The Bigger Picture: Sound Appreciation

Written by Film, The Bigger Picture

84408200Most people probably realize how important sound is to movies. In filmmaking, audio and visuals have at the very least a 50/50 relationship, though I might argue that audio bears even more importance.

I once had a teacher who was of the belief that audiences are more tolerant of bad picture quality than they are of bad sound. Indeed, there is much truth in that statement. Why is this?

To start with, it is very difficult to exactly identify a bad image. When it comes to pointing out a great shot, everyone has an opinion. However, when a film is shot with a lot of grain, or with a shaky-camera, or over-exposed, the argument can often be made that it is a stylized choice.

However, the inability to hear dialogue always results in an unsatisfying experience. Likewise, a poor choice of music will make the audience view the accompanying visuals in the wrong way. Consider Watchmen’s choice of music. “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” was an inspired choice for the opening credit sequence. Conversely, “The Sounds of Silence,” “Hallelujah,” and “Ride of the Valkyries” were either misused or too cliché to be taken seriously.

I’m usually the first person up in the theater to inform the staff of a problem. Nine times out of 10, it’s because of an audio issue. You can’t really go to the staff to complain about a poor decision made by the filmmakers, though. If it’s mixed poorly, you’re pretty much stuck unless you decide to walk out.

For that reason, people who work within the world of sound constantly impress me. Chris Bills, a friend of mine, works in post-production audio, editing dialogue and doing Foley work. For those who don’t know, Foley is the art of sound effects, which includes everything from a punch to the swish of fabric as a person moves. One of his more interesting Foley jobs recently was to recreate the sound of a donkey defecating on a carpeted floor (and no, he didn’t have to induce the actual situation).

There have been times in which Chris has played me bits of what he works on. He’ll excitedly play more and more layers of sound, which I can’t even hear. Nevertheless, it does make a difference.

While editing my current film, I often become dissatisfied and even frustrated. Paranoia will set in, and I find it difficult to fathom anyone sitting through it. When this happens, I simply put on my favorite DVD and hit the mute button, thus rendering a great masterpiece no better than what sits on my computer screen.

Even silent films weren’t entirely devoid of sound. The early pioneers of cinema realized that music could enhance the emotions displayed on screen. Since that time, music has become even more important to film. Countless film scores have become intertwined not only with their films but have become a part of our culture as a whole.

Music inspires me creatively, and as such it is an important part of the process for me. That is why my own musical exploits are so frustrating. I have very little innate talent for music, and have always used my creativity rather than my technical skills to achieve my goals. Nevertheless, I write music for my projects as it helps me get a foothold on the tone I would like to set.

I have been spending a lot of time around professional studio musicians lately. They are so remarkably talented that it only accentuates how amateurish my own musical ambitions are. Still, I pluck away with my guitar because the notes are so important in defining a character’s traits.

Many of the most successful filmmakers have used sound to their advantage. Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, and Quentin Tarantino are all renowned for their use of previously recorded songs to create their respective styles. Other filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Sergio Leone built long-term relationships with a single composer. It is also impossible to imagine the Star Wars movies without the sound work by Ben Burtt. I vividly recall a TV documentary about Ben Burtt as a child, and remember being transfixed as he demonstrated how so many of the sounds from my favorite movies were created.

I like to think that being a filmmaker is about finding the right people to save your project. To those who create the soundtrack a great debt is owed. In the end, films are successful when they immerse the viewer within their own reality. Sound is such a crucial element to this process, and often represents the difference between an amateur film and a professional one. What is most amazing is that so much of the sound designer and musician’s job in film is to not be noticed. It is for that reason that I wanted to recognize them in this week’s column. You are all appreciated.

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