The Walter Murch Special continues! With more sound techniques and fantastic theories by the sound master Walter Murch. Let’s check two artibles of Filmsound. The first one is an interview where he talks mainly about Transitions:
At the basic level, a transition is simply the process of changing from some state A to another state, B. What we should examine carefully is the degree of change, and our awareness of it. Change is happening all the time, though we are not always conscious of it. But without change there is no perception. This is somewhat of a paradox. If you are staring constantly at a static object you would think that nothing is changing, but it turns out your eyeballs are constantly moving, though the movements are so tiny you are unaware of it. You might be stationary, the object you are staring at might be stationary, but your eyeballs are rapidly scanning the image in what are called microsaccades, at the rate of around sixty per second. It is this slight vibration the eyeballs are moving about 1/180th of a degree – that is keeping your perception alive, scrubbing the image across a slightly different set of rods and cones at the back of your eye. In a way it is kind of like the scanning electron gun in a video monitor. Fascinating experiments have been performed, neutralizing these microsaccades, and the result is that the vision of the subject quickly dims and then disappears entirely, even though his eyes are open and he is in a lighted room. At a very basic perceptual level, then, there has to be some kind of a transition, a change, for us to perceive the world at all.
1. In film terms, the smallest transition is the frame: this is the equivalent of the microsaccade that keeps vision alive, and we are unconscious of the shift as such from one frame to the next, though it is perceived by us as motion.
2. The next smallest transition is the cut between shots: this is the equivalent of a shift of attention of our eyes and we are intermittently conscious of this sometimes more sometimes less, depending on the nature of the cut.
3. And then a still bigger transition is the cut (or dissolve, or whatever) between one scene and another, and we are usually quite conscious of this. In fact it is the editors job to make sure that the audience is conscious of the transition from one scene to the next, otherwise there will be confusion.
4. Beyond that there are the major transitions between the Acts of a movie, but these are more difficult to qualify since cinema is unlike theatre: very rarely does a curtain fall in a movie! But we do occasionally get a sense of this end of act transition. For example, in The Godfather all the scene transitions up until Michael kills Solozzo and McCluskey have some action or story continuity. But after the double murder we get a somewhat abstract montage of various newspaper images, and the music changes from dramatic orchestral to tinkling piano, and it is by these means that the film is letting us know this is the end of Act I. Everything after these murders will be different.
5. Lastly there are the biggest transitions of all: the beginning and the ending of the film. The beginning is the transition from nothing to something, and the end is the transition from something back to nothing again. (In the technical sense, the film has not yet begun, and at the end, the shutter closes and the film stops. In the mind of the audience of course, this is not true. Whenever the audiences enter the theatre, they are full of thoughts and emotions. They come in with expectations about the film. (based on the star cast, the promotion, genre etc) It is upto the film to meet their expectations or not, in a sense to transport them into its own world and either meet or defy their expectations. The audience always enters the theatre full of thoughts and emotions, brimming with all of their past histories – love affairs, tragedies, disappointments, triumphs, etc. The film energizes and synthesizes these feelings, and hopefully transforms them in some way – makes them more coherent, meaningful, endurable, funny – which is one of the primary functions of dramatic art. Most films do not engage the audience, therefore either the audience get disinterested while watching the film or they forget about it the moment the screening is over. However, the few films that do engage the audience transport them into its world and the audience, collectively, experience the emotions in a coherent way. The way in which they were meant to experience the film in the first place. Whenever this experience happens, the audience carry the film with them. Depending on the impact, the film stays with them till they come out of the theatre or, in case of a great film, it remains with them for a very long time. Although this process of the film leaving the space of the screen and entering the minds/hearts of the audience is not a cinematic transition in the true sense it is, by far, the most important transition for every film. Because no matter what the filmmaker does within the film, if the film fails to reach the audience and make an impact (either by thought or emotion) then all that the filmmaker does within the film becomes useless.)
Within the shot, at the level of the transition from frame to frame, we are essentially cutting from one image to a very similar but not identical image. The mind tries to explain this slight difference, and the concept it arrives at is the idea of motion. Remember that motion does not exist on film, it exists in the mind of the perceiver as a way to explain the difference in adjacent frames.
At the point of a cut from one shot to another, the audiences attention is momentarily dislocated by this new visual, even though the new shot may happen in the same three-dimensional space as the previous one. Previously, the frame to frame changes within the shot were small and incremental. Suddenly at the cut the change is much greater like a break in time code: the change isnt motion any more, what is it the audiences mind has to resolve the sudden shift of geography, position, and other things and it takes a frame or so 50 to 100 milliseconds depending on the content of the shot for the audience to adjust to the new reality. Editors can use this brief disorientation to their advantage, because it proves useful in masking technical problems we might have, such as action mismatches. To the extent that they happen mostly below the level of consciousness, cuts between shots are not strictly speaking transitions. This is why where you make the cut is crucial. If the audience is ready for a new idea, their minds will be receptive to a new shot when it occurs. And there are certain places in a shot where that readiness is more likely than others, just as there are places on a tree where branches will form and not others. If the audience is not ready, the cut will feel awkward.
Depending on the size of the transition whether it is the microscopic one of the frame, the larger one of the shot, or the even larger ones of the scene or act we can expect the audience to be increasingly alert to the differences in the transition. And the more alert the audience is at those moments of transition, the greater the opportunity we have to reveal things to them. In fact the more we do this, the more it helps to sensitize the audience to the changes, so it is a chicken/egg kind of a thing. Change is essential for perception, and greater change can lead to greater perception, if handled right.
The second article is called “Stretching Sound to Help the Mind See” and is about the role of sound in the image interpretation.
IT disappeared long ago, but in 1972 the Window was still there, peering through milky cataracts of dust, 35 feet above the floor of Samuel Goldwyn’s old Stage 7. I never would have noticed it if Richard hadn’t suddenly stopped in his tracks as we were taking a shortcut on our way back from lunch.
“That! was when Sound! was King!” he said, gesturing dramatically into the upper darknesses of Stage 7.
It took me a moment, but I finally saw what he was pointing at: something near the ceiling that resembled the observation window of a 1930’s dirigible, nosing its way into the stage.Goldwyn Studios, where Richard Portman and I were working on the mix of “The Godfather,” had originally been United Artists, built for Mary Pickford when she founded U.A. with Chaplin, Fairbanks and Griffith in the early 1920’s.
By 1972, Stage 7 was functioning as an attic — stuffed with the mysterious lumbering shapes of disused equipment — but it was there that Samuel Goldwyn produced one of the earliest of his many musicals: “Whoopee” (1930), starring Eddie Cantor and choreographed by Busby Berkeley. And it was there that Goldwyn’s director of sound, Gordon Sawyer, sat at the controls behind the Window, hands gliding across three Bakelite knobs, piloting his Dirigible of Sound into a new world . . . a world in which Sound was King.
Down below, Eddie Cantor and the All-Singing, All- Dancing Goldwyn Girls had lived in terror of the distinguished Man Behind the Window. And not just the actors: musicians, cameramen (Gregg Toland among them), the director, the producer (Florenz Ziegfeld) — even Sam Goldwyn himself. No one could contradict it if Mr. Sawyer, dissatisfied with the quality of the sound, leaned into his microphone and pronounced dispassionately but irrevocably the word “Cut!”
By 1972, 45 years after his exhilarating coronation, King Sound seemed to be living in considerably reduced circumstances. No longer did the Man Behind the Window survey the scene from on high. Instead the sound recordist was usually stuck in some dark corner with his equipment cart. The very idea of his demanding “Cut!” was inconceivable: not only did none of them on the set fear his opinion, they hardly consulted him and were frequently impatient when he did voice an opinion. Forty-five years seemed to have turned him from king to footman.
Was Richard’s nostalgia misplaced? What had befallen the Window? And were sound’s misfortunes all they appeared to be?