Sound place, while other sounds are portrayed to

Sound in TV and
film is used almost all the time and if it is missing or out of place it
becomes very noticeable. Even when no dialogue is occurring, it is very rare
that the footage is completely silent as there will be almost always something
going on in the background either from the shot or added in later in post
production. The quality of sound can also make or brake a film more so than a
poor quality image; for example, if you were to watch a short clip from a
horror film but put it on mute, you wouldn’t get the full effect and the impact of
the scare is hindered. In this essay I will explore what role sound plays in
the films we watch and just how important it is in telling the story.

 

Types of sound

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Before looking
into the importance of sound, we first need to understand what is actually is
and what different forms it can appear in. There are two main ways in which
sound appears on our screens; diegetic and non-diegetic. Diegetic sound is
simply sounds that the characters would be able to hear. Examples of this type
of sound can include; dialogue coming from the characters present in the scene,
sounds made by objects in or off camera, or perhaps music that is implied to be
coming from instruments or music devices such as speakers.

In that case
then non-diegetic sound must be sound where the sound is not visible on screen
or implied to be there. Examples include; narration or voiceovers, sound
effects that have been added in for dramatic effect or music that has been
added over the top to convey a certain mood.

The difference
between the two sounds depend on how well we understand the conventions when
watching or listening to a film. As the audience, we know that specific sounds
are represented to be coming from the same world where the action is taking
place, while other sounds are portrayed to be coming from outside the events
that are seen on screen. By playing around with the conventions of diegetic and
non-diegetic sound, the director can create ambiguity as seen in a lot of
comedies, or to surprise the audience like in a horror film.

 

Sound can also
effect the way in which the audiences consume what they are watching as it can
control what direction the narrative can go. The most common use of sound narration
in film is being direct to the audience. For example, Dialogue and narration
tell a story and other diegetic sound effects can be used to draw attention of
the characters to something that is happening off screen. Direct sound effects
are written in the script as a method to tell actors when and where they have
to be or do something to keep the pacing of the film in sync so that any added
music will be in time.

The opposite of
direct sound in film is the subliminal sounds to control what the audience is
thinking and feeling unconsciously. All viewers are able to pick apart what
they can see in the scene such as actors, furniture, photos on the wall and
make strong connotations on their own. However, our ears are not as analytical
as our eyes and tend to take sound in as a whole, despite being deliberately constructed
in a lot of detail on and off set by numerous people. Subliminal sounds are extremely
important storytelling devices as the inability of the audience to distinguish
individual sounds enhances the experience and creates a more realistic world to
be immersed in. Filmmakers take advantage of this and other connotation techniques
to create an emotional involvement for the audience in the film and the the
characters in it despite just meeting them. The film score of any film plays
one of the biggest roles in moving the narrative forward. Hearing the score
isolated to the action taking place on screen often wont make much sense as the
music is deliberately written enhance the mood of what is happening and to act
as an underscore to the foreground activity being viewed. The music used in
films is used to tell the audience what to think and feel without the audience
having to think too hard about what is happening. This is often used in American
sitcoms, however instead of adding in music in post production, they add in
canned laughter to signal the audience that there was a joke and the show is
entertaining instead of thought provoking.

 

Now that we
understand what sound actually is, we can begin to look at the connotations of
specific sounds and how we can use them. The soundtrack is made up of three
essential categories; dialogue, sound effects and music. All three of these
tracks need to be perfectly mixed to create a believable world that can be
easily manipulated to get the desired effect for the audience watching.

 

The most noticeable
sound heard in film is people talking, most commonly referred to as dialogue. Dialogue
creates the illusion that the person speaking is real as appose to an imaginary
creation constructed by the script writer. Dialogue is used in stage plays and
is used as a story telling device and express the feelings and motivations of
the characters in the scene. In film the characterisation portrayed by the
actors allows the audience to distinguish the character as an actor if the
dialogue is done correctly. For example, Robert Downey Jr; who portrays Iron
Man in Marvel films, is able to seamlessly merge his real life personality and
film persona to create a believable character for the audience to root for. In
this case the audience no longer sees the actor acting, but another person entirely
in a new universe. However, dialogue can be used more or less frequently in
different types of films to convey different meanings. For instance, in Stanley
Kubrick’s
‘2001:
A Space Odyssey’, there was very little dialogue used. The dialogue that was
used was so lacking in originality that it appeared to be obvious and boring,
this was done to create a sense of realism and to portray the ‘inadequacy of
human responses when compared with the magnificent technology created by man
and the visual beauties of the universe.’1 However
in comedy films such as ‘Step Brothers’ the dialogue is practically non-stop throughout the film. The use
of dialogue in this instance works in this type of film as the characters in it
and the film itself are designed for comedic purposes and to get as many quick
jokes in as possible. The audience is thrown from joke to joke and allows for
no time for them to reflect on the plot as that is not the main selling point
in these films and sells escapism to the audience instead.

As well as character spoken dialogue, another way spoken words can
be used is in voiceovers or narration to provide subtext into a scene.
Voiceovers are usually used in TV more than films in things such as
documentaries although they do sometimes make an appearance in action films
like 1982’s ‘Blade Runner’ to provide background
information or to lead the story to change to the next event without an onscreen
explanation. When used correctly, voiceovers do not bring the audience out of
the story they are watching, however when done incorrectly they can often seem
out of place and make the film maker look lazy as it a cheap way to give exposition
and doesn’t allow the audience to
think for themselves. This is the reason why it is not as common in films as some
director’s refuse to use it in their films to let the viewers
have more freedom when interpreting the meaning of the film.

 

The next sound in the soundtrack is sound effects, sound effects can
either be synchronous or asynchronous. For sound effects to be synchronous, the
sound must be synchronised or matched with the action it is representing on
screen. If a man was playing a piano in the film and the sound of the keys
being played were in time with the man playing, then the sound effect would be
synchronous. Synchronous sounds enhance the realism of the film and also aid in
creating the desired atmosphere and tone of the film. As an example, the noise
of a door is used as a familiar noise that the audience will recognise the
sound of so can just be used as an element to show the realistic noise of a
door. But if you were too add some ominous background music and build up a
creepy atmosphere before the door opening sound, then the door opening sounds
more suspenseful and engages the audience into being curious about who or what
is opening the door. To enhance this further the editor may increase the sound
effect to add to the tension.

The opposite is asynchronous sound effects. These are the sound effects
that do not match the action that is on screen, these could be sounds that
create a subtle difference in tone or again to add to the authenticity of the
world created in the film. This technique is often used in disaster films such
as “Shaun of the Dead’ to fill parts of a scene where no one is talking to fill the
silence. There is a scene in the film where the two main protagonists are
sneaking round their back garden, instead of them walking around in silence you
can hear car alarms going off in the background to connote the chaos going on
around them. As well as the connotations the alarms bring, it also what we
would imagine the end of the world would sound like so as the audience we are thrown
into the world seeing it as realistic despite the zombies.

 

Finally, the last and one of the most important pieces of the soundtrack,
the background music. By adding in background music you can again control the
tone of the scene but you can also control the pacing of the film itself or
character movement; Edgar Wright does this in most of his films. Particularly in
his most recent, ‘Baby Driver.’ In this instance, Wright wrote the music soundtrack along at the
same time with the rest of the script which is the exact opposite of what most
other writers do. The opening for this film is shot in time with the song ‘Bell Bottoms’, which is a song that has
a distinctive tone change halfway through the song. So Wright decided to use
the first two minutes of the song as a timer for the heist crew to rob the bank
and when they return to the car, the music kicks in and a car chase begins with
each tyre screech and police siren set to the beat. Sometimes, film makers
decide to fade music in slowly to foreshadow something that is about to happen,
for instance in HBO’s Game of Thrones TV
series, a song called ‘Reigns of Castamere’ plays before something tragic happens to the Stark family caused by
the Lannister family.

1 Thomas Sobochack
and Vivian Sobochack, An Introduction to Film,  p.177.