Sound design is an art that is both highly technical yet driven by emotions. As with any art form, what better way to learn than by studying the great works that have come before you.
Here are 5 films to study for their amazing use of sound design and other audio elements.
The Matrix was a groundbreaking film on many levels, not only for each use of special effects and slick fight scenes but through its use of sound design to ground the audience in the world of the film.
Released in 1999, just as the world was bracing itself for the digital revolution, The Matrix places a heavy emphasis on sound design to convey the themes of man vs machine.
Phones, tv screens and computers are used as an access point between the real world and the matrix, so electricity sounds are used heavily in the film. "One of the unifying concepts of the movie is that everything is motivated by electricity which results in a lot of sparking and zapping in the future scenes." Supervising Sound Editor Dane Davis conducted multiple recording sessions at power plants and even rented a Jacobs ladder to capture the arcing sounds used for the Hovercrafts.
"We rented a six-foot-tall, 30,000V Jacob's Ladder, and I obtained the sort of Dopplering arc cycles that I needed by recording this huge arc going very closely by the mic and making forward-reverse loops." The Matrix also took a revolutionary approach to the sound of its fight scenes, Opting for a slick and stylish approach that was heavily influenced by the wave of Japanese animation in the 1990s. The Matrix also has a fairly stripped back foley track for a film of its size, which is quite interesting when you consider the amount of content that the film contains. This might have been done to enhance the artificial feeling of the world inside The Matrix.
Sinister is widely regarded as one of the best Horror films of the 2010s and contains some of the creepiest and downright chilling sound design in all of Horror.
The films plot centers around a true-crime writer who discovers a box of old 35mm film reels in his attic. Upon watching the films, he discovers that they contain grisly footage of 4 families being murdered. This film is a masterclass in how to build tension through sound, and as is often the case in Horror, its what you don't see that I truly frightening.
Sinister is unique in that it boldly mixes traditional score with foley and sound design. This is something that is not often seen in Horror. Sinister makes use of music concrete, weird vocal moanings, demonic messaging and strange rhythmic tape loops.
James Cameron's epic sequel to The Terminator upped the ante in nearly every single way, and its sound was no exception.
The sound team was headed by veteran sound designer Gary Rydstrom, and they were challenged to push the boundaries of what was expected in a blockbuster action film.
In Rydstrom's own words...
"In Terminator 2 Cameron's approach to sound was hyperrealistic. Everything had to be so much bigger than life. Every sound effect in Terminator 2 had to sound like it was injected with testosterone, it had to be inflated to unworldly possibilities."
The main villain of the film, T1000 is a bulletproof, self-regenerating robot that can warp through solid objects. What makes Terminator 2 stand out is the way it tackles complex sound design moments through incredibly simple and creative methods. No electronics at all were used and all of the effects came from recording real-world sources. Some methods in this film include: - Wrapping a mic in a condom and dunking it into various gloopy mixtures.
- Slamming an inverted wine glass into a bucket of yoghurt.
- Dog food being sucked slowly out of a can. Terminator 2 is proof that you don't need loads of fancy equipment to create amazing sound design, the only thing that matters are your ideas and execution.
Michael Mann's crime epic depicts an intricate game of cat and mouse between a bank robber and the cop whose job it is to catch him, set against the sprawling neon backdrop of downtown Los Angeles. Heat is generally regarded as a modern crime masterpiece and was used as a chief inspiration behind Christopher Nolans The Dark Knight. Heat builds slowly and uses a realistic, almost documentary-style to draws us into the world of LA. The movie was shot completely in real locations and uses extensive location recording and production sound to flesh out each scene and bring the world of the film to life. Heat contains, without doubt, the most well-crafted shoutout scene in cinema history. The gunfight scene was shot using real weapons firing blank rounds on the streets of downtown LA. In the final mix of the film, the production sound was chosen over sound effects added in post, and you can hear the sound of the gunshots ricocheting off the concrete buildings for a truly visceral and heart-stopping effect. It is this realistic approach and painstaking attention to detail that makes Heat stand out as one of the best films to study for sound designers.
Saving Private Ryan
In what is perhaps the quintessential war film, Steven Spielberg places us directly in the thick of the action, showing us the raw brutality of war, and the effect it has on the men that fight it. Saving private Ryan is notable both for its scale and authenticity. The use of washed-out colours and disciplined camerawork creates an experience that is as close to non-fiction as possible, but it is the sound design and foley which elevates this film into something truly special.
All of the weapons sounds come from the real guns themselves, and that includes everything from the guns being fired, to the mechanism and handling sounds. This same approach was used for the clothing and equipment, footsteps and vehicle sounds. Saving Private Ryan also shows us how to effectively use silence and other sonic elements to place you in the head of the character, as illustrated in the iconic shell shock scene from the opening sequence.
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