How 'Sound of Metal' got in tune with deafness
"Sound of Metal" won Oscars for best sound and best editing at the 93rd Academy Awards on April 25. This story, published ahead of the awards, features interviews with sound designer Nicolas Becker and editor Mikkel Nielsen explaining their innovative approach to the film.
In a room in Paris, sound designer Nicolas Becker and director Darius Marder sat in silence. They were inside an anechoic chamber, a room designed to swallow noise. In the silence, their bodies awoke. Tendons and bones creaked, hearts thudded; blood found a voice as it coursed through veins. The sound of silence was anything but -- a useful reminder for the project they were about to embark on.
The two were preparing for "Sound of Metal," a film about Ruben, an American rock drummer and recovering addict who suddenly loses his hearing. Played by Riz Ahmed, Ruben must "learn to be deaf," reluctantly joining a house for recovering addicts from the Deaf community in Missouri, run by Vietnam veteran Joe (Paul Raci). But despite the warm welcome, Ruben remains determined to get his hearing back, whatever the cost.
Over a decade in the making, Marder's directorial debut is nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards on April 25. It is a rare cinematic beast, in that while its performances have been lauded and the writing praised (Ahmed, Raci and Marder are all nominated for Oscars), the film's sound has taken equal billing.
Becker's name has leapt into headlines thanks to his work in "Sound of Metal," for which he has already won a BAFTA. So too editor Mikkel Nielsen, who shaped a film aiming to be inclusive for audiences hearing and Deaf. Both find themselves Oscar frontrunners.
Integral to the film is Ruben's point of hearing (POH), in which hearing audiences are brought inside his perspective, building sensory empathy for a character shocked by then grown accustomed to his hearing loss.
Having crafted POH sound for "Gravity" and "127 Hours" Becker was hired to create an aural landscape for deafness. His first discussions with Marder took place over a year before the shoot, with sound taking higher-than-usual status in the hierarchy of the production, he says.
Key to the experience was recreating solidian sound, "which is everything you can hear through your body," Becker explains. Examples include sound experienced underwater, or low bass frequencies at a concert: vibrations are felt not through the ears but resonate through tissue and bones and are reconstructed by the brain. These were sounds that Ruben would hear.
On set, Becker spent hours recording the sound of Ahmed's body using a host of custom-made equipment. They included geophones (used to record earthquakes), hydrophones (used to record sounds underwater), stethoscopes and microphones many times more sensitive than human ears.
"We had a mic on the skull, we had a mic in the mouth and we had a mic on the chest," he says, so during the film we're literally hearing sounds from inside the actor.
Becker also aided Ahmed in what was a chronological and immersive shoot, providing the actor with earplugs that could be remotely triggered to transmit pink noise (similar to white noise) "to simulate different states of hearing loss."
"For sound people, it's very rare that we can actually interact with actors," says Becker. "Riz, even if he's a star, was super open, staying three or more hours to do the sound."
The nuances of inclusive filmmaking
Everything heard in "Sound of Metal," from a heavy metal concert to Ahmed's eyelids closing, is an original recording. There are no sounds from commercially available libraries. "I absolutely love that," says Nielsen. "I even started as a sound designer before editing, so it was super interesting to work with."
Marder had pitched Nielsen an idea to make a movie "where Deaf people see the film as a whole," while "a hearing person (feels) like the minority," says the editor. "He was just raising the bar on so many levels, I thought I have to sign up for this."
The intention was to mirror Ruben's experiences through omissions -- and not just omission of sound. For example, before Ruben learns American Sign Language (ASL) it is left uncaptioned, shutting out audiences without knowledge of ASL.
"It was so critical that you're never ahead of him; you can never know more than your main character," says Nielsen. "It's easy to say but it's difficult to do, because there's information in everything."
At the same time, he needed to construct scenes with dialogue in a way that created an inclusive experience for Deaf audiences, while highlighting the complexities of communication. In editing the first conversation between Ruben and Joe, Nielsen needed to factor in Joe's lipreading skills, Ruben's deafness and the real-time transcribing machine Ruben uses to understand Joe -- all before he could consider the content of the conversation and its emotional impact. "It demands so much," says the editor.
Despite the crew's efforts to make the film inclusive, there are still moments where it falls short, according to Deaf writer Sara Novic. In some scenes from Ruben's POH, the film's captions lack detail, closing off Deaf audiences from part of his experience, she argues.
"Reading (the words) 'distorted sound' over and over again doesn't demonstrate concretely the gaps in what Ruben is understanding, nor does it carry the emotional weight of what the hearing viewer is experiencing," she explained in an email.
Novic is more positive about the film's depiction of cochlear implants -- devices that turn sounds into electronic signals that stimulate the cochlea in the inner ear, which the brain recognizes as sound.
After assimilating into the Deaf community, Ruben opts to have implants fitted out of a belief they will give him his old life back. But with metallic distortion and an unfamiliar depth of sound, they prove a disappointment.
"We knew it needed to be a very strong experience," says Becker, who provided Nielsen with an experimental piece of software that processed sound the same way a cochlear implant would.
In one of the film's most overwhelming scenes, Ruben struggles to navigate a Parisian garden party. We hear snatches of conversations, background noises brought into the foreground and a lack of three-dimensionality. "You have a feeling of complete loneliness, and you being so disoriented because all the sound sources come from everywhere," says Nielsen. "It's almost like a horror movie for me as a hearing person."
The simulation in "Sound of Metal" is in contrast to how the technology is often presented in the media -- sometimes as a silver bullet or a miracle cure for deafness.
"Deaf people have spoken extensively about how cochlear implants are not cures or quick fixes," says Novic, but she feels hearing people often struggle to understand that. "If that experience clarifies [for a hearing viewer] what cochlear implants can and cannot do ... I think that's a good thing."
"We can still find ways to give you a new experience"
Whether it wins Oscars or not on April 25, the film is a showcase for the power sound can have in cinema. For those involved, there's a sense of validation, also.
"For many years, we (Becker and Nielsen) had the feeling that we were keeping some stuff (back), because people were thinking it would be too experimental or too different," says Becker. "This film was a magnificent way to show that it's totally possible to work in that way."
And though the journey may not be complete for Deaf representation on screen, the film has undoubtedly resonated with hearing audiences.
"It's extremely interesting that after 130 years in cinema, we can still find ways to give you a new experience," says Nielsen.
"It's almost like a piano," he adds. "You have the sound, you have the image, but it's the way you play with them, and suddenly you create a whole new way to see it."