Designed For Sound | February 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. Some might be obvious but we’ll be unearthing hidden gems too.

The Conversation (1974)

© 2003 Paramount Pictures

We kicked off February with one of the finest Hollywood thrillers of the 70s: The Conversation (1974) - written, directed and produced by Francis Ford Coppola. 

It won the Palme D'Or in Cannes that year and only lost the 1975 Best Picture and Best Writing Oscars to The Godfather Part II, the other Coppola movie in contention in that year. The film follows the life of surveillance expert and lone wolf Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), in his attempts to solve an assignment he is working on. Its about social detachment; the increasingly relevant issue of surveillance in modern societies; and its about really listening as opposed to just hearing. All throughout the movie sound is used as a running commentary on what is going on in the mind of our secretive and increasingly isolated character. Sound is so central to this movie in many layers that we could consider it a character. Without giving anything away, the whole movie revolves around one line of dialogue that sound genius Walter Murch captured on set whilst recording wild tracks for post production. The Conversation is a brilliant example of the power that sound has in influencing what we see.


Barton Fink (1991)

© Twentieth Century Fox

The Cohen brothers are releasing this month. Hail, Caesar! starring George Clooney was opening the 66th Berlinale yesterday. This week's #DesignedForSound movie is Barton Fink (1991). Outstanding at storytelling, the Cohens have understood and exploited the subtle power of sound as a narrative device like very few director/writers in history. They also strongly believe in early collaboration with and between their music and sound departments, something unfortunately rare in the fast-paced budget-ridden film industry. Barton Fink is about a playwright who suffers a creative impasse as he moves from New York to California to write for the movies. His naivety combined with a failure to understand people and be understood drive the events. The whole film is presented through his perspective and therefore all we see and hear is rarely what is expected and often something deeper. Composer Carter Burwell and Supervising Sound Editor Skip Lievsay sat down and spotted the film together. Scene by scene they discussed who would take care of what and how. They came up with a scheme where they would share the frequency spectrum so if sound was focusing on lower/bassy content the music would play higher notes and so on. The result is a faultless, smooth, coherent and interesting soundtrack, and a massively entertaining film.


No Country For Old Men (2007)

We continue with the Cohen's because their work ethic is exemplary. No Country For Old Men (2007) - easily on our top 10 favourite films. So much to say about this flick so we'll (try and) keep it simple. Based on the book of the same name by Cormack McCarthy, NCFOM is a crime thriller/ drama/ western/ horror/ comedy/ noir/ road trip/ Cohens-style movie, set in the arid Texan borderlands. A drug deal gone wrong leaves a stash of cash that sets off a triangular chase between a Vietnam war veteran that finds it (Brolin), a mightily scary hitman (Bardem) and a soon-to-be retired sheriff (Jones). The soundtrack to NCFOM is an exercise in restraint. All the elements from Foley to backgrounds, to fx, to dialogues are dancing around moments of silence. There are a mere 11 minutes of composed music, so subliminal (drones from tibetan singing bowls) that you barely notice it. Suspenseful, incredibly dynamic, sparse and rich in detail, the mix is a pleasure ride to the ears. There isn't much dialogue either but it's sharp, full of meaning and delivered with strong accents -very Cohens. Not a wasted or boring scene here. From the opening voice over, delivered in deep rugged texan by Tommy Lee Jones, layered upon shots of deserted landscapes and dry whispy winds, you know it's going to be a good one.

Designed For Sound | January 2016

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. Some might be obvious but we’ll be unearthing hidden gems too.

Star Wars (1977)

© LucasFilm.Ltd

We begin in a galaxy far away with a title that has it all: the essential and very on trend Star Wars saga. Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) was the first film to be screened in 5.1 surround sound - I can only imagine the experience of being immersed in this world back in the 70s! The vast yet coherent audio universe created by sound designer Ben Burtt is a work of epic proportions that has transcended into Western pop culture like no other movie to date. So thank you Mr Burtt and Mr Lucas. And if you still haven't been to see The Force Awakens at the pictures, you won't be disappointed... Just make sure your cinema has Dolby Atmos sound ;)

Elephant (2003)

© 2003 New Line Cinema

Written, directed and edited by Gus Van Sant.

The film is a dramatic reconstruction of the tragic 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, as seen from the student's and perpetrator's view alike. It's one of those films where sound really tells half the story - but does it in a very unconventional way. Long tracking shots slowly follow the characters as they make their way through the school. What you hear is not always what you see. Without really noticing it, that juxtaposition between what the images are depicting and what the sound is telling you slowly takes shape, blowing the cinematic experience to another level. The wizard behind it all is sound designer Leslie Shatz, who following Van Sant's guidance cut in some of Hildegard Westerkamp's beautiful soundscapes, giving them and the film a whole new life.

Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)

© 1968 Paramount Pictures

A Western classic. Sergio Leone shot this after the successful "Dollars" trilogy, at the apex of his career and backed by a Hollywood studio. It's an epic story written by the brightest minds of Italian cinema at the time (Leone, Bertolucci, Argento...), complete with Morricone score and Delli Colli cinematography. The opening ten minutes sequence is entirely scripted for sound. The actual quality of the sound effects may be crude for today's standards but the way they are placed and used is an absolute masterclass in film sound and storytelling. It is no coincidence that the Scorseses, Tarantinos and Lucas of this world all cite this movie as an influence.

C'era una volta il West (original title) opening sequence via