Designed For Sound | April 16

Every week we highlight a movie with outstanding sound, whether that’s for it’s importance to cinematic history, it’s creative use of sound or the sheer audio enjoyment factor of the film.

Hunger (2008)

Still of Michael Fassbender in Hunger (2008)

This title was chosen in honour of it being the annual Irish Film & Television Awards (April 10th), and also Ireland's centenary year. The Irish film industry is a rich and diverse one, and right now is booming, but perhaps it's greatest contributions in terms of sound has to be Steve McQueen's Hunger (2008).

An incredible story that deserved to be told as acutely as it was here, Michael Fassbender puts in the performance of a life time. With very sparse dialogue -apart from one key scene- and minimal music, we feel, hear and experience the hunger striker's ordeal mostly through the medium of sound.

McQueen was adamant that he wanted a visceral realistic soundtrack, one that you could almost smell. Sound Designer Paul Davies and team relied heavily on the production track (recorded by Mervyn Moore and Ronan Hill), to which they added detailed Foley and ADR breaths to achieve that stylised but realistic feel. Every breath, every squeak, every rustle of the sheets was carefully chosen. Hunger is a tough watch but it's precisely the scarce use of music and dialogue that has us focusing on the sounds, and eventually more involved in the story.


American Graffiti (1973)

© 1973 Universal

One for the sixties kids, written and directed by George Lucas. Set in 1962, it follows a group of high-school kids cruising through the town's high street, passing one last night out before they set off to college.

Part of American Graffiti's charm is that it's packed with music of the time (42 songs back to back) but what is notorious about the soundtrack is that all music is diegetic, meaning that what you hear is what the characters are hearing. George Lucas wanted the music to sound as if it was realistically emanating from the sources (car radios, street speakers, diner Tannoys). In order to achieve this, sound designer extraordinaire Walter Murch came up with a technique he called Worldizing, which consists on playing recorded sounds in real world spaces and re-recording them back to tape. 

Lucas and Murch took a speaker and recording gear to a city backyard. They set up 50 feet apart and re-recorded a full 3-hour long radio show, performing moves to diffuse the acoustics of the sound. Back in the studio Murch was able to balance between the dry audio and the worldized recordings, making it much easier to have all that music blended in naturally with the dialogue. It is the equivalent to depth of field in photography, where your subject is in focus and the background is smoothed out. The concept of Worldizing was very innovative at a time when digital reverberation units didn't exist. It remains to this day a unique method of effecting audio in ways that even the most advanced plugins can't quite replicate.

Techy talk aside, this is a very entertaining coming of age movie, with an outstanding soundtrack, that you should check out.


Das Boot (1981)

© 1981 Bavaria Film

Das Boot follows the hardships endured by the crew of a German U-boat during the hike of World War II, their sense of duty as they battle for survival mixed with fear and doubts about their purpose.

All these emotions are compressed in the claustrophobic confinements of the submarine walls, and sound becomes the hand on the pressure valve as it is through sound that the crew make sense of the world outside the vessel. The vastness of the ocean, the invisible enemy, the physical and emotional intensity of life inside a submerged warship, all open inspiring creative avenues for sound. The bond between audience and characters is immediate, your feelings and theirs lock in synch through the sound decoding process. And an essential part of that decoding is done analysing silence, or its breaking off. As the writer of the novel put it: a silence imbued with the thrilling tension of a highly strained violin string.

Submarine films offer a perfect dramatic setting for cinematic sound design, and Das Boot very much set a benchmark for the genre - the now classic sonar ping sound effect of the opening titles is proof. As an audience you are quite literally immersed from the word go.