I want to start this reflection on some key points from two chapters in S. Alten’s book Audio in Media with a great quote by Kurasowa:
‘The most exciting moment is the moment when I add the sound …[then] I tremble’ (Alten p.4)
This really captures the magic that can happen when sound is finally overlaid onto a film track. A good example of this is this short stop motion film, The Deep, by PES. In this very short film everyday objects are transformed into creatures of the deep. As they move around the ocean it’s the sound track that brings life, energy and a kind of gravitas to the film. These bottle opener, screwdriver, pliar shaped fish may sound comic but the sound track asks us to take them seriously.
In these chapters, Alten discusses sound design and the role of the sound designer. While I’m aware of the ways sound can be used to suggest a mood, or indicate a threat I learned that as well as adding sounds such as shrill telephone, hushed voices, orchestral score, a sound designer can also use different microphone and different placement of those microphones to alter the actual sounds of the actors. Alten describes how a microphone close up to actors can help create a mood of warmth and intimacy whereas mics placed at a distance especially if in a hard-edged location can create a sense of distance or coolness between characters (Alten p. 6).
Alten states the two most important skills a sound designer must have is ‘the ability to listen discriminately and the understanding of sound’s fundamental affects on human communication’ (Alten p.7). Alten describes how a sound designer needs to tune in to sounds to learn how to listen to every sound and what it might be telling us. He illustrates this attention to detail with a fine-tuned account of the sounds made when a chick cracks its way out of its egg. What I learnt from this section is that just as coming from a script writing background I always notice the writer’s credits on a film or TV series, sound designers get to know the style of other designers. One such sound designer would have to be Gary Rydstrom who has won seven Oscars for sound including Saving Private Ryan, Titanic, Jurassic Park and Terminator 2. He’s got a stack of nominations as well, the latest being for the film Lincoln. Here’s an excerpt from the opener of Saving Private Ryan:
In his chapter on Creating the Sound Design, Alten discusses the three arrows in the sound designer’s quiver, these being:
- SOUND EFFECTS
The most interesting for me in this discussion was the unpacking of sound effects into contextual sounds and narrative sounds. Contextual sound ’emanates from and duplicates a sound source as it is’ (Alten p. 270) whereas narrative sound ‘adds more to a scene than what is apparent’ (Alten p.270). Within narrative sound there is both descriptive and commentative sound.
Descriptive sound is sound that derives from the situation but isn’t part of the main action. An example might be a horse rounding the final bend on a racetrack. The contextual sound here would be the sound of the horses hooves, that is sound emanating from the action, but descriptive sound might be the cheers of the crowd as the horse thunders by.
Commentative sound might also help to describe the action but can also add another level of commentary to a scene for example in this scene from the film Seabiscuit:
In this scene we see Seabiscuit and the other horses pounding the track, we hear their hooves and the roaring crowd. But then Seabiscuit starts to fall behind and as the other horses race ahead an orchestral soundtrack comes in with chords that suggest the sadness of the horse’s imminent failure. I was thinking that the soundtrack was commentative sound as it brings out the feelings of this moment. However I now think this is music and not sound effects and therefore may not be considered commentative. An example of a commentative sound effect here could be if the jockey heard words from earlier in the film emphasising that the horse could never win. Commentative or not, this clip is a good, simple example of clean, layered sound design.
As the scene turns around and Seabiscuit ends up surging to the winning post, all other sound is taken out, such as the hooves and the crowd, and only the upbeat orchestral music accompanies the horse and jockey. This sound is then replaced by a narrator summarising what was learnt by the horse’s triumph over adversity and is accompanied simply by the sound of an Irish flute. As the horse nears the finish line the orchestra returns to carry the horse to victory. This clip is a useful example of different layers of sound.
These two chapters from Alten’s Audio in Media had many really useful breakdowns of sound and I have only captured a few aspects that were of particular interest. But as a final word, I also found here a useful definition of cinema verite documentary from Alten where he makes really clear that in this form of filmmaking there is no use of music, sound effects or narration, that ‘whatever is recorded must speak for itself’ (Alten p. 284) and that the aim of this style of documentary is to record life ‘without imposing on it’ (Alten p.284).
S. Alten, Audio in Media, Belmont: Wadsworth, 1994