Favorites in film sound

A student asked me the other day what my favorite movies are for sound design. I named a few off the top of my head (Blade Runner, The New World, and Star Wars came quickly to mind). I told her I’d put a list together for her. So, on this cold and rainy Sunday afternoon, this is what I came up with. It’s a personal list, and not meant to be comprehensive in any way (not that that’s even possible). Anyway…


2001: A Space Odyssey
Silence, sparse dialogue, changes in ambience, orchestral musical score. Listen when Dave is in the pod and HAL is in the ship. The changes in silence, ambient sound, and dialogue is interesting. HAL’s ambient sound is very strong, with low frequencies. Dave’s environment is thin, with higher frequencies. This helps establish a difference in power.


Alien (original movie)
Interesting ambient sounds, dynamic mixing (loud/quiet). Listen to the scene where Brett tries to find the cat, Jonesy. There are different ambient sounds, silence, a heartbeat, the sounds of water and chains. Also, in the third act, there is no dialogue.


Apocalypse Now
A perfect compilation of breakthrough sound ideas. This film stretched the notion of what sound is capable of in movies. Sound design, music editing, diegetic/nondiegetic music all come together in very compelling ways.


Blade Runner
Great overall sound “atmosphere,” with big spaces and lots of reverb. It has a great musical score, which is both romantic and futuristic, like the movie. The movie is about memories, and the sounds and melodies help give a feeling of nostalgia. The music and SFX sometimes blend together, and in one scene the music becomes diegetic (when he plays the piano).


Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Music works its way into the story as a form of communication between the humans and aliens. There’s also great SFX editing. The sounds and lighting combine to help introduce these alien creatures.


There are two main scenes to note here. It has a wonderfully designed opening scene, where we pull back in space (and time) and hear Earth’s history. The second is the “traveling” scene, where the laws of physics break down. There’s an interesting combination of story and science in the design.


The Conversation
This is another movie where sound works its way into the narrative. (The story is co-written by sound designer Walter Murch.) The meaning of the dialogue changes later in the movie. There’s a lot here with “Point-of-audition” (POA) sound, audio technology, and the idea of surveillance and privacy.


The Doors
The music — quite literally — tells the story. Oliver Stone, with his music supervisors and editors, did an amazing job of sequencing songs so that the lyrics and songs help to develop the story arc. The music also gives a strong sense of 1960’s California culture.


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
This movie uses sound in a very powerful way to help establish the internal (subjective) experience of the character, combined with the external (objective) world of the story. These different worlds come together through overlapping soundtracks.


The Lord of the Rings (any of the trilogy)
These movies have fantastic sound in every area – recording, sound design, sound editing, mixing, character sounds, and music. The trilogy is a great example of the synchresis that happens when sound is applied to visuals. The sounds created here add incredible weight, depth and substance to the images, not only physically but also narratively.


The Matrix (original movie)
Not much to say, just brilliant sound design. Listen to the design when Neo learns about the real world.


The New World
This movie has an interesting challenge in telling a love story with little dialogue. Listen to the sections when the two begin to fall in love. There’s no dialogue. Instead the filmmakers use various sounds of culture, music, and voiceover. Listen to the difference between the quiet and simplicity of America contrasted with the noise of “civilized” London.


Saving Private Ryan
This movie has a highly “realistic” and personal war feeling. This is done through outstanding sound mixing, and some strong subjective and very emotional moments through certain sound treatments. Listen to the beginning and ending battle scenes. The movie has its flaws, but the sound is incredible.


Shakespeare In Love
The musical score and music editing is highly emotional (probably my favorite score ever). Listen to the “balcony” scene, which moves between two locations and is helped by music. Also, the music editing of the play at the end enhances all the emotional changes in the play and in the story behind the play. This movie is also a great presentation of the sound of theatre (dialogue and space).


The Shining
The music is very disturbing in this movie. The composition and editing is jarring and challenging to hear. Sometimes the music feels like the “ghost” characters.


Star Wars (all movies)
This is the most famous sound design in film history. The sounds are inextricably linked to the culture of the film. Listen to the weapons and spaceships. Also, listen to how sounds evolve from film to film. Sounds such as the lightsabers change slightly while still keeping their recognizable feeling.


Simply brilliant sound design, especially character sounds. There’s no traditional dialogue in the movie’s first act – it’s all SFX and music. This movie uses sound in a very emotional way (happy/sad/nostalgic) so that you feel for the characters.

There are so many others I could mention: Citizen Kane, Hero, Babel, Children of Men, The Insider, The Birds, Psycho, The Others, Mulholland Dr., The Orphanage, Jurassic Park. I love all of these films and I love the sound of these films. But the ones I highlighted above are ones in which the sound truly knocks me out and makes me feel a real emotional connection every single time I watch them.

All but one of these movies came out in my lifetime, which probably means something when it comes to that personal connection. But I also believe that sound in movies is an art that keeps getting better and better as time has gone on. It took people like Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Walter Murch, and Ben Burtt to pave the way for where we are. These days more directors are understanding the power of sound. More and more, the ones using sound brilliantly are those outside of Hollywood. Some of the newer Mexican and Iranian directors are taking huge liberties by weaving sound integrally into the storytelling which is exciting. The future is good for sound.


7 Responses to “Favorites in film sound”

  1. the big lebowski, good will hunting, oh brother where art thou… you mentioned a bunch of movies that don’t have a lot in the way of songs, just background orchestration.

  2. Hi Jason. All the movies you mentioned have excellent songs, but that’s not the focus of this post. I’m highlighting movies that I feel have great *sound*, which is a very different topic.

  3. Is it a coincidence that the majority of the films you listed classify as sci-fi? Just curious…

  4. Good observation. Science fiction movies are great for sound because, just as with visuals, sound designers get to create a completely new world. So the design of the effects and ambience (‘the world’) is very creative.

    So it’s probably not a coincidence, but it’s not intentional either. I really like well-designed sci-fi. Horror is another great genre for sound, but for different reasons. It’s less about design than it is about editing and storytelling. Horror lets you suggest things emotionally through offscreen sound and ambiguous sounds (what is that noise in the attic in ‘The Exorcist’?)

    Incidentally, I watched Babel again last night and I wish I had added it to this list. That’s yet another category of good sound – how sound works with picture editing. In the first half of the movie, when we shift from location to location, we get jarring shifts through sound that shock your attention. But later, as you start to understand the connections between the worlds and among these people, the sound transitions begin to blend together more and more. Sound is such a subconscious thing that you’re not really aware of it. But that gradual change in the soundtrack is what helps to pull all those stories together on an emotional level.

  5. huemeister Says:

    good choices, and “Conversation” is right up there as perhaps the best use of sound as integral to the story. Notable omission: almost any movie by David Lynch, from “Eraserhead” to “Elephant Man” to “Blue Velvet.” He uses sound better than almost any other filmmaker.

  6. Yeah, I mentioned “Mulholland Dr” as one I could have singled out. I agree he’s a genius, but his movies sometimes feel so detached to me that I have a hard time knowing if I’m understanding his intentions in his use of sound.

    But you’ve given me a new project. :) I think I’m gonna go back and revisit those you mentioned.

  7. gustavo costantini Says:

    There are too many films to do a proper list. Sometimes one film is great for just a couple of scenes. Sometimes, the work of a director is important instead of one movie (I am thinking of Hitchcock, for instance). In some cases, the film is not good but the sound is great, and so on…
    I propose a long list, historically ordered (more or less).
    M, by Fritz Lang
    Citizen Kane, by Welles
    Letter to three wives, by Joseph Mankiewicz
    Rear Window, by Hitchcock
    Kwaidan, by Kobayashi
    L’anne derniere a Marienbad, by Resnais
    Traffic, by Jacques Tati
    Playtime, by Tati
    Repulsion, by Polanski
    The Exorcist, by Friendkin
    Solaris, by Tarkovsky
    The Conversation, by Coppola
    Star Wars, by Lucas
    Provicence, by Resnais
    Stalker, by Tarkovsky
    Apocalypse Now, by Coppola
    Eraserhead, by Lynch
    Blade Runner, by Scott
    After hours, by Scorsese
    The Last Temptation of Christ, by Scorsese
    Massacre, by Elem Klimov
    Blue Velvet, by Lynch
    Jurassic Park, by Spielberg
    Saving Private Ryan, by Spielberg
    Lost Highway, by Lynch
    Mulloland dr, by Lynch
    Seven, by Ratatouille, by Brad Bird
    Gatica, by Leonardo Favio
    La Cienaga, by Lucrecia Martel

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