Gus Van Sant’s films are always a little bit strange. even when they’re more on the mainstream side, they’ve got an edge to them; something about them feels a little bit odd … in a good way. one of the elements that lends to this feeling is the use of sound in his films.

football field scene, elephant (2003)

his 2003 picture ‘elephant’ is a rather explicit example of how sound can effect the dimensionality of the filmic space. consider an early scene on a high-school football field. the shot is static; we see young men playing football, and they move in and out of the frame. in the background, a cheerleading squad practices their routine. the scene is relatively mundane, and yet something seems off. somehow the cheerleaders sound a bit closer than they should. at moments the boys sound like they’re right next to us and then they could be miles away. at one point a girl walks into the forefront of the shot, and the picture slows down, while the sound follows suit and begins to fade into muffled silence. but then, the moment is gone, and the picture and sound resume their distinct paces. the whole scene almost sounds like we’re listening to it through a seashell. very subtly, the audio is not in sync with the ‘naturalness’ of the picture. what we hear is a heightened reality, a kind of unnatural natural. and there’s also the Beethoven wafting behind and in and out of the soundscape, which adds another ethereal layer to the mix.

the sound designer Leslie Shatz has been working with Van Sant for many years now, and is the sonic mastermind behind a lot of the audio work that goes into the films. even with Van Sant’s latest (and more mainstream) biopic ‘milk’ (2008 ), Shatz and the sound team ensured the audio plays an interesting and unique roll in the storytelling. granted the sound, and the picture as a whole, is a lot tamer and, so, more suitable for a popular audience; however, the filmmakers still incorporated some unconventional sonic techniques. for more on what the ‘milk’ team did, check out this Mix Magazine online article.