SOUNDSound is one of the most important, yet one of the most neglected of the cinematic codes. A lot ofpeople, in these days of domestic filmmaking, mistakenly believe that the sound will just ‘happen’ whenyou turn on the camera. With commercial filmmaking and film cameras the sound and image arerecorded, and subsequently treated, separately. Often, the original sound that is recorded at the timeof shooting is later replaced with much ‘cleaner’ and often ‘closer’ sound, which is recorded later understudio conditions. The process whereby the sound is edited, added to and mixed, is therefore the finalpart of filmmaking and it is not until this is done that the film really seems complete. In this sense thesound, as a cinematic code, is the icing on the cake.Sound is an essential element within any film and is integral to the creation of meaning. The firstdistinction to be understood is the difference between sound that exists within the story of a film(sound that characters may be able to hear) and sound that has been added to the film at the post-production stage (sound which the characters cannot hear).DIEGETIC AND NON-DIEGETIC SOUNDThe first type of sound is called DIEGETIC. Voices, traffic noises, car radios and doors creaking areall examples of diegetic sounds. The word diegesis means story, so diegetic sound is that which existswithin the story of a film.Music on soundtracks and voice-overs are examples of the type of sound added to a film in post-production. These are called NON-DIEGETIC sound, because they do not exist within the story of afilm. Diegetic and non-diegetic sound have a range of functions, which we will explore throughout thissection. Two introductory examples are: o DIEGETIC SOUND – the chaos of rain sounds, traffic noises and blaring radios of the introduction to the nameless city in David Fincher’s film Se7en, create a feeling of unease, discomfort and insecurity for the viewer. o NON-DIEGETIC SOUND – the shrill, repeated violins sounds, which Bernard Herrman created as the soundtrack for the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho, are a musical echo of the knife stabs.WILD TRACKS are sounds recorded during production to provide ‘clean’ sound for the sound editor.Once a scene is complete the recordist will perhaps ask for quiet time to record certain sounds whichhe/she know may be useful later in post-production. This could simply be a few minutes of the‘atmosphere’ (the sound of the room or location), or it could be a particular car sound, door slam etc. TASK 1 : Imagine a street in New York. It is the job of the sound editor to make the scene as aurally believable, but also creative, as he/she possibly can. List any sounds you would expect to hear in a scene like this (excluding dialogue). Most of the sounds you list will be collected as ‘sound FX’ and mixed into the finished soundtrack. These sounds will be diegetic sounds. Activity : Look at the introduction of any film and chart the different sounds. Which are diegetic? Which are non-diegetic?Using sound creatively
As well as being able to deconstruct sound into its various descriptive categories it is important in ananalysis of cinematic codes to assess why such sounds have been used at certain times in the film andwhat impact they have on audiences.Again, as with the other technical codes, as experienced film watchers we are familiar with the waythat sound is used in film and we have certain expectations of it. We know for instance that non-diegetic music which builds up slowly usually means that something ‘big’ is about to happen and so makesus apprehensive. We know that sound effects will often accompany cuts in the image to give them moreimpact and we know that certain types of music indicate a certain mood; for example, ‘romantic’ musicindicates falling in love.Because of this knowledge we have expectations and because we have expectations we can’t be takenby surprise when those expectations are not fulfilled. An aural motif is a phrase of music or a musicaleffect, which keeps appearing in the film as a prelude to dramatic moments. Whenever the audiencehears this they relate it to something in the story and read meaning into it. Q. Can you think of any examples of this ?The sound of SILENCE : When analysing sound, do not forget that a lack of sound can have just asmuch impact as a complicated soundtrack. In terms of cinematic codes the use of silence as opposedto the use of sound can work against expectation. If we are used to being ‘warned’ with non-diegeticmusic that a dramatic event is about to take place then we are shocked if the event takes placewithout such warning. TASK 2 : Watch the following scene from I Am Legend and analyse the use of sound and the effect generated for the audience.CONTRAPUNTAL SOUNDAnother creative use of sound is by using it to create a contrapuntal effect.CONTRAPUNTAL SOUND is also often non-diegetic sound but instead of emphasising andcomplementing the image, this type of sound works in opposition to it. Contrapuntal sound is sound thatdoesn’t seem to ‘fit’ with the scene or images you are watching. This creates disparity between whatthe audience can see and that which they can hear. This sound, when contrary to the picture, can haveseveral effects. One is to allow the audience a true insight into the character’s state of mind. Forexample, where a character’s actions appear to indicate a certain way of life, the contrapuntal sound, inthe form of a voiceover, may give us their true thoughts which are in contrast to the action theaudience is seeing.Music can also be used as contrapuntal sound. The music track may serve as a sharp contrast to theimage, thus giving the effect of irony.EXAMPLE : Terry Gilliam’s science fiction film, 12 Monkeys (1995). The tune It’s A Wonderful Life is played over a dystopic view of the future, creating a poignant and ironic statement on the destruction of the planet.ANALYSE THIS… in the famous ‘torture’ scene in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs where a policeman has his ear hacked off; the music track is a swinging and upbeat song – Stuck in the Middle With You by Steelers Wheel – and hence contrapuntal. The effect of this is twofold. First, it serves to distance the viewer from the horrific violence that is takingplace and give the scene a stylised, almost comic-book feel. Critics have even said that it makes the violence look ‘cool’ and is therefore unacceptable. Secondly, it acts as an added signifier of Mr. Blonde’s ruthless and psychotic character. The fact that the music is so upbeat and the crime so violent shows the audience how Mr. Blonde relishes the deed.
Task 3 : Look at the following extracts. How is sound being used in these clips and for what purpose? Whateffect is the producer trying to achieve?In order to explore how both diegetic and non-diegetic sound exist in films in an easily comprehensibleway, it is useful to consider how they function to produce meaning within four key areas: character,narrative, genre and setting.SOUND AND CHARACTERBoth diegetic and non-diegetic sound can be used to give the viewer information about character. Non-diegetic music on a soundtrack, for example, can be attached to a particular character in a film to giveinformation about personal qualities or a state of mind. Music specific to a particular character iscalled a CHARACTER THEME.Diegetic sounds too, can become synonymous with particular charactersand signal their presence in a film. In Scream, for example, the killersharass their victims on the telephone. The opening image from the film isof a phone ringing and the character who answers it becomes the firstvictim. From then on in the film, the sound of a phone ringing becomesassociated with the disjointed voice of the killer contacting the nextvictim. This everyday and banal sound thus becomes threatening andcreates tension for the audience.Task 4 : Can you identify the following character themes? What effect do these sounds have on themeanings created for the spectator?SOUND AND NARRATIVEThe way in which sound can have an effect on narrative is often quite subtle. A Sound Bridge, forexample, where a non-diegetic sound is carried from one scene through into the next one, can be aneffective way for the filmmaker to suggest a link between the two scenes. A non-diegetic charactertheme used when a certain character is present in a scene, may continue into a scene where thatcharacter is no longer present. This could imply that, even though the character is absent, he/she ispresent in the mind of the character in the next scene.Sound can help us predict what the content of a story will be. Lasse Hallstrom’sChocolat, for example, opens with the kind of non-diegetic soundtrack you mightexpect to introduce a fairy tale; we expect almost magical happenings. In fact, thechocolate of the title does, indeed, bring about almost magical changes in theinhabitants of the village.Voice-overs are an example of non-diegetic sound, which can affect the way we understand narrative elements. They act as a guide to our narrative understanding, provide a commentary on the events depicted and give us information, which might not be available purely through the film’s visual element. The voice of Lester Burnham in Sam Mendes’s American Beauty introduces us to the events in the film and to his family – but also tells us that he is already dead. We do not see death until the very end of the film but we are warned about it from the beginning. Don’t’ forget, however, thatvoiceovers can be unreliable; they allow a filmmaker to control the amount of narrative information aviewer has access to. Leonard Shelby, the narrator of Christopher Nolan’s film Memento, for example,
cannot remember recent events and is, therefore, completely unreliable when giving information aboutwhat has happened.SOUND AND GENRESound is an essential part of the way in which genre is established in afilm, whether horror, western, science fiction or romantic comedy. Thenon-diegetic soundtrack is an important indicator of genre. Van Gelis’shaunting, industrial-sounding music for BladeRunner, for example, has an‘other’ world, futuristic feel to it, which identifies the film as a piece ofscience fiction. Bernard Hermann’s signature piece for Hitchcock’s Vertigoconstantly spirals towards climaxes, which never happen; it seems to avoidgiving the viewer a safe resolution. Thrillers often pivot on mystery,complex plot lines and protagonists who are bewildered and confused untilthe end of the narrative. The music in Vertigo reflects this mystery, confusion and postponedresolution perfectly.Diegetic sounds can aid in genre identification too. The sounds of horses’ hooves, saddle straps, gunsand stagecoaches would suggest a western to the viewer. The sounds of creaking doors, hooting owls,wind and screams would indicate a Gothic horror film.SOUND AND SETTINGIt is important for a filmmaker to create a clear sense of place. The atmosphere of an environment,the historical period and country in which the action is set can all be evoked through sound. The use ofdiegetic sound in The Blair Witch Project, for example, is an essential tool in the creation of meaning.As the protagonists move deeper into the forest, the silence becomes overwhelming, so that thecracking of a twig strikes fear into them and the voices and screams that they begin to hear areterrifying. The silences, punctuated only by the disturbing sounds, create an atmosphere of isolationand terror for the protagonists and the foreboding of a chilling resolution for the viewer.Non-diegetic sound can generate information about setting, as in Maurice Jarre’s famousgrand and awe-inspiring music soundtrack for Lawrence of Arabia, for example, whichevokes the vastness and power of the desert setting. Gabriel Yared’s music for theopening shots of The English Patient – a plane flying over the desert – evokes theexpanse, grandeur and, in this film, the romance of the place.SUMMARYAs with all the cinematic codes, sound rarely works to create meaning in isolation. Sound, whether inthe form of dialogue, music or sound effects is often just one of the technical components that areshaping the overall meaning of the sequence.Sound can indicate character, or time period, or mood and atmosphere, but it does this mosteffectively when combined with cinematography, lighting, editing and mise en scene. This is the samefor all the cinematic codes, and any micro analysis should consider the interdependent relationship ofall the film’s elements.