5 Examples Showing the Importance of Innovative Sound Design in Film

A Quiet Place is a great example of a film where the sound design plays a very important role in the film watching experience. We look at 5 other examples of films with incredibly innovative sound design. 

When we look back at the history of films we can easily come up with titles which have changed the way we watch movies. Films like Jaws showed us how major productions could be more entertaining than ever before, Star Wars ushered in a new era of special effects, and Toy Story took that technical achievement to the next level with a completely computer-generated film. Yet, when we talk about films we don’t often talk about sound, and specifically iconic achievements in film sound design.

Sound may not impress us as much as creative storytelling techniques, or cutting edge visual effects, but it is nonetheless an important part of cinema. While it is possible to enjoy cinema without sound, sound elevates the experience because it activates another sense while watching the film. The more senses the film evokes, the more realistic it seems and an audience can be drawn in. Furthermore, poor sound design can be just as distracting as mistakes made in other areas of film production. 

Especially over the last decade or so, film sound design has immensely improved. It may not be all that noticeable in comparison to the development of visual effects, for example, but it is nonetheless an important development to the industry. In particular, filmmakers have found creative ways to use the sound design of the film to enhance their visual or thematic storytelling. The introduction of digital tools and sound capture has allowed a greater freedom to provide realistic sounds in film and purpose those sounds in ways that could not be achieved previously. 

For the purposes of this discussion, sound design of a film can be both the soundtrack created for the film and the sound of the film itself (dialogue, action, and special effects). Below I have provided examples of 5 films of the past quarter-century where innovative uses of sound design have left their mark. Some of the sound design decisions have gone on to have major influence on later films, whereas others are examples of how creative sound design can enhance a story just as much as any other aspect of a films’ production. 


Birdman

Birdman is a film that is designed to look like it was done all in one take. It is not necessarily the first or last film to do this, but its effectiveness to tie together the technical construction with the themes of the script make it an incredibly innovative and interesting film. Birdman is also a film about the creative process. It is about the struggle of expressing ideas as effectively as possible while remaining true to the artists’ self. The focus is on one man as he tries to turn around his career through the production of a stage play. 

But Birdman transcends its simplistic message of artistic struggle by showcasing artistic creativity. Part of that creativity is in the sound design. If you are assembling a film to make it look like one continuous shot in order to mimic a stage play, the consistency in sound is very important. As we all know, the film was not shot in one continuous take, but instead had shots stitched together. This means the stages, the locations of the crew, the sizes of the sets varied from one shoot to another – all which could have potentially impacted the way the film sounded. 

And yet, the film doesn’t struggle in delivering clear and consistent dialogue or sound from the action taking place on set. It is very consistent, unremarkably so. This is an example of a film where you don’t want the sound design to be noticeable. It needs to fit seamlessly, without distraction, and the crew did a tremendous job to pull this off. And it isn’t just the fact that the sound is consistent that makes it impressive, it is the coordination required to pull it off. 

Through the entire runtime of the film, the camera and the actors are moving around. Sound would not have been difficult if the locations of the camera and the sources of those sounds was not important. But we live in the age of surround sound, and so location of sound sources is very important. Not only did the production team have to provide the audience with a consistent sound as the film changed from location to location, but the actual locations of those sounds had to be coordinated in order to be replicated through the surround sound. 

All of this was accomplished through post-production. It would have been a very tedious and time-sapping task. Indeed, without advanced technologies in sound design, the type of sound design in Birdman would not have even been possible. Since the film is fluctuating so often, it would not have been possible to capture all of the sounds in a consistent way through traditional sound capture. Many of the films’ sounds had to be added in post production, including the jazz-like sound track that is utilized to keep the films’ pace. 

But that just opens up an entirely new can of worms because not only does the films’ visual landscape have to remain consistent in order to achieve a convincing single-shot perspective, the sound has to be coordinated in the same way. When we hear the sound track, there are moments where it is in-tune with onscreen occurrences. So here, we see yet another aspect of the film’s production carefully planned – the music. All of these technical aspects of the films’ sound design make it one of the most impressive, and interesting examples in recent times, and made all that more impressive in the way it is made to purposefully NOT stand out! 


Gravity

Gravity is another film that was designed to look (mostly) like a single-take. The opening scene is a 17 minute continuous shot, created on a special sound stage and then enhanced in post-production with cutting edge visual effects. Gravity is also a film that takes place in space, and as we all know, there is no sound in space. So, in addition to the complexities in sound design associated with having a continuous shot (as described above), you have the added wrinkle of the film taking place in a virtual vacuum. 

In many ways, the films’ sound design is just as innovative, if not more so than the visual effects and storytelling methods. Without air to transmit sound from the environment, the production team had to come up with a new approach in order to signal non-visual movement to the audience. In other space movies, there may have just been silence. But leaving out sound essentially robs the film of one method through which it can reach and impact the audience. This would be a glaring omission in a survival film where there is so much action. Likewise, just creating sounds as usual as if there had been air would have granted the film an unrealistic aspect, and been counteractive towards all of the other aspects of the film design where the filmmakers were trying to create something as realistic as possible. 

The solution they came up with was to provide the sound experience from the perspective of the films’ main character. This meant that we would hear the film through her ears instead of through a 3rd-person perspective. Through the film you will hear her breaths and her heartbeat, but this is just a small aspect of the sound design that was required to pull off this approach. For everything else, the sound team had to assume any sounds outside of the main character’s spacesuit would be muffled through the barrier. 

What they decided to do was create a sound design that is cued off of vibration. Anytime the character touches something or something touches her, we hear that “motion” through vibrations reverberating through the suit. This approach allowed the filmmakers to create the sensation of motion despite the limitations of the environment, and without losing that critical aspect of the film experience. For other sounds they experimented by placing the microphone in water to record them – creating an authentic barrier and distortion to match the effect of the space suit. 


The Matrix

In The Matrix, Neo finds out that the world he knows is actually a simulation. Interestingly, the film itself can be thought of as a simulation of the real world. This was the perspective that the sound team took when designing the sound for this action blockbuster. The first thing they wanted to do is give the film a unique sound. All of the sounds for the film were created specifically for it. They didn’t want any sound to provoke connotations to other films, and in doing so they supported the idea that this film would be “cutting edge”.

To give the film a unique sonic fingerprint, the sound team utilized cutting-edge technology (at the time). This included utilizing digital tools to create many of the film’s sound effects. Traditionally sound effects would have been recorded in a lab and then edited for use in the film. In The Matrix, many of the sound effects were created digitally using new-for-the-time software techniques. While the sound team did record sounds for use in the film, those were enhanced digitally in order to provide a consistency in approach. 

The Matrix was a challenging film for the sound designers because it was a combination of many different genres – science fiction, action, martial arts, cyberpunk. The team made sure not to fall into the conventions of each of these genres when coming up with the sound design. For example, in gun battle scenes they would use sounds of guns firing backwards, or time an off-screen gunshot with the music to give it an added kick. The goal of the film was to be really cutting edge and create a shocking, memorable experience, but do so in a way that still felt organic. They didn’t want sounds that seemed fake or synthesized, so there was a lot of focus on making everything fit into the aesthetic of the film. 

Interestingly the sound design of The Matrix began just a week before shooting ended. For this reason the sound team did not have footage to work off of. Instead, they worked based on the storyboards created for the film. Once they did have footage to work with, they used digital tools to fit the sounds and edit them accordingly. So in many ways the team’s use of digital tools was necessary based on the production schedule, but at the same time it helped to obtain a certain finish to the way the film sounded. From the beginning the production team sought out a very “crisp” feel to the film, and that included the sound mixing. The use of digital tools allowed the sound team to better edit and produce sounds which were clear, aiding in this effort. 


Inception

When you think of slow motion, for some reason a sound comes to mind. This is because in film when we have seen slow motion sounds there is usually some type of whooshing or synthesizer sound. Its just one example of how sound is used to create a connotation with a visual effect, something that the sound team for Inception took to heart when designing the sounds of this film. Inception is a film that deals with many surreal situations. In addition to slow motion, the film deals with dreams, memory, and physical manipulation of the world. 

To help the audience make sense of these concepts which may be difficult to comprehend, the sound team made use of sound cues, but in a different manner than we had been used to hearing. Traditionally a sound cue can be anything from an iconic sound that plays whenever a certain action takes place (Star Wars is littered with these). For Inception, sound cues were utilized in a similar manner as they had traditionally been used in cinema, but instead of pertaining to a particular sound the film features shifts in the ways that sound is heard. 

In Inception, these sound cues occur when the characters travel to another dream level. When the characters travel down a dream level, the pitch goes down (the audio is reduced in tone). When they travel up a dream level, the pitch goes up. Likewise, when a character is going to a deeper dream level, the time experienced in that dream level is slower. To illustrate this occurrence, the sound team decreases the speed of the background sounds for the lower dream levels. Similarly, when a character is in a dream state, the sounds may be subtlety manipulated to give them a slightly unrealistic feel. The team manipulated the reverb of common sound effects to pull this off. 

This is an example of how sound can be utilized to enhance both the visual and thematic storytelling of a film. The film makes an effort to show how dreams can be very difficult to separate from reality. Yet the sound design makes it possible for astute viewers (listeners) to tell the difference. This aspect of the film is utilized as a sort of key to unlock the truth of a somewhat complicated premise and plot line. Once audiences pick up on these sound cues it provides a sort of subliminal tool to better understand the film. 

Speaking of dreams, they were an influence to Inception’s most iconic sound element, the loud “BRAAAAAM” heard in the trailers and on the soundtrack. The creator of the sound, Mike Zarin, has said that the inspiration for the noise was a way to shock or “wake up” the audience. This noise and the trailer made a big impact in the industry, and it seems like there have been many other imitators who have utilized something similar. That noise was incorporated into the sound track and became another type of sound cue, but instead of belonging to a particular event it is a memorable noise associated with the film itself. 


Sound of Metal

For a film with the word “sound” in the title, you would think sound would be a major component of the production. In this case, that assumption is true. Sound of Metal is the most recent example of a film using innovative sound design to enhance its storytelling and message. The film’s creativity in this department earned it an Oscar win for Best Sound at the most recent Academy Awards.

This image released by Amazon Studios shows Riz Ahmed in a scene from “Sound of Metal.” (Amazon Studios via AP)

The plot of the film follows a metal drummer who loses his hearing. The film explores the psychological impact of this loss upon the character. As a drummer, the character’s sense of hearing is paramount to his well-being. Without the ability to hear, he can’t partake in the activity that had defined his career and his persona. In more ways than one it becomes an identity crisis. 

Watching the character experience this loss is emotionally challenging, but the film brings that experience to a whole different level through its sound design. Rather than depicting the loss through the third person perspective, the sound design mimics the character’s loss of hearing. Initially that means the world around him gets muffled, and the audience hears that as well. Later, as he experiments with treatment options, the sound design mimics that partial restoration of the sense of hearing. 

What this does is place the audience into the head of the character. It is one thing to watch him face this challenge, it’s another to actually experience it yourself. In this manner, the film becomes more interactive than we may be used to, and because you essentially “feel” what the character feels, it is more impactful. More importantly, the depiction of the character’s condition isn’t just removing sound from the film. Sound is muffled and distorted, which makes the experience not only more realistic, but also strangely claustrophobic because suddenly one of our sensory receptors is compromised without our consent. In this way the film takes you hostage, and invokes a feeling of panic and desperation to match the main character. 

Don’t make the mistake of assuming this audio trick is just a gimmick by the filmmakers either. It is a very necessary aspect of the film because otherwise it would be more difficult to adequately explain the effects of this condition to someone who has not experienced it. This is one example where the sound design of the film is crucial to its success because the film’s plot is woven into the sound design, and vice versa. Movies like A Quiet Place and Bird Box use the sound design in a more entertainment-driven manner – to invoke horror movie like tendencies from the frightening condition of silence because silence is the manifestation of the unknown. Sound of Metal takes that fear of silence and inverts it. We fear the silence because we know what we’re missing or going to miss, and that loss is frightening.