Year after year, “award season” sees nominations for sound categories go to big, bombastic films filled with special effects. This isn’t inherently bad — the work that goes into creating and mixing these otherworldly sounds takes immense effort and skill — but in the process, more subtle artistry tends to be overlooked. Case in point: Little Women directed by Greta Gerwig, a film that uses impeccable sound design to weave a fabric of joy and loss all throughout its story.
Most filmgoers are made aware of the non-music sound departments via the Academy Awards, whose two categories, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing, tend to feature significant overlap in the nominations — thanks, in part, to the overlap of sound professions themselves. The same film has won both awards seven of the last ten years; sound designer Paul N. J. Ottosson even won both statues in 2010 (for his work on The Hurt Locker; he shared his Sound Mixing Oscar with Ray Beckett). The Academy Award for Best Sound Mixing is awarded to the production sound mixers, who capture dialogue and other related sounds on set, and to the re-recording mixers, who overlay and mix all the sounds in the final film. Best Sound Editing, meanwhile, is awarded to the folks whose jobs come in between those two processes, i.e. creating and capturing the various non-dialogue (and non-set) sounds eventually mixed into the soundtrack. It should really be three awards, but I digress; in a just world, the folks who worked sound for Little Women — listed in full below — would be recognized alongside their peers on the blockbuster side of the industry.
Sound is as vital to Gerwig’s version of the story as the costumes and cinematography. Each character is introduced through a soundscape, rather than dialogue, or an establishing shot of their surroundings. For Amy (Florence Pugh), it’s the chatter of her art institute as she practices her craft. Meg (Emma Watson) longs silently for expensive fabric, as characters around her discuss its cost. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) plays the piano long before she utters a single word, though before we ever see any of them, we first meet Jo (Saorise Ronan), around whom both the story and its very creation pivot, as she stands nervously outside her editor’s office, listening to the hustle & bustle inside; the sounds of a world she hopes to break into.
Jo introduces herself to the editor Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) as a middleman for her story, rather than its author, but what she actually has to say in the film’s opening scenes revolves around sound. Ronan’s expressions shift hopefully and nervously in response to Dashwood chuckling, or turning the pages sharply, or striking them through with a pen (each stroke sounds harsh and grating), and once her story is accepted, she gallops through the streets, with the clattering of her charging boots tearing through both the city’s chatter and Alexandre Desplat’s score. When the picture turns to slow motion, so do the sounds of her shoes.
Within its opening minutes, Little Women sets the stage for how its story will be told. Through dialogue and non-linear editing, yes, but also through the turning of pages, through the sounds of footwear on the ground — during theatre games, the girls even applaud via rapid stomping — and most importantly, through lively chatter in the background.
We almost never explore the characters’ spaces visually, through some sweeping introductory shot that turns corners alongside them. Instead, we remain transfixed on their faces, as each environment, like Jo’s boarding house, reveals itself to us through lively conversations happening off-screen. These spaces feel alive because they sound alive, but they feel liveliest when the four sisters are together in their youth. The first time the film flashes back to seven years prior (the book’s present, but the film’s past), Jo, Amy, Meg and Beth occupy the same visual and aural space. They’re scattered through the background and foreground, and as the film’s edit peeks in on each one individually — each closeup momentarily gives each sister her own little world — their dialogue begins to overlap.
Their cacophonous jibber-jabber can’t help but feel natural, but the film is incredibly adept at hiding its seams. It’s more than likely that each spoken line was captured separately (with minimal overlap on set, for the sake of clarity) before being sculpted in tandem with the film’s editing, by Nick Houy. The result is a series of rhythmic dialogue scenes that radiate warmth and comfort. The four girls feel like one breathless being. Their thoughts and ideas rapidly bounce off each other, an effect the film re-creates during most of its flashbacks, and a technique which stands out all the more when the film cuts back to a silent present, portraying each sister in isolation. Sound is vital to the film, but so is its contrast with silence.
One of the film’s most delightful scenes, Jo’s secret dance with Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), comes to life via giggles, gasps and stomping feet, but this youthful zeal is immediately juxtaposed with a cut to near-silence, as Jo — now older and more world-weary — sits in quiet anticipation, while Friedrich (Louis Garrel) examines her work (writing that is, no doubt, informed by these more boisterous scenes). A shot of young Meg laughing in the warm-lit attic, as the girls frolic and joke, yanks us into the cold silence of adult Jo returning home in the winter, to the muted chatter of a house anticipating death.
For a film that dares to open with Louisa May Alcott’s quote “I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales,” it manages to live up to its own lofty promise, carefully capturing both the troubles she endured and the jolliness of her story, often in the same breath.
The actresses all have playful chemistry as the younger versions of their characters. One such flashback scene unfolds on Christmas morning; it ends with not only the complete overlap of the sisters’ dialogue as they talk over one another, but with the four of them quite literally piling on top of each other; rarely have performers so obviously in their twenties exuded teen energy so deftly.
This scene begins, however, with Jo awakening to snowfall, paper still in hand — perhaps from writing the night before. She gasps at the winter blanket on the ground outside, and the very next thing we hear is the swift turning of the page in her hand, as it whizzes by excitedly. In isolation, it’s a mere background detail, but Gerwig’s non-linear structure allows her to imbue even this innocent, thoughtless action (and its accompanying Foley) with devastating meaning. In the scene immediately prior, unfolding seven years in the future, Jo receives a letter informing her of Beth’s illness. The sounds grow more harsh as her hands crumple the paper; it’s this unsettling crinkling that draws us into the Christmas scene, contrasted with the exaggerated sound of a much smoother page, un-burdened like its young owner before she ever has to face the hardships of the world.
Jo’s relationship to paper is as vital as her relationship to her sisters; they’re often entangled, and the sound designers keep this dichotomy in their crosshairs. After Amy burns her novel out of spite, young Jo returns to find her younger sibling turning pages loudly and ominously, precipitating their fight. When adult Jo finally starts writing again, after the loss of her sister Beth, the montage of her creative process is punctuated by sounds of pens scribbling across paper, and— once again — by the turning of pages.
The film even ends on a dialogue-less scene of Jo’s book being made, with the sounds of its very creation — from the binding of pages to the filing off of extra material — interwoven with the score. It’s as if each piece of paper written or turned during the film, whether letters from home or stories Jo has written, have finally led her here.
The film’s sound credits, according to IMDb:
- Lindsey Alvarez — re-recording mixer
- Davi Aquino — foley recordist
- Kyle Arzt — re-recording mix technician
- Chelsea Body — foley recordist
- Kristin Catuogno — adr recordist
- Rick Chefalas — first assistant sound editor
- Pud Cusack — sound mixer
- Mark DeSimone — adr mixer
- Dia Donnelly — Sound Utility / playback operator
- Kelly Doran — boom operator
- Michael Feuser — Supervising Dialogue Editor
- Jason Fyrberg — Additional sound mixer
- John Garrett — playback operator / sound mixer/Additional sound
- Sacha Imani — assistant adr engineer
- Jim Keaney — epk sound mixer
- Skip Lievsay — re-recording mixer
- Thibaut Macquart — adr mixer
- Igor Nikolic — foley editor
- Kevin O’Connell — re-recording mixer
- Nick Roberts — adr mixer
- Lee Salevan — sound effects editor
- Kevin Schultz — foley mixer
- Marcel Simoneau — voice over actor and adr
- Wyatt Sprague — sound effects editor
- Paul Urmson — re-recording mixer
- Lawrence Zipf — sound effects editor
- Jenna Dalla Riva — foley recordist (uncredited)
- Jack Heeren — foley mixer (uncredited)
- Goro Koyama — foley artist (uncredited)
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