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December 10, 2012 9:51 PM   Subscribe

Exceptional movie sound design.

I've recently gone from plain ol'TV to a 5.1 home theatre setup. What surprised me was the added depth given, especially to some movies I thought I knew. I mean, everything sounded better but some movies became truly transcendent (e.g. the sound design in 2001: A Space Odyssey was surprisingly striking, simple, and effective. And of course all the Star Wars films are first rate on that front).

My question: what movies do you recommend that really show off audio/sound design and are integral to the movie 'experience'?
posted by mazola to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
The Alien and Predator franchises were heavily referenced by all my sound design teachers during film school because of their exceptional sound design. Horror movies rely heavily on sound design in general, I'd say, so pick up your old favs from that genre and hear what you hear! ;)
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 9:56 PM on December 10, 2012

The Conversation, with Gene Hackman. His character is a surveillance expert...there's a lot of listening. In fact, it received an Oscar nomination and won a BAFTA award for best sound.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:00 PM on December 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

I second "The Conversation" not only an excellent film but really sets itself apart from other thrillers with its use of sound to create suspense and environment.

That said, there is nothing wrong with a solid big budget action movie for their use of sound. It should be appreciated that movies with so much action can balance dialogue with large action sequences without detracting from what is being said.

Go through these lists and pick a few, you can't go wrong:
posted by FiveNines at 10:05 PM on December 10, 2012

Apocalypse Now. Especially the opening scene, where the sound of unseen helicopters moves around the room then enters the screen.
posted by The Deej at 10:08 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

AVS forum Blu-ray Tier list for audio (These are generally rated on the "HD" audio tracks, so make sure your receiver supports them.)

Also, a movie that has great surround/audio in the theater does not neccessarily mean the disc version will as well.
posted by wongcorgi at 10:24 PM on December 10, 2012

Barton Fink and Blowout
posted by humboldt32 at 10:28 PM on December 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Walter Murch is responsible for the sound design of both The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. There's a fantastic book of interviews with Murch by Michael Ondaatje, called The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film.
posted by oulipian at 10:46 PM on December 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

No Country for Old Men, absolutely.

David Schwartz, Behind the Music: No Country for Old Men is a good example of a film where there's an intuition from you, the Coen brothers, and the sound team about the sound design. The sound effects become the music in a way, and the film needs a kind of silence to work.

Carter Burwell, composer: We didn't know at first that it was going to be as free of music as it ended up. Usually, when you score a film, you use music to do things like soften up the listener: they hear music and relax and open their emotional side. But, at the same time, the moment you hear music, it reminds you that you are watching a film. And with No Country, it weakened it to hear anything that was recognizably an instrument, that reminded you of the traditional Hollywood approach to scoring a thriller. Whenever an instrument came on, it just wasn't right. And then I tried all these sounds that weren't instruments. I tried just percussion, or just harmonics on a violin. But, even those sounds didn't work; the moment you perceived their entrance, it changed the nature of the film. In the end, all the music that's there—and it's only about 13 minutes' worth—was snuck in under sound effects. You hear the sound of car tires on gravel and that brings in a piece of music. And then when the car sound goes away, the musical tones are there, but they don't register as music. In the scene where Javier Bardem is in the gas station, taunting the owner, we used wind sounds to get the sustaining tone. It's actually a suspense tone, and it's supposed to raise the tension in the scene, which is already extremely tense. I pitched the tone at the same pitch as 60-cycle alternating current, so that it would blend with the refrigerator and air conditioner in the space. Again, you don't perceive its entrance, but there's a certain point at which you are aware that there's something else in the sound other than just wind. But you don't know when it came in, and it stops immediately at the point when he reveals that the coin toss landed heads. That whole film score was an exercise in finding ways to hide the music. And it wasn't that we thought it would be that way in the beginning. It was an ad hoc discovery. It was totally empirical. [source]


There is at least one sequence in “No Country for Old Men” that could be termed Hitchcockian in its virtuosic deployment of sound. Holed up in a hotel room, Mr. Brolin’s character awaits the arrival of his pursuer, Chigurh. He hears a distant noise (meant to be the scrape of a chair, Mr. Berkey said). He calls the lobby. The rings are audible through the handset and, faintly, from downstairs. No one answers. Footsteps pad down the hall. The beeps of Chigurh’s tracking device increase in frequency. Then there is a series of soft squeaks — only when the sliver of light under the door vanishes is it clear that a light bulb has been carefully unscrewed.

“That was an experiment in what we called the edge of perception,” Mr. Lievsay said. “Ethan especially kept asking us to turn it lower and lower.”

Ethan Coen said, “Josh’s character is straining to hear, and you want to be in his point of view, likewise straining to hear.” The effect can be lost, he conceded, “if it’s a louder crowd and the room is lousy.”

Joel Coen interjected, “If it’s a loud crowd at that point, the film isn’t working anyway.” [source]
posted by komara at 11:03 PM on December 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

Das Boot has a very detailed sound design. Lots of little drips, creaks and other noises that create an environment with a very authentic feel.

Bonus - the English dub is done (at least mostly) by the original actors, so apart from lip sync you don't lose much by watching the dubbed version.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 11:30 PM on December 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

The first, almost entirely wordless, half-hour of There Will be Blood.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:05 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just watched The King's Speech last night and hey wow! A movie about speeches has amazing sound design! No but seriously it was fantastic, despite having won awards that generally point to my disliking a film.
posted by Mizu at 1:44 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Matrix and AVP and Das Boot are great for sound, but they tend to get boring (the same environments over and over) if you're looking just for ear candy.

The Fifth Element is my go-to movie for sound. There are so many different audio environments and moods in the film that listening to it is like going to an ice cream shop and having all of the flavours, each in turn, and never feeling full. And it's not just the sound design, it's also the score -- Eric Serra's work is as much a character in the movie as Bruce Willis.

I should go watch (and listen!) to it again.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:32 AM on December 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

First movie I thought of was The Incredibles. For both the excellent soundtrack and the sound environment.
posted by bijou243 at 5:06 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Blackhawk Down. From this review of the blu-ray:

I have little doubt that the uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track on this disc easily stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best soundtracks I've heard on either next-gen format. It also helps that the film's sound design is so impeccable -- 'Black Hawk Down' didn't win the Academy Award for Best Sound for nothing.

This is as highly aggressive a mix as you would expect. In fact, it may be the most consistently engaging and just plain loud soundtrack as I've ever heard, with nary a dull moment throughout. Dynamic range is generally incredible, with expansive separation between all channels that creates a fully-enveloping and lifelike soundfield. Dialogue is generally spread across the entire front soundstage, with effects directed to every speaker, and even some of the operatic elements of the score are continually deployed to the rears. Discrete effects are almost constant and amazingly lifelike, with imaging seamless and transparent. And talk about incredible low-end -- this is one soundtrack that, if played at a decent volume, you really feel in the gut. Lastly, the attention to balance between the music, effects an dialogue really surprised me. I was initially worried I wouldn't be able to tell what anyone was saying amid the gunfire, but this mix is quite impressive in how clean and clear dialogue is rendered. 'Black Hawk Down' is about as good as it gets in high-def audio.

posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:30 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sling Blade. Music by Daniel Lanois. Absolutely incredible.
posted by jbickers at 6:41 AM on December 11, 2012

Out of Africa. Any film that won an Oscar for sound.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:05 AM on December 11, 2012

And on that note: a list of nominees/winners of the Academy Award For Best Sound.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 7:50 AM on December 11, 2012

Response by poster: Yup the Academy Award lists are helpful, but I'm eager to hear personal experiences/picks with home theatres in mind because, as noted above, the theatre sound doesn't always make it to the disc (and because I know MeFi's have great taste!).
posted by mazola at 7:58 AM on December 11, 2012

I still have a soft spot for the Matrix because that was the first movie I enjoyed in 5.1 in my home. The lobby scene, the rooftop bullet dodge (the soundstage rotates with the camera), and the rain of shells from the mini-gun are all aces.

Also fond of the beach scene in Saving Private Ryan, great directionals, dynamics, and low-end.

I'd also check out THX-1138, I've always been fond of the sound design in that, but I haven't seen the latest release of it, so I don't know if the disc does it justice.
posted by entropicamericana at 9:25 AM on December 11, 2012

David Lynch movies have almost universally excellent sound design, in their own sometimes-subtle way. Blue Velvet leaps immediately to mind, as does Lost Highway, but none of them have bad sound design.

Christopher Nolan basically owes his career to intelligent sound design and sound editing. They help anchor his often nonlinear storytelling and they often add mystery and power to seemingly realistic cinematography and mise-en-scene. For one small example, consider the Scarecrow's "theme" in Batman Begins. Strange whispers swirl in and out of the music whenever he's about to do something Scarecrow-y. Yes, this was done in tandem with the composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, but every movie is a team effort.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:42 AM on December 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Social Network, believe it or not. Pretty much any Fincher movie, for that matter.
posted by empath at 10:32 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Pretty much any Fincher movie, for that matter.

True that. In Fight Club there's one particularly significant gunshot (I'm sure you've all seen the movie but why spoil it?) and it's pretty loud and afterward there's a high-pitched ringing that just goes on and on throughout the scene. I never noticed it the first few times I watched it. It really does mimic what happens to your ears when near a gunshot in real life, though. Okay, it's minimized, but still there.
posted by komara at 11:12 AM on December 11, 2012

Final Destination. No kidding, really. The sound designer really gave a shit, and there is some really clever sound design.

And Blade Runner. But you need to watch the Director's Cut and you need a really good sound system to get the full effect of just how subtle and thoughtful the sound is.
posted by biscotti at 4:25 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just slightly off track - in the Return of the King extended DVDs extras they have a whole extra about the sound design of the movies (an hour's worth or so, iirc). Everything from foley to ADR to layering the mix together - and the utter stress of doing a mix to a film that wasn't locked down. Fascinating to me to see that after I had watched the film and notice all the little things that go into a really good mix.
posted by ladyriffraff at 8:13 PM on December 11, 2012

You might try "Drive," a very strange and violent movie that was nominated for an Oscar in this category in 2011. There's not as much dialogue as in a typical movie of its length, but you can practically close your eyes and see what's happening anyway.

But it's really violent.

Also, and I cannot recommend this highly enough for anyone who has a new home theater, get your hands on the new remastered bluray of "Jaws." Talk about seeing (and hearing) something again for the first time. Wow.
posted by kostia at 11:48 AM on December 12, 2012

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