Lost in the mix? 'Interstellar' controversy swirls around music and effects
As Oscars buzz builds — nominations will be announced tomorrow, Jan. 15 — a recurring topic of discussion among composers and sound designers is the quality of Interstellar's sound. So much so that it's interjected into conversations such as a recent interview with Trent Reznor and a roundtable discussion with some of Hollywood's most recognized composers. So, what's the deal with it?
At the time of the film's November release, many complained about unclear dialogue, an overly loud music score, and an altogether uneven experience. It fed the blogosphere's contempt for the film and made the news rounds with many chiming in as if offended that such a thing could happen to such a big-budget Hollywood film. "Any professional would have spoken up and said, 'We can't hear the dialogue,'" an unnamed insider told Billboard. Others countered by saying the issue was really overblown.
Yet, it's brought up time and again and will undoubtedly continue to be discussed as we near the final stage of 2014 awards. The idea that such a high-profile release could be so poorly mixed is emblematic for many of what's wrong with director Christopher Nolan and composer Hans Zimmer — and, by extension, Hollywood — less than a decade after they could do no wrong with the success of The Dark Knight. Both have addressed the issue endlessly with discussions of the process, saying they experienced the film in numerous theaters with the entire team (not just Nolan and Zimmer) until they all felt it was the film they wanted to make.
Nolan told The Hollywood Reporter that he had very deliberately made unconventional choices in mixing the soundtrack of Interstellar. "I've always loved films that approach sound in an impressionistic way and that is an unusual approach for a mainstream blockbuster," said Nolan, "but I feel it's the right approach for this experiential film."
What should we make of this? History speaks of great developments typically being denigrated in the moment only to be vindicated in later years. Interstellar's mix is certainly loud and there are scenes where the dialogue is buried in the mix — such as when characters chase a drone or when they're talking in a spaceship during take-off sequences — and Zimmer's score often takes precedent, as is tradition with Nolan's films. However, to my ears the mix never seemed to be sloppy or in error, but an important aspect of the narrative experience.
In this film it's not information that matters, but feelings; and specifically interstellar love. Say what you will about the use of this trope to motivate the narrative and justify decisions, but if that is the overall thesis of the film — that love transcends all else (time included) and thus it is what you feel that is most important — it seems appropriate that this idea extend to the soundtrack; to turn the dialogue down and allow for the wealth of sound emitting from a spaceship thrusting through space or for the solitude of Zimmer's organ-driven score to speak to the feeling of the moment rather than be pushed aside. (The organ parts were recorded at Temple Church in London, performed by the church's music director Roger Sayer.)
The argument that the filmmakers simply made a bad mix is ill-fitting. These are professionals in this field who have been doing their jobs for a long time. What seems more probable is that which has been said all along: the filmmakers were trying something new, and taking risks with an unusual sound mix. Whether it's a success or not is in the ear of the beholder, but in an industry where complaints about bland uniformity are often heard, it may be worth trying a little harder to appreciate attempts to think outside the box.
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