The sound of silence

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We’re currently working on the sound for Cigarette, the short film we shot back in March. In many ways this is the most challenging production to date from a sound perspective – not because of dialogue (there isn’t any) nor because of the complexity of the sound – but because of the lack of it.

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The entire action, which takes place in near real time, is set at night. The film follows a woman as she battles with a difficult decision – her conflicts and emotions being portrayed through action and setting rather than speech. She’s alone (kind of) in a isolated house. The key sound, then, is silence.

But, of course, there’s no such thing as silence. At the very least, there’s room tone, the atmospheric hisses, buzzes and rumbles that you find in every place (indoor or out) if you listen hard enough. On film productions, sound recordists make sure that they record room tone (or atmos or ambience depending on your preferred terminology) for every part of every location. While the crew stands motionless and silent, the sound person records 30-60 seconds of ‘silence’ that can be used, for example, to add atmosphere to shots taken without sound.

Cigarette was shot in five different rooms in the same house. But, during editing, I’ve been struck by how different the room tone is from one spot to another. It seems that every place has its own, unique ‘silence’.

There are other sounds, of course – the swish of clothes and thump of footfalls as the character moves. The clanks and thumps of objects being picked up and put down. And we do have some other background noises – for example, the sound of a TV playing a football game in one sequence.

Our sound team – sound recordist Vita and boom operator Erica – did a great job in picking up all these apparently meaningless noises, even though the lack of dialogue made setting record levels tricky. They also battled bravely against some real challenges: for example, we shot during the day in a blacked-out house. And although the action is supposed to take place at night, the local birds didn’t know that. You can hear them chirping merrily away on many of the takes, even though we were using a highly directional shotgun mic!

All of this is very quotidian noise – so common that you barely register it, and yet crucially important. With the sound turned off, the action becomes disjointed, sporadic and incomprehensible. Event he simplest of sounds are critical to the flow and the impact of the film.

To this, I’m adding some additional background noise – a kind of artificial room tone that layers on tension and, by running under about 80% of the 13-minute running time, also provides a unifying thread that smooths out edits and propels the film forward. But more about that soon…

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