The Function of Film Sound

Simon Morgan MSc Sound Design 8 Perseverence Street, Pudsey

In this essay I shall explore the function of film sound by explaining and exemplifying some of its individual processes and techniques, how they are used and the effect they give. I will concentrate on solely film sound and not on the function of film music.

sound to focus attention within the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ “In Saving Private Ryan, there is a scene where the two snipers are facing off in the courtyard in the rain. You hear people in the town, artillery in the distance, sounds of war going on all around us. At the climax when the two snipers see each other in their scopes we are focused on the water drips only. The German’s drip was a drum-like rhythm on the windows where he’s hiding, and then the metallic drip where the American is hiding. We cut to that drip then that drip, in this case following the visuals.” [2] Using this technique of stripping the sound all the way down to the sounds closely associated with each of the characters on screen Rydstrom draws the audience in closer to their immediate world and the sounds the characters may be hearing, blocking off other sounds that might distract from absolute tension of this moment.

Film sound is on the whole, as with the picture, is the construction of a ‘false reality’, representing identity and a period in time and space. Films are edited from multiple takes from multiple angles. On a film set the lighting, furniture and overall environment has been created or arranged with the purpose of capturing a moment within the characters lives for the films narrative. This is the same for film sound – a ‘false reality’ or representation of the particular scene in audio terms is created in layers of sounds to create a complementary or completely unrealistic soundtrack with the function of pushing the diegesis along. “Although there are separate perceptual mechanisms for sound and picture, the sound may be integrated by the audience along with the picture into a complete whole, without differentiation. In such a state, the sound and picture together can become greater than the sum of its parts” [1] The majority of film sound can be attributed to reinforcing the image. As with the vast majority of film productions only the actors dialogue is wanted from the production stage of the film. All other sounds must be recreated, recorded and synched to the picture in the postproduction stages of the film. There are various reasons for this – control over the individual levels of sounds within the film mix would be one of the most important ones. Other reasons could include unwanted noise at the recording locations and the distance of the microphone from the sound source This allows some creative opportunities to arise when creating or recreating sound for the moving image.

Where film sound can be particularly creative is in creating a mood or feeling without the use of music. Film music usually is there to push and pull our emotions through a scene; film sound designed with effects alone is open to individual interpretation. The use of diegetic sounds to ‘score’ the emotion of the scene can be heard in many films. In Danny Boyle’s ‘28 Days Later’, a film in which a man awakens in hospital and discovers that he is one of the few survivors of a ‘Rage’ virus outbreak, uses diegetic sounds and effects to create the ambience of an abandoned city. By using the perceived silence of the surroundings and the heavily reverb treated Foley and dialogue sounds at the start of the film to create a feeling of that the character might just be the last human alive. Usually the sound recordist, if working on location, will record a few minutes of ‘silence’ before or after the scene is shot. This ‘room tone’ or ambience can be placed over the scene when editing to help the cuts seem natural by creating a constant sound edits between each angle. This is when music is particularly good at creating a linearlisation of the scene. This room tone could be replaced with other sounds to create a clashing ambience depending on the feel of the scene. Film sound is more linked to creating a realistic or

We can use film sound to focus the attention of the view on something within the frame, which may not necessarily be the focus of the scene. In the book Sound Design by David Sonnenschein he quotes Gary Rydstrom on how he used

although this sound becomes abnormally loud by the climax of the scene. During this we hear Batman voice (heavily processed/pitch shifted and modulated). mental struggle and ultimate relief of Michael as he builds up to the task. “These moments are simple but work remarkably well to help the audience identify with the character even more. explained below) . creaky doors in ominous old houses. Again. because they feel like they’ve been in his head for a short period of time. For example. a strange sound like putting your ear up to a seashell from under the door. Film sound is intrinsically coupled to the action on screen. which makes him experience hallucinations. This can be used to great effect to convey the emotional state of the character by placing us within a subjective listening environment. This allows the audience member to be put in the place of the on screen action. All these elements. “My favorite spot is at the Eagle hotel when Chigurgh is approaching Moss from down the hall. heard from the point of audition of the story’s protagonist Moss. such as traffic sounds or explosions. we know what is going to happen but are still alarmed by it when it does” [3] Another prime example of this from ‘The Godfather’ is when Al Pacino’s character Michael is preparing to kill his father’s enemies in an Italian restaurant where they are meeting – there is the increasing sound of a train screeching in the build up to this moment. The characters can react accordingly to sounds. A silenced gunshot with a chair scrape. Whether these sounds are there to compliment the visuals or playing certain scenes with sounds not normally associated with the image to create an uneasy feeling to make an audience feel uncomfortable. POINT OF VIEW/POINT OF AUDITION It is the sound designer and re-recording mixer’s remit to create a sonic pallet for which the sonics of the scene is to be painted. The train is never introduced or revealed within this scene but we accept that there could Film sound can be empathetic to the character by using point of audition. these all lead up to Chigurh’s footsteps and floor creaks and the receiver beeping as he approaches Moss’ room. are expected sound mechanisms that an audience may expect within a film sequence. In this scene one of his men is shouting at him but he can’t hear anything. ASPECTS OF DIGESIS Diegetic sounds Diegetic sounds are such whose source is known or presumed to be in the fictional situation on screen. In the Coen brother’s 2007 film ‘No Country for Old Men’ there are very few music cues (6 in total) within its 122minute running time. Non-Diegetic sounds These are sounds that are not heard by the characters or within the situation on screen. This is exemplified in the film ‘Batman Begins’ in a scene where the Scarecrow character has been exposed to his own chemical weapon. the sounds of crickets chirping when its nighttime in the country. Examples of this include sounds effects added to heighten drama and narration (although this falls with other categories. Rather then film music. This sound is a representation of the tension. Whether is matched with a point of view camera shot or whether the sound operates in this way in other shots with the character. hearing what the character can hear. as the Scarecrow would perceive it giving the impression that we are listening as that character.” [4] Point of audition can also be as simple as when a character is talking on the phone and we hear the filtered voice of the other person from the receiver as the character hears it. although perhaps overused and sometimes scientifically flawed. an unanswered phone ring. There are many scenes that are not only without music but also feature very little dialogue. It was Sound designer and rerecording mixer Craig Berkey’s task to add subtle Foley effects. the Red Tailed Hawk screech when a character is walking alone through the desert. This then paves the way for the sound design to establish the mood and heighten emotions. Another nearby explosion punctuates his snap out of this shell shock. which is used to convey or intensify emotions and action. Herein also exists some much played upon clichés within the film sound world. however usually exists outside of the film’s world as a non-diegetic sound source. Gary Rydstrom also talks about how he achieved a subjective character experience in Saving Private Ryan when Tom Hanks is suffering from hearing loss induced by shell shock.unrealistic but believable sonic environment for the onscreen action to take place. Music. There are several things that happen off screen early in the sequence that force you to focus on the smallest of sounds. during a scene where the audience knows there is an imminent confrontation between the him and the antagonist Chigurgh. ESTABLISHING MOOD be an overhead rail track in the neighborhood. Thunder and lightening always happens at the same time and you can hear gunfire and explosions in space.

This occurs in films such as ‘The Princess Bride’ where the fairytale story of Wesley and Buttercup being played out on screen is being told by an old man to his grandson who is ill in bed. their footfalls establish the geography and texture of the craft. The characters by way of point of audition hear this.” [5] Usually some kind of spatial effects processing. As the storm troopers take over the princess’ ship in the opening scenes. A process that is often employed in film audio postproduction is ‘Worldizing’. The acousmatic truly allows sound to reveal itself in all its dimensions” [6] In Matt Reeves’ 2008 film ‘Cloverfield’ before the enemy threat is revealed on screen fear and tension is built by the sounds that the threat makes and the result of its destruction of New York. Although we occasionally see the interaction between the storyteller and his grandson. Other examples include Kevin Spacey’s character ‘Verbal Kint’s narration in the form of a police interrogation in Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects and Tim Roth’s retelling of the story of his encounter with the police in the men’s room in Reservoir Dogs. This forms the basis of the narration throughout the film. CREATING THE UNSEEN THROUGH SOUND Narration exists within film to not only further the telling of a story but can also explain characters feelings and motivations that may otherwise be unknown to the viewer. Metadiegetic Narration A narrative that is told by a character who features in the story can be classed as Metadiegetic – such as by Ray Liotta’s character in Goodfellas. SOUND IN (A) SPACE? An active off screen sound that draws the attention of the viewer is referred to as an acousmatic sound. Frank Darabont’s 1999 prison-based drama ‘The Green Mile’ utilized this by way of recording Foley effects from within the concrete walled Fort MacArthur and various actual Synchresis is a term made from a combination of two words: Synchronism and Synthesis. the in the immediate or . who is explaining events of his own life up to a certain point and then beyond that point. The clanking sounds reinforce the notion that the characters are walking on metal grates inside a vast. strength or any physicality of the source. not knowing the size. Quite often in films. they don’t actually feature as part of the main story. such as reverb and echo. It means the cognitive connection between a sound and its visual representation when both occur at the same time. Extradiegetic Narration The voice of a narrator who doesn’t appear as part of the story could be classed as extradiegetic. This allows the audience to attempt to preconceive what the source of the sound is. high-tech spacecraft. various methods of creating ‘Space’ are used. SYNCHRESIS AND CHARACTERISATION Creating a realistic or unrealistic audible environment for where the action takes place is key in the believability of the visual environment. Going even further to enhance the realism of the acoustic treatment to the sound would be ‘location-based Foley’ where sounds are actually recorded in an appropriate environment. This is done by Metadiegetic and Extradiegetic narration.LITERALLY TELLING THE STORY prisons. Using this method the sound cements the feel of the hand held ‘found footage’ nature of the film. An acousmatic sound can often add gravity and mystery to a sound before its physical form is revealed to the characters and audience of the film. with the sound being colored by bouncing off walls of an actual environment. Chion calls this “added value” “By added value I mean the expressive and informative value with which a sound enriches a given image so as to create the definite impression. This is where a sound designer desires an accurate representation of an acoustic environment to color the sound as required. “The footsteps in Star Wars are particularly telling in this respect. where the sound designer or director wants a specific coloration to the sound that would be difficult or impossible to recreate solely in a recording studio. “Acousmatic sound draws our attention to sound traits normally hidden to us by the simultaneous sight of the causes – hidden because the sight reinforces the perception of certain elements of the sound and obscures others. Another good use of acousmatic sound is in Jurassic Park where the low thud of the approaching T-rex’s feet coupled with the visual of the ripples on the surface of the cup of water gives the impression that whatever is coming is big! Although we already know that it will be a dinosaur – the audience is not prepared for the size and sound of when it arrives on the screen. This allowed a realistic sonic image of the radio show to be created being played around the neighborhood. This was particularly employed by Walter Murch for the film American Graffiti where he played back the radio show that runs throughout the film from a speaker at one end of a suburban back yard and recorded the sound back on to another tape recorder from 50ft away. will be applied to the audio in postproduction to give the impression of a realistic acoustic environment to conform to the visual image.

sound or image?"). Sound is the mechanism. Sound Design: The Expressive Power of Music.” [10] Neither of them is as important as each other. 4. 7. “We never see the same thing when we also hear. J 2007. no two people will gain the same feelings from each scene. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. p. p. 6.4. What we hear is what we haven't had time to see. but it is this marriage of sound functions and moving image which creates something altogether special. This can be split into two categories: 1) Denotation – literal meaning of a sound 2) Connotation – Meanings beyond the first level of literal meaning Francis Ford Coppolas 1972 mafia epic ‘The Godfather’ features a very good use of semiotics. California. 2. etc)."” [9] 3. Kay.178 Whittington. "No Country for Old Men" Exclusive Interview with Sound Designer/Re-recording Mixer Craig Berkey [online]. Voice and Sound Effects in Cinema. which goes beyond the initial and obvious meaning of the sound. Holman. Sounds function is not only to stimulate one sense (hearing) but also to intensify and change others (feelings. p. M 1994. Sound Design: The Expressive Power of Music. almost electronic." for instance. University Of Texas Press. D 2001. The experience of being the audience for a film is extremely personal. we do not really see the punch. Sound For Film and Television. Michael Wise Productions. California. W 2007. Voice and Sound Effects in Cinema. Oxford. During this scene the fight starts with regular sounding punches and develops them with exaggerated movement sound and heavily processed.” [8] MEANING WHAT WE HEAR CONCLUSION As you can see.162 [Accessed: 5. p. impact sounds. What can the most immediate and brief meeting between two of these objects be? The physical blow.remembered experience one has of it. These sounds can also turn to being ‘hyper-real’ as used in the final boxing match in the film ‘Snatch’. Using this method the audience will accept that the sounds are conforming to the image and the sounds used allows the fight develop and the sound designer to be creative with the sounds used. Designing Sound. you can confirm this by cutting the sound out of a scene. where in this scene the closing door means so much more: “Still fairly flat. Focal Press.5 The semiotics of sound plays a big part in conveying the emotional state of the character. p. The sound and image in synchronicity “What is the most important object in audiovisual representation? The human body. however. T 2002. REFERENCES 1. p.111 Chion. physical states. which will have been created by sound designers striking objects within a recording studio to get the appropriate sounds for the size and weight of the strikes. we don't hear the same thing when we see as well. Columbia University Press.2011]. M 1994. many functions of film sound and this report goes some way to explaining some of them. New York. which allows realism or intended unnatural/unrealistic sounds to be played with a picture to make something much more than its constituent parts. Austin. 5. . it was even more important to get a firm. this information or expression “naturally” comes for what is seen and is already contained in the image itself” [7] For example: the sound of someone being punched. there are many. 1st edition. Columbia University Press. For. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. 2nd Edition. but a level up in dimensionality: the image of a door closing accompanied by the right "slam" can indicate not only the material of the door and the space around it but also the emotional state of the person closing it. Sound Design & Science Fiction. Michael Wise Productions. Sonnenschein.32 Chion. needed to give the audience more than the correct physical cues about the door. New York. The sound for the door at the end of "The Godfather.xvii Sonnenschein. We must therefore get beyond preoccupations such as identifying so called redundancy between the two domains and debating interrelations between forces (the famous question asked in the seventies. D 2001. Available from: http://designingsound. And what is the most immediate audiovisual relationship? The synchronization between a blow heard and a blow seen—or one that we believe we have seen. in fact. irrevocable closure that resonated with and underscored Michael's final line: "Never ask me about my business. "Which is more important.

p. xxvi .8. Stretching Sound to Help the Mind See [online].org/murch/stretching. Chion. p. p. Columbia University Press. Filmsound. W. New York.61 Murch. Columbia University Press.htm [Accessed: 31.3. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. 9. M 1994. New York.2011]. Available from: http://filmsound. M 1994. Chion. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen.8. 2001. 10.