in BeoMag - The Bang & Olufsen Magazine - Winter 2003,
There's a lot that happens on a movie soundtrack. Yes, there's
a lot that also happens with a film's image - its production
design, cinematography, editing, etc. - but the soundtrack
is invisible. It's harder to perceive exactly what is involved
in a soundtrack - indeed, what defines one.
term 'soundtrack' literally refers to everything that ends
up encoded onto the soundstrip which runs along the edge
of a film strip. Once a pair of squiggly lines, now a thick
strip of densely compacted specks, the film soundtrack contains
all the sonic activity which accompanies the screen image.
Dialogue, sound effects, atmospheres and music are all combined
in a film mix - sometimes with diplomacy, sometimes under
music - a commissioned score provided by a composer - and
dialogue - the performance of scripted speech by actors
- from the soundtrack leaves us with, well, sound. And this
is the heart of the soundtrack.
the heart of the soundtrack is kept alive and pumping is
nearly as complex as open-heart surgery. There are a two
phases of a film's soundtrack. First is the location recording
- of dialogue predominantly, but also incidental effects
and atmospheres, like the banging of doors as a character
is chased down the dark corridors of an abandoned factory.
Sometimes these incidentals are recorded at the same location,
but not while the camera is rolling. This provides 'wild'
(non-synched) sound for use later in editing. Atmospheres
and room tones are also recorded on location to capture
the aural feel of what the camera records.
Europe, this approach to sound is known as 'direct sound';
in America, a large proportion of sound effects and atmospheres
- not to mention dialogue - are post-produced. This constitutes
the second phase: post-production.
merger between these two phases entails the art and craft
of Sound Design. The term remains a controversial one -
largely due to the erroneous notion that the creative decisions
made in sound design somehow usurp the director's vision.
But just as DOPs (head cinematographers) on a film shape
the 'look' of a film in concert with the director, the 'sound'
of a film can be similarly engineered.
directors have worked closely with their sound designers.
Francis Ford Coppola's 70s collaborations with Walter Murch
are of crucial historical significance here, resulting in
The Conversation - a terse portrait of a sound taper whose
life falls apart - and Apocalypse Now - the first Quadraphonic
film, infamous for its mix of The Doors' "The End" with
diffused helicopter whirling.
recently supervised the DVD remastering of both films, allowing
new audiences to discover these landmarks, as well as older
audiences to relive their power via current audiovisual
pupil of Murch is now one of the most renowned sound designers
in America: Randy Thom. "Apocalypse Now was designed for
sound," stated Thom when in Melbourne for a special presentation
of his work in 1999. "It's more important that you design
the film for sound, than design sound for the film."
studied under Murch and went on to sound design an impressive
list of films, including Colors, Wild At Heart, Starship
Troopers and three landmark works 'designed for sound' by
director Robert Zemeckis: Forrest Gump, Contact and Cast
Away. These latter three include Thom's mixing skills in
Dolby 5.1 surround sound.
Surround is a buzz word everyone mentions - usually with
misinformation and inaccuracy. One of Australia's official
Dolby representatives and film sound mixer in his own right
is Bruce Emery. "The making of a film soundtrack in 5.1
has nothing to do with Dolby," he stated at a special seminar
on digital film sound in 2000. "As a sound designer or a
sound mixer, you simply work with those channels. Dolby
provides the technology to record those 5.1 channels and
print them down the side of a piece of film and re-play
it in a cinema."
The Conversation still ranks as one of Emery's top examples
of sound design, he extols the advances digital technologies
have made in the field. "Our work flow has become streamlined,
allowing us to be more efficient. We now have time for more
experimentation - from which we learn. Digital is also allowing
television, home theatre and cinema to converge on one sound
field format - 5.1." The mystical numeration of '5.1' Emery
and all sound professionals refer to is a spatial template
for the playback of sound: a centre speaker (for dialogue
and noticeable on-screen sound effects); a stereo pair of
front speakers and a stereo pair of rear speakers (for controlled
dispersion of atmospheres and/or music); and a discrete
sub-woofer (to add bottom end).
5.1 template can be encoded using the Dolby Digital licensed
hardware/software (or the competing DTS system), and is
employed in the technology sound designers use to construct,
mix and master soundtracks, as well as in theatre playback
and home entertainment systems.
the province only of audio professionals in the film industry,
digital surround-sound playback is now a key factor in both
consumers' choice of DVD players, amplifiers and speakers,
as well as what constitutes the 'home theatre experience'.
Some would argue that home entertainment systems are most
impressive by virtue of their sound replay - something that
would please sound designers the world over.
of Australia's notable sound designers is Craig Carter:
"As digital technology has become more affordable, it has
allowed a more diverse group of interested people to have
input into the way soundtracks are shaped." Carter links
this to an increase of imaginative sound design in Australia
- though he also cautions the industry's reliance on these
technologies for their speed factor over the development
of craft needed to use them. "This has come about by the
changes in technology not being learnt well, most likely
driven by the desire to produce faster with the technology,
I see the soundtrack for a movie being one entity, working
together with the composer is absolutely necessary," notes
Carter, also a classical guitarist. "The disciplines of
working with sound and music are obviously different, but
each sound component needs to evolve with the others in
mind if the soundtrack is to be coherent and successful
as a story-telling tool.
The working dialogue between composers and sound designers
would appear to be integral to the filmmaking process. Unfortunately,
it is rare, due to the film industry's many demarcations.
Interestingly, there is hardly a sound designer or composer
who does not declare this. Randy Thom's close collaboration
with composer Alan Silvestri for Cast Away involved extensive
discussions, resulting in Silvestri's music only appearing
in the film after stranded Tom Hanks leaves his unchartered
more than any other director, David Lynch is the most acute
director of sound in the modern cinema. Not only is he responsible
for just about every aural weirdness allowed on today's
soundtracks, he has also officially sound designed most
of his films. Listen to Mulholland Drive, The Straight Story,
Lost Highway and Fire Walk With Me and you will hear a tantalising
amalgam of recording techniques and sonic poetry.
eventually gutted his own house - the one used in Lost Highway
- and transformed it into a digital recording and mixing
facility for his own films. Having received a grand tour
of his amazing premises while he was mixing Mulholland Drive,
his commitment to his artist-controlled theories in the
film industry was evident.
innovation in sound design through control of its craft
and technologies has formed an invisible convey belt to
cinema's forward momentum. Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein
were extremely vocal about the power of sound, suggesting
approaches to audio-visual montage in the 30s which form
the basis of much sound film language today.
Welles' control on Citizen Kane may have produced one of
cinema's visual masterpieces - but its deeper majesty results
from the preceding five years Welles spent in radio. There
he pioneered many a modern film sound technique, from 'overlapping
dialogue' (as promulgated later by Robert Altman's use of
radio mics and a camera-synched multi-track recorder designed
by Jim Webb) to allowing composer Bernard Herrmann to explore
microphone placement in the recording of the score - something
that only recently films are pushing with greater finesse.
many articulate sound designers, Carter is pro-active in
his prescription of how sound contributes to a film: "Unless
you're helping move the story forward, you're in danger
of damaging it." This he was able to do on Phillip Noyce's
Rabbit-Proof Fence. The creativity and flexibility with
which Carter achieved this was due not only to digital technologies,
but also the contributions made by location sound recordist
long-standing Foley artist and film mixer, Burgess freed
himself from long hours in dark studios by going outdoors.
"In the past I used a Nagra 2-channel reel-to-reel recorder.
Today I use a Powerbook with 50 gig of recordable audio
storage space. This is coupled to a portable firewired audio
interface containing eight phantom-powered mic pre-amps
of very high quality. I record into a non-linear audio editing
program, creating audio files of generally 24bit/96khz rate,
allowing me the opportunity to fit and check in the field."
clearly is wired for sound. "The replay of these recordings
on the mix stage have shown a high amount of cohesion between
all speakers giving a natural surround effect. The internet
has also allowed the capability of high bandwidth connectivity
that facilitates the hosting and transfer of audio and video
files to anywhere in the world." Other recent films boasting
Burgess' maverick mobility include Hearts in Atlantis, The
Quiet American and Ned Kelly.
at the role of the final credits, innovation in film sound
is not due to technology alone. Films from diverse periods
and cultures have created completely new ways of 'telling
stories' in the cinema. From Fritz Lang's morbid orchestration
of sound in psycho dramas like M (1931) and House By The
River (1950) to Chuck Jones's explosive Coyote & Roadrunner
cartoons throughout the 50s; from Jack Clayton's chilling
use of silence and volume in The Innocents (1961) to Alfred
Hitchcock's incorporation of Oskar Sala's electro-acoustic
bombast in The Birds (1963); from Shohei Immamura's saturated
noise fields in The Insect Woman (1963) to Sergio Leone's
careful orchestration of sound in Once Upon A Time in the
fidelity and technological experimentation become crucial
factors in more contemporary manifestations of the film
soundtrack. From Robert Altman's multi-tracked chatter of
wireless voices in California Split (1974) to Steven Speilberg's
atmospheric expansion of the audio field in Close Encounters
of the Third Kind (1977); from Jean-Luc Godard's collage
of Francois Musy's tactile recordings in Hail Mary (1985)
to Martin Scorsese's fracturing of Skip Lievsay's 3-track
voice-over narration in Goodfellas (1990); from P.T. Anderson's
hyper-collapse between sound and music in Magnolia (1999)
to the gloriously assaultive surround-sound delirium of
Sogo Ishii's Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts (2000).
might say you 'watch' a movie. But thanks to these and many
more films - you listen to them to.