Steven Spielberg Makes Us See With Our Ears

A new video essay looks at how the legendary director uses sound design to tell a story.
Steven Spielberg Munich
By  · Published on January 18th, 2018

A new video essay looks at how the legendary director uses sound design to tell a story.

This goes without saying, but visuals are important in filmmaking. Directors show us what to focus on in a film through lighting, camerawork, mise-en-scène, and any number of other tools available to them. But they also get us paying attention to certain things through sound. Sometimes this means dialogue and music, but not always. For Steven Spielberg, perfectly crafted sound effects can be all he needs. This is evidenced brilliantly in his 2005 film Munich.

A new video essay from Evan Puschak, also known as The Nerdwriter, explores how one sequence in particular demonstrates Spielberg’s mastery over sound in his filmmaking. Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) and his team are in Paris, preparing to assassinate a man in his home through a bomb that has been planted in his telephone. Puschak draws our attention to the fact that there is no music in this scene and very little dialogue. Instead, Spielberg and sound designer Ben Burtt (known best for Star Wars) use sound effects to create tension.

The essay reveals how sound can be manipulated to skew the viewer’s perception of a sequence. The camera might present a busy street, but the sound of one car being emphasized over the others tells the audience that is the car to focus on. As Kaufman’s plan runs into some problems, the ambient sounds become strange, including a high-pitched whine that wasn’t present before. The change in sound builds the tension as Spielberg visually and aurally indicates that something isn’t right.

When the target’s daughter returns to the house, unbeknownst to the team of assassins, the essay demonstrates that because certain sound effects have been so well established, from a rotary phone to the daughter’s footsteps, these alone can tell the story of what is happening without the use of any visuals.

As Puschak says, “the really incredible thing about this scene is that Burtt and Spielberg build the tension not by working toward a great crescendo of noise, but by gradually subtracting elements. Once the daughter is up here the danger can be signalled by a single sound effect.”

Watch Puschak’s video essay to see — and hear — how important sound is in Munich:

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.