It’s been 3 years since the release of Spike Jonze‘s innovative work Her. When I first saw the film I was beginning graduate school to study sound design for motion pictures. I’d begun thinking about films with respect to their sound a few years before, but little did I know just how perfectly this particular movie would sum up the importance that sound design has on the overall narrative of a film. After all, one of the primary characters is experienced through only her voice.
Ren Klyce, a favorite sound designer of both Spike Jonze and David Fincher, helms the design and mix team. I can only imagine what a pleasure this film was to sound design. The movie’s sound design is spare, but meticulously crafted. Because there aren’t an abundance of sounds to be found, every featured sound is vitally important.
But, what is still most remarkable to me about the production process, is that Scarlett Johansson was not cast during principal photography. She came in after Joaquin Phoenix had already crafted his performance with another actress who had likely created a completely different character. People have been given Oscars for less than what Ms. Johansson accomplished, delivering an incredibly nuanced performance within what was a preexisting structure. I was thinking about her a lot watching the film this time. Maybe it’s because I’m in sound, but, to me, her voice is very distinctive, and with that distinctiveness comes the possibility of added value in the performance. I’d love to compare, side-by-side, the viewing experience of one who was unfamiliar with Ms. Johansson in any way with someone who was familiar with her work. :
“It’s crucial that each time you hear Ms. Johansson in “Her,” you can’t help but flash on her lush physicality, too, which helps fill in Samantha and give this ghostlike presence a vibrant, palpable form, something that would have been trickier to pull off with a lesser-known performer.”
But though Ms. Johansson’s voice is incredibly distinctive, and she possess a star persona rivaling those of the Hollywood Golden Age, to say that star power is what created the role of Samantha severely discredits her powerful acting. As I watched the film, I grew less and less aware of Scarlett, and more and more aware of Samantha.
The narrative power of sound design is often not the first thing discussed about a film. But not to acknowledge the sound, easily on the same plane as the beautiful production design, would be to admit that you really didn’t participate in the movie at all. You don’t just watch Her, you experience Her in all of its sensory synergy.