Now that awards season is over I feel freer to say some things about the sound of specific films. About the sound of this particular film I first want to say that I admire its bravery, and I have huge respect for everyone involved. For one thing, to have so little music in a mass market film these days is a daring thing to do, and I applaud Cuaron for that decision. Lest you think I’m a sound-design-centric music hater, I think many films, certainly many scenes within films, should feature music more than they do, and feature sound effects less than they do. Generally I dislike it when sound design and music are competing for my attention, as they do in far too many American films.

I do have an aesthetic bone to pick with Roma, though. I’m singling it out because I think it’s an important film in many ways, certainly in terms of its sound design. My problem with the Roma track may be partially a factor of my age, and that I do sometimes get stuck in my ways, having been doing this movie sound stuff for so long. Here’s my issue… I found some of the use of surrounds in Roma to be distracting. It tended to take me out of the film, reminded me that I was watching a film, which is usually considered a no-no in moviemaking technique.

Shouldn’t there almost always be a solidly story-motivated reason to put a transient, attention-getting sound in the surround speakers? Otherwise as you sit in the audience you are likely to wonder whether the sound is being made by something in the theater rather than something in the movie, and as you are wondering about that you are removing yourself from the “dream” of the film.

I assume that Cuaron was going for a certain kind of “immersive realism” by using this aggressive approach to surrounds, but for me it sometimes backfires, and actually makes scenes less “immersive” by yanking the listener out of the water every few minutes so that an unseen and unmotivated cat can yeowl, car horn can honk, or a dialog line can come from the surrounds. If your response to this criticism is something like “Couldn’t those sounds have happened in that place?” my answer is: of course. But for me the question is not “Could they happen?” It’s “Should they happen in the movie?”

But here is the main question this brings up for me: Is a new aesthetic being born here? Am I simply an old codger who is conservative about the use of surrounds, and am I unnecessarily resistant to the idea that a different aesthetic could be equally valid? One in which unmotivated but plausible and attention-getting sounds might as well be placed all over the listening environment. At this point I have to say that I doubt it, and I can sum up the reason in a single word: focus. I’m talking about sound focus specifically. The usefulness of sound focus, orchestrating sounds so that it is pretty clear from moment to moment what the audience is supposed to be paying attention to, seems to me to be so intrinsic to film storytelling, media storytelling, that I can’t imagine that a new imperative for attention-getting sounds in the surrounds could possibly compete with it as a guiding principle. Maybe the dialog line in the surrounds was exactly what Cuaron wanted me to focus on at that moment. I wonder.

Did the relatively aggressive use of surrounds in Roma ruin it for me? No, it didn’t. Do I think Roma deserved all the sound award nominations it received? Yes, I do. But it does make me wonder where we’re going with the use of surrounds in general, and it isn’t necessarily a pleasant kind of wondering.

7 thoughts

  1. I found that the use of surrounds for most of the FX felt natural once established. The opening credits of the film do a good job of instructing the audience on their role as spectator. As the abstraction of water sloshing across the tiled floor, the film coaxes the audience to pay close attention to how and where the sounds of the world around the image are coming from, a foreshadowing of what’s to come: you, you the audience, you must listen carefully!

    The only scene that I found particularly distracting was the relatively quiet scene in Fermín’s bedroom, where as both characters look almost into camera, the off-screen speaker’s voice emanates from the surround behind us. Geographically this makes sense to the scene but because we’re often so conditioned to hearing dialogue from the center speaker, it was initially distracting to me.

    I also believe that the method of watching Roma made a significant impact on how much (and whether!) many people enjoyed the film. Several friends who watched Roma at home via Netflix decried its pacing and perceived that there was little story or action taking place. When I saw the film in the theater (5.1 surround, not 7.1 or Atmos), I felt that the immersive sound design greatly contributed to the story by encouraging active listening. Conversely, I can see how the lack of this dimension would detract, as hearing all of these distinct sounds from the same two speakers could diminish their significance.

  2. Perhaps the same kind of reaction people gave when talkies first came in…Limiting the sound to the front even in surround has been the practice but now we must try and help the audience to experience true surround sound. Another step in movie making and watching.

  3. I am am excited to watch it again taking your observations into consideration. I literally stumbled across the film on Netflix. I had a friend over, lit a “crackle” fire log and, pressed play. I was smitten from the moment the film started. Captured by the cinematography and delightfully surprised by how easily my brain adapted to the black and white film, never once thinking that color would have added any additional value. On first pass the sound seemed to bring me more into the film while (now this is where is gets tricky) in tandem with reminding me that I was still watching a film which then authenticated the time of story. Thank you for my Saturday night plans, although it will be on Netflix, I will be watching it again with a fresh set of ears ; – )

  4. I think the same could be saif for any of the immersive systems- the action is on the screen- so most of the sound should appear to come from the screen- I think this was the strength of things like the original Sansui/Dolby 4 channel system, it didnt put important material in the rear speakers-

  5. I also look forward to re-watch Roma with your comments in mind. I agree with conjuring the visual and sonic focus a story, and greatly dislike a jolting distraction from the rear speakers unless it is in league with the story and it’s characters (i.e. Indiana Jones and the rolling bolder, of course). It’s a good discussion to frame.

    That said, I do very much appreciate the sound texture of an environment, and am interested in that adding to the sense of being there, especially in surround. I think Roma did that very well, from the first frames on, which were for me were at the level of Tarkovsky, only with much better sound design.

    Read this today on’s insider, regarding the workflow of this years nominated films:
    “The soundtrack for Roma is incredibly intricate, capturing the sonic texture of the city, and sound designer Sergio Diaz began his work one week into the edit. As soon as scenes were cut, Adam turned them over to Diaz so he could, in turn, give them back to Adam to drop into the cut. Throughout the course of the ten-week final mix they used Dolby Atmos, and Adam says that when they turned the final files over, Dolby initially thought there were corruptions in the media because it was one of the largest files (and most comprehensive mixes) they’d ever seen.”

  6. Thank you for the very interesting insight. It would be great to ask to Skip Lievsay and Craig Henighan their intentions and arguments that happened during the mix with Cuaron.

    As you mentioned maybe it was distracting because we are used to a conventional way of panning, but once I understood that this is going to be recurring in the movie, it didn’t feel out of place at all. But I also think that this way of mixing won’t work for every movie. It worked because it was Roma, and as for the unseen cars horns or dialog lines that happened in the surround, it had to have happened because this is Cuaron’s childhood memory. It’s black and white for the same reason (he recalls a time in the past), and all the surround element made it feel dreamlike. Strange? Yes, but I felt it was purposeful.

  7. Randy – You’ve outlined perfectly my thoughts about “Roma” & it’s mix. I had the opportunity to view (hear?) in Atmos at the weekend member screening at the Academy and was quickly enraptured by the richness of the ambience, but… the first couple times specific “background extra” dialogue came out of the rear surrounds I turned my head to see what idiot was talking so loudly during the film. This of course took me right out of the film for several moments, and doing that to your audience is a cardinal sin for obvious reasons.

    I’m willing to bet the decisions to place those ultimately audience-distracting bits in those locations weren’t lightly made, but I’m also willing to bet that on the dubbing stage they didn’t stick out they way they did at the Academy’s nearly-full Sam Goldwyn Theater. To me, those moments exemplify the maxim “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should”. Nonetheless, I agree that overall Roma’s track is brilliant, and maybe even ground-breaking.

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