Tag Archives: sound design

Right Where It Belongs — “Under the Skin”

Under the Skin cap

Imagine a wolf making a documentary about rabbits. The little, scurrying things will seem foreign and strange and uselessly busy. Every once in a while, the wolf gets peckish and nabs one of its film subjects for lunch. This is how Under the Skin introduces itself, as a monumental psychological horror movie that reflects the bleak, harsh landscapes of the Scottish cities and countryside in which it takes place.

The predator we follow, played by Scarlett Johansson, is a human-looking alien preying upon the damaged and homeless in Scotland. We’re told she’s an alien in a very esoteric way, but you’ll probably have it figured out by the time she’s seducing and digesting men.

Species this isn’t, however. There are no sex scenes in these seductions – plenty of equal-opportunity nudity, but no sex scenes. Instead, the seduction takes place in a sort of nothingness. It’s haunting and beautiful and visually very clever. And the digestion? It’s one of the great moments of horror filmmaking.

Under the Skin as if by Winslow Homer

The visuals here can utterly command your attention. The first half, as Johansson’s predator is on the hunt, is dominated by bright figures centered in dark surroundings. It’s a binary relationship – predator, prey, nothing more. When she’s on the prowl, Under the Skin reflects Scotland’s surging visual art movement – one which recycles liberally from other popular media. Our predator is selective – no one with a family or loved one will suffer, only loners no one will miss. As she trawls the streets of Edinburgh for potential victims, we spy on her conversations as if following Dominic Monaghan or Jeremy Wade seeking out interviews from aboriginal locals, or we watch from the back of her nondescript white van as if we’re the turret camera atop a jeep waiting for some stalking creature to give chase to the herd.

The second half of the film is altogether different, and concerns our predator’s growing empathy and identification with humans. She begins to learn the limits and capacities of her body. Images now brim at their edges with light and color, yet are anchored in the middle by dark, underlit figures. It redirects our focus toward the edges of the frame, toward the possibility of what’s just out of sight, the unknown still obscured. Where we once cut relatively quickly from one shot to the next – while Johansson’s alien was on the prowl – we now linger even after characters leave the shot so we can appreciate the sound of the wind or the complex geometry of crisscrossing branches. The wolf goes native, starts wanting to play with the rabbits.

Under the Skin lead

There’s also a spooky moment of inverting rape culture here. Scarlett Johansson’s nameless alien gets very unnerving theme music early on, whenever she preys upon a man. When it hits, you straighten up, your fingers grip the armrests. The score by Mica Levi is superb – the best of the year so far. As the predator identifies more and more with humans, she adopts our rhythms, our weaknesses. These moments are without music, but that unnerving theme does return once more. It becomes someone else’s theme later on, when roles of predator and prey are reversed. It’s a shocking auditory moment, a double-take for the ears that sends a lump straight to your throat.

It’s vicious, but played as academic and unfeeling as her own earlier predations. It makes you realize you’ve spent ninety minutes trying to inhabit the altogether alien sociopathy of a sexual predator. It gives you a window into a psyche it ought to be utterly impossible to give us access to. In that single achievement, this may be one of the most challenging and important films I’ve seen in my life. It’s terrifying on a whole different scale. I can’t recall having seen a piece of art do what Under the Skin does.

Under the Skin choice

As an adaptation of the Michel Faber novel of the same name, this is…altogether something else. I love the Faber novel, but gone are the corporate politics and alien foodie-isms. This is a sleeker beast with a different cross to bear, yet there’s a consciousness to the rhythm of each sequence, an offhand attitude to narrative, and a lingering in the most evocative moments of its cinematography that feels just like Faber’s guarded and relentless concision of speech.

It’s worth noting I saw Under the Skin with two friends – an actor who enjoys classic cinema and a filmmaker whose bread and butter are action-comedies. Two ends of the spectrum, and neither one enjoyed it much, criticizing its lack of storytelling fundamentals and the molasses-pace of its second half. I was taken aback by how much they didn’t like it, but their criticisms are accurate. As a cogent story, Under the Skin requires a lot of work on the part of the audience. It’s that work on our part, that Pavlovian training we have as viewers to try as hard as we can to identify with our protagonist, that gives the story’s later inversion its power, however.

Under the Skin is not just a weird film or an art horror piece, it’s downright, unabashed experimental filmmaking, and that’s divisive. It’s absolutely not for everyone. For the right someone, though, it’s as brutal a shock to the system as storytelling in any form can achieve.

Under the Skin dark center

Thursday’s Child — Stephen Colbert, My Greatest Actor, and the Joseph Gordon-Levitt Bylaw

There were just too many good articles this week. Thursday’s Child expands on yesterday’s Wednesday Collective.

“On Stephen Colbert, Satire, &c.”
Chris Braak

Stephen Colbert

Last week, satirist Stephen Colbert put himself in hot water when his show, The Colbert Report, tweeted an offensive remark about Asian-Americans. It was part of a larger bit in which he criticized Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder by portraying other cultures in ways similar to how Native Americans are portrayed by Snyder and his team. It was a way of trying to get people of other cultures to identify with the public struggle to change the team’s name.

Needless to say, Twitter doesn’t lend itself the context of a several minutes-long comedy routine. In a vacuum, the offensive remark just seemed offensive, and lost its entire point. Was it brave? Was it foolhardy? Thankfully, I don’t have to answer these questions. Chris Braak at Threat Quality Press (author of that stupendous Wonder Woman piece a few weeks ago) already has. He twists himself in logical loops that amuse, edify, and speak to some rather poignant truths.

The Greatest Actor
Johanna Schneller

Irrfan Khan

There’s a point in Life of Pi that breaks your heart. If you’ve read or seen it, you know it, that rare moment so many artists seek to evoke by breaking the viewer into his or her component parts, by making you see yourself and your life from the outside, in the simplest of terms. It is fulfilling and scary and belittling and majestic. It’s like seeing yourself for the first time, all else removed. It is, perhaps, my favorite moment in all of film, and even thinking of it now, it makes me falter.

It is the achievement of director Ang Lee, novelist Yann Martel, and screenwriter David Magee, among many others. It is delivered in the most unassuming terms by actor Irrfan Khan. If you asked me to tell you the best male actors working today, I wouldn’t get past his name on the list. The honesty of his performances is defined by a quote he gives Canada’s Globe and Mail about his boyhood shyness and inability to express himself: “I remember feeling, ‘I’m not what you are thinking, there’s somebody else inside of me.'”

The article starts with a little too much fandom, but once it settles down, it’s revealing: Khan describes seeking a mystical experience through his acting, and it translates to the viewer in every nuance. His is a quietly forthright performance style that inhabits a scene’s space and transcends across the medium to audiences in a way I’ve never seen before.

Write About the Filmmaking
Matt Zoller Seitz

MZS lead

Music criticism long ago degenerated into celebrity revue and lifestyle reporting. It’s one reason Consequence of Sound is just about the only music review website I’ll still go to – their critics talk about instrumentation, theory, and how they play into theme and emotional effect – they actually analyze the music itself.

Point is, there’s an interesting article about how film criticism has largely devolved into literary analysis. It’s better than celebrity revue, but there’s a good point to be made here – criticism of anything demands some expertise in the field’s theory. Otherwise, it just devolves into that dreaded good-bad scale I’m always railing against. Critics ought to be translators, not because viewers are too stupid or uneducated to understand what’s being said (they aren’t), but because we’re trained in the film grammar to not just describe a movie’s message, but expand on its very technique.

“Imagine, for a moment, football commentators who refuse to explain formations and plays,” critic Sam Adams writes. “Or a TV cooking show that never mentions the ingredients.”

Now, I don’t have to imagine that first part – I’ve heard Troy Aikman broadcast. By “film grammar” I don’t mean knowing some verbiage others don’t, I mean understanding form history and the unspoken language of visual techniques based in everything from art history to statuary to graphic novels. The challenge is to take that morass of intellectual study and translate it into something practical and useful for the widest range of readers.

Criticism, in this day and age, should not simply describe what’s in front of us, it should seek to create new pieces of art based on the pieces of art we critique – to do our best to expand minds, evoke emotion, invoke social consciousness, make caring connections with our readers, and to share information rather than hoard it like some elitist knowledge connoisseur. Do that, and critics earn that the literary analysis may one day be done on our reviews, and not on movies themselves.

Sam Adams’s comments expand on Ted Gioia’s in a piece by Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com, because apparently this article lacked a sentence with 50 names in it.

The Art of Color Grading on The Grand Budapest Hotel
Beth Marchant

The Grand Budapest Hotel

A colorist is someone who goes through every scene and shot of a film with its director and editor in order to make sure the coloration is perfect and consistent. You can imagine one of the most exacting directors in this field is auteur Wes Anderson. “Digital Intermediate Colorist” (think: Color Magician) Jill Bogdanowicz recently completed the color grading on The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Beth Marchant at Studio Daily puts her through her paces in this exhaustive interview. It gets technical at points, but always returns to the creative aspect of a crucial job most don’t even know exists. It’s completely worth diving into, especially for filmmakers and photographers.

Thelma Schoonmaker on Editing
Nick Pinkerton

Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese’s go-to editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, discusses the craft of editing with Film Comment. She addresses editing for performance over continuity, how to edit improvised scenes, and the matter-of-fact, jump cut style she employs on The Wolf of Wall Street. This is a must-read for filmmakers.

The Alien Soundscape of Scotland
Trey Taylor

Under the Skin sound studio

It’s rare that I champion a movie that hasn’t come out yet, but Under the Skin is based on one of my favorite novels by Michael Faber. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he wrote bestseller The Crimson Petal and the White. Add to this the completely strange and unfamiliar ways in which every technical aspect has been approached – the whirlwind rhythm-based editing of Paul Watts, the cinematography of Daniel Landin suggesting a world that exists in some other film’s fade to black, the suggestively post-industrial John Cage-influenced score of Mica Levi…as well as what this article at Dazed Digital discusses: the sound design by Peter Raeburn and Johnnie Burn.

Burn himself wandered Glasgow recording the city’s sounds through a secret microphone hidden in his umbrella, and he discusses the best techniques to nonchalantly shove it in people’s faces as he passes them on the street. It’s a good read, especially for those interested in learning about the single most difficult and overlooked responsibility of any independent film production – sound editing.

The Joseph Gordon-Levitt Bylaw


Yesterday, I introduced The Sharni Vinson Rule: One never needs an excuse to post about Sharni Vinson, the Australian lead of You’re Next and Patrick. I added that – in the interest of equality – the same rule applies to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, star of Looper and the unauthorized biography of every relationship I’ve ever had, (500) Days of Summer.

Down the road a bit, you’ll be reading my thoughts on Gordon-Levitt’s Socratic brainchild of a new show, HitRECord on TV. It is the most important thing on television because it changes the very way TV is created, viewed, analyzed, hosted, and understood. Bold claim? Not after you’ve seen it. Go to the site and see what I mean.

Edited (4/3/14): to reflect that the offensive tweet was on The Colbert Show‘s Twitter account, and not on Stephen Colbert’s.