Signal to Noise
How filmmakers throw emphasis on what’s essential ☛
Cinema is one of the most naturalistic of the arts: it’s often shot in the real world and we expect movie characters to behave pretty much as people do in reality. This naturalism can make our stories all the more compelling; the audience love to come out saying “it felt like you were really there”, even if they felt they were really there for the carnage of the Normandy landings. But this sense of reality comes with a snag: the real world is notoriously messy, muddled and imprecise. Stories don’t work if they exhibit those characteristics: they soon get boring. How do we keep our stories concise, elegant and telling in a world that rarely works that way?
There’s a concept in sound engineering called ‘signal to noise’ that might help us here. This is simply the ratio of clean signal (perhaps music or spoken word) to unwanted noise (radio static, tape hiss, interference, &c.). The more of the stuff you want to hear, and the less unwanted random background stuff the better. So much of a film director’s job, and indeed the job of every creative member of the crew, is about finding ways to improve that ratio, to filter out the noise of the real world from the signal of the story.
First of all there’s the screenwriter. They could show us any moment in the character’s day from boiling a kettle to brushing their teeth, but the good writer knows not to include any moment unless it is significant. Similarly the writer has to focus their story around core themes and ideas, or at the very least a central storyline. We can have subplots, sure, but if they don’t speak to the core story they become ‘noise’ and start to distract us from what’s important.
Writers even have a certain licence to abandon naturalism in order to save the audience from too much noise. Look at the way phone calls are conducted in movies. Often characters answer the phone with hardly a “hello” and will hang-up on callers without provocation. Screenwriters get ribbed for this habit, which often makes it onto lists of movie clichés. However, were the writer to take a more naturalistic approach and have their characters start every phone call by exchanging pleasantries about the weather and asking after the well-being of each others’ families, the audience would soon want us to return to the less natural convention. We’re happy to accept characters acting in a slightly unnatural manner if it gets us to the meat of the story significantly sooner.
Cinematographers, too, are busy sorting the signal from the noise. Most commonly it’s done with focus. One of the prime reasons for the DSLR filmmaking revolution is the narrow depth of field that cameras like the Canon 5D offer, which allows for shallow-focus photography. Throwing the foreground and the background out of focus encourages us to look at the thing or person in frame that’s most important to the story, and draws our attention away from that which is merely incidental. Like the screenwriters’ truncated phone calls, this is unnaturalistic: if our eyes are in good working order, we never actually see the world as a blur. But blur is a close parallel to how we experience things that are in our field of vision but on which we’re not currently focusing our attention – so we accept this stylisation without a second thought.
Long lenses can also be used to sort signal from noise. Ken Loach claims that he likes using the tight field of vision provided by lenses with long focal lengths to exclude inessential and distracting details from his shots. He shows us less of the world, and the ‘noise’ simply falls beyond the edge of frame.
Lighting, too, can be used to draw attention to the important and away from the inessential. This can be done naturalistically: perhaps our protagonist is working late and we see them at their desk, illuminated only by an angle-poise lamp; the rest of the room (unimportant) is lost in shadow. Subtle stylisation can also be used, as in Vertigo when Scotty sees ‘Madeleine’ whom he thought to be dead: the lights of the restaurant around her subtly dim to pull her away from the background. There are even occasions where blatant unnaturalism pays off, as when Lester in American Beauty notices Angela amongst the other cheerleaders. Suddenly Lester is alone, sitting in a spotlight and Angela has become the only cheerleader, under another spot. They have become quite literally the only people in the room.
Sound designers can do more than simply reducing the level of actual unwanted noise and delivering clean dialogue. If they take their passion for ‘signal’ to extremes they can produce some interesting results. In The Others, the sound design was so focused that there were none of the background atmosphere tracks on which most sound editors rely. If there was nothing in the scene to make a sound, there was absolute silence. This meant that when you heard a creak from another room, a room that was supposed to be unoccupied, you really noticed it.
Just as other disciplines can subtly cheat naturalism in order to remove distractions, so it is with sound editing. If a conversation is held in a noisy location – say a train station – the background sound of the rush-hour crowds and departing trains will often drop away imperceptibly when our characters start talking, so that it doesn’t distract from the dialogue. The background might even be removed completely if the director wants to take us into the world of the two lovers.
But noise isn’t always noise.
The boring, everyday world that we’d usually seek to distract from or exclude, can be an important part of the story if that world is not one with which we’re familiar. If the story takes place in the ancient past, the remote future or a distant galaxy far, far away it might be necessary for the audience to understand how that world is different from our own. For this, we often need to see how this world works in normal circumstances – what people chat about when they’re shooting the breeze, what is normal for them?
Consider I, Robot. In the opening minutes we’re shown a world where robots are part of everyday life: they walk dogs, collect trash and deliver for FedEx. We need to see this because the story will be all about how robots fit into that society, and that’s just about to change – this, then, is signal. If our little introduction to the San Francisco of the future also showed how people were just getting into using jetpacks: that would be noise. The story’s not about jetpacks.
Despite the crew’s best efforts to dial down the noise, however, directors do occasionally conspire to turn it up when it isn’t needed. Why? Certainly it isn’t always instantly obvious what is signal and what is noise. You sometimes need to have a very clear idea of what lies at the centre of your story to tell the difference. More commonly, however, I think it’s because we fall too much in love with our God-like power to create a new reality and to make the audience feel like they are really there. Creating that world is fun. We forget that making it feel real is only a small and rather basic part of telling a story. Making that story resonant: that’s the real skill, and for that you need to focus everything at your command to keep your signal strong, clean and without distortion.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2013
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge
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