At the beginning of November, I took part in a 3 day class in sound design with Jillis Molenaar at the Netherlands Film Academy. While these all-day sessions were mentally exhausting, they completely changed my outlook on the art of sound design and what audio can add to a film which image and music can never do on their own. The same amount of time and energy is poured into the foley, dialogue mixing, soundscapes, and atmospheric noise as the musical score, and I think this is unfortunately something that is lost on a lot of sound editors, composers, and directors to the detriment of all three. You can try some of this analysis yourself using the masking methods of the french composer Michel Chion. Pick a scene from any film and first listen to it with the image turned off. Then, watch the same scene again without the audio. What do you notice with each version? What did you pick up on from the sound design that the image alone didn't tell you, and vice/versa? Finally, watch the scene a third time with both the audio and image on. You will surprise yourself with all the minute details that may have passed you by on a casual watch. Sounds can have just as much meaning and symbolism as the image, the dialogue, and the music, and the most successful films are fully aware of the symbiotic relationships between these elements.
If you haven't had the chance to check out Netflix's premiere German series Dark, I can't recommend it enough. The cinematography, soundtrack, sound design, and storyline are beautifully woven together in an elaborate web, making it the perfect series to extrapolate and theorize with your friends. It's like if Lost actually figured out how to have a good ending and tie everything together-- there are no cop-outs here. This sound analysis specifically contains no spoilers, as it was written as an assignment for Jillis, who to my knowledge has not yet seen the series himself. So, pull up Netflix, sync up with the timecodes below, and see if you can catch all the details I did!
All images are subject to copyright by Netflix, Inc. and protected under fair use.
Setup: As the first scene of the series, this scene requires no introduction.
The very first impression of Dark is not a landscape, or an Einstein quote, but rather atmospheric sound design set to black. This establishes a cold, windy canvas on which to build the rest of the piece. Along with the Einstein quote, a musical high-pitched drone fades in, shifting the atmosphere from a neutral one to one of tension. This primes the listener for the introduction of the entire series’ central themes in the intro sequence, giving them a subconscious expectation for something foreboding.
Fading in from black, we see a dark forested landscape, while simultaneously hearing a low industrial drone. This drone is part of the musical score, however it blurs the lines between music and sound design, invoking a feeling of artificiality on an image of nature. Heard frequently throughout the series, this single-note drone could be interpreted as a motif for the village of Winden, or the power plant in the woods. The drone is only momentarily at the forefront, as a voiceover takes center stage for the next minute; it repeats more quietly on the establishing shot of the bunker door. The high-pitch frequencies and low drone continue in the background as the voiceover introduces the central themes: time is not a straight line, but rather an unending circle. “Alles ist miteinander verbunden” —everything is connected.
In the underground bunker, the drones continue to build with increasing reverb and volume, contributing to the sense that we are underground, somewhere dark, cold, and unpleasant. Upon the end of the voiceover, a buildup combined with a reversed sound effect cuts with the picture to a new setting. With this short establishing shot- the exterior of a house, with the title “21. Juni 2019” we can very quickly ascertain a lot of information. The shot indicates a different time of day from the opening landscape— the trees are a verdant green, and the lighting looks midday; the title tells us the exact date; the sound design contains quite loud environmental and habitat sounds from birdsongs to wind rustling in the trees. However, this scene is connected to the previous one very subtly via sound design. Rather than cutting off the drones completely on the cut to this shot, the reverb carries over, washing the picture with low frequencies and continuing the dark atmosphere of the previous scene. Along with the cut, a new single note drone is introduced to set up the next musical cue, which also serves to smooth over the next cut. On the cut to the interior, there is a subtle airy frequency in the back of the mix which gives the exact impression of a cold, drafty attic before the shot pans out to reveal that we are in fact in an attic.
Offscreen to the right, we hear a grandfather clock ticking in the background. This is an especially deliberate and genius choice in the sound design not only because it is never shown visually in the shot, but because it plays into a central theme of the series: the passage of time. In addition to this thematic choice, the clock also gives us a sense of the size of the room we’re in, and the way the ticking reverberates and is absorbed in the room tells us about the room’s medium size and mostly wooden composition.
As the shot pans out, the drone builds and a string orchestra takes the forefront, performing a pitch-bending motif which recurs in almost every episode when something important to the timeline is happening. What is particularly interesting about this musical cue is that the first time we hear a non-synth instrument in the score is when we see a close up of a character. The choice to use strings here gives us a sense of empathy, a sense of the character’s humanity rather than the industrial feel of the opening synth drone. This character’s movements are also exaggerated in the sound design— his footsteps, the sounds of the stool, and the sound of the letter all give a sense of quiet intimacy in the room even though the music is very loud in the mix.
At the reveal of the noose, wind chimes are added to the sound design, giving the moment a dreamlike/trance quality up until the moment of the hanging. An instant before he hangs himself, the grandfather clock ticks one last time— louder than all the other times; once again, this practically hammers home the thematic material of the series. Immediately when the character hangs himself, several elements can be heard at once: an auditory “flash”, almost like an old camera, followed by a high-pitched tinnitus-like sound; the rope swinging; the character choking loudly; the wood creaking under his weight; and lastly, a choir which invokes religious undertones— a secondary theme in Dark.
The high-pitched frequency could almost be considered diegetic from the character’s perspective, as it represents the shock his body undergoes at its sudden strangulation. All of these elements continue offscreen behind the image as the camera zooms in on a family photo (already introducing the next character we meet, Jonas) as well as the letter this dying character wrote. The auditory elements build exponentially, with the sound of the rope coming forward in the mix as the image cuts to Jonas waking up from a nightmare. This begs the question to the audience: was this a dream, or did it really happen? Did it happen in the past, present or future? With the image alone, much of this subconscious meaning is completely lost.
Setup: Jonas and his friends investigate a cave in the woods to find a stash of drugs, but Martha’s younger brother Mikkel insist on joining them; when something supernatural happens, Mikkel goes missing.
Beginning with a wide shot of Jonas and his friends, the sound design is comprised of a few natural and unnatural environmental sounds in the forest. The “natural” sounds could be expected in any dark, wet forest: water dripping from trees and twigs falling and snapping— presumably from animals. The “unnatural” sounds are not what you would expect in real life but contribute to the atmosphere of the scene: distant, reverb-drenched, almost cave-like sounds. These added effects contribute to the damp, dark, and cold environment in the forest.
Up until about 38:21, the sound design is mainly incidental sounds synchronized with the characters— footsteps, unimportant dialogue, grabbing the bag of marijuana, pushing, etc.. The only time these sounds originate offscreen is when Franziska calls to the others: “Sucht ihr das?” — “Looking for this?”, whereupon the camera cuts to Franziska, bringing the sound source onscreen, focusing our attention on her at the same time as the other characters.
At 38:21, the sound design takes the forefront, demanding the attention of the audience and the characters alike. A supernatural sound issues forth from the cave, and from here on the line between diegetic and non-diegetic sound design becomes obscured. Until the end of the sequence, the drama is almost entirely driven by the sound design, making it impossible to separate the audio from the image. Offscreen, we hear branches snapping, a bird flying from right to left, and a synthesized score emerging from the supernatural cave sounds. As the characters flee, the synthesizers could be interpreted both as diegetic sounds to which the characters are responding as well as non-diegetic audio which conveys the feelings of the characters onscreen. From the characters themselves we hear exaggeratedly loud breathing, which allows the audience to empathize with them more easily.
At 38:53, a dissonant choir enters the musical score directly on the cut to Jonas’s grandmother; this musical motif harkens back to the moment in the first sequence when Jonas’s father hangs himself, implying some correlation between the two events. The scene cuts back quickly to Jonas and Mikkel running, and the synthesized score remains at the front of the mix, with their footfalls laying underneath. As Jonas falls, score cuts out to a natural silence. The environmental sounds are similar to the beginning of the scene, however now they have become more sinister. Now we hear trees creaking in the distance, a bird taking flight, unnatural screams drenched in reverb in the distance, and even a crow cawing offscreen— an omen of impending doom. As a seemingly evil presence draws nearer, a high-pitched frequency draws close, almost the same as the frequency heard the moment Jonas’s father hangs himself— again, a sound design motif connecting the two moments.
As Jonas realizes he is alone, we are drawn into Jonas’s subjective internal perspective as the natural silence fades away into an unnatural silence. A low pass filter is drawn over the scene, with Jonas’s breathing high in the mix. The synthesizers never leave the mix, as a threat is still present in the scene. We hear a voice whisper offscreen— “Jonas”— and we are further drawn into Jonas’s internal perspective as his increasing heartbeat takes the front of the mix. An unsettling synthesizer which has not yet been heard in the scene implies the presence of some unnatural figure directly behind Jonas, and upon the reveal of Jonas’s father, the sound design reflects Jonas’s shock non-diegetically with an industrial metal scrape combined with a low bass hit. The high-pitched frequency returns as an aftershock, and as Jonas comes to his senses and turns to run, the perspective returns to third-person as we once again hear Jonas’s footsteps. Bringing the scene to a close, the music returns the religious choir motif and the low drone motif which could be heard in the very first scene of the episode. Again, this drone is used almost exclusively when something important to the plot occurs.
Throughout this scene, the sound design is paramount. Because the characters are in the dark and their flashlights are malfunctioning, they rely more on their sense of hearing to gather information just as we, the audience, do. Without the sound design, the image itself only contains half of the information conveyed.
Setup: After the apocalypse, Jonas finds himself in an abandoned world. Determined to prevent the apocalypse from occurring in the past, he explores the desolated town of Winden in search of answers.
As Jonas awakes from a dream, the first element we notice in the sound design is, again, a tinnitus-like frequency which starts loud and softens as the scene continues. This frequency, however, never stops completely. At first it is associated with Jonas’s feelings of distress resulting from his dream, but as it continues it becomes associated with the post-apocalyptic Winden. A
similar strategy is used in Chernobyl, wherein the sound design is used to represent the presence of deadly radiation. Here in Winden, the world is poisoned and dangerous, and this constant threat takes the form of a high-pitched frequency in the same fashion.
Secondarily in the sound design, we hear environmental noises which one would not normally expect in a bedroom— wind, airy-sounding drones, and some kind of electrical buzzing which could either be exposed wires, or a non-diegetic sound which adds to the impression of Jonas’s disorientation. As the scene continues downstairs, the sounds from outside grow louder with thunder in the distance. This outdoor noise inside is explained by the gaps in the walls and the vegetation growing indoors— this house is dilapidated and falling apart, so sounds from outside are leaking in. Unknown synthesizer sounds phase in and out of the sound design, contributing to the unpredictable, dangerous feeling of the environment, even though Jonas is currently indoors.
As Jonas exits his home, those drafty environmental noises grow louder, in sync with the cut to outside. Right after Jonas dons his mask, we can hear a strange frog-like croak in the distance, lending to the sense that this world is alien compared to the Winden we knew from 2019. The camera cuts to a wide shot of Jonas’s ruined home, and a single string note sounds, but does not develop into a melody. Bits and pieces of a musical score can be heard throughout this scene, but all of it is fragmented and broken, reflecting the world as it is. The strings never develop a fully-formed musical idea, because to have a full melody would be a counterpoint to the world we see on screen.
As Jonas leaves the suburbs where his home is located, he enters a more industrialized area, and this is reflected in the sound design with metallic drones which further invoke a sense of artificiality. In a wide shot, we see an airplane flying in the distance, synchronized with the sounds of its engine. Just after the cut to a close up of Jonas, there is an explosion offscreen— presumably from this plane. Jonas reacts to the sound, however it is unclear whether the plane crashed or dropped a bomb. The unexpected nature of this explosion contributes to the general feeling of danger throughout the scene. Inside a nearby building, the melancholic strings continue as Jonas searches for resources. With each shot, the acoustics of the rooms change to reflect the height of the ceiling, materials constituting the walls, and other environmental factors which change the way Jonas’s footsteps and incidental sounds are heard. Across each cut, a low drone which sounds like an air vent or quiet power generator can be heard, however it seems unlikely that this building would actually have power in reality. Again, it is unclear whether this drone is diegetic or simply contributes to the post-apocalyptic feeling of the environment.
Outside once more, the soundscape changes from the industrial sound from before to one of an alien swamp as Jonas moves into the forest. Here, at about 8:44, we hear habitat and species sounds: frogs croaking, owls hooting, trees creaking, and something vaguely threatening far in the distance which sounds almost like children playing on a playground. This design almost sounds almost like it would fit just as well on the planet Dagobah from Star Wars as it does in Jonas’s village. An oscillating drone can also be heard in the mix, which grows louder as Jonas nears the bunker. Inside, the environmental noises are much quieter; this gives a feeling of safety — but not entirely, as nowhere is truly safe here. The electrical noises from the lights interact with the aforementioned high-pitched frequency, creating a kind of phasing effect that lends to the manmade nature of the bunker. As Jonas turns on his tape recorder, Claudia’s voice comes through “on the air” as a last source, with a grainy quality which echoes around the room, giving a sense of the size and makeup of the bunker’s interior. Underneath the voiceover, the sound of the tape recorder’s motor can be heard, giving even more authenticity to the sound. As Jonas listens to the tape, he holds a coin in a closeup shot, and the sound design reflects the importance given to this coin by the choice to use a closeup. As he strokes the coin, the metallic sound it makes is
amplified beyond reality, drawing even more focus on its symbolism and its connection to Martha, pictured behind the shot. The scene draws to a close with a reverse sound effect and a ticking clock— a common recurrence throughout the series used to transition between different timelines.
If this style of analysis is interesting to you, I would recommend checking out the book Audio Vision: Sound on Screen by Michel Chion for a more in-depth explanation of his view of sound design in film.