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Old May 10th, 2010, 01:52 PM   #1
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How would you get people to listen as well as look?


I've been involved in making a series of short docs over the last decade with a colleague (I mostly do the sound) and we have always had the ethos that sound is as important as image, if not more so, and we have devised a number of image editing strategies and work with the audio track itself (this means all audio - on screen sound, music etc - I tend not to differentiate too much between them) to try and get the viewer / listener to listen as well as look. I won't mention those now because I wanted to ask what anyone else might do if asked to do this without me prejudicing them.

Also it is debatable how successful we have been. A little while ago I showed a short film we made to a small audience but preceded it by playing the first couple of minutes as sound only followed by the full film. Even though I initially talked about our desire for people to listen more and how we went about trying to achieve this, one comment afterwards really struck me - he said that he was still amazed at how much he *didn't hear* when we showed image and sound together even though he had just heard the same sounds on their own (obviously he was able to compare the two). It's as if our brain simply cannot process the two equally and that image will always win out over sound.

Any thoughts?
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Old May 10th, 2010, 04:56 PM   #2
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It seems to me that our ability to accept what we are shown is broad in both video and audio. Watching csi miami with non-videogeek friends I would make comments about how the sky should not be bright red and that characters in a tunnel should not have super bright yellow hair lights... they don't see those things.

For audio to be memorable, it really needs to be HUGE. way huger than anything realistic. Huge to the point of absurdity.

The question is whether or not you want the audio to be that memorable. I reckon image and audio work in concert to pluck a string in people emotionally. Whether you hear the texture of the finger on the windings of the string or just feel the effect of the vibration or see the ripples it creates... depends on what string you are attempting to pluck and how hard.

I first noticed the audio in the coen brothers movie "crimewave". My wife was a film student at the time and partway through the movie said "the audio is amazing". I listened carefully for the first time and in the next shot there was a cigarette burning in an ashtray... and it was making all kinds of noise. No matter how you mic it, you'd never hear a cigarette burning, and yet there it was, and it was insanely overstated... and it worked.

On the other hand, i've watched films where a high level of ambient noise also works to append the mood of a scene. Sometimes silence is the most powerful, sometimes honest location sound and sometimes, well, you need to hear the cigarette burn. Rather than a timeline technique, I reckon it is in the original scene design.

When you suddenly drop the room ambience away, people listen. But you need that contrast for that to work. I reckon the sound design should be mostly feeding the subconscience and only rearing its head into the forefront when you really need it... like a jib shot.

So really, i guess isolation is the answer to your question. If you need the audience to notice the clinking of the glass on the table behind, then probably the character should notice it too... and definitely everything else should fade down to leave a space for the glasses to clink noticeably.

If you want your audience to pay close attention to both the cinematography and audio design? Only show your pieces to film students. hehe.
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Old May 10th, 2010, 06:17 PM   #3
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IMHO sound is like editing. If it's really good, the audience will not notice it, but they will miss it when it's done poorly. That doesn't mean that sound isn't important.

BTW, I think of Cinematography the same way. As a DP, my objective is to capture the image so that it tells the story without being noticed. Now a days with extreme shallow DOF and cheap jibs and steady cams, filmmakers have taken to showing off techniques just to use them, a meaningless rack focus or a steadycam shot of someone walking down the street for no reason. Often they add nothing to the film. Sound can be done the same way. For a while when surround sound came out people were doing the same thing with sound. They'd have a crash or bang from behind you just to show that they had the technology to project the sound behind your head.

So, if you're not being bombarded with cries that the sound sucks you're doing your job. One way to really show how important your sound it, create the same exact cut but leave out the score. Keep the dialogue and everything else. Or, intentionally create a really bad audio mix. make background noises to loud, make the dialogue really inconsistent, or have everything just the same volume. Then see what kind of reaction you get.

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Old May 10th, 2010, 08:15 PM   #4
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I think we tend to take conventional SYNC sound for granted. But if you see something, but the audio isn't there (perhaps faded up after you see the whatever, or perhaps incongruous with what your would expect), then your attention is focused on the missing audio. And there have been productions (and scenes) that start black with only the audio. Maybe it is dialog, maybe SFX, maybe only room tone, but whatever, you HEAR it because perhaps there is no visual 'distraction". And even more common are "L-cuts" and "J-cuts" where the audio does NOT follow the video, at least not immediately. Those are all methods to jar the viewer out of complacently taking the audio/picture SYNC for granted.
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Old May 10th, 2010, 08:39 PM   #5
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If you want to make your audio BIG, just watch and listen to any more recent David Lynch film. Lynch is a genius extraordinaire at building mood through soundscape. Lynch also does a lot of his own music and sound design, something few directors have the talent to do. Just watch Mulholland Drive or Fire, Walk With Me or especially Blue Velvet and close your eyes. Nobody can convey mood as well as Lynch. His is a disjointed storyteller but he builds mood on a par with Hitchcock. I love his sound design and it is almost always over the top. Then again, that works for Lynch's style of bombastic storytelling. But conversely, there are other films like Unstrung Heroes or Rumblefish that used sound in a much more subtle manner, both through scores that utilized a lot of sound design within the music.

If you want people to listen as well as look, you must build an appropriate soundtrack that enhances and supports the story in a clever way. This is why the people who are good at this work for film studios and make a ton of money, it's not easy. I shot most of the DVD bonus features for Die Hard IV and spent a lot of days on the mixing stages at Fox and interviewed the pros who did all of the soundwork, score, etc. for that film. It takes a small army and lot of talent. Lynch is an exception in that he does it with a small group and himself doing a lot of the hands on design and mixing.

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Old May 10th, 2010, 09:01 PM   #6
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What I've been learning is that you can't make the audience look AND listen. If you want to get your point across, you have to choose one or the other. Doing both at the same time just seems to overwhelm the sensory channels of the viewer/listener.

In other words, less is more. If you have great audio, pick less engaging visuals. Vice versa, if you have great video, be very selective about the audio you choose to include. Generally, you'll have a bigger impact on the audience. Just as an example, the sound of a pin dropping while the screen is black can sound huge, even if it really would only sound like a whisper in normal conversation, but the sound of huge crashes & explosions as Forumula F1s smash into a 20 car pileup may not even be noticed by the audience. On the other hand if you cut the sound at the right moment while the audience is watching the 20 car pileup - you might be able to make the silence deafening.

A good way to do what I think you want is to try to have the audience look AND THEN listen, by developing a rhythm between the visuals and audio, switching the importance of each, so that one minute the visuals are the "most important thing" then switching back to the audio etc. It's not cinema in the traditional sense, but it is a very powerful tool for communicating a story.
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Old May 11th, 2010, 01:24 PM   #7
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Just read through the replies and what fascinating reading! Many thanks for your thoughts. Quite a range of views and all spoke to me in different ways. As the work we do is definitely in the experimental camp (a long way from commercial product) I found myself warming to what Michael said about creating a rhythm between sound and image and Richard's point about not always going for synch sound. I am fascinated by non-synchronous sound and have certainly explored this a lot - some really enjoy it but others can react quite badly. I should say that I *do* want people to *notice* sound and though it may sound odd, I'm not interested in creating a filmic illusion - drawing attention to the process is part of what we do - part of our aesthetic. The fact that narrative structures are less important helps here.

I agree very much with Garrett about 5.1. A good recent example had both good and bad in it for me - Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) had a scene where they wanted to convey his brilliant deductive powers of thought - he was just sitting looking a bit agitated and the sound of past scenes, memories, dialogue etc began to expand and fly around the 5.1 array - really quite surreal but incredibly effective at conveying his thoughts. But also the silly thing later of someone leaving stage left and then the sound of a door opening and closing in the left surround speaker (not visible on screen) - I've no idea why sound designers think this works as all that happens is you look left and see the person siting next to you, breaking the cinematic spell.

And Andrew yes, I suppose hyper-reality will work but I find it very tiring and overdone these days. It reminds me of a tale I read about a sound designer (I think told by Walter Murch but don't quote me) who said he learnt about war by watching Hollywood films in the early 40s but was then drafted and ended up in Europe but couldn't relate his real experience of war to the films because everything was far too quiet! You couldn't be more right about showing stuff to film students (and sound / music people) - it is likely the audience for what we do is small (we're not aiming to make money!) But in asking folk here I wanted to get views of those who work more in the commercial world. So thank you.
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