Editing: Mikkel E.G. Nielsen — <I>Sound of Metal</I>
Issue: March/April 2021

Editing: Mikkel E.G. Nielsen — Sound of Metal

Written and directed by The Place Beyond the Pines writer Darius Marder, Sound of Metal is an energetic, emotional drama that charts the journey of a heavy-metal drummer as he suddenly starts to lose his hearing. A star performance by Riz Ahmed ( The Night Of, Four Lions, Nightcrawler) brings the audience into the heart of this life-changing event, with the film gaining plenty of critical acclaim since its 2019 premiere in Toronto, and ultimately winning Oscars earlier this year.

In particular, Sound of Metal has won accolades for its ingenious editing and use of sound, expertly contrasting quiet poignancy with thunderous heavy-metal music. At the editing helm was Mikkel E.G. Nielsen, whose previous credits include the 2012 historical drama A Royal Affair and the 2015 war drama Beasts of No Nation. And his biography now includes an Oscar win, receiving the Best Film Editing statue at this year’s Academy Awards.

A multi-tiered production

There were several factors that made this production a particularly special one to work on. At the heart of Sound of Metal is, of course, the sensitive issue of disability, manifested in this film as the onset of deafness. A key challenge for Nielsen was ensuring that it felt real for viewers and that it would provide an insight into the deaf community, which was helped by the inclusion of many deaf actors in the cast.

“I had an idea that it was special project from the start in the sense that how we worked with the material and how the cast accessed their approach to the characters was so interesting,” Nielsen explains. “The fact that it included the deaf community and combined actors with non-actors gave it the feeling of a documentary, mixed together with the more typical film scenes. It was almost like three films in one in terms of how I approached it from an editorial standpoint.”

This last point in particular is what differentiates Sound of Metal from many other projects and what arguably saw the team take home a number of technical awards including this year’s editing Oscar. Some parts feel like an intimate drama, there’s the raw emotion and energy of the musical performances, and a completely different tone as Ahmed’s character beings to lose his hearing.

Nielsen had to use all his experience to balance these elements and marry them together in one narrative. 
“Darius was really open to exploring different things, which allowed me to open my toolbox from editing feature films, commercials and music videos. Every time you learn a little bit, you put it in that toolbox and use these learning on certain projects. This was definitely one of the projects where he as a director really invited me into the process.”

Awakening the senses

Nielsen explains that Sound of Metal was all about using internal and external sound as a storytelling tool in order to get inside the head of the main character and hear things from his perspective. This wasn’t a simple process. The first cut was nearly four hours long, which the production team went through scene by scene to fully understand the characters, the emotions and where the different sound elements fit in.

“The editorial idea was that this should be a sonic experience,” says Nielsen. “When you see the film, you should feel like you've had a sonic experience. You shouldn't at all feel that you've felt or seen any of the edits.”

Despite all this complexity, Nielsen’s editing process is built around simplicity, which is why he was drawn to the ease of use offered by Avid Media Composer. The customizable nature of the system means he can set it up in his own way, while the streamlined workflows enable more efficient and impactful storytelling.

“It’s all about finding the simplest way of working. Then I can focus on the important stuff of how to tell the story in the right way. Avid has always been very helpful for me in that sense; it feels like an old friend that you bring with you because it just works. For me, the program should just be an extra pair of hands – I shouldn’t have to use any extra brain cells thinking about how it works.”

The collaborative nature of Avid Media Composer was also vital. Nielsen edited most of the film in Copenhagen, but worked with other team members based in Paris, Mexico, New York and LA. With Media Composer, each stakeholder was able to easily work on and share their different elements, and be part of such a unique project despite the challenges of the pandemic.

Putting aside the fact that he now has an Oscar on his mantle, the project is one that Nielsen is particularly thankful to have been involved with. 

“This film was made out of a lot of love and it was super interesting to dig into this whole way of storytelling and use sound as a storytelling tool. The fact that it resonates with people is something that I am very grateful for.”