by Julian Spencer
There’s a very different air in the room when a screening begins: “Our feature film today, a revolutionary work in silent film…” Already, sporadic blips of white electronic light begin to pervade the otherwise uninterrupted darkness of the theater as students prepare alternative entertainment to the silent spectacle on screen. Whispers run through the crowd. I hear a neighbor ask: “Why can’t we just watch a normal movie?” Even if a score accompanies a work, there’s no denying that a lack of dialog makes a movie a much less appealing choice for a filmgoer; when is the last time you sat down to watch a Chaplin for family movie night?
Yet, for years, these wordless films drew in humongous numbers. Today, we are spoiled by sound technicians, electric post-production processing, and a host of other feasts for our ears. Whether they are meant to depict reality or transport us into one we may never have imagined, we have great trouble suspending our disbelief without the aid of surround sound. Now that we have access to these amazing recreations (and, often, never before heard sounds), it is difficult to return to a world without sound. With such incredible technology and high demand for spectacle, the process which goes into creating these elaborate auditory landscapes has become an artistic process in and of itself.
We can comfortably break the sound of movies into three broad sections, each with its own techniques and artistic capabilities: dialog, effects, and scoring. Oftentimes, the dialogue you hear on screen is different than that recorded on set. Through processes such as looping (in which an actor lip syncs the lines again and again over the original recording), actors will often rerecord their lines. There are certain advantages to this process: from a quality perspective, it allows actors to perfect intonation, choose from a variety of takes, and eliminate any background noise that might have slipped in on set. From an artistic view, it allows actors to perform their lines with better knowledge of the context surrounding the scene. However, when rerecording lines in studio, it is near impossible to reach the same emotional level as on set. Thus, the technical quality and emotional delivery of dialogue are often at odds with one another, subject to individual preference. In Philadelphia, for example, Tom Hanks chose to record his lines on top of an opera recording he is reacting to, sacrificing some of the technical crispness of a studio retake for the ability to react in time and move about the room.
Equally important to the overall sonic picture of a film are the sound effects; on a set, not all sounds are created equal. Some targets may be more audible than others and some may actually sound more convincing if they are reproduced artificially. So, using a room full of props and microphones, sound technicians recreate everything from footsteps to monster calls in a process known as foley. Often, base sounds such as roars or bangs are electronically modulated (usually by changing the speed or removing certain frequencies) in order to create the desired effect. One of my favorite examples comes from the movie A Quiet Place, which concentrates around a blind monster who must hunt using echolocation. Last spring, I was lucky enough to visit Paramount Headquarters in Los Angeles, and had the chance to meet the sound technician for the film. Using a grape and a taser, he demonstrated how he made the characteristic “shriek” of the monster. After shocking the fleshy interior of the grape, he slowed the sound down nearly 100x and repitched the result for an ear piercing screech.
Equally as important to a horror movie like A Quiet Place is the accompanying score. The score provides an auditory “orientation” for the viewer, adding another layer of context through which to interpret the ever changing images on screen. There are many forms of orientation a score can take, but they can be broken down into the physical, temporal, and emotional. For A Quiet Place, the score is meant to provide an emotional orientation, whether that be dread or suspense. In a film like Rear Window, the score serves another purpose: as a neighboring pianist plays his compositions through the film, the reverberating sounds give us both an additional level of suspense as well as a sonic understanding of the space around our viewpoint.
The way in which these sounds interplay builds the way we understand a film. A Quiet Place is built almost entirely on the sounds on screen. A forest scene can easily be transformed from a nature shot to a suspenseful lurking with the right musical accompaniment. Sounds of heavy footsteps outside a shelter make a wholesome family board game a terrifying event. Given a monster with supersonic hearing, even the constant attempt to maintain an absence of sound is a source for suspense. This final process, which links the score, effects, and dialogue into a cohesive track, is called “mixing.” The process is long, complex, and precise; often, every second of a film must be screened individually to make sure that sound effects of different origins blend, that different pieces of audio stand out against one another, and that nothing is overpowering or unnoticeable. Mixing provides an immense opportunity for creative input as it shapes the final experience of the viewer; there are an infinite number of ways to contextualize a scene with sound. Sometimes, creating an intended effect involves a complex blend of intense music, witty final lines, and explosion booms; other times, it may take nothing more than still silence.