Tuesday, May 17, 2016

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD - Soundtrack Analysis - Video Essay

My following soundtrack analysis including the three clips was first published in the Swiss film magazine filmbulletin in German. Since voice-over narration would have obscured the very object of sound analyses, the video essay is broken down into three segments that are each preceded by written text. It was originally written and edited in February 2016, shortly before the crew of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD received their well-deserved Academy Awards for best achievements in "Sound", "Editing" and "Sound Editing" among others.

Creation of a Sound World

The illusory effect of modern blockbusters is often rather based on a close sound-image relationship than on realism of content. Thus, in George Miller's MAD MAX: FURY ROAD sounds, voices, even music appear to be organically anchored within the visual world we see, when in fact they were created as far away from the images as the initial car engine sound compared to the Warner Bros. logo it accompanies. As long as audiovisual synchronicity is preserved, we (the audience) accept quite absurd sounds as realistic depictions of a fictitious world.

To me, Miller's post-apocalyptic action film is fascinating exactly because of its virtuosic and single-minded audacity in sketching such a world by means of a gigantic two-hour car chase. According to supervising sound editor Mark A. Mangini, the fact that the soundtrack (that was carefully constructed over a period of two years) is every bit as rich as the film's much lauded visual language, is due to the unusually collaborative atmosphere under the septuagenarian director.

Although because of engines and wind machines, almost none of the meticulously recorded production track made it into the finished film, Ben Osmo's gargantuan miking concept was necessary for Miller to monitor the acting. Apart from that, every phrase of dialogue had to be reconstructible in post production. The actual performances were later created in a lengthy ADR process during which the dialogue was cobbled together word for word from different takes by Kira Roessler and her team.

Acoustic Subjectivity
While the voice of Charlize Theron's rebellious Furiosa sounds authentic for the most part, Tom Hardy's booming mumble appears strangely detached from the image. This highlights how the tonal integration of a voice into its sonic surroundings shapes our impression of filmic reality. Especially during the sparse conversations with Furiosa, Max's highly compressed baritone becomes irritating precisely because the soundtrack tries to force us into accepting Max as the hero protagonist by focusing on his subjective perception, when in fact we consider him as a stowaway in Furiosa's story.

Sharing Max' visions
And yet, in their scenes together, we clearly share the point of view of Max who has been degraded from "road warrior" to a war boy's "blood bag". This is particularly evident during his flashing visions that are accompanied by loud undefined sound objects. Equally effective if considerably subtler, manipulations of ambient noise communicate Max's subjective perception during his gradual unshackling.

The "resurrection scene" after the sand storm is a real masterpiece of sound design by David White*: After a moment of total silence, Max slowly rises while the grains of sand vividly trickle past his - and our - ears, until a swelling droning noise that vaguely resembles the sound of emerging from water grows into irregular pulse beats. The tension is finally released in an alleviative hissing sound when the blood hose is pulled out of his neck.

Although many approaching noises would long be audible in the open desert, time and again, we only hear them when Max notices them. The firing of guns next to Max's head results in momentary deafness and a piercing ringing in our ears while the same action does not affect our perception when it happens close to Furiosa's head. But instead of telling us that she is a tougher character, this simply tells us that we do not share her perspective to the same degree as we share Max's.

Rhythmical Punctuation
Subjectively fading ambient sounds are skillfully utilized to increase shock effects as well as already anticipated explosions. Likewise, the soundtrack accentuates individual cuts with striking sounds and drum beats. When war boy Nux is "struck" by Immortan Joe's glance, for example, a meaty rattle emphasizes the very jump cut that visually conveys Nux's excitement.

The extent to which sound editor Mangini collaborated with the Dutch composer Tom Holkenborg aka JunkieXL is especially evident in a seemless transition from beating noises to drumbeats: Furiosa first hits her war rig with a wrench. Imperceptibly, these beats are then picked up by extradiegetic drums the speed of which was retroactively adjusted to the sound design by the composer. Later, Holkenborg's synthetical "Brothers in Arms" - itself composed of samples that blur the line between music and noise - is triggered by an abrupt arm-gesture of a furious motorcycle warrior.

When Holkenborg joined the production of MAD MAX, the director only wanted to have diegetic music that emanated from the Doof Warrior's mobile battle band. Yet, the composer argued Miller into using an external score by submitting his ideas as musical sketches that could be used as a temp score. Thus, the Doof Warrior's guitar riffs (composed and added in post-production) are indeed remixed to match the spatial position of the fire-breathing guitar. However, they are also interwoven with the continuous rhythms of the action scenes.

Multi-instrumentalist Holkenborg creates his rhythm-based tracks by layering self-made sounds and drum samples directly in a three-dimensional sonic space**. His brand of repetitive rhythm patterns, multiplied bass lines and a general preference for sound modulation over melody and harmony reveal his former association with Hans Zimmer's Remote Control Productions.

Leitmotif Sounds
While Max's survival instinct to which he seems to be reduced in the first act is expressed by a brute cello note, Furiosa's determination is accompanied by a kind of heartbeat the elements of which suspensefully drift apart when the war rig enters the canyon. Hence, Furiosa's initial fight against Max feels like a tuneless ballet choreographed and edited to a rhythm of tonally varied drum beats and synchronous hitting sounds.

Only after Furiosa discloses the motivation for her rebellion to Max, a music-box-like Adagio emerges from the viola section. Holkenborg orchestrates this melancholy theme for strings with added bass in a chordal*** way and brings it into full bloom as "Many Mothers". Where musical sounds distinguish the human characters, the cars are stylized into organic creatures by sounds recorded and created by Oliver Machin and Scott Hecker.

When the Russian speaking "Buzzards" attack Furiosa's war rig with buzz saws, their spikey vehicles buzz metallically. The war rig itself is provided with a leitmotif sound that resembles the take off of a helicopter. The truck's engine noise, however, always conforms to the mood of the passengers. Occasionally, it is hardly audible during quiet dialogue scenes.

As a reference to Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, Mangini synchronizes Immortan Joe's self-destructive hunt for the war rig with whale sounds. For instance, when milk is squirting from harpooned holes, we hear fountains from a whale's blowhole. Eventually, the destruction of the war (accompanied by the pathos of "Walhalla Awaits") is dubbed almost exclusively with animal sounds instead of engine noises. At this point, we are so immersed in the story, that we never even question the origins of those sounds and accept them as purely diegetic.

* however difficult it may be to credit specific people within this team effort, the "resurrection scene" has been ascribed to David White in more than one interview (SoundWorks Collection).
** see Holkenborg's detailed process in a series of official videos.
*** "melody with chords" as opposed to "counterpoint".

Music: Tom Holkenborg aka JunkieXL
Production Sound Mixer: Ben Osmo
Vehicle Effects: Oliver Machin
Supervising Dialogue Editor: Kira Roessler
Sound Designer: David White
Supervising Sound Editor: Mark A. Mangini, Scott Hecker
Sound Re-recording Mixer: Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff

External links:
Ben Osmo interview (videoandfilmmaker.com)

Mark A. Mangini interview (scpr.org)

Interesting aspects of MAD MAX on my companion blog


Unknown said...

Tom Holkenborg (Junkie XL), not Tom Holtenborg

Oswald Iten said...

Sorry... thanks, just corrected it (at least it was right within the text)