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A year has now passed so I can now start cross-posting the articles I wrote when I worked for Suite101.com. The articles are now hosted over at Xomba – who incidentally have a better looking and easier to navigate site these days. Originally published 15/09/08.

The use of sound design in Guillermo Del Toro’s 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, to add layers of meaning to an already complex film.

Pan’s Labyrinth combines a historical and political backdrop of the dying days of the Spanish Civil War with a dark gothic fantasy world. While the lush visuals may form the audience’s abiding memory of the film, it is the use of sound that binds the two worlds of the film together. With certain sounds signifying the transition and later invasion, from one world into the other.

Sound Gains Power From Subtlety

While the sound department is dwarfed by that devoted to special effects, with nine members it eclipses many a larger budget production, underlining the importance placed on sound. Sound designer Martín Hernández obviously revels in the opportunity to show off his art, but retains a light touch, avoiding smothering the audience with sound.

Christian Clemmensen has described Javier Navarrete’s score as being “rich with thematic integrity and grand, tonal schemes while also infusing a sense of dread in persistently dissonant accompaniment.” (Film Tracks, 1/6/07) The combination of cold and dissonant elements, with warm and whimsical passages, highlights and reflects the films visuals. Skilled mixing also ensures that the score blends well with the sound design without robbing either of their power.

The effects used to characterise and represent the ‘fantasy’ creatures are treated in such a way that they appear more intense than those of the ‘real’ world, a sort of hyper-realism that positions the audience within a magical yet somewhat frightening world that is to Ofelia both more real and more desirable than her everyday existence. Much as the strange noises in the night resolve into fairies and fauns, so her stepfather will fail to keep them safe.

Although Ofelia, as our heroine, is alone in being able to see the other world, her adult companions do occasionally seem to catch odd sounds from it, which they quickly dismiss. Denying what, as an innocent Ofelia knows to be true, that the two worlds are bleeding into each other. Putting away childish things as those around her urge her: will not protect her from the dangers of the ‘real’ world.

Guillermo Del Toro Favours Visual Storytelling

In the director’s commentary, Del Toro acknowledges that he favours visual storytelling over dialogue-based storytelling, preferring to show the audience rather than tell them. Unusual for a film so focused on stories, their creation and telling, yet his understanding of the power of immersive sound design to draw the audience into the world being created, bears fruit at several points in the film. Assisting the audience in the process of suspending disbelief in the face of the fantastical world into which Ofelia ventures.

Every sound in the night-time world through which Ofelia ventures provides the audience with a wealth of information about what they are seeing by binding together the familiar and natural with what we know to be fantastical and mythic. These sounds combine with the visuals to create creatures that are vaguely threatening yet somehow natural and part of the earth in a way that inspires Ofelia’s trust.

For example the ‘fairy’ that serves as her guide through the Labyrinth continuously sounds like the insect it originally appears as (its change in shape appears purely a way to reassure Ofelia after scaring her in the dark, for she already knows it’s true nature) and it makes mouse-like sounds when it communicates with the faun, while the faun itself has an overall sound built of the sound of lions and creaking wood beneath its ‘human’ voice.

More detailed discussion of the practicalities of creating effects like the fairies and faun can be found on the discussion pages of Film Sound.