Editor’s Note: “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.”