After exploring how children’s electric cars and remote-controlled jets were instrumental for creating the sounds of Iron Man’s suit in Iron Man 3, the second installment of our new series Sounds Like a Summer Movie takes a look at how music is used for dramatic impact in Star Trek Into Darkness. And it is used a lot: Sound mixer Will Files, who first worked with director J.J. Abrams on Cloverfield, estimates there’s music over 75 to 80 percent of the film. Once again, Abrams used longtime collaborator Michael Giacchino, who won an Oscar for scoring Up. “J.J. and Michael take a pretty classic approach to scoring a film in that it’s more about the emotional beats in a scene and trying to figure out which character’s perspective you are trying to play in that moment, who you are trying to connect the audience with,” Files says. “Because of that, you end up with something that is not quite as generically action movie-oriented. You have a score that’s much more lyrical because it’s playing these broader strokes of emotion rather than the minutia of the actual action that’s happening on the screen.”
Part of Files’ job is to change the relative balance of sound effects to music so there’s an ebb and flow and the film never feels stagnant. “You hear a lot of moments in the film where sound effects are really driving the moment, but then they’ll take a step back and let the music drive it. For example, the section when the Enterprise is rising out of the ocean,” he says. “If you really examine that, what you’ll hear is that within the span of a 40-second event, the music and the sound effects are trading off in dominance every few seconds: there’s enough of the theme to hear that the music is going in one direction, and then enough of the sound effects to understand what’s happening and the size and enormity of the event. The music will come back in to play the wonder of the tribesman, and then it will come back to sound effects to hear the raining down of the water and put you back in the moment. If you do it right, the audience never realizes that you’re giving and taking these things constantly, but it’s really highly manipulated.”
SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t you seen the film, stop reading now.
But above all, Files is there to make sure the final mix serves the story. The scene we wanted him to break down was Kirk’s death. (You know you cried.)
The scene they spent the most amount of time on, Files says, was the one in which the Starfleet top brass meet in a conference room to talk about what’s happened with John Harrison/Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) in London.
Again, the balance leads the audience through the story:
Another scene Files points to illustrates how Abrams enjoys using sound to surprise the audience:
Like Abrams and Giacchino, Files is very aware of trying not to put too much music in a film. “Every now and then, we’d find a place where maybe it worked better without score for a little while, but in general, I think J.J. built the movie to have score in a lot of these places because he is a musician and I think that’s just the way he thinks,” Files says. “So taking music out often felt empty, like it didn’t quite function the same way.”
So how do you know when you have it right? “There’s always that moment of suddenly the movie has to be done in a couple of days, and you realize you’ll never have the chance to do all the notes that you want to do,” he says, with a laugh. “But in general, you know when a scene’s working when you sit back and try to put your audience hat on for a minute, and it feels good. If it feels like you’re telling the story, you’re hitting the emotional beats, and it’s big, fun, and exciting, then you know that your job’s done — even if there are 100 little things that you’d like to tweak.”