How do you create sound design for a film that hinges on silence? That was the challenge for composer-sound designer Nicolas Becker on writer-director Darius Marder’s drama “Sound of Metal,” in which Riz Ahmed plays Ruben, a heavy metal drummer who is slowly losing his hearing. The Amazon Prime release is available Dec. 4.
Becker has worked on films with complicated soundscapes before, like the Academy Award-winning “Gravity” and “Arrival,” but in “Sound of Metal,” his work becomes a character in the story: It was up to Becker to help deliver the movie’s goal of placing the viewer inside Ruben’s head.
Marder and Becker started talking strategy a year before shooting. The two met in Paris and, at Becker’s suggestion, experienced 10 minutes of absolute silence — and total darkness — in an anechoic chamber. As the chamber absorbed all noise, the director was aware of sounds he’d not been conscious of. Notes Becker, “When you’re in it, you start hearing the sound of your tendons and the blood flowing through your body.”
The experience prompted the filmmakers to take a naturalistic approach to sound design; rather than rely on a sound library, Becker used the human body to generate the sounds he needed. With a stethoscope and sensitive microphones attached to Ahmed’s frame, the designer captured the actor’s breathing, his voice, his muscle movement and even the moment he opened his mouth. “That’s Riz who you’re hearing in the film,” Becker explains.
Ahmed had special cochlear earplugs that helped mimic hearing loss, representing the progression of the character’s condition. Becker took the live feed of the boom from the production sound engineer, which was then put into a sound processor and fed into the earplugs. As hearing loss happens, Becker says, the sound of your own body gets louder, which became a metaphor for the isolation Ruben begins to feel.
Music was an essential component to the film as well, and Becker collaborated with Abraham Marder, the director’s brother, to compose the minimalist score. A cristal baschet — a rare organ made of glass shafts and played with wet fingers to produce a vibrating sound— became the core instrument.
“It is the sound of metal,” Becker notes. “That vibration helped represent Ruben’s inner thoughts as his [hearing] deteriorates. By mimicking hearing loss correctly,” he adds, “you can connect the audience through their own cognitive memory experiences, whether having a pillow over your head or being immersed underwater.”
The mix took a total of 20 weeks, as sound cuts in and out, and the character experiences muffling and tinnitus. “When I first started, I found myself a sheet of metal and put my head on it and tried to understand what I was feeling,” Becker says. What he discovered became the essence that sound plays in the film.