Sound Design Essay
By Jonathan Micallef.
With regards to the broad subject of Sound design, this essay will demonstrate my personalised approach to analysing in-depth, the effects that sound design has on viewers.
My aims are to figure out some kind of explanation for the bullet-point statement above. To do this I will discuss and evaluate examples of technical details, theme music, and techniques used by sound designers.
Sound Design in a movie is important; a sound designer has the ability to force audience to respond to a film emotionally having control of their aural perception. It means sound designers have the ability to design a sound track with intentions to make a viewer feel or react in a certain way. This happens often especially in horror films where the sound designer intends for you to be as frightened sometimes as much as the character in the film. A perfect example of this is the famous shower scene in Psycho, with the very tense music being played whilst the murder is taking place. The music is the type that reminds you of hearing someone scratch their nails downwards on a chalk board, like the Captain does in Jaws; he uses it to get everyone’s attention at the meeting about Jaws the Shark. It is an irritating sound to all of us, it is a sound that can physically make you grit your teeth, and this is proof that sound in film can involve you emotionally. Sound designers use these as techniques in film with an intention to make a response from audience. The high pitched screechy violin sound in Psycho is irritating, it is frightening at the same time, the combination of the horror of someone being stabbed repeatedly and the un-pleasant music raises your shoulders as you do when you are frightened. We are frightened at the same time because we have emotional involvement with it.
To make a start in analysing the power of sound and the effects it is capable of having on audience I will discuss technical details which lead us in that direction.
Technical considerations are important when trying to understand the grounds of a sound track and its uses. First of all a professional sound track is expected to have zero percentage of mistakes in it, as it is a craft where you can re-do pieces of work until you get it right. This is essential in sound design because if a Sound track is not perfect, faults such as pops and clicks in a recording can make dramatic changes to the viewing experience. Anything that happens in a film or anything that the audience sees or hears has to be there for reasons related to the films story. Every film contains a journey and has done ever since the first films in the nineteen ought’s such as Voyage Dans la lune (Trip to the Moon) by an illusionist in theatre, Georges Melies. Pops and clicks in a sound track will make an audience question why it is there, adding critical thought, and replacing good memories of a film with questions, thus bringing down the experience of the film.
This following reference is a quote from a website which shows a chapter from a book about Computer Game Sound Design, it is called ‘Aaron Marks Special: Disciplines of Sound Design, Required Sounds, Sound Design Thought Process and Development Cycle’
‘Foley work is like working in “stealth mode” because it works best when it isn’t noticed.’
A lot of sound design work involves recording sound just to bring the picture to a normal standard. Cinema needs foley in order to give realism, in animation one hundred percent of the sound track is made from original material. Once a sound artist makes a sound track as realistic as needed to be, he edits it for the viewing experience. In Jurassic Park; there is a point-of-view scene of two children and a man in a car, where the tyrannosaurus Rex attacks them for the first time. The sound design draws the audience into feeling they’re in the car with them, a technique used here amongst others, is the sound of rain on the outside of the car.
Another technique is that of silence. Music narrates the film to excite us in parts, but this part is silent, leaving the audience un-aware of how they are supposed to feel, anticipating some kind of explanation for this. The silence in the Jurassic park scene is a sound technique that takes away movement in the emotional feel to it. It has its uses to make the audience aware that something is wrong because they are used to having sound guide them through the story.
The aim of Sound design is to make a person think a certain way or believe a certain thing about a film scene. For example, Gerry by Gus Fan Sant introduces itself with a sad orientated and slow piece of music played on top of a slow-motion moving vehicle in the middle of a desert. The audience is not given any information about why the music is sad. In this situation viewers respond to the music thinking of possibilities towards the story line such as; are they supposed to be upset? Is there something upsetting about these people? Is there something upsetting happening, happened or going to happen etc. Whatever it is the music is aimed at preparing the audience to experience that fix in the film.
The film continues into the main story after the sad introduction. The audience is not given any further information on why it was sad, so is left in the dark, until the two characters become lost in the desert half way through the film. Up until here there is no music, just empty sounds of the desert wind, rustling of bushes and character dialogue. This is like the Jurassic park scene which leaves audience anticipating something, because the silence is a key to something dramatic. The sad music comes back again once it is made clear to the audience that the characters will become lost. The music brings the audience up to speed at the same time as the realisation of what has happened. It gives an answer, and the theme music is used to accompany flow of the audience’s progress, and realisation, contributing to this sense of involvement.
Sound Design is powerful and is designed to lead people in the direction the music takes them emotionally.
The following paragraph is taken from an internet article, which tells about emotion and engaging the audience’s using music. Sound design for cartoons is mentioned here.
“By tempo and musical “timing” the audience may be excited or lulled into “earical” pleasures. Musical tempo is used for speeding up the action of the cartoon story when things rapidly happen. To do this a slow musical tempo is played as a background music until the tempo or “time” is established with the audience, and then the “time” is gradually increased. This literally sucks the audience along in what the Disney artist calls a “musical vacuum.”
This is very interesting and is also an insight into how the professional sound Designer can think or intend for an audience to react.
The theme music for the Joker in The Dark Knight does exactly this. It is the sound of an electric violin/cello which starts on one note and moves higher and higher in pitch. The sound is strange and gives an edgy and uneasy feel. It is a sound that is not comfortable like the music in psycho. It has the effect that it makes us aware there is some type of monstrous thing about to appear or unfold (The Joker). The sound does not stop but gets stronger and stronger by the second. This further emphasises some type of power and we are led to associate this with the power of the joker. The edgy touch to the music signifies to us that there is someone or something evil, and there is nothing we know of that is evil in it apart from the Joker.
The theme music hints to us of some type of rising force. We relate this with the joker, because he seems to know no limits to his mischief.
Hans Zimmer is the Composer of the theme music in the Dark Knight, and here are some quotes from the DVD Extras of the film, where he discusses it with Christopher Nolan (Director).
Christopher Nolan (Director of The Dark Knight) – This extraordinary and very quiet sound he came up with of rising tension that has a slight edgy, grubbiness to it, a slight rugged quality, it seemed to sink very perfectly with what Heath (Heath Ledger Actor of Joker) was doing with the character.
Hans Zimmer – start very quietly and get very intense, I could see the focus in Martin (Cello Player) playing that note, you can tell from our whole body language, when we thought ‘Oh hang on That’s the One’.
I was trying to get it down to the most minimal thing that could say exactly what I wanted it to say, so that whenever you hear a hint, you can hear a second of this thing and you know the joker is lurking somewhere”.
DVD Extras – The Dark Knight in Blu-Ray.
This shows that the work of the Sound Designer is based on what he feels to be right; A Sound Designer will learn to be a perfectionist and should not settle until perfection is achieved because this is going to be vital for the success of the film. The sentence in this quote that is of Hans’s dialogue ending in ‘Oh hang on that’s the one’, also proves that the correct sound can make impact upon people, and force them to react emotionally. Hans mentions the body language of himself and his colleague the Cello Player. They are experiencing this for the first time, it’s the Sound that they have spent time trying to accomplish to accentuate the personality or personality disorders of the joker. This sound is all powerful because it has triggered a response from them on first hearing it. They knew through the feel it gave them they had achieved the right sound. Psychoacoustics is the definition of this – where a sound triggers an emotional response in us.
Before the first moving images were made around 1900s, theatre was abnormal without musical scores; an accompanying piano would bring it to life. Music has the capability of bringing characters individually to life. The technique of leitmotif uses a certain type of music recurring with a characters presence, which associates the audience with that character.
Leitmotif is a sound or a music score which is repeated in film for audience to associate it with a scene, character, place, or an object et cetera
In the Dark Knight the frightening sound of the violin string is an example of leitmotif. It is used to tell us that something is going to happen involving the Joker. It does this by having this joker tone played right at the very first split second in the film; this is also a joker scene where he robs a bank. From this moment on, it is developed a little more and gradually we associate this sound with the Joker. Then throughout the film we are emotionally aware that the joker is present, whenever the sound is triggered. The first time you hear it, it is usually unconscious thoughts.
When we watch a film the first time we focus on the picture to tell us the story. We do not necessarily think about the sound, we let the sound do its work without consideration; it makes us feel about, or interpret things the way the sound designer intends us to do. The sound is something we do not notice, it just happens. At the same time it takes us on half of the ride that the film takes us on. When we hear the joker theme, the sound reminds us of him sub consciously. It is subconscious because it happens at the same time as the visual is telling us a story of something else and this is where our attention is focussed. The sound track guides us through the journey of the movie without realising it. It can prepare us for things as in the Dark Knight we know when we are coming to a joker scene.
Here is a related quote by Director John Carpenter known for The Thing, and Big trouble in Little China for example and also known for directing and composing music for all of his own films. He mentions sound tracks on a website showing a list of famous quotes on Film Sound Design; –
“when it’s scary or action-filled, you’ll hear it, and it’s fine. But you shouldn’t be sitting there listening to music, or aware of it. It should be working on you. … I don’t want you to be aware of the technique. I just want you to feel it” (Droney 118). “
What is also interesting about The Dark Knight is that although the Jokers theme is separate to the Batman’s theme they are two very similar pieces of music.
The Batman has his own theme music as well, also composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. The similarities are in the constant beat-like rhythm of the Electric Violin in the two different music scores. Batman’s Theme has the Electric Violin sound, as a constant rhythm, but also has heroic sounds on top that are obvious wind instruments like Horns that signify Soldiers. This makes the suggestion that Batman is Heroic and a people’s saviour, and other words that came to mind when listening to it are: productive, proactive, strong, and mighty.
The Joker’s theme has the same violin tones, but the rest of the music score is completely different, and contrasts with Batman’s emotionally. It gives you more of a feel of the joker’s individuality, perhaps loneliness, non prejudice, powerful but not strong, maybe cooler, intriguing and definitely there is a touch of appeal in that music, more so than the Batman’s theme. Hanz Zimmer displays each character well.
The theme music also groups Batman and the Joker together as if they are two of a kind, they have similarities in society but clash with differences – they love to hate each other. These characters themes are also examples of leitmotifs.
Leitmotifs are not only Character based, the theme for Harry Potter for example is used to identify the Harry Potter Concepts as a whole. It is used for all of the Harry Potter films; and it has the ability to give a whole cinema full of people goose bumps and feel to the brink of happiness about to see the latest film for the first time. This music of the movie will enhance the impact of experience.
This is obviously a different type of leitmotif to the Joker’s and Batman’s theme. Where the Harry Potter theme reminds us of Harry Potter as a whole, The Joker theme has more to do with the story and unravelling a mystery of this Joker character in the film. This ‘Joker’ has a background and a plan, and knowledge, and something to say, he is a threat, a bad person but one who dwells on a theory of his own goodness, stating that all people generally have inner evilness about them if driven to exploit that.
The Harry Potter Theme by Richard Clayderman, is an implicit score; an implicit score is mentioned in a book by Joseph. M Boggs, and Dennis W. Petrie, The Art of Watching Films and is referred to as a generalised score, which does not have a parallel thematic movement with the picture, but has an overall similarity to the whole film generally. This is how the Harry Potter theme will become more well-known than the joker’s theme. But the Harry Potter theme has a lot less force to it than the Joker theme. The Harry Potter theme is a type of music that you might associate with wizards, witches and fairy tales like Harry Potter on the surface whilst the Joker’s theme is more of a build around complexness in one character, and his wrath against all others in the film.
As powerful as music can be in Film, at the same time it can be non-powerful and very light hearted, and just simple and delightful to enhance a picture, but also at the same time it is relied upon. Without musical components to a picture; things tend to seem out of place, wrong, or empty.
Silence can make most dramatic impacts in film too. A viewer’s emotional situation can be stirred very much if a soundtrack turns to nothingness.
There is one point in the Dark Knight where the joker has escaped from prison. The audience is lead to realise that he got himself out, because a police officer states that it was the Jokers intention to be arrested and go to this specific prison. He has planned to blow up the basement where he has kidnapped and held two important people hostage.
This is probably one of the most significant points in the whole film where sound is concerned, in correspondence to the average mediums of the Dark Knight’s overall Sound track. There is silence in a slow motion scene where the joker is in the back seat of a car with his head out of the window, smiling, where we have just heard a police officer pretty much say that the Joker has outsmarted the whole police force, politicians, and everyone in the city. This moment is so strong, but does not really say anything, and is open to opinion, and theoretical judgement. It is a moment that just stops, and portrays how much beyond normal intellect the Joker is. It gives us the opportunity to stop a second during the movie and notice all the issues about the Joker. It is a personal moment of justice for him; something that viewers would agree or disagree on, the silence in the sound track is a portal to thought from the audience, and it feels like Christopher Nolan is trying to hint that the Joker says a lot of true things in the film. He leaves you almost one hundred percent incapable of disagreeing with him. The silence in this scene proves itself most dramatic, not a full house orchestra would have been able to do it any better.
The sound examples and quotes I have used in this essay have successfully proven the bullet-point statement. Any further discussions would no doubt lead this essay in to larger areas as sound design is so broad. This essay is noble to the extents in which it is set for.
(a) Cancellaro. J., 2006. Sound Design for Interactive Media. Canada. Thompson Delmar Learning.
(b) Sonnenschein, D. 2001. Sound Design – The Expressive use of Music, Voice and Sound Effects in Cinema. America. Michael Weise Productions.
(c) Joseph. M . Boggs & Dennis W.Petrie. 2004. The Art of Watching Films. New York. The McGraw-Hill Companies.
(d) Vincent Lobrutto. 1994. Sound-on-sound. Interviews with the creators of Film Sound. London and Connecticut, New York. Praeger.
Music in animation – http://blog.modernmechanix.com/2007/10/03/sound-tricks-of-mickey-mouse/
John Carpenter, Director and composer biography – http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000118/
Trip to the Moon, Georges Melies – http://www.filmsite.org/voya.html
The Dark Knight on Blu-ray, DVD Extras – ‘The Joke Theme’
Gerry, by Gus Van Sant,