The Sound of Elephant

I caught an interesting movie last night on HBO: Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant“. It’s a compelling film, and terribly disturbing, almost mirroring inspired by the high school shootings in Columbine.

What struck me most about the movie was the sound. Lots of ambient room sound — no ADR. It made a world of difference, with the camera often following the untrained actors around a Portland, Oregon high school. You could hear the dialogue just as it would sound if you were actually in the room. It’s as if you’re there, observing things as they happen. The result comes off like one long take of a film.

There’s a sound category for film awards, and instead of explosions and Foley artistry — “Elephant” should win for its sound recording being such a large part of the experience.


  1. Matt says:

    There was a movie I saw at Sundance last year called Sugar that had the most amazing sound. In fact, it didn’t have any lines in the entire movie, it relied entirely on sound and visuals and it was one of the most intense movies I’ve seen all year. It doesn’t seem to be released on DVD yet, but it’s worth a watch if you ever stumble across it.

  2. Matt Ramos says:

    Ever see the movie Donnie Darko or Manic?

  3. Brandon says:

    How funny, that must’ve been the movie I was bugging my girlfriend to stop watching and come to bed. I’ll have to listen to her movie recs next time…

  4. I remember watching «Elephant», and the sound. It really is great, plus, everyone thinks I look like the main character.

  5. steve says:

    My wife and I saw it, she was downstairs and I was up in the office, we met in bed for a review adn were both in agreement that our sone (now 5 months old) is not going to public school.
    It was a well put together movie and yes, quite disturbing. A bit far from the actual events of Columbine though.

  6. Piers says:

    Did you know what the movie was about before you saw it? I went along to the cinema with some friends, I had no idea what I was about to see. It was extremely powerful watching it, without knowing what was going to happen.

  7. Ryan Barr says:

    I wouldn’t say it is really that close to Columbine, I have a few friends that had brothers and sister that went there, considering Columbine is the rival of Chatfield (AKA My School). Good movie though.

  8. Small Paul says:

    Steve: yeah, cos all the kids in public school are just *lovely*.
    I guess, not being a parent myself, I can’t claim to understand the protective parent instinct properly. But you can either go from private school to gated community to boardroom meeting to country club retirement, or you could meet a few different people and get some perspective on the world.

  9. Matt – I’ve seen the original cut of Donnie Darko. An interesting one. But not Manic.
    Piers – I happen to look at the cable “guide” about the movie before watching, so I did know what was eventually going to happen. I can imagine it was much more shocking if you didn’t know.

  10. Todd says:

    What? No discussions on “Rome“? :)

  11. Reggy says:

    Gus Van Sant is the crazy man who remade Psycho, shot for shot, with exactly the same acting and music. It’s great.

  12. Matt Ramos says:

    If you’ve liked Donnie Darko and Elephant, I’d strongly recommend Manic

  13. Ed Sharrer says:

    My wife and I saw Elephant at the NY Film Festival at Lincoln Center in October 2003. We had the same opinions as you, Dan. Very powerful film and the ambient sounds, minimalist filming technique, and untrained actors made all the difference.
    It was also our first experience with the film festival format, in that Gus Van Sant and a few of the actors came out on stage after the screening and answered questions from the audience. It really helped our appreciation of the film.

  14. Jared says:

    There was a write-up in RES Magazine a few months ago on this film. I’ll have to set the TiVO.

  15. Beth says:

    Todd Solondz does this a lot in his movies as well. It always gives them this hyper-real fealing. I remember there was this big to-do over Storytelling, because he commissioned Belle and Sebastian for the score, and only used two of the songs they wrote.

  16. information says:

    Sound like dogme film guideline made by Lars von Trier in ’95
    article info:,1412,50320,00.html?tw=wn_story_related

  17. Matthijs Aandewiel says:

    I went to see that movie back in 2003. All I had heard about it, is that it would make such an impact. The movie itself is just horrible. It stuck with me in the back of my head for days and days. And i’m sure, most of that is because of the impressive way of filming, and indeed, using sound.

  18. finch says:

    Elephant is a great movie indeed, shame not many people know about it.

  19. eddmun says:

    I swear I commented on here before… but obviously not. Hmm… Anyway!
    I heard about Elephant on the great old Radio 1 here in the UK when they were reviewing the new film by that director. He seems to portray many things which are *nearly* about a subject but not quite.
    Hopefully we will be analysing it in AS Media Studies this year :D

  20. Michael says:

    This is a really great blog.. Nice posts, too.
    By the sounds of this film/documentary, I think i will be watching it :)

  21. George Bezel says:

    Wow, this movie was absolutely horrible rubbish. It not only seemed slapped-together, it seemed to have been done by a film-school student who wrote a twenty-minute screenplay and tried to stratch it out for two hours.
    Wow, they panned around his bedroom for about three minutes. Genius! What a great way to get to know your characters!
    Wow, they banked (quite literally) off the Columbine shooting, but changed the name and such to not offend.
    I’m not poking fun at your review, but this movie was awesomely craptacular, and I only watched it until the end for a scene of redemption–but it never came.

  22. John Noel says:

    While I’ve not seen Elephant, one of the films I have seen which is done wholly in a single take is Russian Ark. Much like what you describe, the audio is entirely circumstantial (with little artificial backing music); combined with the single take (award for the longest single take for a movie), the entire experience is very dreamlike and surreal.
    It doesn’t deal with the subject matter Elephant seems to, but it’s worth a watch if you can stomach foreign films.

  23. Chad says:

    Just wanted to comment that I’ve seen the movie Elephant and you are on point about describing the sound. It made the movie. It’s the kind of movie that sticks with you for a few weeks. You’ll catch yourself thinking about it a lot.

  24. If you liked Elephant, you better watch Van Sant’s latest movie Last days too. (sorry, reviews are in Dutch)
    It’s a biopic of late Nirvana-singer Kurt Cobain. The movie itself is not half as powerful as Elephant, but the “soundscape” (or sound design, as it’s officially called) is comparable – or even better. And without any Nirvana-song!
    By the way: there is a special Oscar category.

  25. Manzell Blakeley says:

    I’ve seen Elephant. I can’t say I was drawn to watch it… it’s the Sigor Ros of movies.
    As a note to Steve #5… “all” of the school shootings have been happening at suburban, predominately white, middle and upper class students – not the kids you find and the worst, most impoverished of public schools.

  26. Jared says:

    Caught the movie on HBO. The sound was indeed very well done. I also loved the cinematography. It had some really well done lengthy tracking shots and the depth of the colors was beautiful.

  27. Ryan says:

    Oh… I always thought “ADR” stood for “Additional Dialogue Recording.”

  28. cisco says:

    I’ve seen Elephant. I can’t say I was drawn to watch it… it’s the Sigor Ros of movies

  29. Dustin Diaz says:

    Is it me, or is the elephant getting around the web these days:
    Maintaining the CSS Elephant (Simon Willison):
    How to Relatively Position an Elephant (Eric Meyer @

  30. Well, I’ve just watched this movie because of your blog post. I’m a high school student myself, in Portland, and found it interesting that it was shot at a middle school down here.
    You’re right about the sound, and that this movie is incredibly disturbing. Really makes you think.

  31. Jessica says:

    Me and my friends saw the film and thought it was very thought provoking.HBO always does agreat job with its short films and series.

  32. Ken says:

    I was originally browsing Simple Bits looking at xhtml form coding stuff in the notebook when I came upon your post about the film “Elephant.”
    I saw this film up in Boston when it came out, and I was also struck by the quality its sound. While watching the credits, I noticed that much of the ambient sound was recorded by sound artist and acoustic ecologist Hildegarde Westerkamp.
    She was a core member of the World Soundscape Project founded by R.Murray Schafer, and is a founder of the World forum for Acoustic Ecology.
    I think that her work contributes quite significantly to the strength of the sound in this film.

  33. rdog says:

    I being the victim of someone killing a member of
    my famliy was impressed with this movie.
    I happend to see it one night after arriving home late
    and eventhough I liked the film I can’t watch it again.
    The thing I liked the most is that the story is told from the victim’s viewpoint. I think of the parents who sent their kids to school that day.
    The fact there is no conclusion highlights the fact that
    when a loved one is brutally murdered there isn’t.