Oscars? The finalists are announced any day now but today its just my subjective opinion as I finally got to experience the Coen Brothers new film: “No Country For Old Men” and I only have one word to describe it: genius. Thanks to you can read an interview with Sound Designer/Re-recording Mixer Craig Berkey here, but this should all be secondary to seeing & hearing the film. Heres the first (& best) trailer:

And the more cliched ‘movie trailer’ trailer (ie too much obvious exposition/voice over)

Why I consider the film & its soundtrack genius mainly comes down to restraint and while the following quote was referencing physical design, I believe it also relates to the design of the elements that what make a film soundtrack truly great: “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery. This approach is almost the antithesis of the usual Hollywood BLOCKBUSTER approach, where generally speaking, “more is more” and bigger is better. It is also a good rule of thumb when layering elements to create complex sound effects!

But the film’s soundtrack still contains all the expected elements of any good soundtrack ie dialogue, ambiences, sound effects & foley. However why it is able to function so clearly & effectively is very significantly due to the lack of score. Carter Burwell, composer & long time collaborator with the Coen Brothers contributed less than sixteen minutes of score to the film (& that includes five minutes of credits) in a film that is two and a half hours long!
Quoting from a New York Times article about the film Exploiting Sound, Exploring Silence Carter Burwell: “If you ask film composers — and I have — whether they feel there’s too much or too little music in the average film, they will all say too much,” he said. “I’m very happy this time to be on the other side of that balance.”
The article also goes on to discuss some of the subtle techniques employed to use music without drawing overt attention to it: “The nocturnal driving scenes are occasions for the composer Mr. Burwell’s near-subliminal drone to creep into the sound mix. “The idea was to use the music to deepen the tension in some of these transitional scenes, when there’s not much going on,” he said. “The sounds are snuck in underneath the wind or the sound of a car. When the wind or car goes away, the sound is left behind, but you never hear it appear.”

One less obvious aspect of film making to the outsider is that while creative accidents occur in the making of a film & are sometimes used, the actual finished product is debated & considered very carefully. If a scene plays quietly it is for a reason & will have been discussed many times by the director, mixers & sound editors during the creation & realisation of the soundtrack. Accordingly one last quote from that NY Times article is indicative of the justification of the use of minimal sound in one specific instance: “There is at least one sequence in No Country for Old Men that could be termed Hitchcockian in its virtuosic deployment of sound. Holed up in a hotel room, Mr. Brolin’s character awaits the arrival of his pursuer, Chigurh. He hears a distant noise (meant to be the scrape of a chair, Mr. Berkey said). He calls the lobby. The rings are audible through the handset and, faintly, from downstairs. No one answers. Footsteps pad down the hall. The beeps of Chigurh’s tracking device increase in frequency. Then there is a series of soft squeaks — only when the sliver of light under the door vanishes is it clear that a light bulb has been carefully unscrewed.
“That was an experiment in what we called the edge of perception,” Mr. Lievsay said. “Ethan especially kept asking us to turn it lower and lower.”
Ethan Coen said, “Josh’s character is straining to hear, and you want to be in his point of view, likewise straining to hear.” The effect can be lost, he conceded, “if it’s a louder crowd and the room is lousy.”
Joel Coen interjected, “If it’s a loud crowd at that point, the film isn’t working anyway.”

And that last comment is incredibly inciteful – many times in mixes balance & level decisions can veer towards the side of caution, when the reality is often such that if the audience isn’t fully engaged with the film & really listening then using less dynamic range really won’t help bring them back.

Got a favourite sound in a Coen Brothers film? Theres plenty I could name, many from Barton Funk especially the reception bell gag at the hotel… and the drooping wallpaper… and the fire sounds…. and..

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