INTERVIEW: ‘Sound of Metal’ Sound Designer Nicolas Becker
Sound of Metal is the story of Ruben (Riz Ahmed) – the drummer in a metal band who suddenly experiences massive hearing loss. As he is also an addict, his bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) is worried that he is going to relapse and encourages him to go to a rehab centre run by Joe (Paul Raci).
The sound design is a huge part of the film and helps the audience experience something close to what Ruben is going through, both when he can hear close to nothing and also when he has cochlear implants fitted.
Nicolas Becker has worked as a foley artist (mainly in Europe) since 1992. He has worked with British directors Andrea Arnold and Danny Boyle. Since working on Boyle’s 127 Hours in 2010, he has worked on some more high-profile, big-budget and Oscar-nominated films. He was a foley artist on The Impossible (2012), Gravity (2013), Ex Machina (2014), Arrival (2016) and Suspiria (2018).
Thanks for your time today, I know you’re busy doing back-to-back interviews.
Yes, it’s quite unusual.
You get to be the star for once, I guess.
Yes, normally no one wants to speak about the sound of the film, but on this film, everyone has realised “oh the sound is amazing!” but I’ve been doing sound on films for thirty years…
You’ve got all of the attention all of a sudden.
Yes, well I mean, I like it! I’m trying to use this moment to say it’s always possible to work deeply and seriously, with consistency on the sound in film. If you actually start to think about it before. Some people only think about the sound and music when the picture is finished and it’s in editing. What was amazing with Darius (Marder, director of Sound of Metal) was to be able to start the process before the shoot.
Were the sound cues present in the script from the beginning? Was it specified where you would use muffled sound, or for the sound to be cut out – how did you develop it?
What was very interesting is that maybe one year before the shoot, we (Darius and I) spent one week together in order to understand each other. We showed each other some films, we spoke about the main character. We were trying to understand how we should work, how we would work with the picture editor. The fact that when I’m doing sound supervising, I always like to come on the shoot, to feel the mood, to record some sound, I like to prepare a sound library for the editor. I also like to collaborate with the composer.
The fact that I started to work with conceptual artists, challenged me to change my practice. Because the way they work is more intimate, with 5 or 6 people, they work for a long time together, they really concentrate and weave their ideas together. The other thing I learned from conceptual artists is that the film is not only about the result, it’s the journey. You have to make something coherent between the meaning of the film and your practice.
A long time ago, when I was a foley artist, in the foley theatre, we would have the director with us nearly all of the time. So I had the chance to work and spend a lot of time with directors. Later it became that people had less money and less time to make films and we moved from analogue to digital, everyone was hyper-specialised. It became very hard to get the director for more than one day. It became super-industrialised, speaking from my experience, because I’m more based in Europe, where films are less commerical, they are smaller-scale.
When I started to do some sound design, I was thinking I have no connection anymore with directors, this is a problem for me. I choose to do this work to spend time with the director, to have enough time to go into his brain, to understand his world. After that I moved from foley and sound design and I started doing more sound supervising because it was a way for me to reconnect myself with directors. My process permitted me to connect with all of the different people who are working on the film. For me a film is a small utopia, where you can really collaborate very closely, in a real intimate way with people to create fiction. And I think on Sound of Metal you can feel that.
How did you create the effect of Ruben’s hearing loss and convey it to the audience (before he gets the implants)?
I had some experience on some other films, like 127 Hours, Gravity, Arrival or Ex Machina, where I tried to work on this idea of inner world. So I did a lot of tests already before I started work on Sound of Metal, I had a lot of practice of working with POV, not music-based or effect-based, more of a naturalistic version of it. I have a friend who is developing a device to permit people with no hearing to be able to listen to concerts, hear films or music through body contact. When you lose your hearing, you don’t really hear but you feel things through your skin, through the cavities of your bones. Through the vibrations, your brain is able to reconstruct something.
So I spent some time with Riz (Ahmed, star of Sound of Metal) and I recorded some sound, using a stethoscopic mic, extremely sensitive contact microphones, I created a microphone you can put in your mouth. So I did a lot of recordings with Riz, recording his body sounds, like blood pressure, heartbeat, tendon sounds. So sometimes it’s very subtle, but it’s there. I think that’s something people know, unconsciously even, when we dream, we are in connection with all these vibrations or when we are underwater. We know the inner sound of the body. So the idea was to create sounds in the most naturalistic way possible because people have sound memory, so to be able to do something realistic will put them in contact with their own body memory. So it was to create something physical and the body doesn’t lie, so in a way, it was a very simple approach. Asking the actors to learn sign language or learn how to drum – there’s a documentary approach in the film. Darius (and his brother Abe, who co-wrote the film) did such incredible work, they spent so much time and spoke to so many people, when they started to work with me, they already knew everything.
There are parts of the film where the sound is less internalised and it goes in the opposite direction and is more heightened. I wanted to ask about the meal scenes at the rehab centre and also the scene where Ruben is drumming on a slide with one of the kids from the school for the deaf.
When we were working very closely with the director and the picture editor, we realised that it could become very tiring for the audience to move from the subjective perspective to the external perspective all the time. So we worked hard on finding the right arc for it. So the start is very dedicated to establishing the vocabulary of the film and then we started to make it lighter. So at the start, there is a certain way to do the sonic subjective style. But then we varied it, so sometimes there would be close-ups of Ruben, but the sound would still be normal. So we didn’t want to create a routine, but to give room for the audience to think about the meaning of the film. So the last scene is the opposite, the negative of the first scene.
Some people spend more time doing the sound technically, on big explosions and action sequences, but it doesn’t mean very much, it’s just performative. I think that was the opposite here, we knew it would not be so complicated, technically, but it was going to be very important to get the arc right. And controlling all the small aspects, how the additional music interacts in a very subtle way, to always keep the memory of the first scene present. We spent so much time getting it right and that’s why this film is radical, in a way, to be able to show the complexity of the world and to do that, we had to work in a complex way with everyone on the film, to weave everything together.
Can I ask you about creating the effect of the sound that Ruben experiences once he does get implants, particularly in the party scene in France, where the sound is very overhwelming?
What’s interesting is that there are people who have lost hearing during their life, so they know how to describe sound. So they can describe the experience of having the implants and how it sounds to them. From the description they gave to us, I tried different kinds of processing. We thought it would be interesting not to use the old analogue tools, which separate sounds very simply into low, middle and high frequency. The digital tools really permit you to separate sound in other ways. You can put all the harmonics and tonal material on one side, you can have all the noise on another side and all the transients on another. So it became a bit like a Frankenstein’s monster, something which is rebuilt from bits, but it doesn’t sound right or complete or well done. I composed the sound, separated all of this material and I recomposed it after. And what you can hear in the film is that nothing sounds right, so you’re getting information but not exactly the right thing at the right moment, it becomes very tiring.
What’s also important is the fact that when you have hearing implants, you are a bit lost in space. This applies in two situations – when you have the same sound coming from everywhere around you and you don’t know if it’s coming from left or right, so you cannot do localisation. The other one is when you have a complex wave of information, which your brain can’t analyse. We did some tests and Darius decided to go with the one that was tougher and harder. After all the silent moments, he wanted to come back to a stronger experience, like the first concert.