***Contains spoilers from the 2013 movie Gravity***
“In space, no one can hear you scream”
This was the tagline of several campaigns for the sci-fi, horror movie Alien. It plays on the scientific fact, that sound cannot travel through a vacuum.
In the sci-fi movie Gravity the silence of space is used for dramatic effect throughout the movie. It is often contrasted with an intense and loud soundscape as a storytelling device.
Contrast is one of my favourite tools as an artist and storyteller. In this article I would like to examine how contrast is used in the sound design and score of Gravity.
The soundscape is used to “play” the audience almost like an instrument. Certain “notes” are played at certain times and it affects our senses in a very specific way.
My hope is to inspire you to use contrast in the soundscape of your own work. However, the principles apply to almost any other part of the filmmaking process as well.
Abrupt contrast between loudness and silence demands the attention of our senses. In his book: The Role of Sound (translation), Danish Sound Designer, Per Meinertsen, talks about how our brains were designed to react to sudden changes in the soundscape around us.
We respond to sudden loudness as well as sudden silence. This is a helpful trait, as it keeps us alert to dangers around us. In earlier times we needed to pay attention to the noises of dangerous animals in the wild, today our hearing keeps us alert and out of danger in traffic.
This is one of the reasons why using contrast in the soundscape of a film is incredibly effective. By understanding how our brain and senses work we can use that knowledge to provoke very specific responses. This is also why contrast in sound is frequently used in the horror and thriller genre.
Noise vs. Silence
Gravity opens on a few credits giving us facts about the hostile environment of space and the fact that sound cannot travel through space.
Before we have a visual of anything else, we hear radio noise and the musical score. The soundscape builds in intensity and loudness and then stops abruptly as we cut to a shot of the earth from space. The silence of space.
Here the contrast of noise vs silence is used to demand our attention within a very short amount of time.
You can do something similar in your own film to grab the attention of the audience from the very beginning using a sudden noise or sudden silence. It is important to make a noteworthy introduction to your film. It gives the audience an idea of what is ahead and whether they would be interested in watching the whole film.
Following the horrific destruction of their spacecraft Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) travel towards the International Space Station (ISS) to find safety. Ryan’s oxygen levels are extremely low and it is a race against time for her survival.
As she gets closer and closer to entering the ISS, and is about to pass out, the loudness and intensity of the score builds. The second she makes it inside and closes the gate, the music is cut off abruptly. We can now hear her heart rate slowing down. If she doesn’t get the module pressurized and takes off her suit in order to breathe clean air, she will suffocate and her heart will stop.
In this moment the noise vs. silence is used to keep us on edge to the very end. Ryan making it to the inside is a moment of victory and relief, but she still has a few obstacles to survive and we are left to linger, wondering if she will make it that last bit.
The contrast adds to the intensity of the conflict Ryan is going through. We feel anxious much like her and the sound design and use of the score greatly enhances this sensation.
Contrast is a great way for you to keep your audience on edge. You can play around with the timing of sudden noise or sudden silence. What happens if you place the sudden noise or silence right before they succeed in a high risk scene? Or after? Or at the exact moment?
Experiment with how you can toy with the audience and create tension. It can also be used to throw the audience off (almost like lying to them…). By placing a sudden noise or silence in an unexpected moment you can make them believe there is danger, when there isn’t.
Like I said earlier it is almost like playing an instrument!
Contrast of mood
“You gotta admit, you can’t beat the view”
These are the words of Matt as he gazes down at earth together with Ryan at the start of the film.
This is a very beautiful moment of the film and we share a moment of awe with these characters. In this moment the musical score is serene and the astronauts talk about what they like about being in space.
However, moments later the mood has changed completely. The astronauts are in great danger as debris from various satellites is destroying their spacecraft and they are barely able to survive.
The score changes from causing a sense of calmness, serenity and reflection to being loud, driving and intense. The soundscape is also filled with the frantic sounds of panic from the crew and the noise of the vibrations the astronauts experience from the destruction.
By placing a moment of calmness and serenity right before a moment of chaos, the chaos feels even more intense because of the contrast between the two. This can be likened to the sensation of going from a warm bath to a cold one.
Because your body has been conditioned to the high temperature of the warm water the the cold water seems even colder than if you had just been in a bath with lukewarm water (the difference is greater).
The soundscape plays a major part in establishing these two completely different moods.
Here is another example of the use of contrast in mood. At the start of the film we hear that Matt is listening to calm country music on his radio. The first time we hear him play this music, he is in a good mood. It is his final space walk and he is enjoying it. The music brings a sense of comfort to him.
Matt plays this music when they are traveling towards the ISS, he is choosing to stay positive in light of the tragedy.
This is taken to even greater lengths when Matt chooses to let go of Ryan later to make sure she survives. As he lets go and accepts his sad fate, once again, he puts on his beloved country music. He faces death by trying to hold on to joy and a lighthearted attitude.
The contrast between the sadness of the moment (which is also reflected in the score) and the calm country music makes us connect on a deeper level. A sad moment can look even more sad when it is contrasted with a hint of joy.
Experiment by placing contrasting moods next to each other to create an even deeper immersion in the story. Place a victory next to a defeat, a moment of celebration next to one of mourning, chaos next to order etc.
Music is one of the strongest tools in creating a mood or an atmosphere. Use music that is in great contrast to the piece preceding it or is that in great contrast to what we see on the screen to achieve this.
These are just a few examples of how you can draw the audience into the world of your film using contrast in sound design and musical scoring. I encourage you to look for moments of contrast when you watch movies and pay attention to how it affects you on a sensory and emotional level.
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