Sound is an essential element of any film that chooses to use it, but it’s especially important to Sound Of Metal. Starring Riz Ahmed as Ruben, the drummer for a heavy-metal band whose world is turned inside out by sudden and dramatic hearing loss, the film puts you inside the character’s head so you experience his new reality along with him. From the scene where Ruben loses his hearing onstage to sequences set at a sober living house for deaf people that unfold in total silence to the cochlear implant that gives the film’s title a new meaning, French sound designer and composer Nicolas Becker, Danish editor Mikkel Nielsen, and American writer-director Darius Marder use immersive sound design to create a unique, empathetic viewing experience.
The techniques used to create this effect were unique, too: From an anechoic chamber so quiet, you can hear the blood in your veins to a recording session that put the subtle sounds of Ahmed’s body on tape— “the internal life of Riz,” as Becker puts it—Sound Of Metal pushes the boundaries of what’s possible when you commit to creating an emotional reality through sound. We spoke with Becker and Nielsen on Zoom about the process. Listen to the full conversation above on this week’s episode of The A.V. Club’s podcast Push The Envelope—which also includes a discussion about all the changes coming to the 2021 Academy Awards—or read highlights and watch Becker and Nielsen walk us through scenes from the film down below.
The A.V. Club: Are either of you guys into metal music?
Nicolas Becker: Sometimes.
NB: I had a period where I did like a lot of black metal, experimental metal. [I like] a band called Om from [San Francisco]. But it needs to be very specific. I don’t like just any kind of metal music.
AVC: So was this a new world, then, working on a film about metal musicians? Were there any new challenges, working on scenes that feature the band?
NB: What was important for us, and for [director] Darius [Marder], was the fact that this band would need to play live, and that Riz [Ahmed] and Olivia [Cooke] needed to learn how to play the songs. [The band’s music] was composed so they would be able to play it, but also to be very impressive. So it was a big work [composer] Abe [Marder] did with Pharmakon, a musician from New York, to actually create the music. It was very important because we wanted the actors to have a physical engagement with the film.
AVC: Tell me more about this concept of body sound, Nicolas. I believe that was something that you and Darius worked on quite a bit.
NB: I’m recording everything I’m using as a foley artist [myself], or if I’m doing field recordings. So for me, everything I’m recording is a link to a moment in my life. And when I listen to the sound, it gives me a kind of physical memory, you know? And that’s where I’m working. I try not to use sound in a classic way, but I try to create a very physical aspect of the sound. I would love for the audience to be able to remember some moments they had—not in a film, but from their life—[when they hear these sounds] as well. I try to make a connection between [the movie and] the experience of the audience as as a person, in their own life. It needs to be a direct physical sensation. Not something illustrative, but something very straightforward.
AVC: Is that connected to the idea of the film trying to convey the lived experience of a deaf person?
NB: We were very determined to try to make this sound right. When you lose hearing, you still receive some sound, but through your tissue and your bones. And your brain transforms that to a sound. I think everybody knows this, because even when you talk, you can hear the resonance of your body, you know? So I think everybody knows that feeling, this kind of inner sound. So even if people never experience hearing loss, they can feel if it’s right.
AVC: You mean like, for example, how if it’s very quiet, you can hear your heart beating in your ears?
NB: Exactly. When Darius came to Paris for the first time to meet me, we went to an anechoic chamber. It’s a place where there is absolute silence, and then after 10 minutes, you start to hear everything—your heartbeat, your blood pressure, your tendons. For me, it was very important to have this experience, and to try to recover this moment through the journey of making the film.
So we did a lot of recording with Riz. For the scene where he goes to see the audiologist, there’s a booth, right? After the shooting, we stayed with Riz for two or three hours. I brought a stethoscope mic, a geophone for his skull, a mic in his mouth—and with these I was able to record the internal life of Riz. That’s the material we used to create that sequence, and that’s the material I gave to Mikkel to edit with. I think if he was using sounds which were more generic or more random, you wouldn’t get the right feeling.
AVC: Right. You weren’t using a sound library.
NB: Normally the picture editor will work with his own library [of sounds]. But that’s a bit cold for me. I think it’s much better for the editor to get exactly the sound library that has been created for the [movie]. And also, what he’s doing becomes the base of my work, so it’s also a way to respect the work of the editor.
It’s not always easy to accept that kind of of collaboration, but with Mikkel, it was very simple. We also created a protocol where, for the cochlear implants, he was able to process the sound. It was autonomous, and it created the right material for him to be able to work with and to get the right feeling.
AVC: It sounds like you were going for the truth of physical experience, and that is something that is very individual.
NB: Exactly. Darius had an incredible amount of tools—he was able to work with the costumes, with the light, with everything, you know? But as a sound designer, most of the time your relation[ship to the work] is more illustrative. And I think that becomes redundant very quickly. So what I’m trying to do is work on another level, to create another structure that will be more physical. It’s a bit like—I don’t know what you call it [in English], but there’s a cake in France called the “one thousand leaves,” where you have a lot of layers, and it’s creating a complex weaving [pattern], and it’s never redundant. At one moment, the picture is leading. At one moment, the actor is leading. At one moment, the sound is leading. It brings a lot of complexity, and it becomes very organic.
AVC: Mikkel, on the picture editing side, was it your job to take all these different layers that Nicolas was talking about and combine them? Were you working with many, many tracks like he was talking about?
Mikkel Nielsen: From from the editorial side, we use sound as a storytelling tool. So basically it’s all about storytelling and it’s about when do you want to be internal or external in a character? I only worked with eight audio tracks for simplicity.
MN: Simplicity. Less is more. And there’s a beauty in the right atmosphere. That can just stand still, and then you can have your dialogue on a mono track, almost. But what I got from Nicolas was, I got all the atmosphere, and I would work with that as the soundscape for the film, so it would become much more of an emotional journey, almost like the film score. And we would use those feeds from the opening concert, and we would [weave] those into this internal-external feeling of Ruben.
From a story perspective, it’s about finding the right language to get you, as an audience, into the head of Ruben. It’s not about the quality of the sound. It’s more about, “How do you feel when you are connected with Ruben? Are you allowed to know more than Ruben, or are you not allowed to know more than Ruben?” And if you don’t know more than Ruben, you feel you are going on the same journey as your main character.
MN: So there’s also always that balance. And knowing that Nicholas can create [a certain] feeling—the whole idea of using sound as a storytelling tool is extremely powerful, because it becomes physical, and it becomes something where you become very aware of going into the head of your main character, especially if you are not able to understand what’s going on in the scene. You lose a sense with your main character throughout the film, up to the point where he leaves you, which is the midpoint in the [playground] scene with the boy.
And that scene opens a whole new world to Ruben. He leaves you, and you’re left with him speaking sign language and everything will be subtitled from that moment. He goes ahead. He has a project you don’t know about. But up to that point, you know what’s going on with your main character. And that’s all created with what we called “awakening the senses.” [We are] telling you very, very little, so you have to be aware of the small details. Because those details will become very important throughout the whole film.
And we have created a contract with [the viewer] in how we go in and out of the head of Ruben, or how we can go from external to internal in one shot. Then it can become emotional, like the dolly [shot] of the three of them when you go into the cochlear implant when Lou and her dad are singing at the end. So that’s how we work with the sound as a storytelling tool from an editorial perspective. For me, it’s much more about, “What does the scene do? Are we supposed to be internal, not knowing what’s going on? How much information do we give in the scene?”
AVC: And that’s a storytelling decision? Meaning, when you go internal and external.
MN: Yeah. You’re having the same emotional feeling as your main character. When you see someone talking to [Ruben] and you don’t know what he’s saying, it almost becomes like a horror movie. In the pharmacy scene, suddenly you cut out and you hear the word “doctor,” and you cut into the internal [sound] again, so you become frustrated along with your main character. That’s where we use the sound as the storytelling tool, to tell you what kind of story is this going to be.
NB: I think the sound also helped us to have a strategy of attention. At one moment you want to focus on a small sound, and [at others] you want to to give a larger scale. There’s a lot, also, to this idea of how the sound can actually push people into the picture, or out of the picture. It’s a very interesting game between the audience and the mix.
MN: You shouldn’t be aware of these changes. You should be aware that you are [being] put in the perspective of a character because you feel things with him. You lose the sense [of hearing] with him, but you also gain a sense with him when they open the cochlear implant.
NB: We knew that [that scene was] going to be super important, so we spent a lot of time on it. We also spent a lot of time with Mikkel to find a general arc of [Ruben’s] point of view. The sound editing is not very complex—well, it is, but it’s more the structure that’s complex. You don’t have, like, 500 tracks. It’s more about the right sound than a lot of sound. Putting in a sound is quite easy, but to understand the larger structure, and [where the sound fits] in the arc of it, that’s what is more complex and more time-consuming.
MN: What was difficult for us to find in the film was the structure. Starting the film with the concert [came in] very late in the editing process, but it created a whole different film because it becomes like a circle. It’s the exact same image of your main character sitting. In one, he’s eager and he’s ready to go. In the other, he’s in complete silence. He’s relaxed, and he’s almost meditating. But it’s the same character, and it creates a circle that echoes through [the film]. From then on, it’s about finding that language, so that you understand as an audience, “This is how we’re going to tell you the story and this is how you’re going to feel it.”
From Darius’ point of view, it was extremely important that we didn’t have cutaways, which is why the concept was, “They have to perform for a live audience, and they have to be the ones doing it, because when it’s them actually doing it, you feel you are with them.” Normally, how we’d do it is to use a lot of shortcuts where you can see a snare drum, or a hand playing guitar. We try to cheat, and say that these are really good musicians. But this film is raw, almost like a documentary. And everything is seen from the perspective of Ruben.
If you watch it again, the concert, you also hear it from his perspective. You’re sitting on the stage with him on the drum kit. And then you have a hard cut, everything has to be a hard cut throughout the whole scene because it’s so aggressive. Then you go silent into that Airstream, and then you start, little by little: You show the dust in the air, the smoothie, the coffee dripping. You show that you yourself have to use your eyes, and little by little, you cut everything away. You stay in the image as he becomes deaf. But you feel you become deaf with him.
AVC: The way that the sound drops out in those early scenes is very distressing, like the pharmacy scene like you were mentioning.
MN: The pharmacy scene is the key to the whole film, because the pharmacy scene is the scene that tells you this language of how we treat the material. But it’s also where we create these rules for ourselves [about] what kind of scenes we can put afterwards—which was very interesting, because we had a lot of different scenes that could do a lot of different things. And Nicolas and I tried a lot of ways [to present them]. Can we go in and out? Can we show internal perspective from other [angles] instead of a side shot? [We were] finding the language, and the language has to be as simple as possible. But that’s also the most difficult part, to find that simplicity so you don’t think about it.
NB: I think the fact that we worked together created a structure which is more organic. It’s closer to a translation [of what you hear] as a real human in your life. That’s why it was so important to me—well, we did it together. Darius was with us a lot of the time. So let’s say the three of us. We really worked together, and I think that it’s not something you could achieve if you just shot the picture, gave it to somebody to edit, and that’s it.
We worked together on that creative language, and you couldn’t have done that separately. When I started work[ing in film] 30 years ago, most of the time, people from the picture department were doing sound because it was simple to do [it that way]. But they also knew the secret of the film. [Now] everything has been super separated and specialized, and I think something has been lost. So [by being] able to collaborate, it [brought] us back to the roots of making a film, and cinema.
AVC: Something that I imagine must have come up a lot is being immersive without being intrusive. The immersive sound design could have been a a flashy, forward thing, but you keep it further back.
NB: As I said before, that’s because we were very naturalistic. Darius and his brother Abe, who wrote the script, were very [well] documented. We knew exactly how a lot of people described hearing loss. And I had already experimented with being in the inner world of the character on other films, like 127 Hours and Gravity—not at this level, but the idea is something I already tried.
MN: There’s also the fact that if you want to tell a story where you go into a deaf community, where you should feel that you sit in silence, and you feel the surroundings, it has to feel organic. It has to feel how it would normally feel if you went out in the woods and stood and listened to the woods. That’s how it feels, and that’s how it sounds. So the whole film is extremely organic, up to where it becomes extremely metallic.
And that’s an idea that creates simplicity again. You ask if I had thousands of layers of sound [to work with], but why would I? Because if you have the right stereo aspect of the right atmosphere, it’s enough. That’s the one. And it’s so simple, but it’s also just how you record [the sound], or how you select it.
NB: I’m doing a lot of multichannel recording, which means that I have a lot of microphones that are like different lenses, but in the same recording. I have a very large, omnidirectional mic, and sometimes I have closeup mics. So it’s a bit like I have different scales of sound. What I give to Mikkel is, let’s say, one stereo recording. But afterwards, when I look at his editing, I re-conform with the [recordings from] multiple microphones. So with the same recording, I can move from a very massive sound to something very precise.
So instead of adding a lot of [layers], it’s a bit like I was able to zoom in on the sound or zoom out. I can actually change the points of hearing. So we move from the outside to the inside [of Ruben’s head], but we can also put the audience into and out of the atmosphere of the film. We played with that subjective positioning. It seems maybe only like inside and outside, but even when you are inside, there are a lot of different things [you can do]. Because of the way we recorded the sound, you can be closer to the heart, or you can be in the head, or you can be in the mouth. You can move [around] inside the body.
AVC: Talking about the subtleties within the layers of the sound relates to something that I was wondering about with this film. Because of Ruben’s experience of losing hearing, or his cochlear implant, a lot of sounds are muffled. And muffled sound can be alienating, because it can be difficult to understand what’s happening. How did you work with the subtleties of that?
MN: Again, that’s about how much information do we want to send in the scene. Should you feel like, “Wait, what’s going on?” Or with the cochlear implants at the end, how [long] can you actually stay in that world? We wanted it to be extremely lonely and disorienting when he then walks out in the garden, for example, and all the sound sources come from all of these different places.
Obviously, there’s a quality to how much can you actually understand, or how little can you understand these things? And that’s in the sound mix as well, where you can play with it. How much do you want to hear? But it’s all about that quality where it shouldn’t feel like it’s something you’ve become aware of. It should more be that you feel that you are there with him as he’s losing more and more of his hearing. The slide scene is a good example of that.
NB: For the cochlear implant, it was the opposite. [Most people] should not have experienced it, you know, because that means that you have cochlear implants. So we tried to be real, but I also tried to create a sound which nobody had heard before. These instruments need to be totally new, something you have never heard. So when I tried to to create this effect, I really tried to find processing [techniques] which people don’t know. Things you are not used to hearing. Not guitar distortion or stuff which already exists in the [viewer’s] memory of sound. [I wanted] you to feel alienated, to feel something you’ve never experienced before.
MN: Up to that point, you have [experienced] the feeling of tinnitus or being underwater. You have tried all these things. And that’s where we start playing with these things that you have actually experienced throughout your life. You can put your fingers in your ears and and you hear [makes humming sound], but suddenly you feel it with him, which is why you’re being put inside Ruben’s head. And it works.
But this was also the beauty of it, because that was Darius’ intention. He wanted deaf people to have the experience as a whole. Everything was closed captioned, but as a hearing person, [there are scenes where] you could feel left out. We see scenes where [the characters] are silent, using sign language. And when you sit with deaf people, they start laughing because there are funny moments in this scene. But you feel like, “Why is it not subtitled? What’s going on?” You feel disoriented. And that’s the whole idea. The whole film should feel like that. Did I feel silence myself? What is this about?
MK: It points to the ending, of him taking away the cochlear implants and the silence [after that]. We stay a little too long on the scene, on Ruben looking at these different things. You suddenly put yourself in the situation, and it becomes extremely emotional.
AVC: I thought this was an extremely empathetic film in that way. You really do feel that experience.
Sound Of Metal is out now in theaters and on Amazon Prime.