Screenshot: Munich

It’s difficult to think about certain films without thinking about their accompanying musical score. John Williams’ work in Star Wars comes to mind. The constant, building tension in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk often derives directly from Hans Zimmer’s musical accompaniment. But sometimes a director will choose to nix the score all together, and will instead draw the audience in using the organic sounds of the scene itself. The latest Nerdwriter video essay takes a look at Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film Munich and shows how a filmmaker can manipulate various sonic elements just like an orchestra conductor.

Munich follows a secret Israeli hit squad as they attempt to enact revenge on those responsible for the attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Throughout their covert missions, Spielberg uses expert sound design to direct the audience’s attention exactly where he wants it to be. Visually, you could be seeing a long tracking shot of a distant balcony. But what you’re hearing is the sound of conversation at street level or a quiet moment in a parked car. This selective audio track subconsciously gives you the intended perspective for any given shot.

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By analyzing a particularly tense and score-less sequence from the film, Nerdwriter shows how Munich also manages to not only communicate tension but also plot when there is little to no dialogue in a scene. Academy Award winning sound designer Ben Burtt accomplishes this by establishing a bed of constant street noise and then isolating specific sounds (a car pulling up, echoing footsteps, a rotary phone, etc.) that highlight key plot points. The result is a scene that’s so aurally precise that you could close your eyes and still understand everything that’s happening on screen. Though, considering the movie looks great too, we wouldn’t necessarily recommend that.