The power of sound and music (or why I watch films with the sound off)

I spoke at Cannes Lions last week (22 June) about ‘putting craft at the heart of creative work’. I focused on the techniques used in the films and award-winning advertising that have inspired me over the years.

When considering all my favourite references – from the iconic Guinness ‘Surfers’ ad, through to the films Klute, Seven Samurai, Inception and The Godfather – I realised there was a key theme in the use of sound and music, and how they shape craft.

Guinness ‘Surfers’ is a great example. The sound and the music are so important. There’s the voiceover, which is taken from Moby Dick, with another juxtaposition being the down-to-earth, northern tone of the voiceover artist. This all adds layer after layer of power.

It hardly has anything to do with Guinness, and you’re in this huge, epic, biblical, lyrical scene that’s all about waiting for a pint. Even if it just featured the pint as that soundtrack by Leftfield played it would make for a killer ad because the track reverberated right through you, and it’s the perfect choice. I think that must have had a lot to do with Tom Carty, the copywriter, being a DJ and knowing what would get people sat on the sofa going ‘Wow!’

Music in feature films has also inspired me. In the famous Reservoir Dogs ‘torture scene’, for example, the music serves as juxtaposition to the hideousness of what’s on screen. The music is jolly and provides a silly gag with ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’. But what I love most about it is that, before this scene, it’s all very filmic – full of slick cuts. The whole torture scene is in total contrast. And the music strongly supports this.

The Godfather is an obvious choice, but it still blows me away. The scene where Michael goes to the toilet and finds the gun makes you feel sick as he walks back into the room and sits down, rather than starting blasting. The noise of the train adds layers to the tension and it’s the sound, and the focus on Michael’s eyes, which makes the scene unforgettable for me.

Walter Murch, the film’s editor and sound designer, described the relationship of sound to picture as one where “the visual material knocks on the front door, and when somebody knocks on the front door, you sort of adjust your clothing, go to the door, take a deep breath, say, ‘Who's there?' and open the door.

“Whatever meeting occurs will have an element of formality to it because it's somebody who came to the front door. Sound tends to come in the back door, or sometimes even sneak in through the windows or through the floorboards.”

Sound, then, can be a very subconscious element in the overall experience.

Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash highlights a different kind of point. The fact that the sound is incredible here is obvious (it’s a film about drumming). But I find it interesting that this guy – the main character – is having this insanely inhuman relationship with a sadist, and unlike the obvious sadistic relationships in a film like Reservoir Dogs, the subject matter is music, not life or death.

He thinks his extremism is totally necessary. And everyone that watches gets all that because it was incredibly well edited and crafted. I actually chose to watch it again without the sound as I felt the music was so overpowering. I had to turn it off to be able to appreciate the way the film was crafted visually.

I’ve done this a lot (it comes from when I used to watch TV as a kid – the sound would go off and I’d sit there watching a soundless telly for ages). It’s something I would recommend. But bear in mind it has to be with films you really like.

It’s probably why my mind has a different way of storing information – I learned to appreciate all of the elements of film in such a hungry state of mind. I was always dying to know what was going on, and this definitely contributed to me getting into making my own films. And it definitely helped me to appreciate the powerful role that sound and music play in film craft.

Trevor Robinson is the founder and executive creative director of Quiet Storm

You can follow all The Drum's Cannes Lions coverage here, with more exclusives and one-on-one interviews to follow next week.

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