How to Talk About Film Without Sounding Like an Ignorant Moose (part five)

Sound is probably the hardest aspect of film for me to address for a number of reasons. First among them being that I don’t actually know all that much about music. I sort of vaguely know that scores are things you get John Williams to write for your film and there are a few movies that have soundtracks that I really enjoy, and that when it comes to my own films I try and get friends with more talent in that department to help me out. My one foray into working on a soundtrack involved packing into a sound booth with twenty or so other classmates and all the instruments we could scrounge (three guitars, a flute shaped like a penis, a pair of scissors, and a balloon) to cheerfully produce what is probably the worst soundtrack ever for an experimental film we had made by drawing on film stock. I am really not an authority on the topic. Second being that a lot of what I learned in terms of sound design in school revolved around microphone pick-up patterns and balancing levels and other back end things which don’t actually come in handy in terms of discussing film. So I will endeavor to leave you with my few salient points that will allow you to at least sound like you know some things.

The first feature length film with synchronized sound was The Jazz Singer in 1927. It was a mix of talkie and silent because they hadn’t figured out how to print the soundtrack on the film itself yet and the wax disks would desynchronize after a bit. I can’t in good faith recommend watching the darn thing though, because it concludes with a really awful bit of blackface (a minstrel show type song about his mammy in Alabamy, it’s bad guys), which is kind of a shame really because the rest of the film is about the lead trying to find his place as a Jew in mainstream America (protip: don’t do blackface). Still from then on there was no looking back. Sound was the way of the future. By 1929, when this neat little cartoon was made, they had the same basic technique down that would be used for years until digital sound came along in the 1990s.

Music is brilliant for setting mood, and for my money, no one does that better than horror films. Psycho and Jaws are the two classic examples. Both films use string instruments with a fairly repetitive set of notes to create a heightened sense of drama. Psycho uses a shrill, quick note that mimics the stabbing motion and is also vaguely reminiscent of bird shrieks which harks back to Norman Bates’ creepy room of stuffed birds. It immediately pulls you into the frantic panic of the scene. The iconic music for Jaws uses a deeper note that gradually ramps up into the faster tempo. This mimics the drama of the chase as the shark gradually closes in, first suspense then panic.

(Warning: the following two clips are both pretty violent)

Psycho (music starts around 1:30)

Jaws (music also starts around 1:30)

The final thing to be aware of in film is the fact that much of the sound is hyper-real. When someone on screen lands a punch, the sound you hear isn’t the sound of a fist connecting with a face. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of amalgamated sounds carefully crafted to sound like what a fist hitting a face should sound like if we lived in a more filmic world. It likely contains some combination of boxing a turkey carcass and crunching celery. This is called Foley and the people who create Foley are the Foley artists. It’s named for Jack Donovan Foley, who worked on The Jazz Singer because the microphones used were not sensitive enough to pick up much more than dialogue  and continued to work on sound effects for film right on into the ’60s. Now ideally for each sound effect needed a new sound would be recorded, but often sound effect libraries are used and the same sound effect will get used over and over until it becomes (in)famous. Such as the Wilhelm scream:

By Opifex

Opifex is a former art student, unrepentant nerd, and occasional annoying liker of things before they were cool. She keeps two sets of polyhedral dice in her purse, in case the first set stops being lucky. That's kind of how she rolls.

4 replies on “How to Talk About Film Without Sounding Like an Ignorant Moose (part five)”

I appreciate that you included the Wilhelm scream. :) Also, being a foley sound artist would be my dream job. I remember watching extras on the LOTR extended editions and they talked about where they got a lot of their sound effects. The balrog’s roar in Fellowship was a combination of about four different sounds. It was really cool to hear their logic behind what they wanted it to sound like. :)

PS. Psycho and Jaws are both fantastic. They were perfect examples for this article!

I did have one good day when to help a class mate we wandered around camera with a microphone looking for good metal noises to record for Foley. It’s pretty fun. Also, for hilarious bits of “how’d they make that noise?” I have always liked the fact that light saber swooshes are someone waving a microphone in front of a speaker.

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