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Dear All,

What films are good examples of Sound Design to study and take note of?

I'm particularly looking for films which sound was used to forward the story with excellent results. Not just using sound for the sake of using sound. Ideally these films would be both of good technical quality as well as artistic in it's sound design. They could be of any genre, and preferably made within the last 3 years, however, I know there are definitely good classic films out there with superb sound design.

Please put at least some information about the film's sound and why you consider the sound well executed.

Thanks - Ryan

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50 Answers 50

up vote 18 down vote accepted

The best film for sound in the last year that I've seen would be Jean Pierre Jeunets MIC MACS http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1149361/

FWIW a while back I did a survey to see what 5 films people would choose as their favourites for sound.... results are here: http://www.musicofsound.co.nz/blog/five-favourite-films-for-sound

Heres the top 20 or so from that list:

  • Wall-E – Votes:18
  • Star Wars IV – Votes:14
  • Apocalypse Now – Votes:11
  • The Matrix – Votes:10
  • Eraserhead – Votes:9
  • No Country For Old Men – Votes:9
  • Saving Private Ryan – Votes:9
  • Delicatessen – Votes:6
  • Lord of the Rings – Votes:6
  • The Conversation – Votes:6
  • Children of Men – Votes:5
  • Das Boot – Votes:5
  • Jurassic Park – Votes:5
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey – Votes:4
  • Barton Fink – Votes:4
  • Elephant – Votes:4
  • Fight Club – Votes:4
  • Lost Highway – Votes:4
  • Pi – Votes:4
  • Stalker – Votes:4
  • Star Trek – Votes:4
  • Touch the Sound – Votes:4
  • Bladerunner – Votes:3
  • Castaway – Votes:3
  • Cloverfield – Votes:3
  • Damnation – Votes:3
  • PlayTime – Votes:3
  • Ratatouille – Votes:3
  • Seven – Votes:3
  • The Black Stallion – Votes:3
  • The English Patient – Votes:3
  • There Will Be Blood – Votes:3
  • THX-1138 – Votes:3
  • Transformers 2 – Votes:3
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Tim, you rock! Thanks!!! – Utopia Sep 10 '10 at 5:55
    
Great list Tim! I'll add "Immortal Beloved" and "Finding Nemo" Last year I worked with the production sound mixer (Ed White) who mixed on set for "Cloverfield" and he mentioned that he placed a M/S pair on the camera for the duration of principle photography, as well as boom and wires. I think he mentioned using Schoeps on the camera. The Director last year (Matt Reeves) was the same director from Cloverfield. It was nice to have a director concerned about sound on set. A real nice guy. – Edwardo Santiago Feb 18 '11 at 4:00
    
+1 Great list Tim! "Star Trek" was the first film that I saw and realized upon leaving the theater that I never thought about or analyzwd the sound at all. In my book, that's a highly successful sound mix. – Stavrosound Aug 12 '11 at 7:24

District 9 was very cool. The sound design was well matched to the gritty, pseudo doco style. And i have to say; the alien spacecraft at the end of the film had the most realistic sound i've ever heard.

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1  
…I must ask, how can you know it was the most "realistic" sound of an alien craft?? – Jay Jennings Jul 18 '10 at 6:57
    
@birdhousesound Ha! Good point. What i mean is; i really believed that the craft were there. It wasn't big or flashy, it sounded like something rooted in my reality. – Roger Middenway Jul 19 '10 at 16:02

The Original King Kong. The work stands to this day as great characterization 8 1/2 By Fellini. The First 30 minutes. It has everything you Need To Know about sound design. "Grand Prix" **"Citizen Kane" Robert Wise the director edited this picture and cut the sound. Modern pictures try to use the Wall of Sound to Impress. Loads of crashes, lots of volume. Action, Action Action. But think about it. True Sound Design has Dramatic import and meaning. A Shane Black script I read once called for "The Biggest Explosion Ever." and the following page, he asked for "An Even Bigger Explosion" so what. Unless there is a dramatic structure to the work, then it's just noise. Not Sound Design. Cannon's for "Wellington's Victory" have meaning. By themselves, they are like the Audubon Bird recordings. Of interest to the Aficionado only. You can anaylise them from a variety of standards. But good recordings aren't art. They can be rare, they can be poor or good recordings, but without a story structure, they have no meaning to the listener. Alan Splet said that it's the content of the recording, not the technical that makes it of use. Look at his work: "Eraserhead" "Elephant Man" "Black Stallion"...

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@Stephen, have always valued your insights. Welcome to SDD! – Jay Jennings Oct 19 '10 at 5:54
    
Just re-read this answer from the ultra-talented Steve Flick, the insights here are just spot on. – Jay Jennings Aug 22 '15 at 7:00

There are to many to list. I would recommend checking out the designingsound.org website, check out the featured sound designers page, http://designingsound.org/featured-sound-designers/, and research the movies they worked on using http://www.imdb.com. That is where I would start. Also check out http://www.filmsound.org, another great resource...

Here are a few of my favorites heavy-hitters off the top of my head:

The Matrix Trilogy - Dane Davis and his crew are masters of passive sound design; you know the sound is designed but the sound is so good you "know" its real.

Star Wars - The movie that started modern sound design.

Wall-e - The best movie ever made, in my mind, that tells an amazing story with sound, not dialogue.

Jurassic Park - A great movie. I love that the sound for this movie was so large and defining using the techniques that we use today, but where revolutionary at the time.

The Hulk - A friend of mine was on this project and shared some of the horror stories he and the team encountered while dealing with the acting talent and executives as they tried to "help" in the sound design. The fact that the movie turned out sounding so good is testament to the great leadership on the supervisors part.

Avatar - 3 years of sound design and it sounded amazing. I was able to get lost in the alien jungles. Loved it!

Das Boot - Great sound from a movie that is 30 years old.

Fracture - An amazing example of a talking heads movie. The sound was present but extremely passive; did not steal the spotlight from the story...

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not disagreeing at all but why do you say Fracture. I've watched it and nothing jumped out at me but I think that's because I only really spot the sound design for sci fi type films. People raved about the sound design for Zodiac too and, apart from a couple of scenes, I didn't see what I was supposed to be looking at there either. – JustinMacleod Jul 18 '10 at 11:55
    
HaHa, Your fist paragraph is exactly what I've been doing for awhile now. I second your advice there! – Auddity Aug 12 '10 at 17:48

FIGHT CLUB!!!

sorry..I got a little carried away there. I just love that movie too much.

As far as other ideas, I would check out Walter Murch's re-edit of "Touch of Evil." It comes with Welles' notes to the studio on the disc. It makes for some fascinating study; as Welles was not only a genius, but really knew how to use audio to its fullest thanks to all of his work in radio.

People may laugh at me for this one, but I still say that one of the best sequences I've heard in years was the opening for Quantum of Solace (yes, a James Bond movie). The sound design of that car chase is beyond superb!

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Totally agree with the Quantum recomendation. The first time I saw it I was blown away. It got me pumped up for the movie as a whole. Great way for sound to help get you in the mood for a movie. – Auddity Aug 12 '10 at 17:50

i found one of walter murch's earlier works - THX 1138 - very inspiring and also ground-breaking to a certain extent (at least as far as it foreshadows his later oevres...)

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Lord of the rings! The bows, creatures and even the ambience. Everything was done well.

Transformer films, and inception. Great sound work.

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+1 on Inception - wow, what a great film in so many ways, including sound. – VCProd Aug 5 '10 at 12:50
    
The only problem with using Inception for a sound study is that it's WAAAY too easy to get wrapped up in the story and forget what you're there for in the first place. – Dave Matney Aug 5 '10 at 16:48
    
+1 for LOTR, even if I had to laugh real hard at the end of the triologie, when the Nazgul get killed and the sound of a squeezing balloon appeared=) – Michael Manzke Oct 24 '10 at 22:09

I'm still fascinated by No Country For Old Men.

Coen in general seem to have special attitude towards sound..

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They certainly do. I've mentioned it elsewhere but a friend of mine did his PhD on their use of sound, you can find an extract here... scribd.com/doc/18816447/… – ianjpalmer Aug 5 '10 at 17:47
    
Yeah, No Country's one of my favorite pieces of sound design eva. – Robin Arnott Aug 7 '10 at 21:35

The Conversation. Sorry to be brief but i'm on my phone just now ;)

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+1 for The Conversation. The sound of that film is a central character. – Jay Jennings Jul 18 '10 at 7:00
    
+1 - That opening sequence is a phenomenal example of the soundtrack sucking the audience in immediately and keeping them involved. Easily Top 3 for sound for me. Would love to read more about how the soundtrack of the film was created. – Phonetical Dec 1 '10 at 15:20
    
+1 - represents a real benchmark of sound in film. – analoghell Apr 22 '11 at 1:04

I'd recommend

'Pi' (Darren Aronofsky)

'Paris, Texas' (Wim Wenders)

'Children of Men' (Alfonso Cuaron)

The BBC Series 'The Life Of Insects'

And my most boring recommendation ever, for sheer filmic 'naturalism', any of Woody Allen's films between 'Annie Hall' (1977) and 'Husbands and Wives' (1992). They're mixed in Mono. Yes, mono.

EDIT:

I also have to add

"Melancholia"

"Jagten"

Both sound designed byt Kristian Eidnes Andersson

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Well there is Antichrist by Lars Von trier wich is worth the hear. The film in itself is quite strange, so the sound is very emotional and dreamy. Actually it has more to do with nightmares because it's a movie about fear, anxiety, distress and sex. It's experimental and quite direct.

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+1 on Antichrist. I remember certain sequences in that film were excruciating, check out the part sound played in it. – Roger Middenway Jul 17 '10 at 15:40
    
+1 on Antichrist. What an amazing film!! – user49 Aug 5 '10 at 22:48
    
Von Triers The Kingdom is really good for what one can do for sound design for TV. Fantastic, haunting world yet subtle and realistic. – oinkaudio Aug 11 '10 at 12:30
    
I loved the Kingdom as well, only bad part is that I've never been able to find more than the first DVD of the original danish series. It just abruptly ended and I wasn't able to find anything else when I searched. I'm not sure about the Stephen King re-make as I haven't seen it yet. – Syndicate Synthetique Feb 17 '11 at 2:17

M (1931) - As an early "talkie", it had very minimal sound, but every bit of it is key to the story.

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@VCProd +1 for M – Jake Jul 15 '12 at 17:54

Saving Private Ryan - a behemoth of sound in film. An amazing piece of work by Gary Rydstrom. I did my MA thesis on the film and totally ripped the beach landing sequence apart, truly inspired and interesting stuff in there. Much more than the simple ear ringing thing people always mention.

Here's a link to my dissertation on Scribd...

http://www.scribd.com/doc/35433777

Ian

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Ian, did you listen to Gallipoli? It predates SPR... – Stephen Hunter Flick Aug 12 '10 at 3:13
    
I remember watching it in the early 90s, way before I was interested in sound, might have to get a copy and have a listen, cheers! – ianjpalmer Aug 12 '10 at 8:27
    
Gallipoli, great film and great track. – Jay Jennings Oct 19 '10 at 5:56

This one's a classic: Fantastic Planet. Excellent demonstrations of synchresis. It occurs to me now to compare the sound decisions with that Ben Burtt made with Wall-E. I don't know if there's a direct inspiration, but there are certainly a lot of parallels in using a simple and elegant musical effect for invented technology.

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I absolutely cannot believe noone has mentioned this yet.....

ALIEN

The sound alone is reason enough to see this film. The steam, the oozing and goozing of liquids, all the sounds, to me, parallel the feeling of the Nostromo; dark, destitute, devoid, hopeless. Pure genius.

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Watch Tetro for beautiful foley and sound design. And Sound of Noise for really nice musical approach on sound! :)

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  1. once upon a time in the west (first half hour is amazing!)
  2. fargo (the cardoor beeps in the snowy landscape at the first crimescene, incredibly funny)
  3. ofrret/sacrifice (just beautiful and appropriate sound design)
  4. we own the night (epic carchase!)
  5. magnolia (music and sound in perfect harmony)
  6. solaris (both tarkovsky and soderbergh's are great, atmospheres are wonderful)
  7. trois couleurs Rouge/Red (openingscene telephone soundscape)

i'd like to go on forever, but this is enough for now

(first post on SSD, by the way)

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hmm something went wrong with the formatting... – Arnoud Traa Jul 25 '11 at 15:36
    
Welcome aboard! – James Bryant Jul 25 '11 at 21:39
    
thanks james ! – Arnoud Traa Jul 26 '11 at 12:39

Gus Van Sant's films are normally bang on in terms of sound design. Leslie Shatz did the sound design for both Elephant and Paranoid Park which were both top notch. I also really enjoyed the sound design on Waltz With Bashir (being feature length animation meant everything was created from a blank slate).

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Leslie Shatz won an award at Cannes for Elephant, an accolade I personally think a greater achievement than an Oscar.... Great work! – user49 Sep 10 '10 at 20:32

My answer would be "irreversible" by gaspar noe. The first half hour has got to be one of the most intense, visceral experiences in the history of movie sound. Definite headphone viewing/listening.

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These movies are some of my favorites that I like to watch and use for inspiration

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Micheal Semanick and Ethan Van der Ryn, I've always been inspired by their attitude toward sound. In extended edition appendicies you can tell they love what they do.)

Ratatouille (when Remy is running scared through the kitchen, I've always enjoyed Randy Thom's work)

Minority Report

Master and Commander: Far Side of the World

Hero (Nameless' fight against Sky in the rain, great detail of hits and rain, haunting with the way the sound design plays with the solitary instrument)

Surf's Up (When Cody crashes and is underwater, and then when he's being carried through the forest)

Ong Bak 2 (The final fight scene, certain hits are accentuated like percussion accentuate orchestration)

The open car chase in Quantum of Solace is well done too, it gets me very pumped up and excited.

U-571

Predator and Apocalypse Now have great ambient textures.

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No country for old men is one of the best examples. I love that film I agree with georgi.m with the coens' approach to film. Another film maker who has an adrimable attitude is George Lucas I mean the fact that his sound company is named after his first feature film speaks for itself.

Also the 90's psycho remake was actually pretty good in terms of the sound. Lost Highway was very good as well. Fantastic plaent or la planette savage was great if you take the same attitude as I do in term of the music BEING the sound in a film as well.On that topic, a short film called "copy shop" is a very good example of that synchresis that was mentioned http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaLvuAvazDI.

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There's a little known Belgian movie that has one or two very interesting sound design moments. Perhaps the movie as a whole will not present itself as a case study for sound design, but definitely one particular moment in there is really great - I don't want to spoil it here. Basically it comes down to the movie being a 'mockumentary', and the sound is all from what is recorded on location. This one particular moment uses a very imaginative but simple trick to create discrepancy between what is taped on film and recorded on the audio track, and subtly plays a nicely confusing game with the aural/visual perception of the audience.

Apart from this great audio moment, the movie is definitely worth watching - it's a kind of Reservoir Dogs, but perhaps more 'out there'. Title & imdb link - C'est arrive pres de chez vous (Man Bites Dog)

Another good sound design study would be comparing the sound of American remakes of Japanese movies. You will encounter a lot of curious and interesting differences in approach, which are of course largely culturally motivated - and inspiring because of that. Two examples of case studies:

Seven Samurai vs The Magnificent Seven

Ringu vs The Ring

It's also a good and revealing exercise to compare the differences in sound design (and foley) approach between American, European (French for instance) and Japanese animated movies.

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Man Bites Dog is a classic! Dark, yet very funny. – analoghell Apr 22 '11 at 1:03

+1 for Alien and I would like to add Sunshine. Just started to watch it again and I like the musical approach they did there. One of my favourite sound effects is the sound when one of the characters floats into space and gets burned by the sunlight.

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+1! Sunshine was great - I don't necessarily like the twist at the end, but the musical approach and the FX were awesome. Thanks for posting. – Utopia Oct 24 '10 at 23:08
    
yes, thats the problem of every film by danny boyle...75% of the movie is awesome...and the last 25% are....well...not that good =) – Michael Manzke Oct 25 '10 at 10:48

I agree with almost al the others answers, but I want to tell to everybody to take a look to BARAKA. I've seen it three days ago and I think it's unbelievably emotional for the use of sounds and musics!

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This may sound odd, but "Crazy, Stupid, Love" offers a unique perspective on sound, primarily a less-is-more, deceptively complex minimalism. All about the use of negative space and how the soundscape evolves with the story.

It's also a good indicator as to what to be careful of as well because some sound effects were out of sync (out enough that I'm curious how it passed QC).

Here's a link to a writeup I did on it: http://www.stavrosound.com/blog/wordpress/2011/08/in-review-the-sound-of-crazy-stupid-love/link text

A Good Warning Though: The story can become so gravitating that it may take a second-viewing - the film unglued my analytical mind on the first viewing so I had to go back and see it again.

Good film to check out though for totally different reasons than some its bigger blockbuster brothers and sisters.

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All Ingmar Bergman movies if u wanna see the best use of silence. The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries etc etc.

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+1 for District 9

I was also fascinated by sound and music texture of Once Upon a Time in the West

Percussive textures without music and excellent sound from my point of hear is in The Hurt Locker

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Wild Strawberries The Seventh Seal Cries and Whispers by Ingmar Bergman are the best ones to study the excellent use of silence in a film. Besides these a few of my personal favourites include Peeping Tom, The Conversation, Once Upon A Time In The West and OFCOURSE Apocalypse Now! A lotta films are going through my head right now, these are a few.

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In my opinion Transformers 2 is was a successfull one, with all the conversion sounds and metal parts working, scratching against each other.

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I recently watched "Sleep Furiously" http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1235072/ - and was absolutely blown away by the sound design. The foley and sfx are crafted so tastefully and enhance the beautiful imagery. This is a must watch for anyone interested in sound design.

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