The 94th Academy Awards are nearly upon us, and after last year’s pared back pandemic Oscars, the 2022 ceremony is set to see a return to the full-scale pageantry and louche, un-socially distanced behaviour.
However, in response to the public’s waning interest in marathon award broadcasts, the Academy has declared that eight prizes – including best sound – will this year be presented before the live telecast begins, presumably because the show’s producers think that viewers aren't as interested in the more 'technical' Oscar categories.
The decision has already proved to be controversial, and not just among those who have seen recognition for their specialism relegated from the industry's biggest night in favour of awkward celebrity skits. The devaluing of these categories comes at a time when we’re watching more movies than ever. With most of the nominees already available to stream, dissect and compare, we think the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is missing an opportunity to engage with viewers and build interest in these increasingly unseen skills.
Big names in the movie industry are keen to evangelise about the value of the big screen over streaming, and isn’t sound one of the fundamental elements of film that makes the full cinematic experience so worthwhile? We certainly think so.
Sound adds depth to a production that an audience can instantly and instinctively respond to. From building immersive, authentic locations in The Power Of The Dog and Dune to preserving an iconic aesthetic while adding a fresh perspective in West Side Story and No Time To Die, to subtly letting us occupy a character's viewpoint in Belfast, this year’s nominees for best sound all offer a masterclass on how to help tell incredible stories using sound.
With that in mind, we’ve compiled a rundown of all of our favourite sound moments in this year’s nominees, giving you a helping hand if you're in the mood to really push your home cinema system or soundbar.
Warning! While we've avoided outright plot spoilers, this article does reference details in the films that some people may prefer not to know before watching.
No Time to Die
We’re used to Bond films opening with a big set-piece, but No Time To Die switches things up from the outset, beginning with a flashback to Madeline's childhood in Norway that’s much more low-key and quietly terrifying.
Throughout this scene, there’s an elongated, sinister quality to every audible element from the crampons of avenging terrorist Lyutsifer Safin as he edges toward the isolated house to the slow door creek as he enters. Mirroring the bleakness of the landscape, every sound is given its own space, building intensity without overloading the viewer with layers of sound.
The film’s slow-burn start means that later, the ambush at Vesper’s tomb has an even greater impact. That explosive sequence in the graveyard leads onto one of the film’s standout sound design moments as Bond temporarily loses his hearing and the audience is given his sonic point of view. Instead of relying on a tinnitus ring, the designers filter out most of the sound, leaving just the low, vibrational elements of Bond’s gasps and movements. Even the score gets this treatment, and for the first time, Bond’s vulnerability is alluded to before the crack of the bullet whizzes past, and we’re back in classic 007 territory.
In the spectacular action sequence that follows, there are still plenty of wonderful details to be found, particularly if you get the opportunity to listen on a Dolby Atmos system. The rain of bullets on the Aston Martin while Bond, thinking he’s been betrayed, belligerently sits inside alongside Madeline, is exquisitely rendered in 360 degrees from both an exterior and a cocooned interior perspective. Each concise crack and crunch varies, keeping the relentless onslaught dramatically interesting until the sound of crystals fragmenting hints to the audience that the car, like Bond, is not infallible.
There are many more moments of sonic storytelling to enjoy throughout the film, from the encompassing misty Range Rover chase sequence to the immersive reverberant spaces of Safin’s lair on Poison Garden Island, and the shift in the sound of the equipment as Bond moves from the futuristic acid farm to the more functional and clunky Soviet-era silo control room.
The sound of No Time to Die supports the film’s larger than life visuals and hits all the beats a well-versed audience demands but is still bursting with original, narrative sounds.
The Power Of The Dog
An intense physiological period drama with a slow-burn plot, The Power Of The Dog is set primarily on a remote ranch in rural Montana and uses a stark, minimalist sound design to reflect the isolating impact of the landscape.
The macro of the wide vistas and the micro of the strained familial relationships are represented throughout the film in a soundtrack that frequently flits with limits of audibility. A spectacular palette of winds is used, with close breezes in the grass used to both highlight and play against the expanse of the terrain and the lack of privacy in the family home implied by the gusts that rattle through its thin walls.
The characters in The Power Of The Dog may be repressed, but signature sounds are used almost as leitmotifs to represent their emotions. The film opens with hyper-macho bully Phil striding over the ranch, and the sound of his weighty boots and ringing spurs are used to symbolise his strength and domineering presence.
Throughout the film, the boots are used as an unconscious device to convey his ability to torment others. In a wordless two-minute scene in which Rose is practising the piano so she might later impress her husband's dinner guests, Phil plays along on his banjo, trying to put her off. Dolby Atmos is used to locate Rose downstairs and the banjo in the rear corner of the roof. The mix pinpoints his location as he moves around, eventually expanding to fill the ceiling giving the audience the impression that his taunts are now occupying all of Rose’s thoughts. The sound of his boots is then used suddenly to shock Rose and bring the drama to a head.
The film's score is similarly intentional, using only four instruments and frequently allowing space for focused moments of silence. With very little to hide, every sound and word of dialogue rings with incisive clarity and truth despite being used to subvert the audience.
The Power of the Dog watch it on Netflix (opens in new tab)
West Side Story
Tackling the dense layers of sound of a musical is hard enough without the added complication of a legendary original version with which many viewers will already be familiar. Undaunted by this legacy, the sound team for Steven Spielberg’s remake of the classic 1961 film created a fresh perspective, removing the tension between stylised operatic drama and gritty realism, and building a multifaceted soundscape in which all of these ideas can exist simultaneously.
This can be heard from the outset, particularly on a Dolby Atmos system, as the Jets' echoing three-note whistles immediately place the viewer in the deserted streets of New York, at midnight, and with a sense of sinister danger. The Jets are engaged in a turf war with the Sharks, even though their turf is about to be bulldozed in a city-sanctioned slum clearance to make way for the high art of the Lincoln Centre. The noise of construction and the ominous wrecking ball are threaded throughout the score, each element giving another dimension to the other.
It's well known that composer Leonard Bernstein was unhappy with how the first film sounded. The show he had written was initially scored for a Broadway pit band of 27, but for Hollywood this swelled to an orchestra of 72, with many solo wind parts being doubled or tripled, which Bernstein felt left it overblown and lacking in detail. The new orchestrations are for an even larger orchestra but are much more in line with the pared back Broadway arrangements, using Dolby Atmos to enhance, add scale or shine a light on featured moments as appropriate.
Throughout the film, movement isn’t just choreographed to the music; it's micro synchronised, both heightening the drama and allowing the action to more easily flow from book scene to musical number. In the moments leading up to the iconic song, America, an unseen neighbour reels in their washing line in time to a ticking solo woodblock. Then as Anita begins singing, the sound of her washing line and even clothes pegs are timed and mixed neatly into orchestral flourishes. Musical numbers can sometimes feel flat and lifeless because of the sudden loss of ambient noise. But the sound team on West Side Story go to great lengths to integrate everything from steps, shuffles and street sounds to the magnificent swirls of Anita’s skirt, which, when you consider just how much is going on, is no mean feat to carry off.
We’d be remiss to discuss the sound of this film without mentioning one of our favourite uses of an effect in a movie this year. The DC-AC converter that makes New York subway trains sound like they’re singing the first notes of Somewhere – sung toward the end of the film by Broadway royalty, Rita Moreno – is anachronistically but beautifully employed when Maria and Tony go on their first date, adding to the sense that at any moment the entire city could burst into song.
Musicals are often stigmatised for their artifice, but the sound of West Side Story is used unapologetically and seamlessly to support and unify the music and the story.
Based on the recollections of director Kenneth Branagh’s childhood growing up in Northern Ireland, Belfast is told uncynically from the point of view of 10-year-old Buddy. Despite taking place against a backdrop of civil unrest, Buddy’s story is front and centre, and The Troubles sit on the periphery of the narrative and, consequently, the sound design.
The sound team aren't always literal with their soundscape, instead giving the audience subtle hints that what we are hearing is being interpreted through a child's ears. Voices of authority figures are pitched down to appear scarier, and unrealistic sound effects that Buddy would have only heard in films are sometimes used, such as the Western-style American freight train in the opening scene.
As Belfast doesn't have a traditional score, it opens up space for the filmmakers to be freer with featured sound effects and dialogue, weaving them together to form a rich, hyper-real tapestry that bubbles around Buddy. There's always a sense of something going on just out of shot that filters into Buddy's consciousness through his ears. Voices are frequently moving off centre while helicopters pepper the skies overhead, creating a soundscape that matches the story in being both epic and narrow. The general absence of music means that when it is used, it has all the impact of a massive great needle drop, providing many of the film's most joyful moments.
The film starts in spectacular sonic style, particularly if you get the opportunity to listen on a Dolby Atmos system, with a hectic summer afternoon of neighbours and children buzzing around the street. Despite the complexity and movement of the encompassing dialogue, every syllable is clear as Buddy heads home before he clocks a sound that seems familiar – a train. We soon realise something is amiss as the camera tracks around a bewildered Buddy and the noise of the train gradually evolves into something else. The slow-motion noises of the rioters start to meld with an expansive undulating low tone, fading down into Buddy's breath before anarchic violence bursts out from all sides, raining rocks overhead. Seamlessly the bin lid Buddy has just been playing with as a pretend knight becomes a real-life shield, used by his mother to protect him from his neighbours. The composed mixing of this scene, and indeed the entire film, keeps the chaos cohesive, helping the audience access both the narrative and Buddy's confusion without explicit explanation.
Dune is that most rare of films – a subversive post-apocalyptic blockbuster entrenched in reality. To help ground its eccentric plot and surreal visuals, the sound design is used to construct a believable world full of desert landscapes and giant sandworms that the audience immediately feels a part of and protective toward. Of the 3200 custom sound effects created for the film, only four were totally synthesised. This means that rather than being faced with cold futurism found so often in sci-fi, Dune has a tactile familiarity.
The sound team have built Arrakis as a carefully sculpted sonic world, deeply rooted in authenticity, that delicately engulfs the audience creating a sense of intimacy as much as it does scale. In the scene about an hour into the film where we first encounter a giant sandworm, Paul and his father take a flight in an Ornithopter (a dragonfly-like aircraft) to inspect the spice harvest. The sound team manipulated organic insect and feline sounds to achieve the sound of a purring 'plane' flying high above the desert. As things start to go awry with the worm's arrival, Dolby Atmos is used expertly to create the stunning sensation of the craft dive-bombing deep into the sand storm.
What follows is an incredible all-encompassing sonic cocktail of moaning desert winds, tinkling granular dust, colossal monsters and glitching ethereal voices that flow in succession across a dynamic range that stuns. There’s very little dialogue, but the storytelling is clear, compelling, and beautifully capped off by a moment of stillness as the rattling aircraft and beleaguered crew return to base.
Hans Zimmer’s score is used to add even more layers of texture and emotional punch. The sound team use Dolby Atmos to pull his magnificent genre-bending score into every speaker in a way that integrates, rather than dominates, the rest of the audio. There’s a continual, seamless handing-over between the FX and music that unifies the soundfield and enhances the drama without overwhelming the viewer. It’s often said that awards for best sound go to films with the most sound rather than the best sound. We think Dune proves that, maybe, it’s possible to be both.
UK: Buy Dune from Amazon (opens in new tab) for £13.99
USA: Watch Dune on HBO Max (opens in new tab)