Inside the Oscar-Winning Editing and Sound Design of “Sound of Metal”
When Sound of Metal premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, the indie film about a rock drummer who loses his hearing immediately created a loud buzz among critics.
Garnering six Oscar nominations with wins for Best Film Editing and Best Sound; four BAFTA nominations with wins for both Best Editing and Best Sound; and an ACE Eddie nomination for Best Edited Feature Film (Dramatic), it’s obvious that the editorial and sound teams have done something remarkable to bring director Darius Marder’s vision to life.
How did they take the audience into the main character’s experience of losing his hearing in an authentic and accessible way?
In this installment of Made in Frame, we talk to editor Mikkel Nielsen and Caviar + Loom Executive Producer Post-Production Corentin de Saedeleer to learn more about the creative challenges and post-production workflow.
A creative connection
Mikkel Nielsen calls Copenhagen, Denmark home, but travels to the U.S. to cut spots for commercial post house Rock Paper Scissors (NY/LA).
Nominated for seven Danish Film Awards for feature editing, he’s won two back-to-back in 2004 and 2005, and just took home the BAFTA for Sound of Metal.
While many editors come to projects as early as the script stage, Mikkel and Darius didn’t connect until well into production—just weeks before principal photography wrapped. A documentary editor himself, Darius talked with Mikkel about how he would approach this film which, although fictional, has a distinctly documentary feel, with actual members of the deaf community appearing on screen in lieu of professional actors.
In fact, the creative kernel of the movie came from a documentary that Darius’s friend Derek Cianfrance had been working on that Darius was editing. It focuses on a band called Jucifer, which had a member who lost his hearing.
Unable to finish it himself, Derek suggested that Darius take it over. As he crafted the script for what would become Sound of Metal, he obsessed over how to give us the main character’s perspective.
“He spent so many years trying to develop this and it was very dear to him,” Mikkel says. “But I connected with the material because I’m a drummer myself. I’ve been drumming all my life and have always had a drum kit in my edit room. To lose your sense of hearing would be terrible.”
From that point on, Mikkel wanted to explore the material without too much input from Marder.
“The way I work is that I screen and mark footage for the first two or three weeks. Every film has its own rhythm, and I kind of find the material’s and the characters’ rhythm and do a first pass. My first pass was maybe three hours and 45 minutes, and that took me about two weeks after selecting all the scenes. For me, it’s interesting to put everything together fast to see what we have,” Mikkel says.
“Then you start playing. I can easily start taking out things that I don’t like or think could potentially work in a better way, but I think it would be wrong to do that, or at least I would probably do it on the side and have it as a backup. And sometimes I put things together wrong compared to the director’s vision, but there’s really no right or wrong in the editing room. Any idea should be allowed and it should be a safe area for the director, for me, for the producer, for the actor, for anyone to say, ‘It’s terrible.’ But at least then we know that this path doesn’t work.”
In order to get the film down from that length to its eventual two hours, Marder and Nielsen needed to apply some guiding principles around what was necessary and what was a detour.
“There was a lot of really nice material, especially at the school for deaf children,” Mikkel recalls, “but somehow it felt like we had to stay with Ruben’s journey all the way. And sometimes less is more.”
As a first-time feature director, Darius took a couple of big risks.
First, he elected to shoot on 35mm celluloid which, on an indie budget, may seem expensive. But he felt that the discipline of having a finite quantity of film stock would force him to be more economical in terms of time—reportedly, he averaged two takes per setup.
Second, the film was shot in chronological order, which is unusual for a narrative feature film.
Shooting outside of Boston in the U.S. and in Belgium as a substitute for Paris, the footage was sent to FotoKem in LA to be developed and scanned. Caviar’s in-house post-production unit, Loom (LA), received HD dailies for the Avid editorial and H.264 dailies which they put up on Frame.io. They also received DPX files from the film scans for use in the final digital intermediate and for VFX production.
In the past, Loom worked with several of the common dailies platforms but found that there were several advantages to using Frame.io.
Corentin De Saedeleer explains, “For the past year or two, we’ve been moving over to just Frame.io so we have a single vendor that allows us to keep the dailies up throughout the entire production. We also use it for intermediate cuts and even for re-cuts of the film.”
“With the dailies for editorial, we were still using a regular pipeline. FotoKem would give us a drive and we’d ingest the footage manually and sync in Avid,” Corentin says. But as beta testers for the Secure Sharing and Watermark ID features, they were able to securely share the dailies with the production.
“For dailies, we used secure links rather than adding Collaborators to reduce the financial impact. It’s very rare that I have someone commenting on or drawing on dailies, but the idea is to have the most complete toolbox, and whether we use a tool or not, it should be there if necessary. Frame.io is about sharing video, but it’s also about communication, and what makes me confident about the product is that there is constant development.”
An immersive experience
Perhaps the biggest creative challenge with this film was how to really draw a hearing audience into Ruben’s experience of becoming deaf.
“It’s very important to get into his head. For Ruben, it’s all about awakening the senses,” Mikkel says. “Normally you start by telling the audience what the issues are.” But in Sound of Metal the filmmakers make it a slow, sometimes elliptical reveal, which means that the audience feels as left out and frustrated at times as Ruben does.
Mikkel recalls the ambitious goals Marder had at the outset. “He wanted it to be an experience where a deaf person—for the first time—would be able see this film, and hearing people would see it as deaf people would normally see a film.”
“We have to know as little as he knows, so when we enter the deaf community, we have to see the world just the way he sees it.”
To help achieve that goal, Marder and Mikkel discussed the idea that for the audience to authentically go on the journey of the main character, they couldn’t know more than he could at any given time. That led to the creative choice of not subtitling all the sign language.
“We have to know as little as he knows,” Mikkel says, “So when we enter the deaf community, we have to see the world just the way he sees it.”
For example, in the early scenes of Ruben and the other community residents around the dinner table, they’re talking in ASL and laughing, and just as Ruben can’t understand what they’re saying, those of us who also don’t use ASL can’t, either, because there are no subtitles.
The captioning process was a significant aspect of the workflow, for which they reviewed the captions in Frame.io.
“Darius was very demanding and gave us a lot of specific comments,” Corentin says.
Another interesting sequence is when Ruben has to communicate with Joe, who runs the house where Ruben stays. In the film, Joe reads lips and can speak and sign, but Ruben can neither hear Joe speak nor understand ASL. Joe must communicate with him using a computer that transcribes spoken words and displays them in real time on the screen—which means you essentially have three characters in that scene.
“The trick,” Mikkel says, “was to understand that every time Ruben looks to the left, he’s reading. And it has to feel right. You would normally cut to that character—the monitor— but it would take ages if he had to read all these lines every time someone said it. The next challenge was: do we actually have to stay out in wider shots? Can we go into close ups? Do we need to see the screen all the time? So it was super interesting to edit these scenes.”
Opportunities in sound design
Obviously, a movie about a newly-deaf character presents interesting creative opportunities.
There’s the process of Ruben losing his ability to hear, what that sounds like to him and to the viewer, and how it works to draw a hearing audience into his experience.
Sound designer Nicolas Becker worked closely with Darius to establish the sonic qualities, as Mikkel worked with Darius to weave them into the story to keep the audience connected to Ruben’s journey. Nicolas created a tinnitus sound to help viewers experience what Ruben’s hearing as he goes deaf.
“It’s about feeling Ruben’s perspective because we need to understand how big of a loss this is,” Mikkel says. He worked with only eight audio tracks, with the dialogue in mono and the atmospherics in stereo.
“I got a lot of atmospherics from Nicolas and then I would play around with filters and drones to get the sense and feeling of when to go in or out of Ruben’s head.”
The sound design became even more challenging when Nicolas needed to replicate the quality of sound through the cochlear implants. Nicolas gave Mikkel a program called IRCAM to create the distorted sound of the hearing aids. Mikkel then exported all of the audio for that part of the film, ran it through the filter, and reimported the results. He could then choose to mix that noise back in at will.
“I would watch everything with it,” Mikkel explains, “and then could experiment. How long can you actually stay in that insane digital sound?”
And then there is the music component. Given that the film is about a musical couple, it’s notable that there are only two pieces of music in the film.
“It’s not music in the sense of a score. It’s all in the sense of a personal journey and that was a key to finding the film,” Mikkel says.
“The choice to start the movie on Ruben drumming is strong because it’s your sole way of knowing who he is. And then when he loses his hearing you know that he’s losing the thing that defines him.”
A unique opportunity
One of the other opportunities that affected the creative course of the film was that they had the chance to re-edit the film after the Toronto International Film Festival Screening.
“That’s a gift,” Mikkel says. “Who gets to see it with fresh eyes after you’ve seen how people react? It’s just about being as precise as possible in what you’re trying to achieve or tell.”
And once again, Frame.io was integral to the editorial review process as they tightened up the film by another ten minutes.
Loom also used Frame.io to create screeners once the film was completed. “When we’re producing a movie, it seems like every three days we’re asked to send out a cut to one of the investors or producers,” Corentin says.
“So we share it from Frame.io. I create an invitation on the link. It’s secure, I check the ‘not downloadable’ option, and it’s passphrase protected. That gives us two levels of security.”
They also create a personalized watermark for each production. “We usually create a template using the metadata field—the IP user and time are the main ones that are automatically generated by the system. We also use a custom field for PROPERTY OF and the production company name.”
Corentin looks to the future, predicting that visible watermarks will become obsolete. “I hope we’ll move to more of a forensic type of watermarking – a kind of watermark that’s invisible to the client, and is embedded in the media.”
A successful collaboration
It’s reported that Sound of Metal cost less than $10 million to produce.
But clearly, the collaboration between Darius, Mikkel, and Nicolas created something that surpassed even Mikkel’s expectations.
“When we initially spoke, Darius told me all the things he wanted to achieve,” he says. “To be honest, I felt that if we could achieve 60 or 70 percent of his vision, it would be amazing. But I doubted it, because it was a lot to ask for and as a first-time feature director he was challenging the story to the extreme. But I found that attractive, and I was willing to go all the way with him, in that sense.”
Everyone involved with the project knew that Darius had spent more than 10 years bringing his film to the screen and were willing to fully commit to his vision.
From Oscar-nominated lead actor Riz Ahmed learning ASL and how to play drums, to Mikkel “wanting to go a ton of extra miles,” their work has already been rewarded with numerous awards and accolades.
While the audience goes on an emotional journey with Ruben, Mikkel felt that likewise he went on a journey with his collaborators. It was Darius’s dream to make this movie—and we’ll soon see whether Oscar dreams come true.