The Audible Chaos of Uncut Gems
While everyone is still ranting and raving about the 2020 Oscar sweep by the Parasite cast and crew (mind you, a well-deserved sweep), I can't help but shake the lasting feeling that one film, receiving zero recognition from the Academy, had on me overall. Uncut Gems.
Not to say that Parasite didn't have a lasting effect on me as a viewer, it was quite the opposite actually. This refreshing take on an overlying story arch of social warfare while, at the same time, masterfully crafting, maintaining and manipulating tension throughout the entirety of the film is no easy task. From the chaotic environment that is a natural disaster to the delicacy of bare feet parading down concrete steps or a basketball being used as the sound to highlight the contact of a head on a wall in a very tight, reverberant space. The Parasite cast and crew deserved every award they got at the Oscars (and other award events) and I can't applaud director Bong Joon-ho enough. These awards have not only solidified his credibility in 'mainstream media' but have broken down barriers and created wonderful opportunities for representation in cinema, aspiring directors, and the foreign film community as a whole.
But Uncut Gems.
Uncut Gems, man.
Boy, oh boy, it's been, what, about five days since I saw Uncut Gems (*Shoutout AMC Stubs for keeping track of my ticket stubs!*) and I still can't seem to get it out of my head. However, there is probably nothing "new" that I'm about to express in regards to this movie that hasn't already been said. I think we can all agree that I'm pretty much late to the party on most things (except deadlines - of course). Now, most people (and critics alike) were pretty upset due to the fact that Uncut Gems wasn't acknowledged by the Academy for any particular awards and I have very little experience in the 'awards universe' to contribute much in any way. But I will say, one thing everyone can agree on is that Uncut Gems is one hell of a ride and I can say without a doubt in my mind that it was [mostly] due to the sound.
What makes you so certain that it's sound that's the driving factor of the movie?
Well, I'll tell ya, it's because literally every person I know or forum thread, review, post, what-have-you I've seen have all said the same thing or some variation. It's chaotic. It's stressful. There's so much going on. I can't concentrate. And some people have even described the ending of the film to be a breath of fresh air, and they're right. Every single one of them. While I was sitting in the theater watching the movie no more than a week ago I felt all of those things and more - and I LOVED every minute of it. And we can all thank Skip Lievsay for that.
Skip Lievsay, known for his work on Gravity (2013), No Country For Old Men (2007), and more recently Roma (2018), is no stranger to unique and experimental mixing, so I can only imagine that working on Uncut Gems was just another day at the office for him. However, each project has its own unique hurdles and truly encapsulating and creating a disorienting, yet immersive, environment for viewers can't be done alone. Collaborating alongside the Safdie Brothers (Co-Directors; Co-Writers), Josh and Benny, they all tackled this piece with surgical precision, especially when it came to the dialogue.
Outside of the general sound design, the dialogue is by far the highlight of the film for me and very few films - in my few years of consuming films this way (critical listening) - have had a lasting effect on me in terms of dialogue; the only other one I can think of being Her (2013). Normally I'm looking for the craziest sound in the movie of some foreign creature, some space vehicle, the coolest gunshot, or the most unique explosion but you can only do so much with a 'realistic' crime-drama. You have to immerse viewers first and foremost and the first 10-minutes of the film really give you a glimpse into the fast-paced, out of control lifestyle that Howard Ratner (played by Adam Sandler) lives by on a day-to-day basis.
Imagine this, you've had a rough few days at work and are off for the weekend, so you decide to go blow off some steam and see the newest or most talked-about film in recent weeks. You get your ticket, buy your popcorn, get your favorite drink, sit down in your seat, take out the snacks you might've snuck in, seated in a fairly quiet room - relatively speaking, make it through the previews and BOOM, suddenly you're back in the real world.
Unbeknownst to you, you're probably gonna be caught a little off guard, maybe a slight bit of anxiety creeps back in. Engulfed in sounds of cars/trains zooming by, jackhammers breaking concrete off in the distance, people talking all around you, general city living ambiances. I'd be pressed to hear you say that it didn't throw you off just a little? That's exactly what Benny Safdie and his brother were going for in the end, trying to highlight the chaotic nature that we tune out of our everyday lives. Josh Safdie put it best when discussing the chaos on screen,
We [city dwellers] take everything [we hear] around us in our everyday lives for granted but once we're put in a place of comfort/relaxation and are faced head-on with the outside world in an environment where we thought we would be safe from all the chaos, it can be a little jarring. That might be the main culprit in making viewers think they couldn't take a breath throughout the whole movie for the simple fact of the disorienting environment of New York through the lens of a busy Howard Ratner.
But once you look past the busy 'hustle-n-bustle' atmosphere that was created and mixed beautifully by Lievsay and his team you have your next chaotic hurdle, the dialogue. Prior to seeing this movie, as I was getting feedback from my friends and colleagues I was worried that this film would turn out to be either an artistic expression or generalized mash-up of muffled, jumbled, unintelligible dialogue which some directors are known to do.
For example, the most famous 'indistinguishable dialogue' in recent years is Christopher Nolan's docking scene in his 2013 sci-fi adventure Interstellar (or this one - grab your tissues). Multiple reports and reviewers claimed that at certain points the dialogue from certain characters was muffled, clipping or even non-existent while the score or various other SFX, were blaring and disorienting audience members across the globe. Christopher Nolan (and various other audio professionals) came out in multiple articles stating that, in these instances, the dialogue was not the focus in these scenes but merely a sound effect in it of itself, or to keep the mystery (i.e. Michael Cane's Unintelligible Death Scene). And as much of a fan as I am of his work and can understand his artistic direction, I feared for a copy-cat. However, I was pleasantly disappointed - as you can probably tell.
In the video I have linked at the bottom of this article, Benny and Josh (and Skip) go in-depth on the recording process and what they did to capture the most real and authentic vocals they could while filming. One of their tactics, which I found super interesting, was the fact that they would rarely ever shout 'ACTION' or any other commands on set and it was a pretty relaxed filmmaking experience for the actors. Which, in a way, worked in their benefit. Capturing the principal cast and their interactions with one another in the scene while other background characters are either in or out of character having their own conversations gives the scene all that much more realism.
Post for dialogue was a completely different story though. With 45-pages of script dedicated solely to ADR (audio dialogue replacement) recording and the tedious process of laying out, cutting, editing, and placing probably hundreds of tracks of vocals captured on set, this not only makes the film disorienting but creates the ultimate challenge for any sound person dealing with a dialogue-heavy film, clarity. The Safdie Brothers also claimed that they were adamant about using everything that the boom picked up, again, to keep that authenticity. Thankfully, all the principle and background cast had their own LAVs as well so it made clarity a tad bit easier on their part, just added a few more tracks to their sessions. But all in all, everyone's hard work paid off (at least to me). They got people talking about a film for weeks on end and it had an emotional impact on nearly everyone who went to see it - that I've talked to at least. They told one intense story while simultaneously disorienting their audiences and leaving them on the edge of their seat throughout. Hell, I don't think I even touched my popcorn while I watched the movie - luckily I finished most of it before the previews ended.
What did you think about Uncut Gems? Did you love it? Hate it? What stuck out most to you? I'd love to hear your take on your overall experience seeing this movie either below in the comments or connect with me on Twitter and let's chat!
Here's The Dolby Panel on the Sound (and score) of Uncut Gems (referenced above):
A special shout-out to the entire sound department:
Brian Bowles (dialogue & ADR Editor)
Scott Cannizzaro (ADR Mixer)
Kristin Catuogno (ADR Recordist)
Chris Chae (Sound Editor)
Mark DeSimone (ADR Mixer)
Tim Elder (Boom Op)
Tom Fleischman (Re-Recording Mixer)
Anton Gold (Sound Mixer)
Gavin Hecker (Foley Mixer)
Skip Lievsay (Re-Recording Mixer)
John-Paul Natysin (Sound Utility)
Chris Navarro (ADR Mixer)
Helmut Scherz (Sound Mixer)
Warren Shaw (Re-Recording Mixer / Supervising Sound Editor)
John St. Denis (ADR Mixer)
Michael Sterkin (Sound Mixer)
David Tirolo (Pro Tools Playback Mixer)
*Various other links (i.e. films noted above) are links to articles/videos of the sound processes relating to the movies listed, IMDb pages, or external articles.*