Sound design is a critical element in filmmaking, but is often overlooked by audiences.
NOTE: Contains spoilers for the movies Nope and Gravity.
When most people watch a movie, whether in a theater or streaming at home, they often pay attention to what is directly in front of them— the visuals. The cinematography of a film is often at the forefront of any praise or criticism because it is an audience’s first impression of the central message. What often goes unnoticed, although it is also an essential component, is the sound design. The sound often complements the visuals so effectively that most audiences forget it is there and lump it together with the visuals as the overall production when discussing the film. However, it can play an important role in influencing an audience’s perception of the message.
Jordan Peele’s 2022 science fiction horror film Nope is a recent movie that relies heavily on this concept. When setting out to make the film, Peele emphasized the focus on “spectacle,” a visually striking performance or display. But rather than focusing explicitly on horrific imagery, like many other movies, the creators of Nope used sound to force audiences to picture what could be happening when the visuals are obscured. Thus, it completes the transition from simple horror to abject terror. In these cases, few scenes would be more impactful than leaving them open to interpretation.
CalTech professor John O. Dabiri collaborated with the filmmaking team on the design of the alien, “Jean Jacket,” and focused particularly on its biblical angel form with some inspiration derived from sea creatures to imagine a hypothetical, undiscovered sky predator. They sought to realistically imagine how such a predator could hide in the clouds, and in the final product, Jean Jacket is unseen for much of the film. And in some scenes, Jean Jacket is not seen at all. Instead, the audience only observes what is happening on the ground, such as the blood raining down on the family house, or Jean Jacket hovering above OJ in his truck. In these scenes, the sound takes over from the visuals. Nope’s Sound designer Johnnie Burn said in an interview with IndieWire that “the early conversations were along the lines of ‘we want to be super realistic.’ […] And for that, we were kind of resisting the urge to hear anything from the monster early on, because we wanted it to be credible that this was a predator – and how could something so large be getting away with this if it was making a big noise?”
One of the most impactful uses of sound in Nope is not using sound at all. There are several scenes where the audience is only left with the sounds of nature to build anticipation. And in terms of sound design, context matters most. The sounds of nature are normally unsuspecting. But when the main characters are being hunted by an unseen predator, for example, the sounds become unsettling. In the first act, the audience is only clued into Jean Jacket’s presence when the main character, OJ Haywood, reacts to the unusual neighing of his family’s horses. Later, when theme park visitors are abducted by Jean Jacket, viewers never see the monster. Instead, they only see the horrified reactions of the visitors and hear the building sound from the alien. Jean Jacket is not seen until a standoff with the main characters in the final act forces it out of hiding.
Nope took advantage of the Dolby Atmos sound system available in most American theaters, which places sound within pinpoint accuracy in 360 degrees around the audience. Jordan Peele said in an interview with IndieWire, “it’s not just dumping a wall of sound at people, but sort of honoring the way we actually hear things.”
One of the realities of “the way we actually hear things” is that the auditory sense can be easily fooled. One example is the Shepard tone, an illusion that sounds like an infinitely rising musical scale. It works by layering multiple tones separated by an octave. The highest tone gets quieter as it moves up, the lowest tone gets louder, and the tone in the middle stays at the same volume. Christophe Habuirsin, a journalist for Vox, described it “like a barber’s pole, constantly seeming to rise without actually going anywhere. Put that in a soundtrack, and it creates the sound of rising tension that carries the screenplay forward.” However, the effect is not exclusive to film scores. In the 2008 movie The Dark Knight, a Shephard tone created the acceleration sound effects for the Batpod, producing the illusion of increasing speed and heightened anxiety.
Nope is far from the first movie, even recently, to use auditory cues to suggest a deeper meaning to the audience. It stems from the “New Hollywood Golden Age,” which began in the 1970s and 1980s. During this era, filmmakers such as George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, and Mike Nichols would have a lasting impact on the importance of sound in cinema. The original Star Wars movies, in terms of sound design, are considered to be some of the most significant of all time. It would be difficult to find someone who cannot immediately recognize the hum and bashes of the lightsabers, funny growls from characters like Chewbacca, or the electronic chirping from R2-D2.
In recent years with the rise of digital production, more filmmakers have capitalized on sound to convey their messages. One example is Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), a science fiction thriller film depicting two American astronauts’ attempts to get home after their space shuttle was destroyed by space debris. It received widespread critical acclaim for its visual effects, but what often went unrecognized was its hyper-realistic sound design. Much of the movie takes place in space, which is silent because there is no air to carry it. Thus, the team took a very different approach. In the movie, there are no traditional sound effects. Instead, the soundtrack takes over for much of the film, conveying the dramatic situations the characters find themselves in where their physical environment remains silent, which remains the case until the sole surviving astronaut makes it back to Earth.
Hundreds of elements go into making a film, and while sound design is only one of them, it is often one of the most overlooked. However, viewers should be aware that the creative minds behind the scenes may be using sound to subconsciously influence their thinking. The most impactful films tend to spur the audience’s imagination through inventive methods rather than spoon-feeding the message from beginning to end.