Features and Columns · Movies

‘Gravity’ and the Line Between Realistic and Believable Sound Design

In sound cinema, the impression of silence is rarely…well, silent. Here’s a look at ‘Gravity’ to explain why.
Gravity sound design
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on February 15th, 2021

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay about how the sound design of ‘Gravity’ balances realism with what “feels real.”

When it comes to sound in cinema, what feels real and what is real are not always the same thing.

A kind of crass but effective example is the T. rex roar in Jurassic Park. Scientists have good reason to believe that the iconic bellow immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s film is not actually what dinosaurs sounded like. But when you’re watching the film, it feels right. And ultimately, in those moments of terror and awe, a fabrication serves the story best.

This dichotomy is more nuanced and a little stickier in Alfonso Cuarón‘s Gravity. The film begins with title cards that remind us there is no sound in the vacuum of space. What follows is a film filled with creative negotiations to this narrative obstacle. While it’s all too easy to wag a dogmatic finger at the screen decrying the sacrilege of scientific fact, the reality is that, in fiction, space doesn’t have to sound like space.

Not only that but as the video essay below explains in greater detail, to dismiss Gravity‘s noisy space loopholes ignores a broader and more fascinating push-pull in sound design. Namely: a tension between environmental fidelity (what we hear reflecting what we see) and rhetorical intelligibility (what we hear clearly deploying narrative information).

The moments in Gravity where the subjective overrides the spatial are subtle and fascinating, from changing point-of-audition to a score that smuggles in sound effects. All told, Gravity is a marvellous case study of the difference between realism and what feels “real” in sound design.

Watch “Sound and Silence in Gravity: Fidelity vs Intelligibility“:

Who made this?

This video essay is by Jordan Schonig, who holds a Ph.D. in Cinema and Media Studies from the University of Chicago. They are a Film Studies lecturer and make video essays on, what else, film. You can subscribe to Schonig on YouTube here. And you can follow them on Twitter here.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).