Thomas J. McClean is an AwardsLine contributor.
“Silences can be more frightening than noise,” says Glenn Freemantle, sound designer and supervising sound editor on director Alfonso Cuaron’s astronaut survival drama Gravity. “Your ears can close down (with a lot of loud sounds) and it becomes a big noise.”
The film is not alone in using silence—or near-silence—and a dynamic sound design to amplify the dramatic isolation and struggle for survival found at the heart of Gravity as well as two other contenders, 12 Years A Slave and All Is Lost.
To serve the drama of the story and Cuaron’s realistic vision of surviving in space, Freemantle designed the sound so the audience would hear through the ears of Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone, in the limited confines of space suits and space stations. “If she’s touching something and something hits it, you would hear it,” he says. “But if a thing explodes (outside a space craft), you don’t hear it because she’s got no contact with it.”
Her breathing and heartbeat became the sonic anchors Freemantle used to draw the audience into the movie. On the acclaimed “elastic” shots—where the camera starts wide and then moves in on Bullock, going into her helmet for a completely subjective viewpoint, then out again—Freemantle began with softer sounds through specific speakers to give a sense of space and distance. As the camera enters the helmet, the volume rises and the sound surrounds the audience as though they are hearing through her ears as much as seeing what she sees. The sound quiets and moves back to a specific spot as the camera moves out again. “You become part of that space,” Freemantle explains. “That’s the idea of it.”
A quieter and more realistic sound design also was the approach used on director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, though drawing from a completely different palette. The story, about a free black man from New York abducted and sold as a slave to a Louisiana plantation owner in the 1850s, required a high level of authenticity. “Because it’s not a film that has guns or the normal kinds of elements you find in your busier soundtracks, you can’t use that language. You have to find a new language,” says Leslie Shatz, Oscar-nominated sound designer and re-recording mixer on the film. That language included replacing modern background noise from the freeway near the shooting location with cicadas and the sounds of pre-electric life. It also required an appropriate way to address the violence of slavery.
Mixing those approaches is a scene in which Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, hangs by his neck from a tree, keeping himself alive by the tips of his toes for an uncomfortably long time before he is cut down. The scene is punctuated by the subtle sounds of Solomon’s struggle over the gentle breeze and the ethereal sound of children heard playing in the background long before they are seen on camera.
For the violent scenes, which include graphic whippings and beatings, Shatz avoided using sounds culled from a library and instead recorded real whips and paddles in action. “We did get the real items,” he says. “Because it wasn’t overly amplified or overdone, I was able to completely integrate it into the movie.”
The vast reaches of the ocean are almost as silent as space, creating a different opportunity for Steve Boeddeker, who served as sound designer, re-recording mixer and supervising sound editor on All Is Lost, a nearly dialogue-free movie in which Robert Redford plays a man trying to survive on a sinking boat in the Indian Ocean. Boeddeker says the boat became the focus of their efforts. “This character knows this boat intimately, like it’s a longtime companion. He knows every sound the boat makes,” he says. “So it’s very alive and has a lot going on.”
Coming to the film after director J.C. Chandor had shot it, Boeddeker and his Skywalker Sound colleagues Richard Hymns and Brandon Proctor took out a boat to record the sounds it made at sea. They split their duties on the film by character, with Boeddeker handling the boat and Proctor working on the sounds Redford’s character makes, merging the two together as teammates.
“Redford’s character was basically this cowboy and the boat was his horse, going off to tame the Wild West,” says Boeddeker. Taming the variety of sounds it made was a whole other beast altogether.