By Dan Powell of Soundsnap.com
Sound design may be a less a recognized element of filmmaking than directing or acting, but it’s no less important. Both DIY productions and major motion pictures require a thoughtful approach to audio to tell their stories effectively. Here are five superbly-crafted independent films that inspire us with their sounds.
Director: David Lynch
From the man in the planet to the dancing lady in the radiator’s song, Eraserhead’s audio is as patently disturbing as its nightmarish premise. Industrial soundscapes, faraway organs and strange creatures make for one of the most surreal films of all time. David Lynch and sound designer Alan Splet dedicated a full year to creating the sounds for this film, at times layering as many as fifteen tracks of audio simultaneously for a single sound effect.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
This lengthy epic makes great use of sound in illustrating a fictitious vision of the 20th century oil business. Effects like the chug and groan of oil derricks were managed by Michael Semanick of Skywalker Sound, who says a major goal in production was making the environment sound perpetually “dangerous.” The danger is definitely audible in one of the film’s most intense scenes, in which an oil derrick explodes.
Barton Fink (1991)
Director: Joel Cohen, Ethan Cohen
Longtime Cohen Brothers collaborator Skip Lievsay considers Barton Fink a “crowning achievement in terms of sound design and effects.” Lievsay relied on a highly abstract, non-naturalistic approach to sound to evoke the film’s surreal atmosphere. He also worked extensively with composer Carter Burwell to make both score and sound design complement each other, going as far as hiring eight bass trombonists to create the sound of the hotel’s deep plumbing noise.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Director: Darren Aronofsky
It’s hard to find a film that matches Requiem for a Dream’s emotional intensity, and sound plays a major role in emphasizing the hopes and struggles of its protagonists. Recurring themes like drug use, daydreaming and physical violence have their own sonic signatures, as evidenced in this montage. Aronofsky and sound designer Nelson Ferreira used out-of-place elements like airplane flyovers and wailing guitar chords to emphasize the rush of getting high.
Director: Gus Van Sant
Elephant tackles the difficult topic of school shootings with a bleak, minimal approach. Long following shots and naturalistic, improvised dialog create an atmosphere that’s both hyperrealistic and dreamlike. Music is used sparingly, with the exception of some chilling ambient beds during the shooting sequence that underscore the psychology of the killers. Sound designer Leslie Shatz favored an indirect, suggestive approach to sound, in which direct dialogue is sometimes obscured in favor of ambient noise and crowd sounds.