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Oscar-nominated ‘Sound of Metal’ has a Mexican imprint

Three of the film's Oscar-nominated sound mixers are from Mexico, and they lent their seasoned skills in a movie that follows a drummer as he battles sudden deafness.
Image: Riz Ahmed in "Sound of Metal."
Riz Ahmed in "Sound of Metal."Amazon Studios

Praised for its immersive approach to mapping out a drummer’s confrontation with hearing loss, writer-director Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal,” now contending for six Academy Awards, features a singularly story-driven use of sound.

Part of that sonic alchemy proudly bears a “Made in Mexico” stamp. The film is nominated for best sound, and three of the nominated artisans are Mexican re-recording mixers Jaime BakshtMichelle Couttolenc, and Carlos Cortés Navarrete. Together they worked alongside fellow nominees Nicolas Becker and Phillip Bladh to fine-tune the sonic palette. The Mexican trio lent their seasoned skills, honed over many years working on homegrown productions and the occasional international job, across multiple stages of the film’s post-production journey.

Though all of them studied in Europe or the United States, given the limited availability of sound-focused education in their homeland during their formative period, they returned to Mexico to carve out their careers.

Baksht, the veteran of the pack, was instrumental in the modernization of the famed Estudios Churubusco in Mexico City. That’s where he eventually met a fresh-faced Couttolenc and developed a professional relationship now going on 14 years. One of their landmark collaboration was on Guillermo del Toro’s acclaimed “Pan’s Labyrinth,” for which the pair received a BAFTA nomination.

Cortés, on the other hand, was employed at a variety of film-related studios, including the renowned Labo Digital, until meeting idiosyncratic director Carlos Reygadas (“Silent Light,” “Post Tenebras Lux”) with whom he began an ongoing working partnership.

Reygadas would eventually bring these three sound artisans together to work on his most recent feature “Our Time” at his studio Splendor Omnia, located in the Tepozteco Mountain Range south of the Mexican capital. That relationship with the auteur led them to “Sound of Metal.”

The story of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity began when Mexican musician Leonardo Heiblum met composer Becker, who would serve as supervising sound editor on the movie while recording an album with singer-songwriter Patti Smith.

Becker spoke to Heiblum about “Sound of Metal” and his and the director’s intention to handle the post-production in an unconventional manner. They sought a creative space away from Hollywood. Heiblum, attuned to his country’s film industry, suggested Splendor Omnia and recommended Baksh and Couttolenc. A few phone calls later, the team was assembled.

The principal mix for “Sound of Metal” was crafted at Reygadas’ facilities, with final remixes executed at boutique studio Astro LX. Yet it was an arduous undertaking to get there and achieve the soundscape that has strongly resonated with audiences.

Re-recording mixers like the Mexican team come onto a project during the final phase of the construction of a film’s sound. First comes the direct sound from the set (dialogue, location noises), and then the sound designers adorn that raw material with ambient sounds, Foley and a plethora of other effects.

Once a solid foundation is completed, the merging of all the collection of auditory components begins. “We get into a screening room to blend all those elements and play with the volumes, textures, movement, among other qualities to give it nuance and deliver what you ultimately listen to in a movie theater,” explains Couttolenc.

On “Sound of Metal,” Cortés first toiled with Becker to lay the conceptual basis on an initial draft of the mix. Later, Baksh and Couttolenc proposed their counter solutions or variations to the challenges facing the project. For example, the first concert where we meet Ruben (Riz Ahmed) was critical to establish the character’s lifestyle in relation to the factors that contribute to his evolving condition.

“It was very important for us that it felt truly gigantic in sound because the movie is about a drummer who becomes deaf because he plays thrash metal. It had to be loud and raucous. It can’t be aggressive for the audience but has to get across the sensation of being in that concert,” says Baksh.

A major point of contention over the 12-week process was the approach to how Ruben would perceive sound while wearing the cochlear implant, which required plenty of crisp distortion. Becker handled it as omnidirectional, as if the sound were all around him. However, Couttolenc believed there was a better way to convey the loss of directionality (the ability to distinguish where a sound is coming from).

“Instead of treating sound when he has the implant as if it were a big bubble that surrounds him without directionality, my idea was to treat it as if it existed in bubbles within bubbles, to imply the sounds are moving throughout the space. As he tries to recover his hearing with the implant, he feels bombarded with sounds and doesn’t know where they come from. That feeling of shock was created by putting sounds within other sounds moving through space in a random pattern,” notes Couttolenc.

Since Ruben’s perception of sound is no longer the same as before, these had to function in a counterintuitive fashion to what he sees. While he looks in one direction, the sounds may come from behind. That’s the effect that Couttolenc’s unique layering created. Making these contrasts believable and true to the overwhelming sensory reality of someone losing their hearing was the team’s priority, supported by Becker and Marder’s extensive research.

Even in the few instances where the protagonist and the viewer experience silence on screen, there isn’t a complete absence of sound. According to Baksht, even though the character has severe hearing loss, a person never stops hearing completely. The human body continues to respond to sound waves through resonance.

“When [Ruben] first receives the implant there’s a short moment of silence, but it’s in the ending, which has a minute and half of silence, where manipulating all the pieces was the challenge so that moving moment could have what we call digital silence,” explains Cortés. “We needed to honor the silence and the construction that went into creating the feeling of disorientation as the character confronts his new condition as a deaf person.”

For Baksht, the creative dynamic with Becker and Marder, who were on-site in Mexico for the invigorating post-production venture, was grounded on utmost freedom and a fluid exchange of ideas without hang-ups about hierarchy.

Marder didn’t micromanage. While the sound team worked on the mix, the director would spend time addressing other aspects of his debut. Marder and Becker would watch or rather listen to the new mix in the afternoons once Baksht and company were done for the day and the director would simply leave written feedback for the team to address the next day.

“Sound of Metal” is further proof of the Mexican cinematic craftsmanship that has boosted the quality of local filmmaking and expanded its reach to the American market. The Academy Award nomination represents a victory for inventiveness in the use of the medium’s tools over budgetary brawn. Surprised by such an accolade, the three sound amigos hope the visibility yields further opportunities Stateside.

“The people that worked in the movies we are competing against are the gurus of the sound industry. I admire them greatly,” says Baksht. “I thought in this category the Academy would only go for huge productions. I was pleasantly surprised they recognized our movie. When I found out we were nominated for an Oscar I thought, ‘Órale, can this be real?’”

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