Sunday Sound Thought #66 – On Lifting The Veil

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“Where was the microphone when Woody met Buzz?” That’s usually my short answer when trying to describe what I do for a living.

Most of you reading this probably appreciate the facade that is sound for film. That being, that the microphone on set didn’t actually pick up everything you’re hearing when you watch a movie in the theater. Yet that’s often what most movie-goers naturally assume (and that’s if they’ve even considered it before).

The whole conversation usually goes a little something like this…

Friend: “So what do you do for a living?”

Me: “Sound for film.”

Friend: “Oh, so like on set with a microphone on a pole?”

Me: “No, I work in post-production after they’ve shot everything.”

Friend: “…”

Me: “Almost everything you hear in a film is created after they’ve finished filming.”

Friend: “… …”

Me: “Every explosion, door, footstep, even most of the dialog is often re-recorded in a studio so what you’re seeing and hearing actually happened at two different moments in time.”

Friend: “… so the microphone on set doesn’t just capture everything?”

Me: “Well just think of an animation. Where was the microphone when Woody met Buzz?”

Friend: “… … …”

Me: *mimes a head explosion worthy of three ellipses*

This lack of understanding occurs within the industry too. This past awards season I saw numerous articles and videos attempting to explain to Academy members some of the more obscure categories where filmmakers were up for awards. More often than not these pieces included the two sound categories for the Academy Awards, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. One telling article by the Hollywood Reporter gave a behind-the-scenes look into the voting habits of one member of the Academy’s acting branch ahead of the awards, revealing their choices for various categories and their reasoning. For the two sound categories she said the following…

These are the categories I have a really hard time with — it would be easier if they just had a “best sound” category, but as it is I’m really totally confused and prefer to just stay out of it. My vote for both. Abstain

Now this isn’t just an audience member. Academy members represent a select group of industry luminaries who excel in their respective craft. And I don’t mean to criticise those who work in the industry for not understanding the intricacies of a niche within their field. I would be just as perplexed were I in her shoes and I actually laud this voter for having the sense to know there’s probably something going on that she doesn’t appreciate and therefor, being uninformed, probably shouldn’t vote in the category. Better that than doing what I suspect most would do in that situation which is to vote for whatever was loud or sounded “cool”.
But consider that response in contrast to her opinions on the “Best Visual Effects” category.

I like the effects in Rogue One, but I voted for The Jungle Book because I thought that one, with the animals and everything, was absolutely stunning. My vote. The Jungle Book.

When I read “that one, with the animals and everything”, it’s a phrase that suggests to me that this voter probably understands as much about VFX as they do about sound, and yet she had no qualms about casting a vote in this category. The disparity in responses is reflected in most moviegoers (myself included) who today often critique the quality of visual effects without any appreciation for what’s going on technically, which I think this is illustrative of two things.

Firstly, I think it’s fair to say that for whatever reason, we’re able to tell when something just doesn’t look quite “real”, partly because we’re processing it in a way we don’t sound. More on that later.

Secondly, the audience member of today is more filmmaking-literate and knows just enough about green screen and CGI imagery to identify all but the most subtle uses. The magic of digital visual effects has somewhat been lost though liberal, often unnecessary and inappropriate use. I also think the swathe of “special features” I devoured on DVDs in the 90s and early 00s, promotional behind-the-scene TV spots and interviews with the individuals who bring that side of movie-making to life has helped to educate the wider audience about these niche facets of filmmaking.

Today you even have articles with titles such as 8 Movie Special Effects You Didn’t Know Weren’t CGI, when shouldn’t it be the other way round?

As an aside, here’s a great analysis by the same author on the issues with CGI today. 6 Reasons Modern Movie CGI Looks Surprisingly Crappy

CGI is so commonly used and readily accepted (even expected) by audiences, that usually the question you walk out with isn’t “How did they do that?”, but instead “How convincing was that?”. If you’re even asking that question, the answer should be apparent.

Credit: Loren Javier - click to view source
Credit: Loren Javier – click to view source

But how does all this relate to sound? Well part of what makes sound so powerful, especially when serving a medium that includes visuals, is that people don’t think about it or process it in the same way that they do the visuals. To express this point better than I could, I’m going to turn to the words of two Academy members who unlike our friend from before, know a little thing or two about sound.

The human brain does seem to assign a certain kind of hierarchy to the visual and aural: when we think we are getting enough information with our eyes we tend not to fully use our ears. Therefore, it is the ambiguous image, the darkness in the frame, the slow motion, the smoke, the fog, the odd camera angle, the ultra close-up, or the slightly eccentric POV which sends the brain to the ear for help. In the process, the audience is literally more engaged, each sense teasing the other. More of her is being brought into play. How can she resist being more compelled when more of her body is engaged in the act of perceiving . . . when each sense is shaping the other sense from moment to moment.

There are many, many nouns for the act of looking – a glance, a glimpse, a peep – but there’s no noun for the act of listening. In general, we don’t think primarily about sound. So I have a different perspective on the world; I can construct soundscapes that have an effect on people, but they don’t know why. It’s a sort of subterfuge. When you photograph something it’s a direct appeal to their most conscious sense and so they know that they’re being a affected by what they see. Sound kind of sneaks in the side door.

So my thought this Sunday, which could apply to numerable art and entertainment forms, is how does telling others the ins and outs of what we do impact and affect their enjoyment of the stories we’re telling? Does the obscure, mysterious and mostly unknown nature of our work afford us power to subvert and anonymity in the face the audience’s critique?

And don’t get me wrong, I see the irony here. Some guy questions whether spreading knowledge about the art of sound for film hurts the audience’s experience on a website dedicated to just that. To which I would say, I don’t think it’s an issue with educational material that exists for those who actively seek it out, but instead when the veil is lifted for the sake of promotion, an awards show watched by millions or simply to entertain the general public. In those instances I question whether it’s a little self-defeating towards the mission of telling great stories.

So I don’t know, it’s just a thought for a Sunday. Ultimately, any potential damage is probably minimal. Even I, a “professional”, still get seduced by and lost in the magic of cinema, rarely thinking about the innumerable processes and hands at work. But I still think it doesn’t hurt to keep ourselves at least partially veiled. And whenever I hear someone complain of how sound is “under-appreciated” or “not utilized as fully as it could be”, I remind myself there’s another side to that narrative that allows us to sneak in the “side door”.

For now at least, I’m happy to accept that a majority of voters are probably going to vote for whatever was loudest or sounded ‘coolest’ and that most people won’t have a clue what we do. If it means we still get to work manipulative magic under the veil of obscurity and incorrect assumptions, so be it.

Friend: “So what do you do for a living?”

Me: “Sound for film”

Friend: “Oh, so like on set with a microphone on a pole?”

Me: “… sure.”

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