Dave Robinson, Head of Sound at Creative Outpost, shares his thoughts on how an exceptional soundtrack has the ability to take film to another level.
My first experience of cinema was as a five year old in 1981 on a trip to the ABC in St.Helens to see E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Admittedly, most of the details are now sketchy and although I was too young to fully appreciate the intricacies of the story, the overall experience left a lasting impression. I think this was mostly due to the sheer scale of both the images and sound that engulfed me.
Jump forward twenty years and I found myself training as a post-production sound engineer in Soho where I was developing my passion for all things audio. And the more I learned about audio through my job, the more I began to fully appreciate the importance of sound design in film.
As we all know, a good film begins with a good script, which is then crafted into shape in the hands of a talented director. Editing and picture post then bring the story and images to life. But a component that can often be overlooked, is how an exceptional soundtrack has the ability to take a film to another level and elevate it from good to great. To highlight the significance of extraordinary sound in film here are a handful of my favourite examples:
At the time it was released in 2008, I was 10 years into my career and fully immersed in the world of audio. I saw it at Empire Leicester Square on opening week and remember being completely blown away by the film’s soundtrack, especially during the first act which features virtually no dialogue whatsoever. Pixar enlisted the help of Star Wars sound design legend Ben Burtt to bring Wall-E to life and the result is a masterclass in how to convey deep emotion through the use of abstract sound design. The audience couldn’t help but fall in love with Wall-E on a human level; a character that is essentially a synthetic, digitally animated robot. Without the help of dialogue to lead the exposition of the story, the sound team had to rely on more nuanced aspects of communication like the intonation and pitch of sounds to help us understand exactly how Wall-E is feeling. It’s a wonderful soundtrack and is still a touchstone whenever I am tasked with creating some kind of mood or emotion through sound design.
Master and Commander: Far Side Of The World
This historical epic from Peter Weir is a film I never tire of watching and one with a beautifully atmospheric soundtrack that really places you in the time and location of the story. The sound team went to extraordinary lengths to gather an extensive collection of historically accurate sound effects. From recording old cannons firing at wooden pallets to capturing the sound of ship sails out in the desert. It isn’t just the big, commanding (excuse the pun) sound effects either that make this soundtrack special. It’s also the more subtle touches, like the creaking and groaning of the ship as it pitches and rolls through the ocean. The whole film has an authentic feel to it which plays to my love of history.
Saving Private Ryan:
This is one that probably makes an appearance in most people’s best-of sound design lists but for good reason. The contribution of the sound design in creating an incredibly immersive cinematic experience can not be underestimated and the first and last battle scenes in particular are some of the most visceral ever seen on film. By all accounts the sound design work of Gary Rydstrom, Spielberg’s long-time collaborator, is also one of the most accurately reproduced soundtracks of the time. The feeling of compete shock and awe during the opening battle scene as the lander craft arrive on Omaha beach is one I’ll never forget and 22 years later, is still just as breathtaking. A few modern techniques are employed here and there – such as the memorable ‘inside Captain Miller’s head’ moment – but it’s the diagetic sounds that give the battle scenes their authenticity. An extensive sound library was compiled during production by recording as much military hardware from the era as they could source, both big and small. This helped to create scenes that are rooted firmly in reality unlike the exaggerated, over-the-top sounds of most war films that came before it..
By the time Alfred Hitchcock came to make The Birds in 1963, straight off the back of Psycho, his relationship with composer Bernard Hermann had become synonymous with grand, iconic musical scores. Often, the music was front and centre and one of the main elements used for heightening tension or invoking strong emotions in the audience. When it came to creating the soundtrack for The Birds however, they took a different and quite maverick approach, one than involved no score at all, or at least not in the traditional sense. Whilst developing the film, they met with German sound technician Remi Glassmann. He introduced them to an instrument he was working with that could be described as an early incarnation of the digital sampler. Using this, Hermann was able to literally play the sounds of birds in a musical way to create an alternative, dynamic soundtrack that ebbs and flows with the drama and tension of the story. It was a pretty audacious decision to dispose of a musical score in favour of only sound design but it works to great effect.. Some of the key scenes where this technique is used are genuinely creepy and often terrifying.
The overall sound design in Gravity is impressive but being an audio-geek there is one particular detail that stands out for me that’s most prevelant in the opening scene before all of the mayhem kicks off. It’s the filmmaker’s use of contact mics to express how sound is affected by the vacuum of space. Essentially in space there is nothing to hear – as so wonderfully put in the strapline of a certain space horror classic. The only way astronauts can experience external sounds is through the vibrations of objects they are in physical contact with. In the case Gravity, we hear the muffled sound of the motor and vibration of an electric drill as Dr. Ryan Stone attaches bolts to the Hubble telescope or the scrunching movement of spacesuits from the internal point of view of the characters. It’s a subtle addition within the soundtrack but is a stand-out example of attention to detail.
There Will Be Blood:
The thing that most impresses me about the soundtrack for this Paul Thomas Anderson masterpiece is the way that the sound design is so brilliantly entwined with Johnny Greenwood’s musical score. Both elements work together as one to enhance the uneasy tension of the film. It’s all put together with such a deft touch that it almost feels like both elements were created by the same person at the same time. The film includes scenes that are extremely quiet and atmospheric as well as huge, unexpected moments. This requires a dynamic soundtrack to emphasise the highs and the lows of the story and the sound design does this incredibly well. From the simple diagetic sounds of a lone Daniel Plainview chipping away in a mine shaft to the sudden, violent explosion of an oil well. The sound design and score work perfectly in tandem to intensify the undulating moods of the film, from creeping dread to bombastic. It’s a great example of the power of sound in helping to drive a story.
This is a more recent choice. It tells the story of a feuding family, set in a Cornish fishing village. It’s low-budget film, shot on 16mm with no production sound recorded. All of the dialogue, foley and sound design was added later. Not only that, rather than take the usual approach of ‘bedding in’ the audio to try and make it as polished and believable as possible, the soundtrack has a strangely detached feel, going against the grain of everything we usually strive to achieve. The dialogue and sound design has a raw, vintage quality and sits somewhere just above the images yet never takes you out of the story; if anything it draws you in. I would never have thought to approach the soundtrack in that way myself but it’s a unique, bold move and when married with the striking black and white images the result is quite special.
The boundary of creative sound design is in part set by the technology available at the time. From the introduction of ‘Talkies’ in the 1920s, through to stereo and later surround, the technology has continually advanced. And with the advent of new tools and formats such as Dolby Atmos, the limits of what can be achieved are still evolving. I look forward to adding more great films to my list in the coming years.