Part II: Production

8. What Is Sound?

Sound is important in a production. As previously stated in Chapter Four, different aspects of sound enhance the characters and the story, making the movie a complete experience. In addition, we discussed in the previous chapter that sound is edited into the movie so it is coherent and comprehensible within the movie.

But what is sound and how does it enhance a movie?

Sound in a movie includes music, dialogue, sound effects, ambient noise, and/or background noise and soundtracks. Some sort of sound is always used to enhance the movie experience.

Music

Imagine no music in a movie. Certain scenes, like the beginning credits, would have dead air. The movie would seem like it was missing something. Music is a very important element for a movie. In the silent movie period, music was played throughout the whole movie. A film score is the music for a movie. The film score is the music at the beginning of the movie when the credits are rolling, and it sets the atmosphere for the movie.

Have you ever closed your eyes to listen to the music? You can feel like you are being whisked away by the music to a land where the movie is taking place.

Music is also played at critical points during a movie. Have your emotions ever been on edge during a suspense thriller when a certain piece of music is played at different points of a movie? Does your adrenaline start going and your heart start to beat faster during these points of the movie, when you hear that piece of music, because you know something is going to happen? If these situations have occurred to you when watching a movie, how would the movie experience have changed if music was not part of it?

Carefully listen to the music for the first minute and 32 seconds of Detour. What kind of comic or serious atmosphere is created for the tone of the movie? What type of atmosphere is created for the protagonist, Al?

Now listen to the beginning music for Cyrano de Bergerac. How different the music is compared to Detour. What type of atmosphere is created by the music from Cyrano de Bergerac?

Dialogue

Dialogue is defined as a conversation between two or more people in a movie. In addition, a movie could have a monologue where a character is speaking out loud when he or she is alone. A character, for example, may contemplate the pros and cons of taking some form of action in a monologue.

A movie can also have voice-over narration. Voice-over narration is when a character is explaining what has transpired in a movie and why. Dialogue, monologue, and voice-over narration progresses the story of the movie.

What would a movie be without dialogue? Even 90 to 100 years ago, there were silent movies with no audio dialogue, but dialogue cards were used, and background music set the tone of the scene. Take a look at the following example of a scene with and without dialogue.

Jack, Suzie and Alec are walking home after work. Jack begins the conversation, as he always does. Suzie speaks, as she is always the first one to respond. Alec is silent for a moment and the other two stop walking. Alec notices that they stopped so he stops walking too. Bewildered, Alec mumbles. Jack retorts. Alec looks at them both. Suzie interjects. Alec returns a comment. After a brief moment of silence where all three look at one another, they shrug their shoulders and begin to walk again.

Suzie questions. Alec comments again. There is silence again and Suzie stops the other two. Suzie speaks. Jack interjects again. Alec calmly states. Jack and Suzie look at each other stunned.

The above scene, with no dialogue but just a description, is only a group of actions with no meaning. They could refer to almost any type of situation. As a viewer, after watching the above scene, would you be interested enough in watching the rest of the movie with no dialogue?

Now read the scene with dialogue.

Jack, Suzie and Alec are walking home after work.

Jack begins a conversation as he always does, “How was the work day?”

“All right,” Suzie says as she is always the first one to respond.

Looking at Alec, Jack asks, “How was your day, Alec?”

Alec is silent for a moment as the other two stop walking. Alec notices that they stopped walking so he stops. Bewildered, Alec mumbles, “What?”

“How was your day?” Jack retorts.

“Fine, fine.” Alec looks at them both. “How do you think it was?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I asked.”

Suzie interjects, “That’s why we asked. We like to know how your day was.”

“Oh,” Alec returns.

After a brief moment of silence, where all three look at one another, they shrug their shoulders and begin to walk again.

“Wait a minute! You never did tell us how your day was,” Suzie questions. “Yeah!” agrees Jack.

“Oh,” Alec comments again. There is silence again and Suzie stops the other two.

“Well…” Suzie says. “Yeah,” interjects Jack again.

“I quit my job,” Alec calmly states. Jack and Suzie look at each other stunned.

The dialogue gives the viewer an understanding of what is going on in the movie. If the above scene was at a beginning of a movie, the viewer would have an idea what the conflict of the movie was going to be.

A contemporary viewer would be lost without dialogue. This is why the version of The Front Page has captions. Being released over 80 years ago, in 1931, the sound is not good. So in order not to lose any of the dialogue, the viewer has access to all of the dialogue. Otherwise, the viewer might not comprehend all the dialogue, and the full movie experience could not be obtained.

Sound Effects

Dictionary.com defines sound effect as “any sound, other than music or speech, artificially reproduced to create an effect in a dramatic presentation, as the sound of a storm or a creaking door.”53 An action movie, for instance, is more interesting and bolder with sound effects. With sound effects, the viewer gets more involved with the movie.

Sound effects are most often added into the movie post production. Many times when filming a scene with multiple actions going on at the same time, such as dialogue, sword fighting and other background action, sound effects are added post production to make the effect louder.

In a theatre, watch the beginning scene of Cyrano de Bergerac. There are different people speaking at the same time and murmurings of a crowd. Much of this sound would have to be added in later to make it as effective and clear as it is in the movie.

At the 10-minute mark of Detour, the sound of the piano that Al is playing is at the same level when the piano was in the background of the scene and when it is in the foreground of the scene. The sound is effective as it draws the viewer to the music and demonstrates Al’s ability as a good piano player. Music and sound effects give an aspect of Al’s character.

Ambient Noises (Background Noise)

Ambient noises are background noises that are in a room, a house, outside, or any given location.54 Every location has distinct and subtle sounds created by its environment. Ambient noises are types of sound effects.

As an example to experience what ambient noises are, stand in a room alone and make absolutely no noise at all. The room noises that you hear are ambient noises. A room in an older house would have more ambient noises than a newer home. Also, depending on the neighborhood, you would have outside ambient noises depending on a location. The following are examples of ambient noises: wildlife, wind, rain, running water, thunder, rustling leaves, distant traffic, aircraft engines, machines operating, muffled talking, floors creaking, and air conditioning.

Background noise gives the movie more realism. A movie character is running through a wooded area at night. This scene would lack any suspense if there were no ambient noises.

The sound of the coins in the pouch at the beginning of Cyrano de Bergerac is a very important sound because it makes a sound as though there are a lot of coins in the pouch. For this effect, the ambient noise would have to be added in post-production, because that sound would not be able to be heard when filming the scene.

The following YouTube video entitled, “Introduction to Foley and Sound Effects for Film,” presented and made by Filmmaker IQ, gives a good demonstration of sound effects and ambient noises.

Soundtracks

A soundtrack is an audio recording created or used in film production or post-production.55 Initially, the dialogue, sound effects, and music in a film have their own separate tracks (dialogue track, sound effects track, and music track), and these are mixed together to make what is called the composite track, which is heard in the film.56

Late in the 1940s “sound track” became one word, “soundtrack.”57 A soundtrack or an original soundtrack from a movie became a way of advertising the movie.

Further Viewing

With the completion of this chapter, the movies to watch that are excellent examples of sound are:

  • The Haunting, 1963, directed by Robert Wise, starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, and Richard Johnson. This movie is an excellent example in sound, demonstrating what a haunted house sounds like.
  • The Birds, 1963, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, and Suzanne Pleshette. This movie is an excellent example of sound as the birds gather and then attack.
  • Silence of the Lambs, 1991, directed by Jonathan Demme, starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins and Lawrence A. Bonney. This movie is an excellent example in ambient noises as the protagonist travels to different facilities during her investigation.
  • Hugo, 2011, directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Christopher Lee. This movie is an excellent example of sound effects of clocks and different machines.
  • Spotlight, 2015, directed by Tom McCarthy, starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and Rachel McAdams. This movie is an excellent example of dialogue as an aspect of sound.

Assignment

As Jack, a security guard, is doing his rounds on a college campus, he notices something that he did not see before. He is at the scene of the first robbery, and there was no forced entry. The items were taken, and then the destruction occurred. He goes to the second robbery scene, and he sees the same thing; no sign of forced entry. Jack’s mind is spinning as he goes back to the office. He asks Rochelle if she ever goes into the field. She states that she does not because the chief is afraid she will get hurt. Jack then confronts Tom. Jack states that Tom committed the robberies when he was in the field. When Jack discovered the robberies, he noted that Tom was always there to direct the situation and Jack’s attention, so Jack would never see there was no forced entry. Tom tells him he is crazy and asks him how he could prove it. Jack says that they are the only ones who have the keys to that area. Jack always assumed there was forced entry because of the destruction. Jack adds that Rochelle never goes out into the field. Tom runs out of the inner office to be stopped cold by Rochelle. When Jack sees that, he tells Rochelle that she is ready to go out into the field.

The next evening the one-act plays are presented, including the one Jack wrote upon returning to college. Jack is on a high because of solving the mystery of the robberies. He believes he may quit college and go back into security and investigations where he belongs. Suzie presents Jack’s play. The play performance goes well as Suzie did a good job directing. Jack is looking for her to thank her for a great directing job when Alec, along with two other theatre professors, stop Jack and tell him that the writing of the play was well done. The lines of dialogue are well-written and the action of the play unfolds very logically. Jack is left speechless with a look of astonishment on his face.

What elements of sound, including dialogue, ambient sounds, and sound effects would best enhance these scenes?

53 “Sound Effect,” Dictionary.com, http://www.dictionary.com/browse/sound-effect?s=t.

54 “Ambience (sound recording),” Wikipedia, last modified October 29, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambience_(sound_recording).

55 “Soundtrack,” Wikipedia, last modified June 13, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soundtrack.

56 Ibid.

57 Ibid.

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8. What Is Sound? by John Reich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.