Syrians living in cities besieged by the government of Bashar al-Assad exist in a sonic torture chamber.
The skies shriek with Russian jets. Buildings groan from the concussive force of distant bomb blasts. Explosions from mortar shells shatter the peace. Bursts of small arms fire suddenly erupt. Adults and children tremble when deadly ordinance whistles in their direction, wondering if the walls around them will soon collapse.
“The sound is [the] power of cinema and story and reality,” Fayyad wrote on Facebook earlier this week. His goal was to reveal “what does [it] mean to live in an underground hospital in Syria bombed every two seconds by Russian/Assad warplanes. I have the responsibility with my team to take you there.”
A key member of his team was Danish sound designer Peter Albrechtsen, who has worked on both fiction and nonfiction films.
“[Feras] said at our very first meeting that he wanted the sound to be in Dolby Atmos, because he wanted to feel the war from above, just like when you’re in the cave, when you hear the bombings going on above you,” Albrechtsen tells Deadline. “So he really wanted to create this enveloping feeling of being in the cave and experiencing war on top of you.”
Only small cameras could be used in the shoot, to avoid disruption in an active hospital. They recorded the visual reality of a makeshift trauma center treating hundreds of badly wounded men, women and children. But capturing what it truly sounds like—thundering explosions, creaking walls, wailing patients, tense operating rooms—was another matter.
“You don’t want to make it feel like you’re listening to the world through a bad microphone,” Albrechtsen comments. “For Feras, it was really important to recreate how the sound is there, and you don’t get that sound through a small, tiny microphone on a camera. You need to really put in a lot of details, both through foley with the sounds of movements and steps and so on.”
There is a literal quality to visual images, but sound often impacts the listener in subtler ways.
“Something that was very important for us was this emotional quality of sound,” Albrechtsen explains. “The sound of these jets…it’s not just like a jet flying by and the sound of these bombs are not just like [any] bombs going off. It’s like it’s a visceral experience…with your whole body you feel like all the trauma’s come alive inside of you.”
Finding the appropriate audio required extensive research, Albrechtsen says.
“I got hold of the [sound of] actual Russian jets that are flying above and they are so loud that I mean, you almost can’t record that sound because it’s so loud,” he notes. “It’s very, very visceral and very intense. I also got hold of recordings from the streets during the Syrian war where you hear shootings going on.”
The interior of the hospital space also needed to be rendered in realistic auditory detail.
“The machinery they have at the hospital is very kind of low-fi and rusty… because they can’t get new machinery,” Albrechtsen observes. “So we really spent a lot of time recreating or creating this world that they live in and make it feel real…the sound of the stretchers like rolling along the hallways, and so on. All of these had very specialized sounds that needed to sound like they were sounding in the cave.”
Another challenge came with the audio of Dr. Amani and her colleagues.
“The dialogue recordings were very, very noisy,” Albrechtsen remembers. “We spent a lot of time on cleaning everything up and really making it audible.”
Albrechtsen has previous experience working on films set in war zones. He was one of two sound designers on the documentary The Distant Barking of Dogs, which was shortlisted for the Academy Awards last year. That film centered on a boy living in a village in Eastern Ukraine on the front between Ukrainian and Russian-backed separatists.
Referencing the title of that film, Albrechtsen comments, “In a way it’s the distant barking of bombs, because it’s this feeling of living in a place where the war is going on around you, but it’s in the distance. Whereas in The Cave, the war is very upfront, both sonically and visually, of course, like really, really close.”
Albrechtsen also did specialized sound work on Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, finding correct audio for the engine of a vessel seen in the World War II film.
“The engine on that boat you can’t get in the U.S. anymore. We found out that you can still get hold of that in Scandinavia,” he recalls. “So we recorded that for Dunkirk.”
On The Cave, Albrechtsen applied his skill to a variety of scenes with very different sound profiles.
“There are of course these very loud moments, but there are also quiet moments, and moments where you’re just there in a room with Dr. Amani and you’re just hearing her breath and there’s almost no other sounds,” he tells Deadline. “When she’s at this [incubator] with the baby…and you hear the heartbeat and it’s just like very, very few tiny, fragile sounds.”
Albrechtsen says those tonal contrasts give The Cave its storytelling power.
“I really like that kind of dynamic in the film,” he notes. “The war is very intense, very loud, it’s very visceral. But there’s also these moments of poetry and beauty in there.”
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