26 April 2021

Sound of Metal: An immersion in sensory disorientation

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What does it feel like to lose one of your senses? What does it sound like?

This is the question at the heart of Sound of Metal – one of the year’s most talked about films, in which Riz Ahmed delivers a career-defining performance as a metal drummer who loses his hearing.

The result of a 12-year journey from page to screen, the film orients its audience directly in the experience of sudden sensory deprivation – exploring themes of identity and authenticity through a unique language of sonic perspective. And as a result, it’s picked up the Bafta and Oscar awards for Best Sound. Following these remarkable wins, we’re exploring how Composer, Nicolas Becker, and Director, Darius Marder, have so deftly personified a human catastrophe of faith with the power of sound…

Sound is unlike anything else. You can’t take a picture of sound. When we remember it, we can hear it in our heads. Sound is time.

Beginning life as an unfinished project starring sludge-metal duo Jucifer, the bones of the abandoned script were adopted by Darius Marder, who was intrigued by the opportunity to connect with his own family’s history of deafness. Bringing together the seemingly incongruent worlds of the deaf community, addiction recovery, and punk metal, we follow Ruben (Riz Ahemd) from life on the road in a touring band, to learning to cope with his hearing loss at a sober group home for deaf people, and finally, in the aftermath of being fitted for cochlear implants.

In preparation for the role, Ahmed spent eight months training in several different disciplines; most significantly, drumming and American Sign Language. It’s a committed, visceral performance that sees him find new levels of artistic expression in A S L, and invites the viewer into his character’s headspace – but it’s the sound design that elevates the concept by fully immersing us in sensory disorientation.

The story’s sonic impression was so critical to Marder’s vision, he brought Becker on-board – a top foley artist who also created sound effects for Luca Guadagnino’s Suspira, and the Academy award-winning Arriva. Having had his own brush with hearing loss caused by an affinity for loud music, Becker knew that deafness is rarely silent – so rather than simply dipping the volume to indicate a shift to Ruben’s perspective, he set out to design a complex, organic soundscape that leverages naturalistic sounds to deliver on its high concept.

The process began with in-depth research into a French school for the deaf, various interviews with audiologists, and consultations with deaf people born with hearing. He then re-created the sensation of cochlear implants by taking these descriptions, and breaking them down into harmonics, noises, and transients, before reconstructing them individually.

Becker also adopted the naturalistic approach of sound design in European filmmaking, employing an array of recording techniques, Foley effects, and distortions to replicate the output of cochlear implants. For other scenes, he built a small bone mic which was placed inside Ahmed’s mouth to record his breathing, swallowing, and even the sound of his eyelids closing. Ahmed also wore an earpiece which simulated the high-pitched ringing in Ruben’s ears during the concert scene, adding authenticity to this pivotal moment of panic before grounding us, the audience, in the sudden hearing loss with the sound of clashing cymbals fading into muffled, distorted underwater music.

Because both the complex sound design and the interspersed moments of silence are so essential to this telling of inner struggle, it was essential that the score wasn’t on-top or surrounding them, but instead internal and inseparable. This task fell to Abraham Marder, who co-wrote the screenplay with brother Darius. Directed by the cast performance, he made the conscious decision to forgo adding more traditional musical scoring in lieu of using Baschet structures – giant freeform metal sound cones originally created to help disabled people express themselves through percussive vibrations.

Traditionally, sound follows visuals – but by inverting this approach, Becker and Marder have created what they refer to as a ‘point of hearing.’ A dripping tap… the needle dropping on a vinyl… a screaming crowd in a packed, sweaty room… rustling leaves… and devastating moments of utter silence – for the duration of Sound of Metal, we occupy Ruben’s body and mind as we watch his story unfold.

Sound of Metal is testament to how filmmakers can utilise score and sound design to shape how we connect with their work. But more importantly, the film invites us to meditate on the stillness in silence when the clatter of everyday life quietens.

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