Film Sound: Sound Effects, Dialogue and Musical Score

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Film Sound: Sound Effects, Dialogue and Musical Score
Sound plays an increasing important role in the modern film because its reality relies heavily on the three elements that make up the soundtrack: sound effects, dialogue, and the musical score. These elements add levels of meaning and provide sensual and emotional stimuli that increase the range, depth, and intensity of our experience far beyond what can be achieved through visual means alone.
Short History of Film Sound:

The sound of silent cinema: sound made by lecturers, pianos, organs, small ensembles, or later full orchestras. Often sound effects were supplied by someone standing behind the screen, occasionally actors even provided dialogue to go along with the pictures.

Viataphone, sound-on-film system, transition to Synchronized Sound.

From musical accompaniment and sound effects to include synchronous dialogue.

The transitions to sound was not entirely smooth.

From stereophonic, Dolby and surround sound, to digital sound

Diegetic sound: we hear what characters hear (voices of characters, sounds made by objects in the story, music represented as coming from instruments in the story space). Diegetic sound can be either on screen or off screen. Another term for diegetic sound is actual sound.
Non-Diegetic sound: we hear what characters cannot hear (narrator’s commentary, sound effects which is added for the dramatic effect, mood music). Non-diegetic sound is represented as coming from the source outside story space. Another term for non-diegetic sound is commentary sound.

Movie dialogue is different from stage dialogue:

For in most films dialogue gives us a great deal of important information. Film dialogue is different from stage dialogue, and we need to be aware of the unique characteristics of film dialogue.

Dialogue in as typical stage play is an extremely important element, and it is essential that the audience hear almost every word. Thus stage actors use a certain measured rhythm, carefully speaking their lines in turn and incorporating brief pauses in the question-response pattern so that the person occupying the worst seat in the house can hear each line clearly. This limitation does not apply to film, however, and dialogue can be treated much more realistically in the movies than onstage.

Film dialogue can also be delivered at a much more rapid pace than can state dialogue.

Dialogue in film should be subordinate to the visual image.

The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is still true in film.

Use dialogue with restraint to avoid repeating what has already been made clear visually.
Visible (on screen) and invisible sound (off screen):

In the early days of the sound film, the emphasis was placed on recorded sound that was synchronized with visual image. They were generally limited to sounds what would naturally and realistically emanates from the images on the screen-that is, to visible sounds.

Invisible sound or sound emanating from sources not on the screen (off screen).

(you hear the sound without images, Bambi’s mother was shot to death but without seeing her falling down; you hear the door closing without seeing the door, so you can tell someone has left the room even if you do not see an accompanying image, sound used in this way complements the image instead of merely duplicating its effects).

First of all, many of the sounds around us in real life are invisible, simply because we find it unnecessary or impossible to look at their sources.

Parallelism-the mutual reinforcing or even the redundancy of sound and image-is the norm in Hollywood. For example, a shot of a busy street is accompanied by traffic noises.

A shot of a teakettle accompanied by a high pitched whistle is both synchronous and parallel. The teakettle accompanied by an alarm bell would be a synchronous yet contrapuntal.

A voiceover of a nature documentary may explain the behavior of the animals in an asynchronous use of parallel sound.

Parallelism: in the use of sound, which occurs when the sound track and image “say the same thing”.

Synchronous sound: has a visible onscreen source, such as when dialogue appears to come directly from the speaker’s moving lips.

Asynchronous sound: the sound does not match the image motion.
The sound of Foreign language or international films.

The language barrier obviously poses a challenge to viewing foreign language or international films. Although the image carries the major burden of communication in the film the spoken word will plays an important role. Two basic methods of translating dialogue in foreign films, voice dubbing and the use of subtitles.

Voice dubbing

In the case of a French film, for example, that also plays in America, the voice dubbing works as follows: the actors speak the lines of dialogue in their native language, and this dialogue is recorded and becomes a part of the soundtrack for the French version. For American market, the dialogue soundtrack in French is replaced by an English soundtrack. Voices in English are recorded to correspond to the mouth and lip movements of the French actors. To match image with soundtrack, the translator carefully selects the English words that phonetically approximate the French works being spoken, so that the image of the French actor and the words spoken in English seem synchronized. And because the actors seem to speaking English, the film does not seem so foreign.

Silence as a sound effect

In certain situation, a short dead track, the complete absence of sound, may be as effective as the most powerful sound effect. The ghostly, unnatural quality of film without sound forces us to look intently at the image. The natural rhythms of sound effects, dialogue, and music become as natural to the film as the rhythms of breathing; and when these rhythms stop, we immediately develop a feeling of almost physical tension and suspense, as though we are holding our breath and cannot wait to start breathing again. The most common use of dead track is simply to increase, by contrast, the impact and shock effects of sudden or unexpected sounds that follow these moments of silence.

Voice-over narration

The filmmaker can also employ sound that has no direct relationship to the natural sounds and dialogue in the story. A human voice off-screen, called voice over narration, has a variety of functions. It is perhaps most commonly used as an expository device to convey necessary background information or fill in gaps for continuity that cannot be presented dramatically. (This can be accomplished by setting the story in a frame. A visually introduced narrator tells the story through a series of flashbacks as in Sunset Boulevard).

Sound as a transitional element

Sound is also an extremely important transitional device in films. It can be used to show the relationship between shots, scenes, or sequences, or it can make a change in image one shot or sequence to another seem more fluid or natural. A fluid and graceful transition between sequences is achieved through the slight overlapping of sound form one shot into the next. The sound from a shot continues even after the image fades or dissolves into an entirely new image. This overlapping usually represents a passage of time, a change of setting, or both. Sound links, aural bridges between scenes or sequences (changes in place or time), are created through the use of similar or identical sounds in both sequences. For example, a buzzing alarm clock at the end of one sequence becomes a buzzing telephone switchboard at the start of the next. Sound is thus used as a somewhat artificial link between the two sequences to create a sense of fluid continuity. Sometimes even dialogue links provide transition between sequences. A question asked by a character at a the close of one sequence may be answered by another character at the start of the following sequence, even though the two scenes may be set in different times and places.

----Sound effects (special uses)----
Sound effects to tell a story (without image)

In a daily life, certain type of sounds relates certainly type of actions:
Distortion of sound to suggest subjective states (When a stranger calls) (1:20), (page, 230)

The “personality” of mechanical sounds (The Grapes of Wrath) (27), (page, 230)

Slow-motion Sound

From The Long Riders: As the action intensifies and focuses on the outlaws as they are riddled with bullets, the whole sequence goes into the slow-motion picture and sound. The surreal lowness of the image draw us closer to the gang members, and the slow motion and sound makes us feel their pain as the bullets tear into their flesh.

Ironic Juxtaposition of sound and image (Contrapuntal sound)

It occurs when two different meanings are implied by these elements.

Sound that goes against the mood of the movie is known contrapuntal music. Music opposite to the emotion expected from the narrative

Usually picture and sound work together to carry a single set of impressions. It is occasionally effective, however, to create ironic contrasts between them. (1:03), (page, 231)

Placing unusual emphasis on sound (Reds, Citizen Kane)

A director who wished to place some unusual emphasis on sound has several options. Two oblivious methods involve de-emphasizing the visual image: 1, dropping the image altogether by fading to black or 2, purposely making the image uninteresting or dull by holding a meaningless shot for a long period or by prolonging the use of dead screen (screen area in which there is little or no interesting visual information).

The simplest and most obvious way to emphasize a sound is to increase its volume.
Using sound for time and temperature.
Sound can be an important element in period pieces (films that take pace not in the present but in some earlier period of history). Old typewriter, telephone, horse buggies,

Sound-effect editors can even influence the audience’s perception of temperature. (sounds of crickets, flapping palm fronds


Relatively recent Academy Award category for sound-effects editing.

Sound dffects may be gathered , produced by sound effects editors on computers, retrieved from a sound library, or generated by foley artists. Named for the legendary sound man Jack Foley, these members of the sound crew watch the projected film and simultaneously generate live sound effects.
Foley artist, one who adds sound effects during postproduction
Sound effects are one of the most useful ways of giving an impression of depth to the two dimensional image when they are reproduced in the three-dimensional space of the theater (a gun shot may come from the left-hand side of the screen).

In most movies, every noise that we hear is selected, and these effects generally conform to our expectation of movie sound. Virtually nothing appears onscreen that does not make its corresponding noise, dogs bark, babies cry.

Incidental sounds, footsteps, the rustle of clothing, a punch in the stomach, are not even recorded at the same time as the film’s dialogue. Rather, they are added later by the foley artist by walking on gravel, rubbing together different pieces of fabric, hitting a rolled-up telephone book, and so on.

----The Music Score----

Music has such a remarkable affinity to film that the addition of the musical score was almost an inevitability. Even in the earliest films, so-called silent films were almost always projected with accompanying live piano, organ, ensemble orchestra music. So by the time it became possible to use recorded dialogue and sound effects, music had already proved itself as a highly effective accompaniment for the emotions and rhythms built into the images. Music has made possible an artistic blending of sight and sound, a fusing of music and movement so effective a good film is really just ballet with dialogue (composer, Tiomkin). Because music possesses these same qualities of rhythm and fluid continuity, it can be easily adapted to the film’s basic rhythms, to its liquid contours, or shapes. This affinity between music and film has led us to accept them almost as unity, as part of the same package, as though music somehow exists magically alongside every film.

The two most general and basic functions of the musical score are to create structural rhythms and to stimulate emotional responses, both of which greatly enhance and reinforce the effect of the image.
Movies of every genre-westerns, disaster films, science fiction films-relied on music from the beginning.
Blade Runner music:

Gone with the Wind Music (3:24)

The simplest and oldest method of adding music to film is simply selecting a piece of familiar music (classical, pop, folk, jazz, blues, rock and so on) that fits the rhythmic, emotional or dramatic demands of the sequence at hand.

Film music especially composed for a film can be divided into two types:

1, Mickey Mousing (so named because it grew out of animation techniques)

Mickey Mousing is the exact, calculated dovetailing of music and action. The rhythm of the music precisely matches the natural rhythms of the objects moving on the screen. (Bambi)
2, Generalized Score. A generalized score makes no attempt to precisely match music and movement; instead the emphasis is on capturing the overall emotional atmosphere or mood of a sequence or of the film as a whole.
Special Functions of the Musical Score
-Heightening the dramatic effect of dialogue
-Telling a inner story (1:34)

-Provding a sense of time and place

Certain pieces of music or even musical styles are associated with specific time periods and locations (music associated with different countries or even different ethic groups can be used in a similar way). The time period of the film is also made realistic through appropriate music and instrumentation: old sound of a harpsichord for a period piece or futuristic electronic music for a science fiction film.

-Forshadowing events or building dramatic tension

When a surprising change of mood or an unexpected action is about to occur on the screen, we are almost always prepared for that change by the musical score. Foreshadowing ore tension-building music deliberately palys on our nerves in a variety of ways: the introduction of dissonance into a musical score that has been harmonious to that point automatically creates a sense of nervousness and anxiety. (1:19’20)
-Adding levels of meaning to the visual image
-Characterization through music

Instrumentation can also be used to aid in characterization in an effect that might be called Peter-and –Wolfing, scoring in which certain musical instruments and types of music represent and signal the presence of certain characters. (Peter and Wolf)
-Triggering conditioned responses

The composers takes advantage of the fact that viewers have been conditioned to associated some musical stereotypes or musical codes with particular situations.

-Traveling music

Different music for Stagecoach, horse-and-buggy, steam engine, diesel locomotive.

-Providing important transitions

Music functions in an important way by providing transitions or bridges between scenes—making the passage of time, signaling a change of locale, foreshadowing a shift in mood or pace, or transporting us backward in time into a flashback.

-Setting an initial tone

The music is especially important for at this initial stage it usually established the general mood or tone of the film.

Blade Runner music; Gone with the Wind Music.

-Musical sound as part of the score

Certain sound effects or noises from nature can be used in subtle ways for their own sake to create atmosphere in the same way that music does (natural and manmade, birds calls, crashing waves, auto horns, engine noises) Such sounds can be built up and artistically mixed into an exciting rhythmical sequence that, because of its naturalness, may be even more effective than music in conveying a mood.
-Music as interior monologue

In the modern film, songs with lyrics that have no clear or direct relationship to the scenes they accompany are increasingly used as part of the soundtrack. In many cases, such songs are used to reveal the private moods, emotions, or thoughts of a central character.

-Music as a base for choreographed action

Usually the director and composer edit the images first and add music later after the visual elements are already assembled. In some films, however, music is used to provide a clear rhythmic framework for the action, which essentially becomes a highly stylized dance performed to the music. (O Brother, Where Art Thou?)
-Covering possible weaknesses in the film.

Synthesizer Scoring

The use of electronic synthesizers for instrumentation. It can imitate the sounds of a large variety of other instruments while still retaining its own distinct quality. Because of its tremendous flexibility, it is the fastest and most efficient way to score a film. A two-person team, one playing the keyboard, the other controlling the sound qualities, can create a full sound comparable to that provided by a complete orchestra.

Balancing the Score

The music should do no more than is necessary to perform its proper function clearly and simply. The Hollywood tendency seems to be toward large orchestras, European films tend to sue less music than do American works, or in some cases, none at all.

The proper amount of music depends on the nature of the picture itself. Some films require a lot of music. Others are so realistic that music would interfere with the desired effect. In many cases, the most dramatically effective musical score is that which is used most sparingly.
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