Warning: This article contains several video clips showing scenes of graphic violence.
Oscars tend to come in clusters: Hugo was nominated for 11 this year; The Artist is up for 10; Moneyball and War Horse are eligible for 6 each. It makes sense that a great movie would be the sum of great parts. But movies that clean up in the major categories don’t always dominate in the more technical ones. The awards for visual effects, costume design, sound mixing, and the like tend to invite more lone-wolf nominations. Makeup artists, for example, don't need a stellar cast or script to support their work; in fact, they're most likely to get noticed in low-grade entertainments: monster movies, cross-dressing comedies, and films about fat people who are played by skinny people. (Sometimes a makeup artist will get credit for hitting all three at once: Think of the Oscar-nominated Norbit.)
The same logic applies to sound editors. They won't get any bonus points for laying the audio on a classy art-house film. (This year's favorite for best picture is almost entirely silent.) If a sound guy wants to show off, he'll need something else—the audio equivalent of Eddie Murphy in a fat suit. He'll need the opportunity to work with the kinds of noises that people remember when they leave the theater—explosions and car crashes, automatic gunfire and faces pounded into the floor. He'll need movie violence, preferably lots of it.
A look at recent nominees for best sound editing turns up a string of noisy, violent, and often unloved action flicks. Last year it was Unstoppable and Tron: Legacy. Go back further and the trash piles up—Wanted (2008), Transformers (2007), Apocalpyto (2006). In the 1990s, the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Eraser earned a nomination, as did the Sylvester Stallone film Cliffhanger and the Steven Seagal film Under Siege. Yes, a Steven Seagal movie was nominated for an Academy Award.
This year's list includes a couple of classy pictures, Hugo and War Horse, but also a violent thriller, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and a cacophonous metal pileup, Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Yet none of these is as innovative, or makes better use of its soundtrack to evoke violence, as the final nominee, Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive. And no scene in Drive offers a more potent and precise soundtrack for brutality than its acclaimed face-stomping sequence.
The scene begins (spoiler alert) with the faint squeak of an elevator door—"a sense of opening into a small and confined world where things are going to change," says supervising sound editor Lon Bender of Soundelux, who stands to win the Oscar with his colleague Victor Ray Ennis. The Ryan Gosling character, known as Driver, steps into this world with Irene (Carey Mulligan), and the elevator car hums and creaks its way down toward the garage. But when Driver sees a gun in the pocket of the elevator's only other passenger, a hit man, the elevator noises disappear. The lights dim as Driver kisses Irene in slow-motion. Then, suddenly, the sound is back and we're in the midst of some raucous violence: a pair of hollow, crashing sounds as Driver smashes the hit man’s head into the elevator walls; then more clunking as he falls to the ground and Driver starts stomping on his head, once, twice, three times, with his boot. The sound of leather on skin shifts as the assault goes on toward a blend of moisture and crunch. At the 12th stomp, it's clear from the audio that bones are breaking, and by the end of the sequence, after 15 seconds and 17 stomps, the dry and featureless thud has been transformed into a deathly squish. The elevator doors slide open again, with the same faint squeak they did before—Bender calls this a "sonic signature"—and Irene flees into the garage.
What makes the elevator scene so effectively gross, and so grossly effective? Let's start with the squish. According to Mark Berger, a multiple-Oscar-winning sound editor who now teaches at UC-Berkeley, each violent impact is orchestrated like a musical chord. An editor might start with a thumping base note, he says—the sound of a 2-by-4 being smacked against a side of beef—and then add in some upper frequencies with a bundle of dry twigs being snapped or a plastic cup getting broken. Then he'd finish off the effect by filling out its mid-notes with something gloopy, like the sound of a ripe melon dropped on cement. By tweaking the proportions of these ingredients, he can build something dry and tough, or moist and oozy.
The wetter sounds have tended to be the province of horror films (like John Carpenter's Vampires, known for the moist and squirty hearts of its title characters) and ultra-violent video games. A few years ago, the Joystiq blog posted a charming clip of sound editors reaming cucumbers, squeezing oranges, and attacking watermelons and cantaloupes with a hammer to make the juicy sounds they needed for a first-person shooter. The dramatic squish from Drive isn't any sort of innovation on its own terms, but it does represent an unusually graphic sound effect for what was pretty much a mainstream film.
The makers of Drive weren't trying to make the sounds of violent impact seem realistic. Like most sound editors, Bender says there's no clear relationship between what you'd hear in a movie fight and what you might hear in real life. Since very few people know what it actually sounds like to stomp someone's face in an elevator, the audio for a movie beating has to come from a sound editor's imagination. Soundtracks may be even more stylized and coded than on-screen visuals. "The criterion isn't authenticity," explains Mark Berger, the Berkeley professor. "It's perceived authenticity."
Lisa Coulthard, an ex-foley-artist who now teaches film studies at the University of British Columbia, says the conventional sound of a punch has changed dramatically since the days of classic Hollywood cinema. At first, cinematic punches were quieter and less dramatic than they are today, which was more realistic in an absolute sense—they were more like what you might hear in a real fistfight. But over time, she says, audiences have come to expect a louder and more layered effect. She cites an early scene from Fight Club, in which the fisticuffs begin in a natural register—which sounds fake to contemporary ears—and then escalate in volume and resonance.
The original Hollywood face punches were established in the early 1930s, according to sound designer and historian Ben Burtt. One in particular, apparently recorded for the Marx Brothers movie Horse Feathers, became a mainstay in the Paramount sound library. No one knows how this sound was generated, but Burtt describes it as "a leathery kind of wallop," like two baseball mitts being slapped together.
How did the sound of violence get from the thwack of Horse Feathers to the squishes of Vampires and Drive? The language of sound evolves, says Berger, as each editor pushes against the boundaries of convention and cliché. In orchestrating violence for a film like Apocalypse Now, or The Godfather 2, he might have cut eight different versions of each bloody sequence, at varying degrees of intensity. Then he'd work with the director to decide which version would take them to the edge of what's expected or acceptable without tipping into exploitation or schlock.
A few films have changed the language more explicitly. To construct the punching sounds for Raging Bull (1980), supervising sound editor Frank Warner started with a standard side of beef, but layered in bits of manipulated music, roaring animals, jet engines, and flashbulbs to create a brittle, electric, and wheezy mix of sounds that's unique to the film. (Even so, The Empire Strikes Back won the Oscar for sound that year.)
There's nothing quite so avant-garde in the elevator scene from Drive, but Bender and Ennis have made their own more subtle additions to the vocabulary of concussive violence. To depict the crushing of the skull, they used the slowed-down noise of cracking nuts; for the blood they recorded the sloshing of a viscous liquid. But to complement these "obvious" sounds, as he calls them—the squishing and gushing and head-crunching—Bender and his colleagues added another track, of Ryan Gosling breathing and snorting and firing spittle. Not every viewer will be aware of this additional noise, but it adds ferocity and intimacy to the scene. "We tried to create the personal experience of [killing someone], of going through the effort of doing it," says Bender.
The elevator sequence benefits from another trick of sound editing, in which a flash of quiet sets up an outburst of audible violence. In this promotional video clip, Bender explains how he removed the elevator noise in the moments before the action begins. It's another technique that was pushed to the limit in Raging Bull, where, in the instant before Sugar Ray Robinson unleashes on Jake LaMotta, there's only a faint rumble on the soundtrack. But continuing advances in theatrical sound systems since the mid-1970s have made the contrast between silence and violence greater than ever before, by eliminating any last vestiges of hiss and distortion. It's now possible to suck the audio right out of a theater, leaving members of the audience in a true stillness.
Better speakers and innovative sound design can certainly make on-screen violence more intense and affecting—but always at the risk of going too far. Consider the curb-stomping scene from American History X (1998). Supervising sound editor Frederick Howard overloads the violence with the amplified sound of the victim's teeth scraping and clattering against concrete. It's like nails on a chalkboard, and then the stomp plays out in a muffled crunch. That moment, once commended by critics as a bit of "horrifying gusto," now feels gratuitous.
Lon Bender knows the dangers of overselling the violence. For the original version of Braveheart, Bender and his colleague Per Hallberg illustrated the climactic disembowelment and beheading with the sounds of metal scraping on bones and sloshing blood. But after some people walked out of a preview screening at that moment, Bender and Hallberg stripped out the noise in favor of James Horner's orchestral score. The film went on to win an Oscar for best sound editing. (Horner got an Oscar, too.)
We might wish that the director and film editor of Drive had shown similar restraint. If there's one moment in the elevator that does bludgeon one's sensibility—and risks losing a visceral effect in actual, on-screen viscera—it's the 14th stomp in the sequence. We've already heard the thud turn into a crunch on its way to a squish. But the film won't let the brilliant sound editing carry the scene. Instead, we see a close-up of the cadaver's face, all caved in with a foot in the middle. Thud, crunch, squish. Wasn't that enough?
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