Thursday, January 27, 2011

Widescreen Awards: Sound Design

Sound design tends to be a difficult thing to wrap your head around. The Oscars split it into two categories — sound editing and sound mixing — but even the experts don't seem to really understand what they're rewarding. Sound editing, as I understand it, refers to the creation of sounds from scratch. Sound mixing refers to the assembling of many different sounds into a cohesive whole. Basically, the sound editors collect the sounds and the mixers put it all together. But so often it seems to come down to which films are either the loudest or which ones are Best Picture hopefuls looking to up their nomination tally.

With the caveat that I'm not an expert in what makes good sound editing or mixing, these are — to my ears — the best "designed" soundscapes of the year, with no attention paid to the differences between editing and mixing.

Spoilers, especially for Enter the Void, follow.

For a long stretch of Enter the Void, the viewer is trapped inside the skull of its expatriate protagonist. When his blood pressure spikes, we hear the thump of his pulse. When it plummets, we hear the ringing in his ears. But even after the camera leaves Oscar's body, the impressive soundscapes aren't over. As the camera glides over clouds and through buildings, the ambient sounds of the city and the silence are ever-present, with the low rattle and hum of Thomas Bangalter's (of Daft Punk) score just beneath the surface.

There's nothing altogether unique about the sound design in Inception, but it gets points for juggling so many different types of aural input without sacrificing clarity. The dream sounds are all heightened versions of real life — hear that exploding Paris street — that immerse your ears in the action. And the score, one of the most distinct features of the film, never completely overwhelms the soundtrack. Given the power of Hans Zimmer's bass, that's a feat in itself.

From the violinist on the Harvard commons to the thundering techno music of a San Francisco nightclub, The Social Network recreates a realistically stereophonic world. But what's most impressive is how crisp screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's dialogue is amid the chaos. Characters speak to, at and over each other in this film, and yet there's never any confusion about what's going on. There's an honesty to the staged conversations that would've been edited down to mush in anyone else's hands.

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