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Learning to Drive

Hollywood, CA—Danish film director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Oscar- nominated for sound design, was something of a learning experience even for the seasoned audio team at CSS Studios’ Soundelux division.

Working on Drive—Oscar-nominated for sound editing—was a learning experience for
supervising sound editor Lon Bender and the Soundelux team.
Hollywood, CA—Danish film director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Oscar- nominated for sound design, was something of a learning experience even for the seasoned audio team at CSS Studios’ Soundelux division. While the director took as his principal touchstone the horror film genre, according to the sound crew, he also challenged many audio post conventions, not least the use of silence and a willingness to create a disconnect between the visuals and the sound design in service of the overall emotional impact.

Refn might seem an unconventional choice for a film that features actor Ryan Gosling as a character known only as Driver and is so focused on driving. “The director has never driven a car, and doesn’t know how to drive,” reveals Lon Bender, a multi-Oscar-winner and co-supervising sound editor on the film along with Victor Ennis.

Bender and the Soundelux team have previously worked on The Fast and the Furious movie series, where they ensure that every car sounds authentic. For Drive, says Bender, “When we went to Nic and began to talk about car engines he said, ‘I don’t know—make it exciting.’”

As a result, “You’ll see in this film that there’s all kinds of activity and shifting and Ryan’s got his right hand on the steering wheel! It was not about playing it as an engine. Some of the times it had a tone, it was a pulse, there’s [the sound of] ground rocks instead of a car engine.”

At times, there are no engine sounds at all, notes Bender: “We’re hearing the rattles, the bumps of the manhole covers, a whoosh track, to help give us the sense that he’s moving through space. But he’s not being propelled by an engine, he’s being propelled by himself.”

Indeed, almost everything in the film is from Driver’s perspective, and the sound design focuses the viewer on what the main character perceives.

In the opening car chase sequence, Ennis points out, “You’re wondering, when is the car chase going to happen? And you realize you’re in the car chase, you’re in with the character. You’re only aware of things as the character is aware of things. That’s what made it really exciting for me. It was so unconventional.”

“[Refn] was looking for real quiet and peace and a sense of strange and bizarre harmony, when the guy is in his car. When he was in the real world, he had a totally different experience,” comments Bender.

Emotional impact was achieved through a mix of music—the original score is by Cliff Martinez—and sound, he adds. “[Refn] really relied on the music to create a certain type of tension, and he relied on sound design to create a certain mood.”

Absence of sound was also important, says Bender. “The silences were as important as anything to create a motion into the sound and the density of the track.”

The silence could be unnerving, interjects Bob Eber, the location sound mixer. “There were a couple of moments on the set where nobody was saying anything. I found myself rattling my connectors, thinking something was broken!”

Bender continues, “You always hear the adage less is more; it rarely ever gets achieved. With sound, we have a tendency to want to put layer upon layer and build these big, elaborate environments. This was just as much about deconstructing as it was about constructing. You feel these environments, but you find yourself leaning forward in your seat and really focusing in on the moments that Nic wanted you to be pointed at. That was a powerful learning experience for us; it certainly was for me.”

As Dave Paterson, one of the film’s re-recording mixers—alongside Robert Fernandez—further notes, the director wanted the point of view to always be subjective. “His philosophy was, if it’s not on camera then it’s not important. If someone walked off the screen, we stopped hearing them the moment they walked off.”

Paterson was able to build dynamics into the mix by emulating some of the techniques used in Refn’s beloved horror films, including “finding ways to get things down a little bit before the big hit so that it has more impact. If you’re already at the top, there’s nowhere else to go,” he says.

One extreme example of the soundtrack’s dynamic involves some startling gunshots. Moments before, everything goes quiet. “It’s the only time in my life that we’ve ever in a film gone to silence,” reveals Paterson. “You never really go to complete silence—you go to room tone or pretty quiet. But on that scene we went to dead silence. That’s what makes the gunshots so powerful.”

Bender enjoyed the adventure and the spirit of collaboration, he says. “Everybody was onboard for something exciting and different right from the beginning. Nic said, ‘You show me what we should do here, give me your opinions.’ It was free rein for us to explore and put things in that you would think wouldn’t normally work. You put it in, and it brought a whole new dynamic.”

CSS Studios