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Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Best Sounding Movies of 2018

It's been a fantastic year for sound in film, and as GeekRex's resident sound guy, I look forward to making my picks all year! The lineup of films is pretty awesome, and one of my picks has maybe the best mix in cinematic history. Hopefully this will open some ears and give you a peek behind the curtain into the insane efforts that sound professionals go to for the movies we love!

Alfonso Cuarón  - Director
Skip Lievsay and Craig Henighan  - Re-Recording Mixers
Sergio Diaz - Sound Designer / Supervising Sound Editor
José Antonio García - Production Sound Mixer

Alfonso Cuarón’s newest opus really captures the magnificence of an ordinary life, how every life is full of strange, coincidental, scary, tragic, and even heroic moments. It is fitting, then, that he and his sound team crafted a film that is just as intimate in the aural realm as it is in the visual. The level of detail in the sound is pretty incredible; at any given moment, you are sure to hear a dog barking next door, a man walking down the street blowing a whistle, children playing a few blocks away, an airplane soaring overhead, and a radio playing on a nearby rooftop on top of what is actually happening just in front of the camera. The exceptionally rich ambiences are only made better by what I consider to be perhaps the most beautiful film mix in cinematic history. Skip Lievsay manages to keep every sound, from those ambiences to voices to footsteps, exactly where they should be in space around the viewer, even as the camera regularly does 360° turns. This brings a wonderful immediacy to every scene, as it places the viewer very firmly inside what’s happening.

There’s a moment when Cleo says something like, “This place looks like home. It even sounds like it.” Cuarón and co. have managed to create the sound version of his signature long take, and the results are sublime; after spending time with the movie, it begins to sound like home. Without a doubt the best sounding movie this year, and one of the best of all-time.

More about the sound of Roma:

A Quiet Place
John Krasinski - Director
Brandon Proctor - Re-Recording Mixer
Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn - Supervising Sound Editor
Michael Barosky - Production Sound Mixer

On the surface, you might think it would be easy to work in the sound department of a movie where the characters’ survival depends on them being silent at all times. What this means, though, is that because of the near complete lack of audible dialogue, the film’s entire soundscape is carried by ambience and foley. The sound team had to find ways to record the quietest sounds–like a piece of felt touching a board game–and make them audible and meaningful within the mix. The result is a mix that is rich with incredibly subtle detail, and one that really amps up the terror with the contrast between these quiet scenes and the intense ones. Like the loudness wars in modern music, modern films tend to not have much dynamic range (the range between the loudest sound and the quietest sound) because we’re taught to keep things at moderately consistent levels for the comfort of the listener. But that isn’t how life sounds, and the team behind A Quiet Place really understands that.

More about the sound of A Quiet Place

Mission Impossible: Fallout
Christopher McQuarrie - Director
Gilbert Lake and Mike Prestwood Smith - Re-Recording Mixer
James Mather - Supervising Sound Editor
Chris Munro - Production Sound Mixer

Action and war movies always take center stage in the sound categories at the Oscars, and there’s a reason: every bullet fired, every explosion, and every car crash has to be created and edited in place. For a film like Mission Impossible: Fallout, there are all those challenges and more. Here’s an example: the production sound team led by Chris Munro managed to actively record dialogue during the real high altitude jump and the real helicopter chase by hiding mics in helmets and even utilizing a military grade microphone that resides in a custom earpiece and records the voice through the bones in Cruise’s skull. They did this while also recording live surround sound effects that were used throughout the final mix. Another example: according to Supervising Sound Editor James Mather, every punch in the film is made up of about 20 different elements to achieve just the right impact. The result is a film that feels as real in the sound realm as its incredible stunts, and will certainly leave a lasting mark on how action movie sound is done.

More about the sound in Mission Impossible: Fallout:

Coralie Fargeat - Director
Cristinel Sirli - Re-Recording Mixer
Alain Féat - Sound Designer / Supervising Sound Editor
Zacharie Naciri - Production Sound Mixer

While the academy has come around to recognizing the sound achievements of sci-fi, those of horror films tend to be sadly overlooked, especially indie ones. Revenge is all about the impossible survival of a young woman who is pushed off a cliff, the the brutal retribution she doles out on her attackers, so there’s a lot of bloody material for the sound team to work with. From the sounds of ants and splintering wood as she gets herself off the sharp branch that has pierced her body, to the sizzle of searing flesh as she cauterizes the wound with a fire-heated beer can, the movie is full of hard-to-hear sounds. The surreal cave sequence as Jen struggles to maintain the focus to stay alive is particularly impressive, but the whole film is a study in awesome bloody sound design.

First Man
Damien Chazelle - Director
Ai-Ling Lee - Re-Recording Mixer / Sound Designer / Supervising Sound Editor
Frank A. Montaño and Jon Taylor - Re-Recording Mixer
Mildred Iatrou - Supervising Sound Editor
Mary H. Ellis - Production Sound Mixer

While the film itself is a bit of a letdown after the successes of La La Land and Whiplash, from a sound perspective it is firing on all cylinders. The team worked to make the sounds of the original spacecraft as authentic as possible, but the goal was to make everything as intimate as they could, with something like Das Boot as the reference for the feeling of claustrophobia. The use of the astronauts’ breaths contrasted with the impossibly loud rocket launches are wonderful, and the creative use of sound to help sell when Armstrong is trapped in an uncontrolled spin really work. If nothing else, First Man is able to place the viewer squarely inside an important historical event in a way that feels authentic and real, and that’s worth a lot of praise.

More about the sound of First Man:

Ari Aster - Director
Lewis Goldstein - Re-Recording Mixer / Supervising Sound Editor
Tom Ryan - Re-Recording Mixer
Steven C. Laneri and Viktor Weiszhaupt - Production Sound Mixers

And the award for the sound effect I’ll never be able to get out of my head! Hereditary has some of the most disturbing sound design moments in any film I’ve ever seen, and in the two scenes I’m particularly thinking of (the car and the attic), you hear what’s happening before you see it, so the sound is crucial to the buildup. In addition to the great work done in the scariest spots, there’s a lot of subtle work done to help put the viewer on edge, from moving sounds and music around throughout the surround field to soft creaks in the house that hint that they are not alone. The team also worked carefully to provide different perspective throughout different rooms in the house, which really gives you a sense of space not usually present.

More about the sound in Hereditary:

Some Others Worth Mentioning:

The Haunting of Hill House - Easily the best sound in a series I’ve seen in quite a while, particularly in the incredible long take episode (read more here).

They Shall Not Grow Old - The monumental task of recreating the sounds (and voices!) of 100 year old World War I footage with incredible authenticity is worth a big shout out.

Blindspotting - One of my favorite movies of the year, and the sound in the dream and flashback sequences are super interesting and surreal.

Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse - Super fun comic booky sound design that led my wife and I both to remark about ‘that awesome sound that plays every time the Prowler shows up’.

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