Films sonically reshape violent scenes

By now audiences know what they are going to hear when a gun fires, a car crashes or an explosion triggers. That level of familiarity helps sound designers and mixers create a baseline of reality in a movie.

However, a number of Oscar-nominated films — “The Dark Knight,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Wanted” — feature sounds of violence that have been stylized to elicit a different kind of visceral experience.

During the opening scene in “The Dark Knight,” for instance, when the bank manager fires a shotgun at robbers, supervising sound editor Richard King boosted the roar of the gunshot by placing sound in all of the speakers, where a normal gunshot effect might only go into the theater’s front speakers.

It was a way to catch the audience’s attention. “There is always the idea to push it one step further,” he says, “but you want to do it in a way that draws the audience into the story. It has to serve some dramatic purpose.”

Glenn Freemantle, supervising sound editor on “Slumdog Millionaire,” points out that the affected sounds of gunshots and violence were a way to put the viewer into the character’s position.

“We were trying to take a psychological, character-driven approach,” he says. “The sound of the gunshot was not treated as a realistic event, but rather as an auditory event from the point of view of whichever character was involved.”

For example, when the character Salim shoots Maman, the gunshot sound is softened to a dull report, and then the soundscape transforms to seem as if the characters are underwater. “We wanted it to sound as if Salim was completely detached from the reality of what he has done,” Freemantle explains.

On “Wanted,” explains supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman, the sound palette was twisted by paying attention to both the audio and visual rhythm of the film.

“Because our hero has the ability to work within the beats of time, we marked that through sound design, music and David Brenner’s film editing style,” he says. “That’s how we explored violence in the film — we gave it a rhythm and an organic beat, then applied it to the visuals, the music and sound. That’s really what makes the film feel different.”

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