Nicolas Becker is a longtime Foley artist and sound designer who has worked on films like Gravity, 127 Hours and American Honey. His latest project, Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, brought on a unique set of challenges. The film follows Ruben, a drummer played by Riz Ahmed who is going deaf. Through the use of sound, the audience experiences this transition with him. Aside from his film work, Nicolas contributes to art exhibitions, musical albums and more. He’s currently working on a talking opera and an album based in machine learning and eye detection.   

Nicolas spoke to A.frame from his native France about how he got his start, why he’s always listening and how he—literally—used sound to get inside Riz’s head. Sound of Metal hits theaters Nov. 20 and Prime Video Dec. 4.

As told to A.frame

I started as a Foley artist 30 years ago—I still do a bit of it. Now, I’m working on an opera. I’m working with actors and writers. I’m doing this electronic concept album using machine learning and eye detection … I like everything that crosses over, like working with philosophers or sociologists. I like the possibility of trying to rediscover your own practice through collaboration with different people.

When I was 13 years old, I saw a short documentary on TV where they were explaining how people do sound for film. They were showing a boat lying on the beach. First, you heard only seagulls, then maybe waves, then music, then kids playing. It was incredible to me how the sound could affect the picture, or how the picture could affect the sound. It was like, “Wow, I want to do that.”

I finished school, and I went to university to study mathematics and biology. At that time, I was a bit like a dreamer. I didn’t know how to make things becoming real. I had a girlfriend at this time, and one day, I came back home and she gave me a list: “These are all the Foley artists working in France. Call them.” And I did. One of the guys accepted me to work with him, so I worked for six months. After those six months, he fired me.

During this period, I was doing a lot of short films for free, and I was also doing some Foley for some young directors from film school. Slowly, I started to work with people who were starting to make films. I met Mathieu Kassovitz when he did La Haine, so I was involved in that, and it was very good for my career because the film was very successful. He was kind of a new generation of director with like Nicolas Boukhrief, Christophe Gans, Gaspar Noé, this generation of people who had been very influenced by American and Asian film. So I was a bit involved in that.

And then on the other side, I started to work with Roman Polanski. I did The Pianist, and I discovered this older generation of great directors, masters like Alain Resnais, Raúl Ruiz, Marco Ferreri. 

From Foley to sound design

I loved doing Foley, but of course, I was a very curious guy, so I was always asking. I met a guy at this time who was a musician, and he was starting to work with samplers. 

I started to think: It would be amazing to be able to bring this technology without the postproduction, because now we can only record on tape and create basic effects. So we found a system to actually link samplers to the tape editing. We found a way to put a code on the track, and be able to pilot the sampler. So from that, I did a lot of big films because we were able to do things that nobody else was because of the way we were able to link the sampling machine to film.

“These are Baschet Sound Structures, these weird instruments made of crystal and metal that I used for ‘Sound of Metal.’”

I’m still passionate about doing films after 30 years of work. Of course not bad films, but each time I have the chance to work on a film, I feel like a kid because I have the feeling that there is so much to explore. Maybe it’s also because of my European culture, with a very strong school of documentary or real sound, live sound, I always question the sonic matter. For example, if I am doing a film set underwater, I’m going to go underwater and try to experience that.

Of course, sometimes sound needs to be illustrative, where you have to define a special space or time or location. It’s very useful, but it’s not the way that I try to work. The way I try to work is to put the people in the condition where they can actually create links between what they hear and their own memory of sound. It’s also a way to talk directly to the body. Not to be too intellectual or cerebral, but to be much more direct. Because I’m also working a lot with conceptual artists, I like this idea of working on a very conceptual level and also on a very sensitive level, a body level. 

Because of where films are conceived most of the time, the storytelling is always very strong, the acting is always very strong. I think it’s a bit stupid to try to compete. I think it’s more interesting to open the territory and try to work in different ways and to create parallel arcs aligned to the storytelling, while trying to create more complexity. 

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I think that to be radical now is not to do something crazy; it’s more to weave and create complex things. To permit the audience to feel a part of it.

In the year 2000, it was about more and more and more: more sound, more picture, more editing. And then I think we reached a point where people started to realize that this was a bit useless. I was lucky to be there because I think that films like Gravity, for example, or even Ex Machina or Arrival, are a kind of new proposition. They’re not trying to push and create more entertainment or more, more … They’re trying to do the opposite, to come back to a human size. Re-create the [scenarios] so the people can really feel that what they see can happen to them. It’s not only pure fantasy. 

Making 'Sound of Metal'

Darius [Marder] asked me to do this film because he had seen the work that I had done with Gravity and the work that I was doing for Andrea Arnold, who is a great British director. The way we work with Andrea, it’s like everything is between fiction and documentary: lots of non-actors, everything is rewritten every day. There is huge interaction. The reality creates the fiction and the fiction creates the reality. There is a cycle that permits people to be involved. Again, it’s based on the idea of being more human.

The first step with Darius was [to conceive] what happens physiologically when you lose hearing. We spoke with audiologists. We also spoke with people who have lost their hearing. You have two kinds: people who are born with no hearing and others who lose their hearing. Of course, the people who have lost their hearing are able to speak about it. They are able to describe what it feels like. For the part where Ruben is losing his hearing and for the part where he receives his cochlear implants, we really worked with the advice of these people. We know that when you totally lose your hearing capabilities, you start to get much more accurate with your sense of touch, with vibrations on your skin. Also, your bone’s cavities—they always resonate—but you start to be very sensitive to that. 

I have a friend who is developing a device for people who have lost hearing to be able to listen to music based on the idea of how the brain can re-create through vibrations into the body. He told me a lot about all the research he was doing and how it works. We tried to take all this information and make something coherent. Of course, it’s a fiction film also, so it’s very subjective. Nobody has the exact same problem, so it was more like an artistic choice at the end.

Riz Ahmed in “Sound of Metal” (2020)

What is very important is that all of this, we did together with Darius. Most of the time, there is a sound supervisor who will speak with the director, there is a sound team, and sometimes, maybe two or three times a week during post, they come and give notes. That’s not the way I like to work. I really like to spend time with the director and I really try to sell to the director that he should spend a lot of time with me. I also worked closely with Abraham Marder, the composer, closely with the picture editor [Mikkel E.G. Nielsen]. That was something exceptional. I think that’s why Darius and I are very close. We didn’t know each other before but we are really like brothers now. For us to make a film, it’s also to create an experience, to create a journey.

The way that I work is not about taking sound from libraries. I’m recording everything. I start from scratch. I go to the shoot. I do Y tracks with the actors. I’m working with the composer. I’m working with everybody. You are in a process where it is not only the post. It’s about how to create sound for the film from before shooting to the end. I met Darius one year before we started to work together. 

The sound is great, not by itself, but because it had been done with the picture editing to find the right arc to make it an experience, but not to make it too tiring, not too repetitive in terms of language. We did a lot of tests. Sometimes, I asked the picture editor to try some other editing to see if it was better. It’s not so much about creating sound, but what I want to push is working again in a kind of atelier structure. That is something I learned from working with conceptual artists.

Most of the time, the people who want to work with me come because they don’t want to have too much music. On average, in an American film before, if the film is 90 minutes, you have 75 minutes of music. In France, on average, you’re going to have 15 minutes of music. It’s totally different, the way that we work. I think the story of filmmaking is that a lot of European directors went to the U.S. to try to make a film there, it was a bit of a dream. It’s very iconic. Weirdly enough, Darius did the opposite. He said, “Okay, I’m an American director but I really like European film, so I want to make a film which will be a hybridization between my picture and the European picture of making films.” 

I think he chose people like me or the DOP, Daniël Bouquet, who had the experience on both sides. I was able to understand his culture and I was also able to give him what is really European. I think this film is a bit of a kind of utopic connection between the U.S. and Europe, aesthetically.

Listen to actors Riz Ahmed and Lauren Ridloff explain how they got into character—and what they learned from making Sound of Metal.

As a human, [actor Riz Ahmed] is incredible. He’s very clever and he’s very open. We had this idea about how the body needs to be engaged in the film. The language of deaf people is body language and the fact that, when they are deaf, they also hear through the body. The idea of the body was very important. We created a device where Riz had in-ear plugs and we put the sound of the boom microphone from the shoot into the device to simulate hearing loss. When he was acting, he was actually experiencing that physically. Of course, he didn’t keep that for all the shooting, but each time, at a different stage of hearing loss, we put him in that condition for a while because it has an impact on the way you move, on the way you look at other people. It was very important for Darius that the acting shouldn’t be only theoretical. It should also be based on something real.

At the start of the film, when [Ruben] is losing hearing, he goes to the audiologist booth to do some tests. During this moment, I brought a lot of real microphones like geophones, contact mics and hydrophones. I built some different mics with stethoscopes. I also built a mic that you can put in your mouth. I was able to capture all of Riz’s real body sounds. What we hear when we are in his inner perspective are his bodily sounds: his heartbeat, the blood pressure, his voice, but from inside, from the flesh, from the body. I even gave the Foley artist, Heikki Kossi, all these devices to try to also do the sound in the same way.

Recording room tones in an Airstream for “Sound of Metal.”

The slide sequence [in the film] where the kid and Riz are talking to each other by hitting on the slide? When we are in a subjective position, what you hear is captured with these devices, with these microphones. It’s not like if you record outside and then you filter it. It’s really like if you put your ear on the wall and you hear the structure of a building. You hear the thousands of people walking, all the sound is moving through the concrete and the metal. This is the feeling that we wanted to get, the feeling that you are really inside. It’s also a bit like you are trapped. 

The idea is that it becomes a lot more intimate. For example, remember when you were a kid and when you were taking a bath, you used to put your head under the water. Your body will remember that.

What does outer space sound like?

You have never been in space but, actually … It’s like a fetus’s world. Like people in the Big Blue, they are like babies floating. The director [of Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón] wanted to give that feeling. He said, “I don’t want to have the usual sound we use or space. I would like something much more simple,” so we decided to record all the sounds through my body. When the guy uses the drill, it’s not like I recorded the drill. I take the drill and I record the sound of the drill through my body. I think someone who is hearing that is like, “Oh, I’m in it.”

It creates something very intimate. I like the idea that, of course, there is the big story, which is the film, but there is also the relationship between the story and each person that is watching the film. It works on the level of storytelling because there are emotions we recognize from our lives, there is a story that we can recognize from our own experience, but there is also physicality: to engage people, to re-create a link between moments of their lives which are maybe not textual, but more physical. 

Nicolas field recording in Ecuador for “Son of Man” (2006)

As a kid, my parents were gym teachers so I used to spend a lot of time in nature. I think that my relation to sound is also very naturalistic because of my childhood.

I used to do a lot of climbing, walking, kayaking, a lot of diving into the water, all the sports that are linked to nature. I think that’s also why this aspect of nature is very important to me. 

[That’s why] I’ve always got something with me to record. For example, two months ago I was in Marseilles and I was going to the seaside and then I realized that there was a hole, a natural tube, between the water and the rock. Because of the swell, the air was going out from the reef. It was creating a kind of mineral grating and it was so beautiful. I said, “I need to record this because this is an amazing sound and this is so poetic and this is so beautiful.” A combination of the sea and the rocks which are creating a kind of poetic breath sound. Sometimes you think, “This is a treasure.” It’s like how some people will see an insect or butterfly and say it’s amazing and they want to take a photo or people will collect dried flowers or dried leaves they want to keep with them. I think it’s the same thing. Just like you are sensitive, I am sensitive to the sound world.

Sometimes, if I realize that something is amazing, I’m going to try to collect it and keep it.

Reporting by Nadine Zylberberg