I think that Inception by Christopher Nolan needs no introduction. However, what may need a brief introduction are few sound design/musical terms that will be used throughout this article. So, here we go, starting with my most favorite – pitch shifting!
Pitch shifting is about changing the pitch of a sound. With pitch shifting we basically detune the sound up or down in semitones (=musical half-steps) or even cents (extremely small finite intervals) (1).
To give a real-world example, try to imagine a fast lift in some skyscraper: When it slows down or accelerates, you’ll hear a change in the pitch of the sound.
Or if you play a musical instrument, particularly keyboard, there might be a pitch wheel located to your left that changes (raises or lowers) the pitch of a note being played.
By the way, there is a great talk by my favorite sound designer Randy Thom, who talks about pitch shifting in SoundWorks Collection sound show: How to Train Your Dragon. If you’re interested in sound design and haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it! (Or if you are interested in pitch shifting only, he starts to talk about pitch change at 00:24:00 and gives away one of his secrets btw.)
Reverb is actually pretty tricky to describe/explain. Therefore I think it is best to use an example. Imagine yourself singing in a bathroom and than in a church.
First, you’ll hear your voice, but then it will be followed by sound waves reflected from the surrounding surfaces (=reverb). The type of reverb you’ll hear depends on the type of surface (ceramics tile vs. stone) and space (bathroom vs. church).
In any case, each place or space has a specific reverb that helps you orient where you are.
Tempo is a musical term that dictates the pace/speed of any musical composition (2). In other words, it dictates how fast or slow should we play the musical composition. The tempo is usually given by BPM (beats per minute) or using words (Largo, Adagio, Allegro, etc.).
Sound bridge can lead us in or out of a scene (3). It connects seamlessly two scenes together by overlapping the sound from one scene to another. Either by overlapping the sound from previous scene to the following scene or by playing the sound from following scene into the previous scene. It is the same as J or L cut technique in editing.
Anyway, the best sound bridge is when the sound not only overlaps, but transforms to something else. That’s pure cinema!
Inception is pretty complex and complicated movie when you watch it for the first time. When I was leaving the theater I had only a rough idea what was and what wasn’t a dream. But at the same time, I knew that this wasn’t a simple mind fu*k and immediately wanted to see the movie again.
The characters travel into various levels of a dream (=dream within a dream within a dream), so especially the first time, it was quite difficult to keep the track where we are. However, sound works as a guide for us, the audience, to help us orient whether we are in a dream and whether we are transitioning from level to level. Here is how the sound cues work:
Change in Pitch
When we transition into another level of a dream, pitch shifting occurs (4). Not all the time, because that would be totally annoying. But in some scenes, when the characters fall asleep and start dreaming (or travel into another level of a dream), there is a change in pitch of surrounding sounds.
When we transition into deeper level, the pitch goes down (and vice versa, when we transition into upper level, the pitch goes up as well.)
Change in Speed
In the case of Inception, pitch shifting changes also the speed of the surrounding sounds (4). When we transition into deeper level of a dream, the surrounding sounds slow down (and vice versa, when we transition into upper level of a dream, surrounding sounds speed up). This directly correlates with the time-flow in various levels of the dream. The deeper the level of a dream the slower the time-flow (and vice versa).
Lastly, pitch shifting may work as a sound bridge at the same time in some scenes. For instance, interior jet roar becomes traffic when we transition to the first dream level (4). Or tire screeching becomes metal screeching when we transition to the second dream level. Very, very cinematic use of sound!
Hans Zimmer used throughout the movie leitmotif from Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” (5). The music slows down based on the dream level we are currently in. The deeper we are, the slower the music plays back (and vice versa). Again, this directly correlates with the time-flow in various levels of the dream. The deeper the level of a dream the slower the tempo of music.
To illustrate this, watch the video below that went completely viral.
Dreams feel usually very real. But there is always something that is just not quite right. It could be weird behavior of people you know or messed up physics, like different time-flow or unnatural reverb.
So in some scenes, you’ll hear a very unnatural reverb. Especially when a piece of glass shatters or breaks. This tells us, that we are in a dream.
Sound Cues – Audio Examples
If you skim through the articles I wrote so far, you’ll notice that the vast majority are examples of visual storytelling. The reason for that is that examples of visual storytelling are easier to describe and explain. You can simply see it. However with sound, it is much more difficult. Even the most skilled writer is not able to fully describe the visceral feeling and sensations that sound has to offer.
I used to spend a lot of time at filmsound.org and now I’m spending significant amount of my free time at designingsound.org. I’m deeply in love with film sound design, because it is one of the most powerful storytelling weapons that filmmakers have in their arsenal. Heck, the very first article written for CINEMA SHOCK is in sound design category.
Anyway, the reason that there are so few articles about film sound design is that I was afraid (and still I am) of uploading copyrighted material to YouTube.
Fortunately, there are few exceptions. One of them is the principle of Fair Use. I sincerely believe that the following video I made for this article is in accordance with this principle. Enjoy!
P.S. During my research and preparation for this article, I “watched” the movie with my eyes closed. Try it someday as well with your favorite movie; you’ll be surprised what you’ll hear! I know that this might sound like a totally weird idea, but hey, welcome to the club! 🙂
Inception and Sound Design
- The Sound of ‘Inception’
- Hans Zimmer Extracts the Secrets of the ‘Inception’ Score
- Gary Rizzo’s Advice for watching Inception
- The Sound of “Inception”
- Music shapes sound effects
- How Inception‘s Sound Designer Engineers Cacophony
SoundWorks Collection: The Sound of Inception from Michael Coleman on Vimeo.
Movies that question state of dream/illusion/reality
- Shutter Island
- Mulholland Drive
4 thoughts on “Sound cues in Inception”
Excellent post! With so few film geeks picking apart sound, this is a welcomed exception. Keep up the great work!
Thank you so much! Reading this from someone so passionate about sound design like you means a lot to me! Thanks!