Film Sound

A few years ago I was asked to teach an introductory film course on sound. I am not somebody who enjoys teaching but what I do like about it is that you have to consolidate your own thinking and ideas in order to present them to students. I agreed to the course and what I discovered was that sound was an incredibly difficult course to teach. Of all the film disciplines it was often the hardest for the students to grasp. On a technical level students were often confused by all of the 'measuring' of sound. They had to learn to observe sound levels and often with everything that was going on during a shoot, it was the last thing that was on their mind. When it came to mixing they were often confused by all of the sliders and technical requirements of the equipment. Sound wasn't something you could see or grasp.

The other problem with sound was trying to describe how it affects people. Often when filmmakers make a film they use sound practically (ie sound effects) and then add music to fill in the emotion. This is where the topic becomes both difficult and interesting...

Walter Murch, the multi-talented film and sound editor once said that if the picture was the 'liminal' element of the film then the sound was the 'subliminal'. He felt that people watching a film are very critical of what they saw but would rarely tune into what they heard. The ears are not critical nor are they particularly discerning. The picture is obvious to the eye where the sound is a mixture of many sound elements all mixed together to help give the story feeling and drama.

This is where Murch has made part of his fame. Unafraid to experiment, he doesn't contain his sound ideas to what is practical or what is on the screen. He uses it to manipulate the audience. In the academy award winning 'The English Patient' Murch uses the sound to tell the story, to create transitions and memory. A sound echoes in the patients mind and transports us through the story. In 'Apocalypse Now' Murch creates both a war soundtrack, full of glory and violence and then folds the sound back to reveal a personal soundtrack, one of self doubt. In one of the most stark and famous examples Murch places the sound of a screeching train into the scene where Michael has to decide his fate in 'The Godfather'. This is the use of sound for emotion.

Another film I like to cite is 'Silence of the Lambs'. What struck me when I first saw the picture was the level of intensity of the film. It never lets up. The dread is thick and if you deconstruct the soundtrack of the film and it is easy to see why. The terrific score by Howard Shore is less about melody as it is about soundscape. The music serves the story. It is funny how unmemorable the film's music is as it is so deeply entrenched with the picture that you don't even notice it. Watch the scene where Jody Foster goes to see Lector for the first time. There are all sorts of sounds on the soundtrack that have no practical use. Nothing in the set seems to be making these noises. Instead, they are working on the 'subliminal' trying to unsettle the audience. As Foster walks down the hall towards Lector, Howard Shore is working on low level trying to keep that feeling of fear and dread. Ron Bochar, the sound designer describes it as this:

"Here's how Jonathan described Jodie Foster's first trip down to visit Lecter in the dungeon: "This is the bowels of the building. Let me hear howling and let me hear bowels.' So that's what you got. I can' t begin to list the material that went into all that. But there were animal screams and noises built into the ambience itself downstairs there. From a little movie I had made years ago called Little Monsters I took this lunatic kind of screaming that I had recorded; I took track, processed it, slowed it down, and played it in reverse. That became one of the ambiences in the room, too. It's the room tone, but the room tone has been made from some guy screaming in pain. Whenever you're down there with Lecter there's this element--it's a low tone that rises and then comes down again. It's very organic as opposed to something you can create electronically. I don't like taking sounds that start electronically; I like sounds that start organically. It' s a lot more fun."

In Ralph Rosenblum's autobiography "When the Shooting Stops..." he describes his experience editing Woody Allen's first film 'Take the Money and Run'. According to Rosenblum, he was hired to recut the picture as it was testing horribly and no one found it particularly funny. What Rosenblum discovered was that Allen had been working in the wrong 'tone' and that Allen was far to critical of himself and had removed many of his good jokes. In addition to reintroducing elements that had been cut and rearranging the film's sequences Rosenblum describes several instances when 'scenes could be salvaged by simply replacing the music'. In the orginal cut maudlin music was added in order to give the picture a 'chaplin' quality. A sense of drama. Rosenblum realized that it wasn't working and added music that would counterpoint the maudlin picture thus creating a very funny scene. He recognizes the soundtrack's ability to completely alter the tone and feel of a scene by simply changing the music. It's a powerful tool.

Sound and picture make for an exciting combination. There are many ways to accent the soundtrack whether it be musical or practical sound. It is an area that is often left unexplored as we are bombarded with the soundtrack instead of manipulated by it. It is also the element that is left for last. Everyone, often including the composer, is brought on as an after thought. They work to the finished picture and are not included enough in the development of it. It really is the least understood elements of filmmaking.

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