Sound in Film;

The Impact Sound has on One’s Understanding of a Film




















Craven Lowe

Comm. 141

Semester Project




††††† Sound is something that relays many different aspects of meaning when it comes to its’ use in film.Films have the ability to draw audiences in, and capture their attention for a brief while.But it is the sound within the film that allows for the audience to develop a complete understanding of the message being depicted.Without sound, our way of viewing films would be totally different than what we are accustomed to.Sound enables the director to create certain moods and emotions, express continuity throughout the film, tell a story, and even enhance meanings.All of these factors play an important role when creating a film.Filmmakers want their films to be as realistic as possible and audience friendly.The only way they can capture these qualities is to concentrate on their use of sound.

††††† Michel Chion wrote about the important factor of sound in his book, Audio- Vision; Sound on Screen.His book examines the main ideas and concepts behind film sound.Along with Chion’s components, the three basic elements of dialogue, music, and sound effects also form the realm of sound.These three characteristics offer their own contributions in creating a film.Each one is rather specific, but at the same time they all combine to create a common effect.Many recent movies have exhibited these characteristics of sound.Three such films are Star Wars, Braveheart, and Titanic.But before sound became such an important aspect, silent films often offered similar intentions.D.W Griffith’s 1916 film, Intolerance, and Buster Keaton’s 1923 film, Our Generation, display common characteristics but offer contrasting affects.These five films are clear examples of how sound plays such an important role in creating a desired effect when making a movie.Without sound, filmmakers would loose a major aspect in trying to enhance the audience’s experience.

††††† Michel Chion is well known for his work with sound in film and how it plays such an important role in a films production.All of his ideas and concepts revolve around the simple idea of benefiting the viewer.He stated that by combining both visual and audio senses, one is able to get a complete understanding of what is trying to be told on the screen.“The two perceptions mutually influence each other... lending each other their respective properties by contamination and projection” (Phillips 1994 p. 1).Chion also mentions how certain sounds are portrayed throughout a film.They can either accompany the movement on screen or they can be off screen and heard without seeing any action on screen.Sound also “adds value to the image”(Phillips 1994 p. 1).This added value is beneficial to the audience by offering them an alternative way to understand what is being depicted before them.If they do not understand what they are seeing on the screen, maybe the music, sound effects, or dialogue will help them grasp the story, emotions, or meanings. This unifying sense is known as synchresis and refers to “the spontaneous and irresistible weld produced between a particular auditory phenomenon and visual phenomenon when they occur at the same time.According to the principles of ‘added value’ and ‘synchresis’, any sound (and hence any music) in film will do something, will have an impact on meaning” (Phillips 1994 p. 2).

††††† To better understand what Chion is trying to explain, one must first know the types of sounds that are heard throughout a film.Dialogue, music, and sound effects are common traits that films contain in order to better develop their overall effects.“Dialogue authenticates the speaker as an individual or a real person rather than the imaginary creation of a story teller” (Marshall 1988 p.1)As described above, the main purpose of the dialogue is to make the story seem as real as possible and as if it is not being told by a narrator.By having the characters tell the story with their dialogue, the audience gets a better sense of what is happening on screen.The dialogue between the characters also develops a continuity between the actions and the characters themselves and a “continuity of a scene to the audience” (Holman 1997 p. 2).If narrators always told the story, there would be a distance between the audience and the movie.Filmmakers do not want this distance because it allows for the viewers to loose interest in the film.

††††† Music’s role in film offers different meanings then those of dialogue.Usually filmmakers add certain types of music in order to try and create an emotion or feeling that can not be felt through dialogue.“Music is deliberately written to enhance the mood of a scene and to underscore the action not as a foreground activity, but a background one.The function of the music is to ‘tell ‘ the audience how to feel, from moment to moment” (Holman 1997 p.1).Many times music is used to create a type of rhythm to the film which helps the audience follow what is being told more easily.There is a choice when it comes to what type of music filmmakers want to incorporate in their movie.Sometimes they may use orchestrated music without any lyrics, and other times they may use more contemporary music that contain lyrics.Both offer the same effect but go about it in different ways.Orchestrated music is more rhythm and tone oriented, making the audience feel the music rather than only hear it.Music with lyrics can create meanings by having the viewers listen to what the song is saying, and in turn relate that meaning to the actions in the film.

††††† Sound effects are the last types of sound heard in films, and can also be seen in two different ways, synchronous and asynchronous.The difference between the two is best explained by having the sound match or not match the action on screen.Synchronous sound effects are those sounds that are matched to the action on screen, and “contribute to the realism of film and also help to create a particular atmosphere” (Marshall 1988 p. 2).On the other hand, asynchronous effects do not match the action seen, and “provide an appropriate emotional nuance” (Marshall 1988 p. 2).Whether it be synchronous or asynchronous, these effects help to create sounds that would not normally be heard.Many times these sounds are artificially made, hoping to capture the perfect sound for the desired effect.Other times these sounds are prerecorded and edited into the film during post production.Whichever the case, the filmmaker is using these sound effects to emphasize actions and to add meaning.

††††† When films were first beginning to be made, sound was not an issue.There were no sound effects or dialogue, but instead, only music that was recorded over the film.By not having a dialogue, the audience is left to imply their own understanding of the film, which could be quite different then that of the intended meaning.To try and solve this problem of the lack of character dialogue, the filmmakers created story cards that would be flashed on the screen to try and progress the story being told.The dialogue would be written on the cards and shown at times when a major turn of event was happening.Telling a story in this manner causes the viewer to not follow the film as desired because they are constantly trying to read what is happening.By laying music on top of the film, the filmmakers try and make up for the meaning that is lost.But this music does not always follow the actions of the film.††††††

††††† D.W. Griffith’s silent film, Intolerance, is one such movie that has music laid on top, but does not match the actions.Throughout the film, an organ is being played and contains no specific rhythm or tone that synchronizes with the film.It seems as if Griffith took a prerecorded piece and used it without showing any concern of the way it relates to his film.There were times when a major event was happening and the organ would not change its speed or beat to indicate and enhance the event.While watching the film one is to wonder exactly what it is that they are supposed to be feeling.There is no indication of continuity between the film and sound, creating a chaotic combination that offers no explanations.

††††† Buster Keaton’s, Our Generation, is also a silent film, but instead has music that goes well with the film itself.Like Griffith’s film, Our Generation also used cards to show the dialogue.The cards were not shown as frequently though, allowing the viewers to gain some sort of flow with the film.Keaton also helped to create a certain flow by having an orchestra play along with the actions of the characters.Changes in beats and even changes in instruments created different atmospheres for the audience.The difference of sounds between these two films is very noticeable and makes it easy for someone to see how music actually works with film.If these two films were done with a dialogue between the characters, then the music would not be as important.But since the music is the only thing that is heard, it draws a great deal of attention.

††††† After many experiments and innovations, films became a media that created a dream world for those who watch them.In 1977, George Lucas created one such film that offered new ways to experience film.His film, Star Wars, created new sounds that had never been heard before.With the help of the sound designer, Ben Burtt, they created a master piece that will be forever used as an influence in future films.Due to the fact that the film is a futuristic one that contains organisms and machines that do not even exist, they had to be very creative in producing sounds that accompanied them.“He (Lucas) wanted an ‘organic’, as opposed to the electronic and artificial soundtrack.Since we were going to design a visual world that had rust and dents and dirt, we wanted a sound which had squeaks and motors that may not be that smooth-sounding” (Carlsson p. 1).An example of their sound creating procedure can be seen in the way they produced the lightsaber.By combining television sounds and a 35 millimeter projector, a hum was created and in turn was used for its’ sound.Different combinations and mixes of unique sounds helped to construct an array of sound effects that were used throughout Lucas’ Star Wars Trilogy.

††††† Lucas’ use of music is also very prominent in his film.Strong drum beats and hard rhythms were used to create a dominating feeling.A feeling that makes the audience feel as if some great force was around.Lucas used orchestrated music as the source of the music that is heard.Different changes in tones were used to show the difference between The Dark Side and the rest of the cast.By creating this mood, the audience automatically knows that Darth Vader and the Dark Side are the evil people, while Luke Skywalker and his group are the ‘good guys’.These uses of music are evident and help create a feeling which is present throughout the film.

††††† Mel Gibson also relied heavily on sound in his 1995 film Braveheart.The beautifully orchestrated music, which was composed and conducted by James Horner, is overwhelming and engulfs the film.The strong presence of bagpipes unite the story with the music, due to the fact that the film is about the Scots.The soundtrack offers a complete layout of the film itself.One can sit down and listen to the soundtrack and know approximately what part of the film it corresponds with.Notable moments in the soundtrack are heard during the time in the film when William Wallace courts and weds his wife, Murron.This moment in the film is very reminiscent and is easily recalled.The music offers a clear understanding of the mood that Gibson is trying to create.Mellow beats and a smooth rhythm create a very romantic feeling that is easy to feel.The same type of music is also heard when Wallace falls in love with Princes.Horner understands how to incorporate the different instruments to create this peaceful sound and does so to perfection.Bagpipes and horns are usually thought of as producing harsh and hard sounds, but the way Horner presents them offers new ways to listen to these instruments.

††††† Sound effects are also very prominent throughout the film.During the fighting scenes, for instance, Gibson had to really create grotesque sounds that sounded real.The many slayings, slashings, and stabbings had to be enhanced to show the magnitude and power of the fights.Without these distinctive sounds, the fights would not seem as real as they really were.Gibson wanted the audience to feel what the characters were feeling, and the closest way to doing that was by promoting the many sound effects.Another moment when these effects are noticeable was when Wallace was being tortured.The audience could actually hear his body stretching as he was being pulled by both ends.His final moment was also very memorable due to the harsh sound of the blade decapitating his head.These last scenes offered a lasting impression of Wallace and what he stood for.

††††† The dialogue of Braveheart is another type of sound that helps to set the mood.The Scottish accents and loud speaking tone showed how they communicated during that time.Many speeches were also over emphasized, specifically Wallace’s last one where he belted out the word ‘Freedom’.This was done to help the audience see and feel exactly what Wallace was feeling at that moment in time.Gibson wanted his film to contain such characteristics because it not only helped to set the time period but also the mentality of the characters.

††††† Another film that helped in defining sound in film is James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic.Since this film was produced at such a gigantic scale, the sound that was involved in it had to also be of enormous scale.“Visually, it takes your breath away, so it had to do the same thing sonically” (Miller Freeman Ent. 1997 p. 3).The first scene opens with a shot that pans along the ship, showing its’ great size.At the same time a powerful, but yet beautiful, piece of music is being heard.The music is constructed of strings, horns, and drums, all which create a sense of awe and almost sounds angelic.Cameron wanted the first sight of the ship to be the most memorable, so he needed matching music that would add to this feeling.The music throughout the film also synchronizes very well with the actions too.During the first half of the film, the music is cheery and happy.But when the ship sinks the tone totally changes into a frantic one.

††††† Another difference in the music was seen in the different classes that were aboard the ship.When the audience was with the upper class, the music seemed to be more elegant and sophisticated.But while Rose and Jack were dancing below deck, a more loose style was heard.These two distinct sounds were used to really point out the difference in economic status among the passengers.It also helped to show how many different types of people were traveling upon the ship.

††††† The band that is seen and heard throughout the film is very famous and was honored with a memorial after the ship sank.Their constant playing, throughout the entire sinking process, tried to ease the tension that was being felt by the passengers.Cameron intentionally wanted to show their story because it adds to the story that he was trying to depict.Their continuous playing showed their dedication to the ship, but at the same time displaying their helplessness.They knew that they could do nothing more to help the ship or themselves, so they decided to try and help others with their music.The fact that this actually happened proves that music can act as a major source of motivation and emotion.

††††† Like the other two films, Titanic also had great sound effects to help add to the development of the story.The cracking of the ship, its’ collision with the iceberg, and the sounds in the engine room are all examples of how Cameron enhanced the whole feeling of the ship and its’ wreck.The water that swallowed the ship was also heard in great magnitude to show how powerful the sea can really be.Creating a set that could develop such effects took much planning and construction.But it was needed to create the feeling that Cameron wanted to really show the power of both the ship and the ocean.

††††† Throughout time, sound has evolved to become a very important aspect of the overall meaning of a film.It was first seen with the silent films and the dubbed music that was laid over them.Then it became obvious that character dialogue, sound effects, and music are needed to create a better understanding of a film.Many times, only two of these characteristics are really needed to produce such effects on the audience.As seen in both Star Wars and Titanic, the dialogue was relatively poor and really did not help in enhancing any types of feelings.But their strong components of music and sound effects covered the dialogue and created the desired results.It is easy to see that without any of these aspects of sound, visual images alone would not be successful in grabbing the audience and involving them in the emotions of the film itself.
















Works Cited

Carlsson, Sven E.“Sound Design of Star Wars.”Film Sound Today.Online.††† †††† Netscape.4 Apr. 2000.

††††† /index.html.

Chion, Michel.Audio- Vision; Sound on Screen.New York: Columbia ††††††††††††††† University Press, 1994.

Holman, Tomlinson.“Roles of Sound.”Sound for Film and TV1997.†††††††† Online.Netscape.4 Apr. 2000.

††††† articles/roles_of_sound.htm.

Marshall, Jane Knowles.“An Introduction to Film Sound.”America in Film †† and Fiction.Online.Netscape. 3 Apr. 2000.http://filmsound.


Miller Freeman Entertainment Ltd.“Recording the Titanic.”1997.Online. Netscape. 4 Apr. 2000.

††††† pp_titanic.html.

Phillips, Nicola.“Book Review: Michel Chion Audio- Vision-- Sound on††††††††††† Screen.”Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge.Online.††††††††††††††††† Netscape.4 Apr. 2000.



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