Sound: Essay on Sound & Cinema

We often think of film only as a visual experience, we tend to underestimate the value of the sound element in it. If our sight is not supported by sound, the experience remains incomplete. Ever watched a silent film? That too has prominent sounds in it. Lyrics or words are not the only sounds we hear. Sounds include all the noises that help create a mood, enhancing the visual experience.

An example of a silent film with sounds is Metropolis by Fritz Lang. Though the film is visually exhilarating, the characters convey a lot through expressions. Silence is not mute. It is given form through background music and landscapes. Music accompaniment is always present in a silent film. More so since it lacks direct conversation. In the film, silence can be extremely vivid and varied, for although it has no voice, it has very many expressions and gestures. A silent glance can speak volumes; its soundlessness makes it more expressive because the facial movements of a silent figure may explain the reason for the silence, make us feel its weight, its menace, its tension. In the film, silence does not halt action even for an instant and such silent action gives even silence a living face. The scene where Frederer goes down to the factory and takes the place of the worker, so as to experience a day of life in the real world, his expression is enough for the viewer to judge what he wants to say. Just as one can distinguish between the real Maria and the evil one through the slight tone in music and body language without her having to say anything. When the real Maria is on screen, the instrumental music goes on as it does but, when the evil one takes her place, the music tends to have a higher, more dramatic pitch (drum beats with pauses).

Bela Balaza’s in her essay states that we cannot hear dimension or direction. We find it hard to understand the direction of sound in a film unless it is generated in a certain space. We can only feel silence when we can hear the most distant sound in a quiet place or inversely when there is sudden silence amidst a chaotic scene. For instance, when a new character enters a noisy company, the tone tends to change to emphasize the entry of the newcomer and shift focus on him. She believes that we are used to hearing particular sounds that we are immune to most of them. Having heard them multiple times, we chose to stop paying attention to them. Though we subconsciously hear them, the brain does not register them at the moment and the sounds become more like background music. We know its there but do not pay attention to it because if several sounds are present at the same time, they merge into one composite sound.

Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ is a very good example of sound in film. Few directors have had their relationship with music analysis as much as him. Over the years, his music has become synonymous with his filmmaking style. It is difficult to define the actual aural level of this movie. In an article Guillermo del Toro went to some lengths to describe Hitchcock’s relation with sound and dialogue to the ideas prevalent in the movie The Birds, “Even if Hitchcock resented the fact that sound brought with it theatrical affectations that set back the purity of cinema, he chose to embrace the change, and expanded the possibilities of sound, which became another “pure cinema” tool through which he could express his thematic concerns.”

In the birds there is a sense of purity and trust in his images unseen and unheard in any of his other films. Instead of relying on music to heighten the drama and horror, he uses dynamics to affect sound.

The addition of sound did not simply mean that actors could now talk, it meant bigger changes in the way that films were produced. Scenarists now had also to be dialogue writers. Actors now had to be models of articulateness and fluency as well as spectacular artists. Certain exotic roles became far less fashionable, in part because foreign accents were harder to understand with primitive microphone and amplification technologies, in part because the fantasy of the Asian vamp or the Italian villain seemed more kitschy with the added reality of sound, and in part because some foreign types began to seem rather stereotypical and xenophobic. Some verbal kinds of comedy were simply not possible until sound was merged with film. And, of course, at least one whole genre would not have been possible without sound: the musical.
In the 2001 film, ‘Shrek’ the protagonist is introduced and portrayed as both a conventional and non-stereotypical ogre through various film techniques, especially sound. In the opening scene, diegetic sounds are used to portray Shrek’s stereotypical personality of an ogre. For example, when Shrek burps and farts, these sounds are anticipated features of an ogre’s behavior, and by including these in the film, it introduces the fact that, although he challenges the stereotype, this character still possesses the traditional behaviors of an ogre. Another example of diegetic sound is mud slopping out of the tree trunk; this shows the audience the dirty environment in which the scene will be set. A conglomeration of these techniques creates Shrek’s stereotyped personality.

Shrek possesses some very unconventional qualities for his species. The filmmakers used a wide variety of techniques to create his non-stereotypical side. When many people think of ogres they think of uncivil, unclean, Neanderthal creatures. Creatures that aren’t supposed to talk and hence don’t talk. In the film, the character of Shrek clearly undermines these stereotypes by having the ‘human’ privilege of talking. On top of this he has quite a personality, a comical, pessimistic, sarcastic personality at that. The main feature used to create this personality is the film’s script. Shrek makes a wide range of pessimistic comments against fairytales, particularly Happily Ever After’s. This is clearly conveyed to the audience through the tone in the actor’s voice, and the sentence, “Aw, like that’s ever going to happen,” before he rips out the page to use as toilet paper. In the opening scene, Shrek, despite his stereotypical features, still appears to be quite civilized for an ogre. He goes through a daily routine, and although it isn’t a routine we’d expect, he still brushes his teeth, cleans his home, has a shower and bath (or spa), and sets up a candlelit dinner, just like a regular human being would do. Being a children’s animated film, the sound adds to the drama making it more interesting keeping the kids responsiveness at all times.

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