Sparse soundtracks

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Can there be too much sound on a film? See a dog, hear a dog, I know, but recently I’ve been liking films with somewhat sparser mixes. Upstream Color comes to mind. Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows Part 1, which sounds like a relentlessly stripped-down mix – things are there, merely very quiet. Interested in examples in both too much and beautifully little?

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I agree with you Georgi – I much prefer a sensitive quiet soundtrack, rather than brash, hyperactive. Quiet films I love would include everything by Bela Tarr, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Kim Ki Duk along with a lot of Japanese films (minimalism seems to be a well understood aesthetic in many Japanese arts)

I’ve always believed when working on a film it is as (or more) important to identify the quietest moments in the films soundtrack, than the loudest. In the quiet moments every detail becomes crucial, and I find it conceptually far more interesting territory than how to make guns or explosions LOUDERER… To each their own

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I really enjoyed the sparseness of Steve McQueen’s Hunger.  I think it helped convey the sense of isolation and despair the prisoners must have felt.

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A film with a sparse soundtrack I really like is No Country for Old Men. The film itself was most disturbing but the sound treatment mesmerized me.

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I was speaking with Tom Fleischman recently and he revealed that the new Scorsese film “Silence” might not only be the quietest film he has ever mixed, but maybe the quietest film he has ever seen period. Very limited music and lots of meditative moments of quiet. This made for a very tough mix and edit. It also takes place hundreds of years ago in Japan so great care was taken to find as accurate as possible ambiences. They had to have the correct insects and birds and obviously zero plane or motor traffic.   I am looking forward to seeing/hearing it in a couple weeks when it comes out.

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Silence is just another tool that we have at our disposal as sound designers, it just has to be used correctly.

I usually use it when I’m trying to convey an intimate moment within a story. If, for example, a couple is about to kiss, I strip everything down to room tone and Foley. I make sure you can hear the sound of the guy’s jumper as he shyly places his hand on the girl’s arm. Silence can really make a moment like this more magical, rather than drowning it in music or hearing some sirens blaring outside.

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Great stuff above. AviZiz is right: No Country for Old Men is a stunner. What about Robert Bresson’s L’Argent? Or Pat McCabe’s Silence?

I work in Radio and it is a similar problem: voice, colour in voice with sound/music and repeat ad nauseum. Worse, now in Radio Drama is the omnipotent narrator who tells you what to hear and then what you have heard. It’s Radio by numbers, a child’s colouring book. Perhaps the flaw is our (as a culture) over reliance on narrative (or our paymasters saying this is so); for we dare not provoke the magical being called the Listener or Viewer.

Yet nobody it seems knows anything about this Listener/Viewer until its time to censor or change something. Then the Listener/Viewer is invoked, the sky thunders and the curtain in the temple is ripped in half, and the “change” is made. The Listener/Viewer as tyrannical as any Old Testament deity; as all knowing as any Comrade Stalin or Chairman Mao, or US President Elect.

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To mention a current movie, I found the sound of Arrival pretty sparse a lot of times which gave the movie a more intimate and somehow philosophical/spiritual feeling.

For sparse soundtracks in which every sound is carefully chosen I strongly recommend the films of Michael Haneke. The TV-Race scene in Funny Games is still one of my favorites.

Michael Haneke’s Use of Sound and Silence Explored in New Video Essay

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I really enjoyed Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake which features zero music, apart from one song played from am old hi fi system. This song also plays a significant role in the film. Other than that, just organic sound design which leads to a very “documentary” style of film. The story is tough and the actors do a tremendous role in drawing you into their plight, but sound also plays a significant role in captivating the audience. When I saw it, the entire cinema was transfixed and totally drawn in to the lives of the main characters.

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‘The Assassination of Jesse James’ is an often overlooked film that has a beautifully somber and sparse soundscape. There’s wonderfully still interiors, particularly in the latter half of the film in the James household; there are the barest hints of steam trains in the distance as a lovely motif for Jesse.

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