It’s the bastard child of cinematic construction.
The child no one talks about. The child no one wants to be heard.
Even today, nearly 90 years after its debut, few filmmakers want to lay claim to sound’s full creative and interpretive potential. Most just use it to make their images “heard,” to make their images more comprehensible, to add emotional intent to their images when they fall flat or fail to speak on their own.
In fact, since its birth in the 1920s, the potential of sound’s role in cinematic creation was immediately reduced to a mere supporting role. Sound Design was marginalized, sidelined and “silenced." It allowed audiences to hear characters speak so they could talk…on and on and on...
For the early profiteers of the new “all-talking cinema” who saw sound as a money making novelty and for many of our contemporary technical geniuses (among them Christopher Nolan, INCEPTION, 2010; Peter Jackson, THE LORD OF THE RINGS Trilogy, 2001-2003; most of Steven Spielberg’s post-1980s films like JURASSIC PARK, 1993; A.I., 2001) who see sound as a grand device for added realism in their pictures, sound design in cinema has been reduced to a technical element; one that does not speak for itself but one that exists to capture spoken dialogue and bolster the image’s intent or sensation or give an added thrill. In these practitioners hands, sound just serves the image…like a slave.
Sure, sound technology has grown much better through the years (Stereophonic Sound gave way to Surround Sound, THX, Dolby Digital…) and sure, theatrical amplification is better (to the point of deafening), and sure, sound mixes got more complex (and some got aurally bloated), but these audio advancements remained purely technical. With sound coming from every nook and cranny of the theatre, sound’s louder, better mixed presence in cinema was simply another step toward being more “realistic” and experientially “involving.”
Over and over again, “the image” and “the cut” have had artistic breakthroughs and they grew more indelible with their cinematic potentials more fully realized. But not sound. Sound’s advancement has been restricted to technical achievements…and added realism. Sound design in cinema has far fewer artistic admirers, innovators or creative explorers.
Nolan, Jackson and Spielberg might have given us quite a ride, but they didn’t exactly use their directorial aural gifts to the fullest artistic dimensions like Orson Welles (THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, 1942); Alfred Hitchcock (PSYCHO, 1960, THE BIRDS, 1963); Jean-
Luc Godard (MASCULINE/FEMININE, 1966); Robert Altman (MCGABE AND MRS. MILLER, 1971); Francis Ford Coppola/Walter Murch (THE GODFATHER PART II, 1974, APOCALYPSE NOW, 1979); Terrence Malick (DAYS OF HEAVEN, 1978); Martin Scorsese (RAGING BULL, 1980); David Fincher (ZODIAK, 2007); Nicolas Winding Refn (DRIVE, 2010); Paul Thomas Anderson (THE MASTER, 2012) and Spike Jonze (HER, 2013).
So what happens when SOUND DESIGN is liberated from supporting the image to existing on its own impressive aural terms? What happens to our idea of cinema when sound’s unique expressive and interpretive powers are more fully realized? What happens to our understanding of cinema as a purely “visual medium” when we expand out minds to LISTEN to a film with the same intensity and concentration as when we just watch?
What kind of interpretive powers does composing ACOUSTIC LANDSCAPES hold for a film?
How does a SOUND MONTAGE create meaning both inside and outside of the image track?
If a filmmaker can choreograph physical movement on screen, how does SOUND CHOREOGRAPHY function?
How does a SYMBOLIC or METAPHORIC USE OF SOUND work to enhance the image track?
What is the cinematic difference between HEARING and LISTENING?
Screenwriters! If you can dress your protagonist with a distinctive look or color to help define them, why don’t you ever “dress” your characters with a sound element?
How do PITCH, VOLUME and TEMPO of SOUND EFFECTS strongly affect our responses to the image? What is the effect of HIGH PITCHED SOUND EFFECTS verses LOW PITCHED SOUND EFFECTS?
How can sound be used to establish character BACKSTORY verses a standard visual “flashback”?
How can IRRATIONAL USES OF SOUND challenge and intensify the meaning of the image track?
How does SILENCE in cinema become the equivalent of the image’s “FREEZE FRAME?"
What happens to the image track when MUSIC is allowed to be the more DOMINANT ELEMENT of cinematic creation? What happens when MUSIC provides CONTRAST to the image track?
How can MUSIC become the equivalent of SCREENWRITING? How can MUSIC be used to lead a film’s narrative?
Our American Cinematheque AMPING IT UP: SOUND DESIGN IN CINEMA seminar is no mere exercise in simply watching cinema. It’s about what happens when sound design (music, sound effects, language/dialogue) is elevated from an invisible craft to a dazzling main component of cinematic construction.