Is sound half the movie?

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20130814-0023There’s a pithy saying you often see bandied about in film-making forums – sound is half the movie.

The truth, as ever, is far more nuanced and complex than that bumper-sticker aphorism allows, but it’s true in at least one respect: just as with the cinematography, the audio element of the film needs to be executed to a certain minimum level of quality. If not, you end up with a bad film.

So there is absolutely no question that good-quality sound is just as critical to producing an acceptable movie as good-quality images.

That ‘sound is half the movie’ slogan is most frequently quoted in forums by sound people who feel, quite rightly, that their job isn’t afforded the respect it deserves on set. In too many films, sound is a bit of an afterthought, with most effort going into setting up the shot. The sound crew have to work their way in between the lights and the camera and try not to step on anyone’s toes. If they complain, the director might brush them off with a trite “we’ll fix the sound in post”.

Given half the chance, these same sound guys will go on to tell you that audiences will more quickly turn against a film that has inaudible dialogue than one where the composition or exposure of the image is below-par.

This, however, is to confuse two things – competence and creativity.

In terms of both sound and image, the film needs to reach a certain level of technical quality to be acceptable. In other words, it needs to be good enough. This is what I mean by competence.

But beyond that level, you enter into the realm of creativity. Here, you’re not asking questions like ‘is the dialogue clearly audible’ or ‘is the shot in focus’ – you’re assuming that those standards have been met. Instead, we’re thinking about what the creative use of technical capabilities adds to the film.

My mind immediately goes to two movies, both directed by Francis Ford Coppola – The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. The sound in those films isn’t just competent, it adds a dimension to the story and the mood that couldn’t have been done any other way.

Both films owe this extra dimension to Walter Murch, who has written one of the definitive essays about sound design.

While the cinematography in these movies is first-class, you could argue that the sound is, in many ways, what elevates them to works of art.

These are exceptions, though. Most films don’t use sound in such expressive and dramatic ways. In the majority of Hollywood movies, ‘good enough’ sound is what you expect – clear dialogue, no unexpected buzzes or bumps, everything recorded cleanly and in its place. The sound is effectively ‘invisible’ in that you don’t pay attention to it. It’s there and it works. And this is what most sound people aim for – to make their hard work unnoticed (because it usually requires a lot of skill and effort to achieve this level of unremarkability).

When directors want to give their films style or impact they generally focus on the cinematography. And many of the crafts that go into the making of a film are geared purely around the image – costume, make-up, set design, locations, props. And if you ask anyone involved in the making of a film what takes the most time, they’ll tell you it’s lighting. Given that time equals money, producers wouldn’t tolerate these delays unless they thought they were important.

There’s also no getting away from the fact that film-making is a visual medium. Take a film and remove the image, you’re left with a radio play. Remove the sound and you still have a film.

On one popular forum, I witnessed one sound guy take some poor soul to task for using the term ‘silent movie’ (these sound people can be touchy). He pointed out that early movies were accompanied by music – sometimes entire orchestras – and even Foley-like artists producing live sound effects.

That was somewhat disingenuous because such large-scale accompaniment happened rarely. Most movie-goers in the silent era were lucky to get a somewhat bored pianist thumping out whatever tune came to mind in a rough and ready interpretation of what was on the screen.

Crucially, the film-maker would have no idea what was going to accompany the film when it was shown, and therefore sound played no part in the creative process.

Consequently, the silent film-era directors evolved a rich film language that was purely visual. Many, including Chaplin, regretted the arrival of the talkies because they felt that it would erode this powerful and sophisticated art form. And they were right for a while, as sound was a gimmick around which many otherwise mediocre films revolved.

To that, I would argue that an image is capable of carrying far more information and meaning than sound. It is a much richer medium. And so, on balance, I would say that film remains a primarily visual art – it’s no coincidence that the word ‘movie’ derives from moving picture.

And yet, to neglect sound is a crime.

The relative importance of image and sound varies from movie to movie and even scene to scene. So to reduce this equation to ‘sound is half the movie’ is overly simplistic. In fact, it’s somewhat dangerous because it obscures the fact that important creative choices about both elements need to be made for every scene.

Too often, though, film-makers overlook the potential of sound and the extra depth it can bring to a scene. In the years since the arrival of the talkies, movie sound has also developed its own sophisticated set of techniques and concepts.

While much of the sound design may be added in post production, with Foley and other sound effects, music and so on, getting good production sound recordings on the set gives you strong material with which to work during editing. And if there’s dialogue, it’s critical that you capture good clean sound. Dialogue added later via Automatic Dialogue Recording (ADR – also known as ‘looping’), in which the actor records the speech in a studio, never achieves the dramatic intensity of live dialogue.

So, at Zolascope, we’ve no intention of treating our sound people as a minor part of the crew. They are critical to the success of our films.

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