How Sound of Metal’s First 15 Minutes Guaranteed Their Oscar Success [spoiler free!]
Nominees, winners, Oscars… Hollywood patting itself on the back is often a sordid affair, rife with ignorance regarding representation and international cinema. In 2019, however, Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite was the first non-English language film to win Best Picture, providing some indication that times were changing.
Many bad things have happened since then, with the last two years being more tumultuous than the Academy Awards itself. An impressive feat, considering the size of the Oscars’ own list of controversies:
But let’s focus on the positives. On Sunday the 25th of April, 2021, Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal won two Academy Awards. Two Academy Awards for which it was very, very deserving: Best Film Editing, and Best Sound. A few weeks prior, the film had also landed Best Editing and Best Sound from the BAFTAs, with many more awards and nominations beforehand.
Why? Sure, the film is unanimously loved, holding a plethora of critical acclaim from just about every reviewer out there. Lots of films have great editing, though - and they don’t (always) win. Likewise, some movies sound fantastic, yet fall short when it comes to being recognised for doing so.
Being a company that creates both sound and editing tools, we have some explanations. 3 key ones, in fact, all perfectly showcased within Sound of Metal’s first 15 minutes. By carefully intertwining the two elements it won awards for, Sound of Metal ensured success in both categories. Here’s how.
Well, kinda. Motif usually refers to a recurring, dominant element in a piece of art, such as shattered glass in a drama, or light/dark fo. Sound of Metal is a tad more subtle than that, using something more akin to scene-specific leitmotifs. As this is our first point, let’s use the very first scene of the movie:
You’ll probably recognise the very first sound you hear. Amp feedback can conjure happy memories of band practices and gigs, or painful ones of spectacular mishaps causing ear-splitting cataclysms of sound. In this scene, the often-musical leitmotif is replaced by this recurring noise of feedback, appearing before and after the live performance.
These ‘bookends’ of feedback serve many purposes. They emulate the atmosphere of a live concert, maintain a consistent ambience throughout the single-setting scene, and offer up a core sound through which other effects can be contrasted against. All important, when your movie is providing audio that it will later twist and alter.
The first of these contrasting sounds is the music being performed itself. Working hand-in-hand with the editing, lighting changes are synced to drumbeats, and cuts happen on/off the beat depending on distortion levels. Prior amp feedback creates anticipation, culminating in one clamor of a crescendo.
The second of these contrasting sounds happens right after. As the musicians stop playing and amp feedback returns to the level we heard before, another sound wanders forth. It’s subtle, and to hear it properly you’ll need some decent headphones and a high-quality stream. Hear it?
That sound, carefully weaved into the amp feedback soundscape, is tinnitus. Ringing. An audio hangover known to many a gig-goer. A very bad sound indeed, this ringing is synonymous with hearing loss. Which is synonymous with listening to loud music. Which is synonymous with metal. And so on.
All of these ideas are conjured by that faint whisper of tinnitus, right as the first scene closes and the title card emerges. It’s something wholly non-diegetic, and therefore completely different to all prior sounds you’ve heard since that ugly Amazon Studios plug before the film. Cementing fears from the film’s description, or planting them if you went in blind (or deaf), it’s a powerful sound effect, made even more powerful by the fact that it’s so subtle.
Many other, non-academy-award-for-sound-and-film-editing films would have some overbearing SFX here. Something audiences far from a movie theatre or pair of headphones would appreciate. Sound of Metal doesn’t give in to that, though. Which is why it’s great.
After that aforementioned tinnitus sound, we have a smash cut. Smash cuts usually look like this:
A rapid, off-the-cuff cut, often switching from relative calm to a mad scene, or frantic movement. As seen here by Mr. Pink. Thank you, Mr. Pink.
Sound of Metal does not look like that. The cut is equally jarring, but in reverse. A noisy, tinnitus-inflected concert venue suddenly dissipates for a quiet scene of Americana - a car park.
The volume level is actually pretty similar to the prior gig scene. It just feels a whole lot quieter. That’s because we hear ambience all the time in reality. We’d go crazy in ~45mins if we didn’t. By using an accurate soundscape of an abandoned, overgrown car park, Sound of Metal chucks us into a whole new, yet wholly recognizable, environment.
Gigs are (often) expensive events, filled with unique sounds, anticipation, and memorable experiences. Car parks don’t really offer any of those things, unless you’re really weird. By switching between the two so suddenly, Sound of Metal creates a more impactful transition. A foley artist’s wet dream of leaves rustling, crickets chirping, and cars chugging along.
This movie did nothing new - ambience is a well-worn tool, used by the vast majority of cinema to provide a ‘background’ to scenes. Search YouTube for indie shorts or film school projects - if they sound weird, it’s often lack of ambience just as much as bad recording techniques. Yet, by highlighting the ambience via harsh scene cutting, it provides a pretty unique effect, and one that is the perfect backdrop for:
Sound of Metal has really good internal logic. It has to. A musician is going deaf, the film is mostly from his perspective, it can’t make the audience go slowly deaf (without breaking a myriad of laws) - so, it has to have really good internal logic.
It does this via diegetic sounds. I mentioned this term before, but for those of you unfamiliar with it, diegetic effectively refers to in-universe sounds. During a film, if the camera was your own point-of-view, could you hear the sounds? If yes (an alarm buzzing, phone ringing, record playing), it’s diegetic. If not (orchestral scores, character narration, a lightbulb pinging to imply a eureka moment), it’s non-diegetic.
Throughout the first 15 minutes of the movie, you’d be hard-pressed to find a non-diegetic sound. That tinnitus effect we heard before comes closest in the first scene - we just saw the drummer protagonist, so is it what Riz Ahmed’s hearing? Is it a collective experience caused by the loud concert? Who knows, and that doesn’t matter - the audience can hear it.
Following on, we hear a bunch of distinctive sound effects that highlight actions on-scene. Coffee-dripping, blending up a smoothie, clothes rustling during a workout. They’re super prominent, elevated above the background ambience, and finely detailed to an almost-ASMR level of quality. This location and these actions then repeat several minutes later, after a re-introduction of the tinnitus SFX. Now they’re muffled, completely distorted, and almost indecipherable. Physically, these objects should still make the same sound as before, but because the drummer we’re following is going deaf, they aren’t. The internal logic is entirely upheld, sealing his probable fate with a damningly oppressive sound effect.
This idea of internal logic is perhaps most prominent during the pharmacy and doctor scenes, which end our 15 minute examination. The film breaks two laws of physics:
- A chemist’s handwriting is even remotely legible.
- A doctor’s handwriting is even slightly comprehensible.
Jokes aside, these scenes flick between the perspective of Ruben, our protagonist, and the specialists he’s seeing. When we’re in Ruben’s sound perspective, everything is muffled. When we’re outside of his shoes, everything is normal. This meticulous internal logic is reinforced by the cinematography and upheld throughout the movie, so that whenever it breaks, it’s impactful and there for a reason.
To find out more about this character’s journey, our team at accusonus wholeheartedly recommends you give this film a watch. From Olivia Cooke and Riz Ahmed’s performances, to the sound design and editing this article is about, it’s a stunning spectacle, and one worthy of the acclaim it has received.