“The only dull part of moviemaking”
Some thoughts on the matter of sound design ☛
I was in a dubbing theatre again the other day. I’d done a minor recut on an excellent Christmas drama called Lost Christmas (5:30pm Sunday 18 December, BBC1) and being in front of that endless row of faders reminded me of my feelings about the process of sound mixing. Sidney Lumet, who made every classic American film that you thought was great but couldn’t remember who directed it, described it as “The only dull part of moviemaking”. I respect the man who gave us Twelve Angry Men, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon beyond measure, but on this issue he was just incredibly wrong. If you view sound mixing as the process of making sure that dialogue isn’t drowned by the music, I can see why you might get bored. If, however, you embrace all the other things it can achieve, you’ll greet sound mixing with nothing short of glee.
In my last posting I described pitches as being like magic spells; well, sound mixing is the art of the stage conjurer, the art of drawing and distracting the attention. Sleight-of-hand. Sound mixing can plant subtle suggestions in the mind of the audience. It is quite literally the art of the unseen.
The great secret is this – people watch movies, they don’t listen to them. Sure, they listen to what the characters are saying and the music, especially if Hans Zimmer has his hobnail boots on, but they just don’t listen to the other stuff, they focus instead on what their eyes are telling them. So what’s the point, if no one’s listening? Let me be more precise: they don’t know that they’re listening. Sound effects, atmosphere and the way the sound is put together affect our experience of the film in ways of which we’re unaware. As a result the filmmaker can engage in all sorts of shenanigans and the audience just won’t notice; their conscious attention is elsewhere.
I expect you want some examples. It just so happens that I saw a little one in Hugo the other day. Our hero watches two characters chatting and flirting; we see their lips moving, but we don’t hear what they’re saying as they’re being viewed from a great distance in a railway station. When the man bends to pet the woman’s dog it snaps at him and we hear it growl. That’s patently unrealistic – if we can hear a small dog growl, we can hear people talking. But it’s already been established that the animosity of this dog is the major thing standing between these two characters, so actually that growl is all we need to hear. I doubt one in a hundred people will notice, and those who do won’t care, because it’s apt and funny. But don’t imagine that this example is an extra special touch of class from a master of cinema: most films play similar tricks on a regular basis, it’s what dubbing editors do.
In this respect, the dubbing editor’s job overlaps with that of the focus puller; they’re drawing the viewer’s attention to what’s important in the frame, giving it emphasis. If a man and a woman walk down a corridor and we hear the click of her high heels stronger than the bass of his brogues then we sense the woman to be higher status or more important to the story. If we don’t hear his feet at all, we know she’s the star. I once had to use the mix to make up for a problem in focus pulling in a short I’d directed. In the scene a character turned to see a security camera watching him. Focus was supposed to be thrown onto the security camera but sadly that didn’t happen and we didn’t notice on set. To make up for this oversight, we found a sound effect for the camera’s zoom motor and laid it in the sound track at that point. It’s not as good as the focus pull would have been, but at least you now know what the character is looking at and that it’s important.
Sound can also affect how we read the overall image, rather than just specifics. I once heard of a demonstration where four shots of a country meadow from the same camera position were shown to an audience. They were asked to identify the season in which each had been filmed. They did so quite easily. It was then revealed that they’d just seen the same piece of footage four times, with different sound on each occasion. We interpret what we see according to what we hear.
Sometimes even lack of sound can have a telling effect. In The Others Alejandro Amenabar made a bold experiment by using no atmos at all. This not only lends the house in which the ghost story is set a dead airless quality, but it heightens our attention to sound. Unconsciously we realize that even the tiniest creak is there for a reason, nothing is incidental, every sound is significant. It certainly works to keep the audience hyper-aware and it won the sound team a Goya award.
But silence needs to be bracketed by sound in order for the point to be made. There’s a story that Sergio Leone once directed his sound editor that a scene should be played in complete silence. When he got to the dubbing theatre he found that the buzz of a fly had been laid in. He challenged the sound editor, complaining that he’d asked for complete quiet. The sound editor replied, “When all you can hear is a fly: that’s when you know it’s quiet.” Leone took the point and it was a trick he used again and again throughout his career.
Sound design can even cheat the sound something makes, for dramatic effect. This can be done subtly, as in the opening scene of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse where the flat is full of domestic appliances that make sounds that are subtly more grating than they would make in reality, suggesting a disquiet with the modern mechanized world. At the other end of the spectrum it’s impossible to count the number of times Hollywood sound editors have boosted the impact of a motorbike engine being revved, by throwing a lion’s roar into the mix. In Rising Sun you can even hear a woman’s sexual moaning under the sound of the car’s windscreen wipers. Classy? Not really, but I guess it lets you know you’re watching an erotic thriller.
Which brings me to the other thing that sound design can do – it can establish or reinforce a narrative tone or genre. This can be down to the level of detail to which sound is designed or the type of stylization. If you’re watching British Social Realism the sound will probably be like that in a fly-on-the-wall documentary; it will feel a bit messy, but very real. This can be genuine – industrial areas being bad places to get good sound and low budgets leading to rudimentary sound design, but more often it’s a pose. The scratchy untidiness of the sound track has been artfully constructed from clean tracks to add a sense of naturalism. By contrast, in a Hollywood action movie the camera makes a whooshing noise when it moves fast, and the tinkle of falling cartridge cases is almost as loud as the gunshots they follow. Everything is heightened to make it feel big and cinematic. The world is larger than life. But stylized sound design can also be used by directors like the Coen brothers to place the story-world of their films, detailed and sometimes humorous use of foley (footsteps and other such sounds) suggesting a slightly unreal quirkiness. We can hear the directors’ ironic smile.
So how can your film make the most of all the opportunities that the sound mix presents? There are few short-cuts. It mainly depends on recording clean dialogue during the shoot, and re-recording any muffled lines, then recording foley for everything, so that all of the sounds in the mix can be manipulated separately. It all takes a lot of time and attention to detail to prepare those tracks; months of work go into a feature film sound track. But if you can afford to spend that time, and if you know what you’re doing, it will bring not just professional polish and a certain panache, but an increased resonance to your story, making it sing. Unless of course you think that’s dull?
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011
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