Sound Design In Let The Right One In

As I was watching Let The Right One In one day, I noticed a few things in the sound design of the film that I liked very much. I went back through and listened to the film – instead of watching it – and I found that as much thought seemed to go into the sound design as went into the dialogue or the cinematography.

Tomas Alfredson, the director, wants us to feel very close to Oskar. The film is a story told through Oskar’s eyes, and Tomas wants us to see what Oskar sees, feel what Oskar feels, and also to hear what Oskar hears. He and Per Sundström, the supervising sound editor, have crafted a soundscape for this film that grabs the viewer’s attention when it needs to, but otherwise provides a solid backdrop of verisimilitude to the images on the screen.

I put together some clips of the relevant portions of the film in order to illustrate the things that I want to talk about. I suggest that headphones be used to listen to the clips, as some of the audio features that I am describing are a bit subtle. Each clip also provides a small view of the accompanying video in order to give context what you are hearing. Also please note that if your web browser has JavaScript disabled, you will may have to click on the “Back” button after you play each clip to come back to the article.

Early on in the film, Oskar is in school, and he irks the bullies by speaking out in class. At about 00:08 into the following clip, just after Oskar speaks for the first time, you can hear someone click their tongue in disapproval, and then a sigh of exasperation. As the sigh is tapering off, you can see Conny, who is sitting directly in front of Oskar, tilting his head up a little bit, as though he is rolling his eyes. Then he turns around to give Oskar the look that we will later find out is a promise of torment. Tomas has us hear these things because Oskar too has heard them. At this point Oskar becomes less self-assured, and he just seeks a way to escape the attention he has brought upon himself. Then, as the clip finishes, the audio of the policeman speaking fades from the foreground and we can hear Martin, tapping his finger on his desk as he glares at Oskar. The film does this because Oskar’s attention has left what the policeman is saying and is focused on the unwanted attention that he is now receiving from Martin.

In the scene where Oskar is stabbing the tree, taking his imagined revenge upon Conny, it is the audio that gives Oskar and us our first hint that his new neighbor is stranger than he could imagine. In the following clip, at first the only sounds you can hear are those of Oskar himself: his voice, his feet in the snow, the knife on the tree. There is no wind, no traffic noise, nothing else. Then at about 00:13 into the clip you can hear a door open. Oskar is too wrapped up in his fantasy to notice it immediately, and we the audience are perhaps too wrapped up in the images we see to notice what we heard. Soon however, Oskar either senses someone behind him – or perhaps the sound of the door has finally seeped into his consciousness. When he turns, we can now see Eli perched atop the jungle gym. Apparently it was she who came out the door that we heard, and in the 10 seconds until Oskar turns around, she has crossed the snow and gotten on top of the jungle gym without making a single sound.

Then, at the end of Oskar’s first encounter with Eli, Eli turns and walks out of the frame. This time we hear her feet in the snow. Eli apparently walks back to the door, which we hear again, opens it, and goes inside. This door sounds identical to the door that we heard in the previous clip, which confirms for us that it was Eli’s door that we heard. Also, we can tell by the sound of the door that Oskar waits until Eli has gone inside before he has the courage to utter his come back, “Are you so sure that I want to be your friend?” (“Tror du jag vill bli vän med dig, då?“)

It was in the scene where Oskar gets whipped by the bullies that I first noticed how many interesting things were going on in the audio. As Martin takes the switch the from a sobbing Andreas, you can hear Martins feet in the snow. You can hear Martin breathing. You can hear Andreas sobbing. Oskar is standing there with his eyes closed, and these are the things he hears. Then you can hear the switch whistling through the air and as it hits, all of the sounds stop. They are replaced by a high pitched tone, like tinnitus. Tomas and Per have made our ears ring with the blow, just as Oskar’s ears must have been ringing.

After the bullies run off, the scene cuts to Oskar eating dinner with his mother. However, while we are still seeing Oskar standing alone in the snow, we hear him telling his mother that he got the cut on his face when he tripped on a rock. (This is called an “L cut” in the film industry, where the audio of a subsequent scene starts before the actual cut to that scene). We know that this a lie that Oskar is telling his mother, and by having us hear him say it while he is still in the school yard, the film implies that he is beginning to plan his lie then, before he even gets home.

In the scene where Oskar finally stands up to Conny and he hits him in the ear with the pole, I found that the audio changed my perception of what Oskar was feeling. After the blow, Conny falls to the ice screaming. Oskar stands over Conny and and it is not a straightforward task to interpret the expression on his face. It could be exaltation, or a sort of feral joy of the kill. It could be an adrenalin rush. It could be a bloodlust to match Eli’s – that he is wanting to strike again. As we are shown the shot of Oskar’s face, the screams start to fade into the background and Johan Söderqvist’s wonderful piece Oscar Strikes Back swells to the front of the audio. Then, at a pause in the music, in front of everything else, we hear Oskar give a little exhalation. It is a sort of sigh of release. This gave me the clue that what Oskar is really feeling here is freedom – freedom from the shame and fear and anger that the bullying had been breeding in him. The burden of fear that has characterized his existence has with that one blow been lifted from him. That one little sound in the audio opened the way for me to understand Oskar in this scene. This feeling of release floods through him, detaching him from his surroundings, and the sound design reflects this.

I was impressed with the sounds that accompanied Eli’s egg. The egg itself was 100% computer generated. Even so, the sounds as Oskar touches it with his finger and it falls to pieces work very well. First Oskar touches the top of it with finger – not just touches it but actually presses on it with his finger. There is a clicking sound that starts the process of the egg coming apart. Instead of this click coming when Oskar’s finger first touches the top of the egg, you see Oskar’s finger bend as it apparently applies pressure. Then comes the click. Then as the computer-generated pieces fall, the sounds of tinkling metal come in, quickly crescendo, and then tail off at a rate that is perfectly timed with what we are shown on the screen. Also, I thought the pitch of the sounds matched perfectly with what you would expect to hear from pieces of metal of that size. It was not only the sounds of the pieces bouncing off of each that sounded good, but the sounds of them landing on the box and the table matched perfectly with your eyes would tell you to expect.

The scene where Eli enters Oskar’s apartment uninvited is probably one of those most renowned scenes in the film. Lina’s performance is riveting, and the experience of watching something completely new and original being added to the vampire mythos is very engrossing – so much so that its is easy to overlook how much the sounds add to this scene. The thing that first drew my attention to the sound in this scene was the little popping, splashing sound that accompanies the first little spurt of blood from Eli’s ear. It sounds exactly right, and it is perfectly timed. Visually, nothing much happens for the first half of the clip, but you can hear Eli’s labored breathing and those sounds. Also you can hear a pounding sound that resembles a heartbeat. The sounds build the suspense, and they are so unearthly that you can’t wait to see what will happen. Then when Eli starts to bleed, the momentum of the scene picks and it is easy to get swept past the little popping sound because it does fit so well with the visuals.

You can easily imagine Oskar standing there with his “So what’s the big deal?” attitude. Then as he notices the intense look on Eli’s face, he starts hearing these things: the heavy breathing, the strange sounds. Then perhaps he starts hearing his own heart pounding in his ears as he realizes this situation is on the verge spinning out of control, going far beyond anything that he had ever imagined experiencing. In his growing alarm, his eyes jump wildly around picking up the details, the blood from her scalp, then from her ear, then from her eyes. As the camera flits around and shows us the details that Oskar’s eyes see, it is the sounds that tie the details together to give us a full picture of what is happening to Eli.

Feel free to turn your volume way up for this clip. I cut it right before Oskar shouts, “Nej!”, so that it contains no loud sounds. After you have listened to it, turn your sound off completely and watch the clip again with no sound. This illustrates dramatically just how much the audio carries the action of this scene – despite the compelling imagery.

In the pool scene, Tomas takes the technique of guiding our imaginations with the sound design a step further. Here, we hear sounds that Tomas has not already associated images with. Further, these sounds are kind of distorted. Oskar is underwater, and to put us underwater with him the sounds we hear are muffled and kind of “muddied up”. As the clip starts Oskar is being held under by Jimmy, who plans to also cut his face or poke out his eye when (or if) he comes back up. We are waiting for something – anything – to happen to save Oskar. Then we here the muffled crash, and the muffled shouting starts. Or is it screaming? Howling? From what we can hear under the surface we really can’t tell, but we know that something is going on around the pool. The dramatic but unidentifiable sounds build the suspense as we wait to see something happen. Finally we see someone’s feet pass through the water in front of the camera. It is accompanied by the first clear sounds – those of the feet being passed through the water, and then down the side of the pool. In contrast to the earlier sounds, the splashing of the feet can be heard with crystal clarity. This causes our ears to tell us that we are indeed under the water with Oskar. While our attention has been centered on the feet, once they leave the water we realize that the muffled howling is still going on. Something is still happening. Then the head splashes into the water, and it comes as a complete surprise. We could hear nothing of how it came to part company with the rest of Jimmy, but we can hear the splash it makes perfectly. Then there comes a muffled crunching sound and a subdued but clear splash as the severed arm drifts through the frame from top to bottom. We never really know exactly what happened above the surface (although I have my own theory), but then, neither does Oskar. His eyes stay closed the whole time.

Among people who have watched this film, even those who do not wind up being rabid fans of it will comment on how amazing and memorable the pool scene is. Due to the astute audio design, almost all of the action in this scene takes place in your ears and in your imagination and not on the screen.

The scenes where Eli attacks are when the sound design really comes to the fore. Although Oskar is only present in one of these scenes, the film’s use of sounds in the scenes that precede it lay the foundation for putting the audience in Oskar’s place when he does finally witness Eli in action. Tomas’ approach to the attack scenes its to not show the audience too much, letting us create our own images in our imagination. To guide our imagination along gruesome lines, Tomas and Per used an array of sounds that sound feral, animalistic, and borderline unnatural all at the same time. In an interview with the Swedish magazine Filter, Per mentions that Eli’s feeding sounds are a mixture of sounds (all processed and altered) from a frog, a deer, a camel, and a dog (or at least that’s what I can glean from the Google translation of the article). I’m not sure I can pick out which sound comes from which animal, but Per also mentions that some of the sounds were made by Elif Ceylan, slurping up a melon. This sound I can definitely recognize.

I have put together a montage of clips of Eli’s attacks. The sounds in this montage are a bit louder than in the previous clips, so if you have turned your volume way up, you may want to turn it back down for this. First we are shown the attack on Jocke, and we can see – at a distance – exactly what sort of things accompany these sounds. Then for the attack on Virginia, Eli pounces on her and they both disappear from site behind the top of the steps. After the shot changes and we are shown Lacke coming up the steps, there is a pan that only slowly brings Eli and Virginia into the frame, but because of the sounds, we already know what we are going to see. Then when Eli noms Lacke, we see her land on his back, but then we are shown nothing else of the attack. However, Tomas has already taught us what sort of images accompany the by-now-familiar sounds of Eli nomming. Between those sounds and the identifiable sounds of Lacke flailing against the bathtub, we can draw a pretty clear picture in our imaginations of exactly what is going on out of sight in the bathroom. We can hear what Oskar is hearing, and we can see what Oskar is seeing even though the film doesn’t show it to us.

Another place where Tomas used an L cut was near the end of the scenes out on the ice. While it doesn’t pertain at all to telling the story from Oskar’s point of view, it was still an interesting use of audio in the film. A chain saw is used to cut Jocke’s corpse from the ice. However, in the shot of the chainsaw actually cutting the ice (from a viewpoint within the ice), I think that an average viewer may not immediately recognize what they are seeing. I think that for this reason Tomas used an L cut to bridge from the previous shot to the shot of the chainsaw.

In the previous shot, we see Mr. Avila with the two young girls who have found something. He looks over, recognizes what he sees, and begins to hustle the girls in the opposite direction. As he is doing so, we hear the delicate closing strains of Oscar Strikes Back, and then out of nowhere the sound of a chainsaw starting up comes in. It seems so out of place that immediately gets your attention, and also you can immediately recognize what is making that sound. Nothing else sounds like that. It causes the audience to wonder what anybody could possibly be doing with a chainsaw at such a time and place. Then the shot switches to the chainsaw cutting the ice. Having already heard and recognized the sound, the audience is now anticipating seeing a chainsaw. Although the image may not be readily recognizable as a chainsaw cutting ice, Tomas has already tipped us off about what we will be seeing. In doing so, he managed to avoid having to explain any further the subsequent shot of the crane carrying the block of ice with Jocke’s body in it. With the L cut and that seven second long shot of the chainsaw in the ice, Tomas has told the entire story of the discovery of Jocke’s body. I thought this was a very clever and efficient method of storytelling using sound.

Finally, I wanted to make a comment about the basement scene. I think that viewers who don’t speak Swedish have likely missed out on a brilliant choice made by Tomas. In this scene, the song that plays on the tape player is called Försonade, which it was written and performed by Agnetha Fältskog (before she became a founding member of the pop group ABBA). I became curious about it and I sought out an English translation of the lyrics. I was struck by how perfectly the lyrics fit with what is going on in the basement scene – as well as with its aftermath. I put together a clip of the scene where the song is played and I added English subtitles for the lyrics. Once again, if you have turned your volume up to hear the subtleties of the previous clips, I suggest that you may want to turn it down for this clip.