drops out and there’s just a low thrum, mimicking a rush of blood to the head before consciousness slips away. Sound brings us into each character’s mindset, often giving insight into unexpressed emotions. Each rewatch is rewarded with a new discovery of brilliant technique gone previously unnoticed. Lindsay Pugh
Alice Winocour is one of the directors most attuned to sound design working today; her sophomore feature, Disorder, about a soldier with PTSD featured had some one of the best sound designs of the 2010s. In Proxima, a story about an astronaut, Sarah (Eva Green), preparing to separate from her daughter, Stella, before her mission to Mars, Winocour once again uses sound to put us in her characters’ subjective headspace, here switching between the perspectives of both mother and daughter. The pair can be in the same room together, but if Sarah is busy with work and the camera is with Stella, the sound of Sarah and her colleagues becomes muffled. When separated by countries and connecting by phone or video chat, the glitches in the sound heighten the emotional distance between the pair.
The key scene of Proxima happens when Stella arrives to say goodbye to Sarah a day after Sarah has already been placed in pre-flight quarantine. They meet in a room where they’re divided by a glass wall, forced to speak through microphones that distort their sound and keep them metres apart. The artificiality of the situation and the sound make it difficult for them to connect. Things get easier when they both move toward the glass to bridge the gap between them, but here, they can’t talk or communicate with the sound. The sound design here is so important for ensuring we are emotionally with Sarah and Stella through this early separation before the big, year-long separation of space travel.
When I talked to sound editor Valérie Deloof about crafting this scene, she told me, “For the quarantine scene, the sound was actually played over loudspeakers and recorded on either side of the glass; we therefore had the choice between a close sound recording, a normal pole, and a diffused sound, which made it possible to choose the best possible balance to make the separation between Sarah and Stella felt. [Dialogue Editor] Laure- Anne [Darras] and Alice [Winocour] spent a lot of time on this because this balance was fragile. The sound behind the glass was too muffled to be intelligible, and the changes of the camera axis and the space created sound breaks that were too violent, which could break the intimacy of the scene. The balance was found when we started to cry with each screening.” Alex Heeney
In Residue, writer-director Merawi Gerima uses sound to evoke the texture of protagonist Jay’s (Obinna Nwachukwu) memories. Jay returns from film school in LA to his native DC, revisiting old haunts and finding them changed beyond recognition due to gentrification. When he first parks his car on Q Street, his old neighbourhood, he spots an old, familiar rocking chair discarded on the side of the street, and as he touches it, the wind in the trees grows louder and louder until it’s overwhelming. As he walks away, the sound fades. Moments like this are sprinkled throughout the film; sound is heightened when people, places, and objects evoke nostalgia for Jay. When Gerima shows us snippets of Jay’s memories, the soundscape becomes sparse, so we can only hear the few select sounds that Jay’s memory latches onto: a woman whispering, sirens on the street, wind blowing.
When I interviewed him last September, Gerima described to me the challenge of creating two distinct soundscapes: one of today’s gentrified DC, and one of the less gentrified DC in Jay’s memories. “The idea I had was we could take a recording of Q Street from the ‘90s and from now, and in those two recordings, you can show everything this film is trying to say. The film is kind of an archive of the community that I want to exist as an actual archive. I want to put as much of my community in the movie as possible.”
Creating that archive was easy when it came to capturing “the presence of gentrifiers in the city today: construction, people talking, conversations at a brunch table.” It was harder to capture the sound of the old DC that doesn’t exist anymore. Gerima found a workaround: “Interestingly enough, DC kind of repopulates with Black people on the 4th of July. People come from all over back to the neighbourhoods to visit families and houses that are still there, so the population of Black people kind of swells. We were filming across a few 4th of Julys, so we had the opportunity to get these sounds at those times — the kids playing, all that kind of stuff.” Orla Smith
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