Behind The Sound Design of ‘Joker’
It has been an experience that has left audiences with two words: gritty and uncomfortable. Warner Bros.'s latest DC film Joker, in theaters nows, made such an impression upon audiences that everybody now is talking about the film. Joaquin Phoenix’s magnificent performance as the main character, Arthur Fleck / Joker, was unsettling. Even Disquieting. It was equal parts outstanding and truly insane.
Joker is not a particularly flashy, fantastical, comic-book film: there are no superpowers defying the laws of nature and physics, which is why sound and sound elements were responsible for conveying the Joker’s insanity whilst staying realistic. Warner Bros. Sound’s two-time Oscar-winning sound editor Alan Murray was tasked with creating a noisy, tense Gotham City for the Joker’s world. The city is an active, worn-out sounding city, carefully put together with distinct sounds intelligently placed in the Dolby Atmos surround spectrum.
In this reality, Murray decided to place agony-inducing details, like the sound of the Joker’s hand running delicately over a child’s paintings. A detail so small, yet so disturbing. Murray, in collaboration with director Todd Phillips, managed to come up with a way to use sound effects in conjunction with composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score to raise the tension in the film, and how Foley, outside recordings and loop group added different layers and textures to the movie’s soundtrack.
Although Phillips is widely known for his comedic background, Joker supposed a major game change sound-wise. Judging by the film’s sound elements, it is easy to tell that the director and the sound team had a really thought-out roadmap regarding sound elements for the film. In an interview, Murray asserted that Philips stressed the importance of having a 3-D quality to the mix, and it actually makes sense: the main idea was to make the audience feel like they were right in the middle of Arthur’s descent into mental chaos.
Right off the bat, there’s this feeling that Gotham City is a city on the verge of total collapse; you can tell by the atmosphere. The effects certainly incorporated some dynamic reality and subtle sound design elements to blend with the score.
After taking a closer look, it is noticeable that each scene starts with a certain degree of normalcy that interacts with Phoenix’s intense portrayal of the character, which ultimately builds tension and allows the audience to digest and even feel what the character is going through. That is quite the film’s basic premise when it comes to the addition and the creation of sound elements.
Another aspect worth mentioning and analyzing is the fact that the movie takes place in the late 70s — early 80s, which, again, supposes a new challenge, as the sound team had to convey the grittiness of a city that is being slowly taken by crime. In the opening chase with Arthur and the kids who stole his sign, you can hear big V-8 engines and car rumbles within the aggressive mood of the city, also supported by individuals who, maybe like the main character, are doing everything they can to thrive and survive.
Arthur’s apartment is always alive with people yelling down the hall, from the alley, noise from neighbors, sirens, aggressive horns. Everything that a city-on-edge would sound like. In general, the movie is highly detailed when it comes to sound, and it clearly strives to stay away from any possible muddy.
Going back to the V-8 engine sounds, the sound team used that specific sound to wipe the frame, between cuts of Arthur chasing the kids and the kids running. By taking a closer look, you can tell the sound and audio team focused on using foley footsteps of the kids running away, and the aggressive horns as they all are crossing the street through traffic. It was key to clearly set up the time period the movie takes place in, and they managed to do so.
As for ADR sessions, a rather unorthodox approach was followed by Murray and his team. During that scene when the neighbor yells “Shut up!” through the apartment wall, you can tell, judging by the nature of that specific sound, that the sound team and the director wanted to communicate the fact that Gotham City is seldom quiet.
As per asserted by Murray himself, one night he and his team took an ADR group onto the backlot set of New York so they could get the natural reverb off the surrounding buildings. They placed recording crews on rooftops, doorways and even hanging out of windows, trying to get the natural reverb you would hear from the alley. In fact, during scenes that take place within Arthur’s apartment, you can hear lots of yell-outs, arguments and all sorts of discussions that take place outside its walls.
On a final note, another outstanding sound element can be noticed during that scene when Arthur is watching the Murray Franklin show, portrayed by Robert De Niro, and starts fantasizing about him being present on the show.
Going into the “live” part of the show, although the audience doesn’t know whether it’s real, forced the sound team to make the audience feel like they were in the middle of the studio audience, which was achieved by placing crowd reactions discretely around the Dolby Atmos surround field. That way viewers can feel like they are right there with the soon-to-be Joker himself.