Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal takes viewers inside the mind of Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a metal drummer who loses his hearing. Nicolas Becker’s sound design reveals the extent of Ruben’s diminished auditory faculties and the distorted perception of normal sounds when Ruben gets a cochlear implant. Becker recorded the sounds of Ahmed’s body and used contact microphones for capturing sound as vibrations through solid objects.

Becker, Jaime Baksht, Michelle Couttolenc, Carlos Cortes and Phillip Bladh have been nominated in the Best Sound category at the 93rd Academy Awards. Ahmed has also been nominated as an Actor In A Leading Role. Oscar-winning sound designer Resul Pookutty told Scroll.in about why the movie’s sonicscape is crucial to understanding Ruben’s journey.

Sound as vibration

Sound of Metal is a technical triumph, where the sound is in the foreground. What is fascinating is not the technique, but the thought that went behind it.

It’s often said that a film is made on the editing table, but this movie was made on the sound design table. Nobody really knows what a deaf person actually hears, but Nicolas Becker ensures that you believes that what you hear exactly on the screen is the only thing that Ruben could possibly hear.

When one loses hearing, it is natural to be unable to hear the high and mid-level frequencies, which give sound intelligibility. We will only hear the low frequencies, which we register as vibrations.

The sound design of Sound of Metal (2020).

The human ear has a hearing range of 20 Hz to 20 kHz. The threshold of human hearing is 120 db. Not everyone can capture lower frequencies, such as those below 35 Hz. So while mixing a film’s sound, we separate the subharmonic frequencies, pass them through a separate chain, which is what you hear via the subwoofer track. This is the point one track in a 5.1 surround mix.

This is what you experience in the theatre as vibrations. When you are in a rock concert in a closed room, and just the kick drum is being played, the low frequencies bounce off the wall and create standing waves that hit your body. In sound design, we work on which area of the body you should feel the sound.

In the theatre, when the lights go dark, and everyone is hopefully quiet, the only and first sound you hear is your own breath. There is your heartbeat and the flow of your blood in your veins. This creates a rhythm, with which the rhythm of the film’s sound design interacts, although you may not perceive it upfront.

This is similar to the viewing experience of the film Gravity. There is no sound in space, but you still feel sound through the vibrations in the sound design.

The experience of sound in a theatre will always be different from what you experience on an OTT platform. In film, we work with a broad dynamic range, which is not the case with an online release or a YouTube release. That said, we design the sound cinematically in all cases. The difference happens in the final mix.

The sound design of Gravity (2013).

Because I am a sound man, I understand what Ruben goes through. Ruben is someone who is always exposed to heavy sound. I know he is losing his hearing right from the beginning because I hear the muffled voice and distorted sounds from minute one. He cannot hear the singer’s verses, for example.

We have also listened to loud sounds for so many years that sometimes I reach home and I feel a ringing sound in my ear, which is probably like the onset of tinnitus.

The film reminded me of my time working on Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black. For the first shooting schedule in Shimla, we were about to travel from Delhi to Chandigarh in a propeller plane. As we approached the propellers, the sound was immense. A deaf and blind person was with us. I asked him, what do you hear? He said, a dim muted sound.

During the shooting, a HMI light [hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide lamp used to simulate daylight in dark conditions] was panned across the face of a blind man. We asked him, what did he see? He said, whiteness.

These things give us clues as technicians. The absence of senses is not nothingness. There is always something, and the job is to create that missing something. For Rani’s deaf character in Black, I put a microphone inside a conch and recorded the sound of the air trapped in it. I felt that is possibly what she would hear.

I also recorded ambient sounds and then cut out all the living elements. So the sound of cars or birds was gone and what remained was an impression of the living elements.

Resul Pookutty masterclass.

In Sound of Metal, you notice this in the scene in which Ruben tries to feel the vibrations of the piano played by the music teacher in the deaf people’s facility. The film constantly shifts between Ruben’s sonic perspective and the world outside him. We hear the song as it is, and then slowly, as the camera dwells on Ruben, the song becomes an impression of it as the melodic element is gone.

This is like the recording of Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room, in which he recorded himself saying “I am sitting in a room,” and kept playing it back and recording it till the recording became an impression of his voice.

The biggest lesson of Sound of Metal is that disability, which can happen to someone at any time in life, is not a problem to fix. The deaf community with whom we interacted during Black believed this as well.

Ruben is told by the Paul Raci character that it is in stillness that one finds the kingdom of god. In the kingdom of god, no one is different. Ruben finds it in the end when he gets rid of his implants and accepts his deafness for what it is.

(As told to Devarsi Ghosh.)

Also read:

Resul Pookutty’s amazing journey: ‘Sound designers have gone from being anonymous to having fans’