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I'm watching Inception for the 2nd time and I had to write about it:

In a particular scene something happens during an action scene (don't worry, no spoilers in this post), and the audience is lulled to silence for a split second and then is hit with an extremely loud impact.

I think the silence just before the impact made the impact seem far greater in volume because of the contrast. Even the music faded out and some very low-level sounds like breathing and ambience and cloth movement foley were brought up.

This was highly effective and I've got to practice and use this technique!

Does anyone else use this to add more impact? It probably depends heavily on the picture editor to create a pause to slow down and fade out your soundtrack before a large impact...

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    This is a very common technique - I can't list the films as it is so common, its to do with perceived dynamics. You can only make a sound so loud, but if you reduce level of the soundtrack before the impact it appears louder due to the perceived difference. Inception is one of many many many films to use the technique.... – user49 Dec 18 '10 at 18:48
  • @Tim, you're totally right. Is this also used in reverse? Like would you make the outside of a haunted house loud with crows and ambiences of wind in the trees, creaky metal hinges, etc. etc. etc. and then when the door closes shut on the characters who enter the said scary house, the eerie silence seems even more eerie because of the perceived contrast? I never thought of doing that, but I bet the answer is yes and I'm stating an already well-known fact.. – Utopia Dec 18 '10 at 20:23
  • I like when they dropped out the room tone right before Marion Cotillard's character looks at the camera. :) Watch it a third time. – Auddity Dec 18 '10 at 22:24
  • @Auddity I have a scratch on my arm from where my wife grabbed me in the theater at that moment so maybe that's why I missed it ;) – Utopia Dec 20 '10 at 1:33
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This is a classic technique.

2 great examples are Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix. Voldemort and Dumbledore are duelling at the end. Voldemort appears to take in a lot of black stuff (magic?) into his hands, he then flings his hands open and creates a tremendous shockwave. I thought the sounds was really well done and used this technique brilliantly.

Another great example is in Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers when an Uruk Hai runs towards some explosives beneath the wall of Helm's Deep. The sound dips just prior to the explosion. Again, another good example.

  • Thanks for the examples! I know it's been used many times before in movies, I was just particularly impressed with the sound design and mix of Inception! – Utopia Dec 18 '10 at 20:21
  • Was only talking about this technique with my wife the other night and we watched those 2 examples. I can't remember the one in Inception so I clearly need to go and get the BluRay to find it ;) – ianjpalmer Dec 20 '10 at 9:42
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The use of silence and uncomfortably quiet moments can be extremely powerful, as you've noted. I try to use it as much as possible and where appropriate; one recent example where it seemed to work well was in Terminator Salvation, when the resistance fighters are tracking Marcus down in the forest. Right before John Connor detonates the perimeter, the entire soundtrack fades down to almost complete silence, then comes back suddenly with the whomp of the massive blast. The sound crew designed it that way early on in the rough mixes, and fortunately it survived through the final mix.

  • Awesome. If I were to create this type of design in a soundtrack that I turned over to a mixer on a stage somewhere else, how would you go about telling the mixer this is what you wanted? Would you let your editing and rough mix speak for itself? Or would you go so far as to write a note or put a marker in the session (hoping they would read it?) You would probably first tell the sound super about it, I suppose... – Utopia Dec 18 '10 at 20:19

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