Do You Hear What I Hear?: An Intro to Expressionistic Sound Design

Gotham has romantic rain, tension rain ... detectiv-ing rain ...
The Batman

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a breakdown of what expressionistic sound design sounds like in Matt Reeves’ ‘The Batman.’

When film fans think of “expressionism,” a very specific visual style immediately comes to mind. We’re talking stark lighting, long shadows, jagged mise-en-scène, and absurd angles. This is, of course, a very specific flavor of expressionism: German Expressionism, to be exact. The pre-war cinematic movement is primarily identified by its striking visuals: from the psychologically troubling doubling of 1913’s The Student of Prague to warped gravity and jutting, distorted rooftops of Fritz Lang’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

Bred out of Germany’s relative creative isolation in the lead-up to World War I, German Expressionism is a specific instance of a larger movement that plays fast and loose with a broad artistic idea: to externally manifest internal psychological states. While expressionism’s definition isn’t explicitly confined to visuals, mutated skylines and theatrical lighting are often what we talk about when we identify the cinematic movement in the wild. Even when speaking about German Expressionism’s progeny (for instance, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Brian DePalma, and Tim Burton), we tend to do so in visual terms.

The video essay below is a good reminder that sound design can also be a tool of expressionistic filmmaking. Using 2022’s The Batman as an example, the essayist unpacks how the sound design and sound mix model the film’s soundscapes around the subjective experience of the characters. After all, when you are intently focusing on something, doesn’t the ticking clock fade into the background? Does the success (or failure) of a date night have any effect on how the sound of rain feels to you?

Headphones are encouraged, and beware light visual spoilers for The Batman.

Watch “Why ‘The Batman’ Sounds Incredible”:

Who made this?

This video essay on the expressionistic sound design in Matt Reeves’ The Batman is by Virginia-based filmmaker and video editor Thomas Flight. He runs a YouTube channel under the same name. You can follow Thomas Flight and check out his back catalog of video essays on YouTube here. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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    Meg Shields: Meg has been writing professionally about all things film-related since 2016. She is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects as well as a Curator for One Perfect Shot. She has attended international film festivals such as TIFF, Hot Docs, and the Nitrate Picture Show as a member of the press. In her day job as an archivist and records manager, she regularly works with physical media and is committed to ensuring ongoing physical media accessibility in the digital age. You can find more of Meg's work at Cinema Scope, Dead Central, and Nonfics. She has also appeared on a number of film-related podcasts, including All the President's Minutes, Zodiac: Chronicle, Cannes I Kick It?, and Junk Filter. Her work has been shared on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, Business Insider, and CherryPicks. Meg has a B.A. from the University of King's College and a Master of Information degree from the University of Toronto.