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Why Sound (Still) Is the Ugly Duckling of Filmmaking

Why Sound (Still) Is the Ugly Duckling of Filmmaking

When I first started working as a sound recordist, I had so much enthusiasm. I meticulously studied the script for every project I took and carefully thought about the sounds I wanted to capture and the things I wanted to look out for on the set. When filming started, I gave it my everything. That was in the beginning. By the end of year one, I had learnt that asking for more time to figure something out was equivalent to Oliver Twist begging for more soup.

Eventually, I decided to quit recording to concentrate on postproduction. Things didn't get much better. As a sound editor, I found myself spending my time mostly “fixing it in post”. As a sound designer, except for a few occasions, I spent my hours mostly looking for sound effects that would “sit nicely” with the image. That was it.

At first, I couldn’t comprehend why there was such a negative attitude towards a part of filmmaking that has so much potential. But then, all those stories I had read as a student about the coming of sound to cinema made me realise this was something we inherited, and it still lurks in the collective unconscious of filmmakers today.

The story of the coming of sound to cinema reads like some sort of tale of terror—the tale of how sound mercilessly murdered the beautiful language of silent cinema. The truth is that's what happened. The transition to sound was an apocalypse.

By the time sound came, filmmakers had created a unique way of telling stories through the use of editing techniques and camera movements that had the power to infiltrate the viewer’s mind with the same fluidity and magic of dreams. Then sound happened, and the whole process was turned upside down. Cameras had to be locked in sound-proof booths, filming had to be done in sound studios, actors had to stay put in fixed spots in order to be within range of the microphone, editing had to succumb to the physical laws of real time and space...the list goes on.

If that wasn’t enough, many businesses that couldn’t afford the technology went under, and so did the careers of well-established directors and stars who could not adapt to sound.

And if that still wasn’t enough, audiences simply loved the novelty. They wanted to hear actors talk on the screen. They couldn’t have enough of that which most filmmakers hated: the “talkies.”

It is understandable that many filmmakers in the silent era grew to hate sound and what it had done to their precious art. Gone were the days of roaming the earth unencumbered and free to take the camera where they wanted. That’s what they thought, anyway.
Luckily, they were wrong. A few refused to succumb to “canned theatre,” knowing in their hearts there must be more to sound than talk. They became the big heroes of the transition. Lubitsch, Clair, Mamoulan, Vidor, and the Soviets (though more in theory than in practice since they couldn’t afford the technology!) all summoned the courage to overcome the odds and rescue sound films from the claws of photographed plays, and thus propelled it into a new era of exploration.

Their courage and their trials and errors led them to the discovery of the true soul of sound films. They realised that the commonly held belief that everything that was seen on screen had to be heard and only that which was seen could be heard was nonsense. It dawned on them that they could film with the camera silently and then add the sound, and that in turn led them to realise they could manipulate sound to suit the dramatic needs of their stories, they could evoke mood and atmosphere in ways they couldn't with the image, they could add new levels of fluidity by using asynchronous sound, and rather than spoon-feeding audiences, they could engage their curiosity by combining image and sound in ways that required the audience’s active engagement and interpretation.

Whatever happened to their inquisitive spirit? It seemed to die with them. Once they were gone, things went back to "normal", and sound resumed its passive role as mere accompaniment to the image. The sound technology used in films today may be state-of-the-art, but sound as a narrative and cinematic tool has barely evolved. If anything, it has gone backwards.

The crux of this matter is that we don’t really understand non-musical sound as a creative form of expression. If you think about it, we’ve been recording images since our cave days. And we have been scrutinising and perfecting this practice for over 2000 years. In contrast, we’ve only been recording sound for just over 100 years. In actual fact, even less. It was not until we entered the era of magnetic tape recorders in the 1940s that sound recording technology became widely available and people were able to start experimenting freely with sound as an expressive medium. In film, it was only in 1979 that the term sound designer was introduced to the motion picture in recognition to the contribution this role made to the medium (or more specifically, to the contribution Walter Murch made to Apocalypse Now).

To that, we have to add that there is an alarmingly low number of books on the subject of film sound, and the ones available are either written by sound designers for sound designers or by scholars for scholars. Unfortunately, most of them are obscure to the same extent they are interesting. For example, the books of Michel Chion, one of the most influential figures in film sound theory (and in my career), are fabulously insightful but hardly make one’s beach vacation more relaxing. And if you are a screenwriter or director wanting to extract some practical advice out of them, you better be prepared to forego a few hours of strolling along the seashore aimlessly and instead spend that time digging for the treasures buried in these books.

As for books that deal with filmmaking techniques in general, they all surely have a chapter on film sound. Some are longer and more detailed than others, but their content can invariably be boiled down to one sentence:

Film sound can be diegetic/non-diegetic, simultaneous/non-simultaneous, and synchronous/asynchronous; it consists of dialogue, sound effects, and music; and its role is to enhance the audience's experience, create mood, and elicit emotion.

That’s it. Hardly surprising then that sound is used mostly as mere accompaniment to the image.

The problem is that these principles feel as if they were written in stone. Not many have questioned them and not many have wondered why such principles have failed to inspire a more creative use of sound in film. This type of blind acceptance is a very common problem. We only have to look at the timeline of art history to see how artists often spend many decades stuck in one way of doing things, taking for granted that’s just how things are done. Until, that is, someone the likes of Da Vinci or Picasso comes along with a very different vision, breaking all the conventions that had been written in stone up till that point in history, and suddenly everyone realises that there was another way of doing things after all.

I can’t help feeling that’s what’s happening with film sound. We’re stuck with a theory which, if you ask me, barely scratch the tip of the iceberg.

It’s not as if the real voice of film sound hasn’t been discovered yet. As I mentioned earlier, a few pioneers in the early era had their moments of great revelation, and a few directors more recently, like Darren Aronofsky for example, have used sound incredibly well. The problem is that not many seem to be noticing, let alone following in their steps. Again, in my opinion, things are this way due to a lack of proper understanding of sound’s place in cinematic language.

We need to start opening our minds to a new way of thinking about film sound: as an active element that holds as much power as any other lighting, camera, or editing technique, and as a subsystem within a system, rather than a nice sound effect here and there, or as music that guides the emotional responses of the audience. Film sound is not something that happens mostly in post-production. Film sound has to start with the screenwriter using sound as an active narrative element, continue with the director using it as a cinematic tool in its own right, and end with the sound designer bringing it all to life in an aesthetically pleasing and coherent manner.

“This sounds grand”, you may be thinking, “but how do I do that? And where do I start?”

I myself have thought long and hard about all this, and for some time, when I started asking these questions, my mind was blank.

My breakthrough came when I realised the solution is to understand film sound at a deep level. That’s how creativity works. It starts with the process of gathering information. Then there’s a period of incubation when we don’t consciously think about this information, and during which the unconscious part of the brain starts making associations internally. After that, insights and ideas start emerging as if by magic. And because they have been processed unconsciously by the brain, they feel organic to the whole we are trying to create rather than artificially imposed.

My approach, therefore, will be to talk about film sound - and sound - from many different perspectives, with the hope that this knowledge will slowly make it into the unconscious of screenwriters and directors, and then back out in the form of inspiration and insights that are put into useful form and that give rise to films that offer us all a richer, more fulfilling cinematic experience.

It will be a long journey that will start with my next post, where I will be talking about story from an evolutionary point of view.