Many people underestimate the power of audio to create emotion during a movie. Because we are naturally focused on the large visuals in front of us, the audio can slip by our conscious minds. But it’s an important part of aiding the visual component reaching it’s full potential. A classic scene in cinema, the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, is a case in point. Even though this is not strictly an audio sound addition, but more of a soundtrack inclusion, it illustrates how sound can ratchet up emotions during a tense and violent scene ,which I think the visuals alone would not have carried as much weight as the addition of the discordant violins caused in the movie. In this case, fear was chords of string instruments that didn’t sound settled. The notes were jarring. I believe this is what fear would sound like. Anything that does not let you rest, like a lovely, smooth sounding chord or a sound universally described as calming. Using the amplified recording of the filament of an electric lightbulb, made the movie Irreversible so suspenseful, because the audience could never settle. The buzzing and grinding sound of the filament having current run through it, was incredibly effective in creating constant tension.
There are many ways to create tension using mixing and audio within a movie. One of my favourite is the use of silence. During a particularly tense, slowly building scene in a movie, the sound design can be building from next to nothing, to a huge crescendo and then at the moment of climax, cut to complete silence, which only adds to the shock value you are seeing through the visuals. Another partial use of this technique, is during a war scene or section of a movie that involves a gunshot or bomb explosion. You can remove all the extraneous sounds and give the impression of the actor on camera experiencing ringing in their ears. This creates a large amount of tension and yet the only audio is the high pitched ringing and none of the explosions and violence you may be seeing on the screen. This is an incredibly effective use of audio to create discomfort in the audience.
A tried and tested way of increasing the anxiety levels of the cinema audience, is by using the Shepard Tone. This part of sound design is very effective. In visual art, there are optical illusions. This can also apply to sound. Shepard Tone is actually an auditory illusion created by layering several tones separated by an octave. As the tones move up the scale, the highest pitched tone gets quieter, the middle pitch remains loud and the lowest bass pitch starts to become audible. Because you can always hear two tones rising in pitch, your brain is tricked into thinking there is always a consistent rising tone. It sounds like an instruments scale going on forever and never stopping. If the notes are rising in one continuous tone (like a sine wave), rather than single notes on a piano for example, the effect is very creepy and full of tension. Christopher Nolan the director for The Dark Knight (Batman movie), Dunkirk and Interstellar is a huge fan of the Shepard tone to put the audience on edge.
Since the changeover from silent movies to “talkies”, sound has evolved over time. Walt Disney is credited with asking his audio team to immerse movie goers in the visual and auditory sensation of the animated movie “Fantasia”, released in 1940. Thus “Fantasound” was created, but only ever implemented in a New York and Los Angeles theater, because of it’s prohibitive cost. The Disney system involved 53 speakers! Other surround sound systems came and went over the next few decades. In 1975, Dolby introduced two stereo audience facing speakers and two side of theater speakers. These proved immensely popular, with game changing films at the time, like “Star Wars” and “Close encounters of the third kind”, using it to it’s full potential. It was also now affordable for more cinemas to install than ever before.
The accepted format of 5.1 surround sound, is now a staple of commercial and home cinemas. But stepping back to the standard stereo system of a left & right speaker, a phenomenon called “Phantom Centre” (dubbed because there is no centre speaker) is caused by pushing sounds to the middle of the pan dial, thus not being totally in the left or right speaker, but seemingly coming from between the two speakers directly in front of you. (note: you must be in the centre of both speakers, to fully appreciate the “Phantom Centre” effect.)
Our first intensive was working on a short film to remix, add a new score, source new foley and generally improved the original product we began with. We viewed the two options and Ben Spadaro and myself chose the movie “Junk Male”. Even though the horror movie, “Darkness Awaits”, looked like an exciting option, full of tropes consistent with the genre, I was very drawn to the simplicity and heartfelt portrayal in “Junk Male”.
Beginning in the S6 mixing lab, Ben and I started worked on the dialogue mix, as our first job in the project. This actually took longer than I thought it would. There were quite a lot of extraneous noises captured by the vocal microphones, so we needed to use lots of EQ and changing of microphone sources, to find a clear string of dialogue.
Having completed an overall dialogue mix, we knew we would be returning to continue mixing the vocals as we began more layering of atmos, foley and soundtrack in the coming days. We then moved onto a detailed spotting session. Here we identified problems in the mix and thoughts about what the film director was trying to achieve in certain sections, so that we could enhance those moments in the film. After noting lots of time stamp comments on a spreadsheet, Ben and I split the job’s up that we needed to complete in the next few days. I took the role of recording on site for things like the beach atmos, seagulls, advertising pamphlets thrown into water and other sounds we identified as needing to be added.
Because the beach was so close to the SAE campus, I recorded seagulls, waves and general beach atmos with my Zoom H2n recorder. At home I then recorded advertising material being pushed into a letterbox, rolled up brochures thrown into water and all the other sounds we had written on our spreadsheet. I then uploaded these to our shared Google drive and Ben placed the audio on to the timestamps we had spotted on our
spreadsheet. We split the music up by me taking the role of movie soundtrack composer and Ben completing the TV advertisement background music within the lounge room scenes. My idea for the music within the movie, was based around assigning an instrument to the only featured actors, Robyn and Joseph. I recorded electric guitar parts for Joseph and a lilting piano for Robyn. When I considered they were thinking, in scenes without either actor, I used their assigned instrument. When they were on screen together, I had both instruments, weaving in and out of each other melodies. In the final scene, they actually play the same melody, but now in harmony with each other,which reinforces their new found mutual relationship finally coming together.
Both of us launched into this intensive very heavily, so we have already put a lot of work into this project and look like being able to show a nearly completed mix by our Wednesday first showing. (25/09/2019)
McGregor, L. (2017) The power of sound. Using Shepard Tone in Filmaking.
Premium Beat by Shutterstock. New York, U.S.A.
Retrieved from: https://www.premiumbeat.com/blog/shepard-tone-sound-design-filmmaking/
New York Film Academy. (2018) How to use sound to heighten emotions in a film.
New York Film Academy. New York, U.S.A.
Retrieved from: https://www.nyfa.edu/student-resources/use-sound-heighten-emotions-film/
Zarelli, N. (2016) How the hidden sounds of horror movies, freak you out.
Atlas Obscura. Washington D.C. U.S.A.
Retrieved from: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-the-hidden-sounds-of-horror-movie-soundtracks-freak-you-out
Fluance, S. (2018) The history of surround sound.
Retrieved from: https://blog.fluance.com/history-surround-sound/