Local Noise

Sound & Music in Australian Cinema

published in Metro No. 127, Melbourne, 2001
Bootmen (2000)

If I said that sound and music are important in movies, and that they comprise a greatly neglected area, you would probably agree. But such agreeance would probably be slight, ingenuine and unconvincing. I have never met anyone who would be openly foolish enough to claim that sound in the cinema is no big deal - but I meet people on a daily basis whose ignorance, impatience and insensitivity is writ large on their approaches to the subject. When most professionals are prompted to agree that sound is important to film, it's like hearing someone say that they like all kinds of music. No-one likes all kinds of music, and people who say so usually hide intense hatred for techno, hip hop, minimalism, metal and avant garde music. Claiming that film sound is important is simply not enough.

In this brief article, I'd like to quite indelicately map out a diagram of the state of film sound and music in Australia, and to reference it equally to practitioners, technicians, educators, trainers, professionals and newcomers. But to get some sort of bigger picture on sound and music in Australian movies, one has to first understand how that noble pursuit we call 'film culture' interfaces with that churning monolith we call 'the film industry' in real, everyday terms. It's not a pretty picture, but it may aid in tuning out a lot of the unnecessary noise that clouds the clarity which Australian film sound and music could achieve.

Most successful applicants to tertiary/undergraduate film schools and courses firmly believe that they will be directors. The training in most filmmaking courses is indeed directorial, but the reality is that very few graduates go on to be directors. While a range of activities will be cursorily covered or randomly enabled in a filmmaking course, there is generally a lack of specific developmental programmes which train graduates in how the many areas of the filmmaking process function through collaborative endeavour. Areas like cinematography, editing, production management and even sound recording are covered, but more under the rubric of directorial delegation than via strategic discussions with craftspeople. Ultimately, a hierarchy of control is maintained which mythically enforces the 'vision' of a director at the expense of training a potential director to listen to the many voices which contribute to the collective practice of filmmaking.

Through this situation, educational environments and institutions feed the film industry less by aim and more by default. The annual wave of graduates emptying film schools and courses leave to face the harsh reality of either the lack of their 'vision', their inability to convey and control that 'vision', or the plain absence of directorial opportunities to push themselves further. The unappealing picture painted here is that most graduates may have levered themselves into the film industry through a failure to be directors. Worse, a psychological scar may run deep in the film industry due to film culture's inability to actively address this dilemma. Film training in Australia, though, is tacitly aware of this quite despairing situation. The shortcomings of educational programmes attempting to actualize the utopian projections of 70s' counter-culture demi-gods has been apparent to many people in the industry and its cultural bodies. Endless short courses, specialist training programmes, advanced workshops, introductory summer schools and industry conferences fill the many gaps left by film schools and film courses.

Yet cultural, ideological, monetary and plain aesthetic differences often separate the professional film industry (which is mostly comprised of people working for television and commercials) from those who fortuitously manage to get investment to actually direct a movie. Production houses - any sort of facility which services, implements or navigates those working on films through some part of the filmmaking process - have grown into seething hothouses which spend as much time greatly contributing to the filmmaking process as they do condemning any educational and cultural objectives of the wider film community. Such anti-intellectualism is par for the course in Australia, and the hard-nosed environs of post-production facilities - where it becomes clinically apparent whether a director's 'vision' is there or not - do provide a function in expelling any delusions a filmmaker may have erroneously entertained up to that stage of his or her film. The inadequacies of film training in the educational environment thus become most apparent in the post-production realm. Ironically, film school graduates who work in production houses or companies may end up learning more about what it is to be a director by having to work for a director in some capacity. This arises from you not simply being forced to listen to a director's 'vision', but from you experiencing first-hand how difficult it is to communicate your ideas to a director and have him/her fully comprehend how you intend to realize those ideas.

Sound and music mostly come to the fore in post-production. Traditionally, sound designers, sound editors, sound effects recordists, sound recording engineers, foley artists and sound mixers will be actively employed on a film once the film has reached fine-cut. As just about every major creative figure in film sound around the world has concurred for over the past 30 years, being brought in to work on the sound for a film at such a late stage in the filmmaking process is highly problematized. Not only are film sound people required to rectify all those things which ill-informed people had said could be 'fixed in the mix', they are also at the mercy of visually-oriented people who are confronted with their inability to communicate sonic, aural and musical ideas to sound and music people in clear terms. Miscommunication and misinterpretation abound in film sound post-production, largely because it is the first time that key production people experience the core audio-visual nature of a film. Again, film training around the country accords hardly a passing regard to the way that sound and music affect the visual, dramatic and structural formation of a film. Again, directors are aurally impaired by training that claims sound to be something that happens after image. The fact is that sound happens with image, and is never separate from it.

Now this would all be well if directors passed the acid test of their first final mix and went on to their next project all the wiser: prepared to consider sound early in pre-production; open to suggestions of music beyond their own narrow taste; ready to consider how issues of spatial articulation, rhythmic placement, aural grain, acoustic realism, musical symbolism, psychoacoustic manipulation and surround sound orchestration can both enhance and energize the skeletal Punch and Judy marionette show which flickers on the screen as the picture edit draws to a close, ready for sound post-production. However this is not the case.

In Australia, the past 20 years has seen no appreciable change in the situation. Australian movies continue to be made as if sono-musically literate directors like Robert Altman, Joel & Ethan Coen, Francis Ford Coppola, Jacques Demy, Jean Luc Godard, Alfred Hitchcock, Derek Jarman, Akira Kurosawa, Fritz Lang, Spike Lee, Sergio Leone, David Lynch, Michael Mann, Jacques Tati, James Tobak, Orson Welles, Robert Wise and Robert Zemeckis had never made films and never engaged major composers and sound designers to actively contribute to their films. Australian film culture embarrasses itself by not being even remotely cogniscent of these internationally acknowledged figures in the development of the modern film soundtrack - figures who have wrenched film sound and music out of the 19th century romanticism which muffles both mainstream and arthouse cinema. In Australia, it appears that Bootmen is an important event in film sound and music, while Magnolia's redfinition of song and score fusion, The Straight Story's delicate use of reverb, Bring It On's intense energy of song, Cast Away's narration through sound alone and Princess Mononoke's Eastern interpretation of European pastoralism never made it to our shores in the last twelve months.

But maybe what I am yearning for here is a self-centred picture of Australian cinema, wherein only I want movies to have dynamic soundtracks, inventive film scores, and openly creative approaches to sound design and audio-visual construction. Maybe such invention is not needed, seeing that Australian movies do consistently have professionally produced, well-honed and conventionally appropriate soundtracks, courtesy of skilled and imaginative craftspeople. Maybe we in Australia don't need such 'arty' approaches to film sound and music thank you very much. And maybe that's the kind of attitude that makes our cinema so unappealing, so unengaging, and so desperately insecure.

The film industry is a strange and perplexing dimension where people's attitudes to their craft, practice and professionalism is rendered frail, unstable and basically neurotic. Clear views on how far a film can go before becoming overly self-centred and delusional are rare, as everyone seems so scarred of pushing a film into the dreaded 'wank zone' away from the numbing para-British pseudo-European anti-American middle-class supposedly-literate naturalism which the AFI awards honour year after year. Industry peers seem ever ready to scoff, scorn and scathe: that music is too 'brooding; that atmosphere is too 'loud'; that effect is too 'unnaturalistic'; that mix is too 'noticeable'. Most frighteningly, otherwise intelligent and creative sound and music professionals working in the industry eventually start thinking the same way, second-guessing the constricted 'myopic deafness' of directors, producers and distributors. Disempowered by actively contributing to the filmmaking process and relegated to servicing the narrow-mindedness of many filmmakers, it is understandable that ripples of cynicism, self-defeat and frustration modulate the sound waves produced by sound and music professionals.

Is there a solution to this? Should directors start some heavy aural-training and expanding their limited musical horizons? Should sound designers and composers start being adamant and bold about their ideas and contributions? No - neither solution alone is an option. What is most sorely needed is a better understanding of how this situation has developed in this country. One needs to admit to the high level of conservatism which governs filmmaking in this country - muffling its radical and wacky tendencies, strangling its bolder and lateral initiatives, and diluting its lively and free-formed ideas. Less pats on the back and more slaps in the face. Less study of the 18th and 19th century romantic composers and more study of the 20th century modern composers. Less suppression of the sound and noise around us everyday and more embracing of how that same sound and noise can simultaneously energize a film and render it more realistic and more naturalistic. Once an understanding of what are the restrictive and debilitating mechanisms which unduly hamper the educational, cultural, industrial and economic sectors of film in Australia, directors and producers can then be better placed to make firmer and open contacts with sound designers and composers, and discuss how they can best collaborate for the purpose of the film - earlier, in greater detail, and with open minds and ears.

Consider this another way. In twenty years, what I'm advocating will in fact occur. Gone will be the era of filmmakers who have been ingrained in techniques, methods and formulae inherited from the 'asonic' realms of literature and theatre. In place will be beings whose ears are firmly grafted to their eyes, who will be the produce of new technologies, media and surround-sound formats which from ground zero have foregrounded the experience of fusing sound and music with image and movement. The antique world of cinema as we know it today will be a pleasant pastime of a bygone era, cherished by those who remember it as a quaintly spluttering zoetrope.

David Lynch - officially credited as sound designer for his last three movies - has spent the last two years converting his house in the Hollywoood Hills (the house from Lost Highway) into a state of the art digital sound post-production studio. Talking with him at the start of the year in the studio, he made an interesting comment as he swept his hand across a huge mixing desk and numerous computer monitors. He said he used all that digital equipment because he liked to play with what he called 'firewood' - the raw material for him to shape his sound. And working there in his own place meant that he had the time to do things exactly how he wanted. But while he was obviously thrilled finally to have the power and control to do his own sound exactly as he heard it in his head, he also acknowledged that these days people are able to do this sort of thing at home, on their own and with inexpensive but powerful computers. And film sound and music in the future will be all the better for it.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.