Sound is typically a boring and overlooked aspect of movies, not because it is inherently boring, but because most directors do not recognize the advantage of using it in different ways. Director Edgar Wright takes sound and, as he does with everything else, makes it extraordinary in his films.
Wright uses something called intensified continuity, defined by David Bordwell in Intensified Continuity Visual Style in Contemporary American Film as “traditional continuity amped up, raised to a higher pitch of emphasis.” Wright uses sonic intensified continuity particularly in scene transitions throughout his feature films, including Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, and Baby Driver, among others.
Wright’s Use Of Sonic Intensified Continuity
In one scene from Hot Fuzz, Danny (Nick Frost) is showing Nicholas (Simon Pegg) a flip book and the flip book sounds become amplified and morph into the short and exaggerated sounds of a door opening, a pen writing on paper, and general motion sounds before transitioning to a conversation between the two in a different setting.
While the typical establishing shot used as a transition can be effective, it is overused and there is nothing special about it. In most cases, the boring transitions are the times when viewers will take out their phones and scroll through Twitter until something draws their attention back in. Wright never needs to draw their attention back in — he never loses it.
Excessive Swearing In PG-13
Wright also creatively uses sound to circumvent R-ratings. The MPAA allows only a few swear words in PG-13 movies before it becomes an R-rated movie. The MPAA enforces these rules so that audiences are aware of what they are walking into (or what they are letting their children walk into). Many directors try to avoid an R-rating because it limits the audience and therefore the box office success.
Edgar Wright manages to keep the spirit of swear words in his movie by using sound to cover them up. In one scene from Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Julie (Aubrey Plaza) is swearing at Scott (Michael Cera), but a beep sound and a black box over her mouth mask it. In this situation, adults will understand that she is still swearing and children will not, therefore maintaining the intended dialogue while keeping it PG-13.
Wright’s Use Of Diegetic Music
In a scene from Shaun of the Dead, the main characters are in a pub hiding from zombies. Doors are barricaded; lights are off. Ed turns on an arcade game and suddenly the zombies approach the noise from outside. When a single zombie enters the bar, the juke box turns on to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Everyone grabs a cricket bat and begins circling the zombie while hitting him over and over again to the beat of the song.
In a scene where non-diegetic music (music that only exists to us viewers) would typically be used, Wright found an opportunity to introduce diegetic music (music that is playing within the world of the film) for heightened effect.
Wright’s most recent film, Baby Driver, didn’t just make sound an interesting part of the film — it made sound the whole film. Most movie trailers are intensified by matching the beats to the visuals or cuts. Edgar Wright does this throughout every single one of the film’s 113 minutes. The film is an action musical.
In Baby Driver, Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver who drowns out his tinnitus by always listening to music. With the use of this diegetic music, the sound is as critical to his role in the film as it is to ours. Baby dances along streets to the music just as his car swerves and screeches to the music.
When you think about the qualities of certain movies, sound is probably the last thing you think of. All films have good sound — if they didn’t, nobody would watch them. But what the majority of films fail to do is use it creatively.
There’s something incredible about watching a film that a director has seemingly poured every ounce of his creativity into and then watching his next film and realizing he had more creativity than you thought possible.