Summary-Review of The Film Experience, Ch. 5 Film Sound: Listening to the Cinema

FILM IN FOCUS: Singin' in the Rain
At the end of Stanley Donen and Gene Kelley’s Singin’ in the Rain (1942), the proper match of sound and image confirms the proper match between the characters played by Gene Kelley and Debbie Reynolds.

After watching the clip from Singin’ in the Rain, consider the questions below.
1. A source of the film’s humor, and of its version of Hollywood history, is that Lina’s speaking and singing voices are not in harmony. Discuss how the sequence uses voice, music, and sound effects sometimes to reinforce and sometimes to contrast with each other.

2. How does the scene mark its sound as diegetic? How does this emphasis on the fact that this sound is "real" fit into the film’s themes?

FORM IN ACTION: Saturday Night Fever

The first example of soundtrack music driving film promotion, Saturday Night Fever (1977, John Badham) and its songs by the Bee Gees launched the global disco phenomenon. Working-class Brooklyn kid Tony Manero (John Travolta) transcends the monotony of his life every weekend at the discotheque.
After watching the clip from Saturday Night Fever, consider the questions below.
1. How is the song used here for character development?
2. How would the scene unfold if the sound were mixed so that background noise was more audible?

VIEWING CUE: Winter’s Bone

Set in an impoverished region of the Ozark mountains, Debra Granik’s Winter's Bone (2010) recounts the quest of seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) as she searches for her missing father, apparently a victim of his involvement with the local manufacturing of crystal meth.
After watching the clip from Winter’s Bone, consider the questions below.
1. In what appears to be a dream sequence, two dominant sounds are orchestrated, one diegetic, the other nondiegetic. What is their relationship, and how does the distinctive soundscape of this sequence reflect it?
2. How do the montage of images—the squirrel, the trees, the buzzards—and the soundtrack that connects them interact? Does this interaction allow you to understand or interpret the dream in a specific way?

VIEWING CUE: The Thin Red Line

Focused on the World War II battle in Guadalcanal, The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998) moves between the horrors of war and, most importantly, the poetic and philosophical meditations of various soldiers about nature, love, and family.
After watching the clip from The Thin Red Line, consider the questions below.
1. In this sequence, can you identify the five different registers of sound? Consider how they interact to create a specific effect, atmosphere, or meaning.
2. Consider the voiceover in this sequence: "What’s the war in the heart of nature. … Is there an avenging power in nature?" What stands out as significant in the tone, accent, and volume of this voice? How does it relate to the disparate montage of images?

FILM IN FOCUS: The Conversation

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) is about a surveillance expert who comes to doubt about the ethics of his profession. The filmmakers act as surveillance experts in the film’s famous three-minute opening shot, as our attention comes to focus on the behavior of a man in a rumpled raincoat (Gene Hackman).
After watching the clip from The Conversation (if you have Netflix, you also can view the film there), consider the questions below.
1. How are sound perspective and image perspective used to create tension in this shot?
2. Count all the sounds you hear. How does the shot call attention to technology?

Chapter Summary

The cinema is an audiovisual medium, one among many that saturate our contemporary media experience. Despite our habitual references to motion pictures, we are not only film spectators but film auditors as well. We pay attention to narrative cues found not only in what we see on the screen but also in what we hear, whether it’s background music that warns us tragedy is imminent or the screeching of cars on the street that signals a high-speed chase or the indistinct voices of guests at a gala event.

A Short History of Film Sound

The cinema’s use of music has its origins in theatrical traditions such as the Greek chorus and eighteenth-century melodrama (literally meaning “music drama”), which originally designated a theatrical genre that combined spoken text with music. The development of film sound was also dependent upon technological inventions such as the phonograph (“sound writing”) introduced by Thomas Edison in 1877.
Since the very beginning of filmmaking, filmmakers and inventors sought to combine visual images with sound. Early “silent” films were often shown in music halls and vaudeville theaters with musical accompaniment and sometimes with narration, sound effects, and even actors reciting dialogue.
The Hollywood film industry rapidly converted to synchronized sound in the late 1920s, requiring new sound equipment to be installed in movie theaters. Two different sound technologies were introduced during this time. Warner Brothers’ Vita phone used a sound-on-disk system, while Fox’s Movie tone used optical sound recorded directly onto the film stock. The success of Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer in 1927 helped convince studios, exhibitors, and the public that synchronized sound films were here to stay.
While the transition to sound was fairly rapid and successful, it was not without difficulties. In addition to the expensive sound equipment required for theatrical exhibition, cumbersome sound cameras and recording equipment initially proved a challenge for film production as well. Sound film with spoken dialogue could not easily cross linguistic borders, as dubbing technology was still being developed. One solution was to film a movie in multiple languages simultaneously on the same sets.
Technological innovations in the 1950s (stereophonic sound), the 1970s (Dolby and surround sound), and the 1990s (digital sound) reflected both an attempt to improve sound fidelity and a reaction to other competitive entertainment media including television, home video, and video games.

The Elements of Film Sound

In order to understand the role of sound in film, one must examine the relationship between sounds and images. Since film is considered a predominantly visual medium, for many filmmakers and viewers, sound exists in movies to enhance the impact of an image. However, sounds can interact with images in infinite ways, and strategies used to combine the two fundamentally affect our understanding of film. Sound is an important aspect in guiding our perceptions of cinematic realism.
Synchronous sound has a visible onscreen source, while asynchronous sound does not (these can also be referred to as onscreen sound and off screen sound, respectively). We can further differentiate between parallelism in the use of sound, which occurs when the soundtrack and image “say the same thing,” and counterpoint (or contrapuntal sound), which occurs when two different meanings are implied by these elements.
Diegetic sound, such as dialogue, has its source in the narrative world of film, while nondiegetic sound, such as background music or certain kinds of narration, does not belong to the characters’ world.
During production, sound recording takes place simultaneously with the filming of a scene. Microphones for recording synchronous sound may be placed on the actor or positioned overhead with the use of a device resembling a long pole called a boom. The snap of a clapboard is recorded at the beginning of each take to synchronize sound and image. When a cut of the film is prepared, the crucial and increasingly complex phase of postproduction sound work begins. Sound editing interacts with the image track to create rhythmic relationships, establish connections between sound and onscreen sources, and smooth or mark transitions. Sound effects may be gathered, produced by sound-effects editors on computers, retrieved from a sound library, or generated by foley artists. Postsynchronous sound is recorded after the fact and then synchronized with onscreen sources. During automated dialogue replacement (ADR), actors watch the film footage and re-record their lines to be dubbed into the soundtrack (a process also known as looping because actors watch a continuous loop of their scenes). During the sound mixing stage, the three elements of a soundtrack – voice, music, and sound effects – are combined. Although the three sound elements (voice, music, and sound effects) can all be present and combined in relation to any given image, conventions have evolved governing these relationships.
Human voice is often central to narrative film’s intelligibility, primarily in the form of dialogue. Speech is used to expose a character’s motivation and goals and convey plot information, and it is therefore typically mixed to be the most audible sound heard by the audience. Used famously by filmmaker Robert Altman, overlapping dialogue is a technique that makes individual lines less distinct and is often used to approximate the everyday experience of hearing multiple competing speakers and sounds at the same time. A voice-off is a voice that originates from a speaker who can be inferred to be present in the scene but who is not currently visible onscreen, while a voiceover describes a voice whose source is not visible in the frame yet acts as the organizing principle behind the film’s images, such as the narration in a documentary film.
Music is a crucial element in the film experience, providing rhythm and deepening emotional responses. Soundtrack music can work to guide an audience’s attention, provide character information, and cue emotional responses. Background music, or underscoring, literally underscores what is happening dramatically. Narrative cueing is how music tells us what is happening in the plot. The most noticeable examples are called stingers, sounds that force us to notice the significance of something onscreen.
Popular songs have long had a place in the movies, promoting audience participation and identification by appealing to tastes shared by age or ethnic groups. Sheet music and recordings were profitable tie-ins even before sound cinema. Since the 1980s, pop songs began to dominate many film soundtracks, and now rock and pop soundtrack tie-ins have become increasingly prevalent.
Much of the impression of reality in cinema comes from the use of sound effects, although, like other aspects of the soundtrack, they may not be consciously noticed by viewers. When reproduced in the three-dimensional space of the theater, sound effects are also one of the most effective techniques used to add depth to the two-dimensional image of a film.

Making Sense of Film Sound

The sounds of the film experience build on viewers’ everyday social and leisure activities to contribute to the movie’s immediacy and sensory richness and to convey what seem like essential truths and meanings. Paradoxically, movie soundscapes often eschew realism and plausibility in order to heighten authenticity and emotion, like foregrounding actors’ whispered conversation in a crowded room so we feel intimately connected to them.
The variety of sounds in film gives the viewer an impression of being authentically present in space, and this impression is supported by the preferences established in the standard techniques of sound recording, mixing, and reproduction. Sound also encourages the viewer to experience emotion and to see the world in terms of particular emotions.
Sound continuity describes the range of scoring, sound recording, mixing, and playback processes that strive to unify meaning and experience by subordinating sound to the aims of the narrative. On the other hand, sound montage reminds us that just as a film is built up of bits and pieces of celluloid, a soundtrack is not a continuous gush of sound from the real world; rather, it is composed of separate elements that can be creatively manipulated and reflected upon to achieve certain effects.

Further questions to ponder:

1. As is often noted, silent films were never silent. Describe what a typical audience experience at an early film exhibition (for example, at a nickelodeon theater) was like in relation to sound.

2. The advent of synchronized sound initially created a number of technological and business difficulties. Identify and describe some of these difficulties.

3. What is the relationship between sound and image in a typical Hollywood film? How have certain art directors or experimental filmmakers sought to challenge those conventions?

4. What role does human speech play in film? Why is it important?

5. What are some of the primary functions of music in a narrative film?