Ideas in Sound Design: Deprivation and Barriers – Part 2
Cross-posting from my personal blog.
This article is the follow up to Part 1 of Ideas in Sound Design: Deprivation and Barriers. I’ve gathered a selection of media to discuss the ideas presented in the original article. I will focus on three films and one video game trailer: Saving Private Ryan, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Fight Club and Mass Effect 3’s Take Earth Back (extended version). I’d first like to state that the interpretations I’ll be outlining simply reflect my personal perspectives on the films and/or scenes in question. I do not present the single interpretation, merely a single interpretation. If you have an alternative view that adds to or diverges from mine, then I encourage you to say so and share with the rest of the community. Second, I do not mean to exclude mediums beyond the linear cinematic (hence my attempt, perhaps a weak one, to include games by the inclusion of the Mass Effect trailer). My selections were based on pieces with which I was familiar enough with to allow me to coalesce my thoughts in an expedient manner.
Finally, the ideas of “deprivation” and “barriers” are not exclusively the purview of sound editing or design. They belong to the mix as well. And beyond that, the director, the DP, the scriptwriter, etc…but that broad a swath is beyond the scope of this article. The point is that contributions to a piece’s depth come from many places. So, I credit the below examples to all of their respective principal sound artists (Supervising Sound Editor, Sound Designer, Re-Recording Mixers), to the best accuracy that I can.
Saving Private Ryan: Gary Rydstrom, Richard Hymns, Andy Nelson, Gary Summers
Let’s begin with the storming of Omaha Beach scene from Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg, 1998). This scene gives us the opportunity to look at deprivation from both visual and acoustic perspectives, and gives us two very overt acoustic barriers to examine.
The scene opens with, and sustains, close-up shots of the soldiers in their landing boats. We hear the sounds of artillery firing from a distance, and occasionally hear heavy splashes with water spray entering the shot. The closeup shots lock our perspective to the men in the boat. Those heavy splashes could just be the waves crashing against the boats, but they could also be the artillery shells landing in nearby water. Not allowing us to see the cause of the splashes adds tension to the scene. There is a perspective being established for the viewer that is going to carry through a large portion of this upcoming battle. A narrow field of view and a measure of immersion, a sense that we are subject to the whims of the setting…we have no control.
There are occasional ground eruptions, bullet trails, and injured men scattered about the beach. But for most of the scene, the audio is relied on to create the chaos of the battle. Simply look at the picture above. Imagine the soldiers moving through the water, simply wading onto the beach, with no gunfire. Most of the shots have a quality similar to that picture; similar composition (low to the water/ground, constricted field of view), and little to no visual evidence of the bullets cutting through the air. Yet the film presents constant gunfire, ricochets and explosions. Cluttering up the visual field on top of this auditory density would be too much data, but it goes beyond that. The bulk of our information about the environment is presented through sound, adding weight to two moments of auditory deprivation.
The first instance occurs after the soldiers escape over the sides of the boats. As they make their way to the beach, the camera moves in and out of the water. When the image drifts below the surface, the water becomes a physical barrier to the sound of the battle. That barrier helps to shield us, albeit briefly, from the surrounding chaos. Above the water, the number of threats is so great that they cannot be tracked…especially given the field of view with which we are presented. When submerged, the decrease in sonic activity gives the impression that the threats are mitigated. The water seems like a haven when compared to what awaits on the beach (despite the fact that people are dying in the water as well).
The second moment focuses on Captain Miller (Tom Hanks). A shell or mine explodes in the foreground of the frame, spraying dirt and bodies. As Miller stumbles in to dominate the frame a low-pass filter veils the sound of the battle, and we also hear a steady bed of sound, similar to what might be heard if you were to simply place your hands over both ears. The barrier here is physiological in nature; a reaction of the body to pressure of the explosion. You can even see the blood trickling out of Miller’s ears. This represents a dramatic shift in perspective for the viewer. Up until this point, we are a participant in the battle…situated immediately in the chaos. Now we enter Miller’s perspective, and personalize the experience of this terrifying scene. The timing is everything here. If the sonic barrier went up prior to Miller’s entrance, we would continue to be participants and have less understanding of Miller’s psyche. The sequence becomes a testament to his resolve, as the frequency spectrum comes flooding back with a soldier’s demand for orders. That soldier provides a focal point for him, one that allows him to reconnect with the surrounding events.
The barriers are given a presence within the narrative, they are tied to the events in the scene. Here the combinations of visual and acoustic deprivations, along with the nature of the acoustic barriers, afford us the opportunity to comprehend the terrifying nature of the battle and characterize a central figure in its narrative.
Mass Effect 3 – Take Earth Back (Extended Trailer): Sound team unknown [If anyone knows who handled it, please let me know so they can be credited.]
Because it also focuses on battle, this seems like a good time to examine the Mass Effect 3 (Bioware, 2012) cinematic trailer. The similarities between them, obviously, are passing and general in nature only. Both depict war, but the scope of perspective is different…and the sound designs establish discrete connections between the viewer and respective narratives. Here we are not meant to feel terror or understand the personality of a central character. This is an advertisement meant to create excitement for a product; excitement that is expected to lead to sales of the game.
When the attack begins, nearly 1 minute into the piece, we are presented focused sound elements that tie to specific moments in the visuals. The aural landscape is filled out with a montage of human reactions, news and radio report style dialog…none of which we see on screen. As the visuals continue, we begin to hear some of the same distancing and filtering that occurred with Captain Miller. We are given a brief aural cue of breathing as a pair crosshairs becomes the lens through which the action is viewed (1:02). We are temporarily being placed in the perspective of this lone sniper up in the Big Ben clock tower. Shifting to this perspective, however briefly, distances us from the struggle below…just as he is. Once we return to third-person, when this sniper occupies the frame, the visuals begin to immediately pull away from him as well. The sound design follows suit.
The density of aural activity increases greatly, coming closer to matching the density of visual activity. Simultaneously, the filtering becomes more pronounced…further distancing us from what is taking place. As I mentioned earlier, this deprivation is not meant to induce terror. The barrier, in this case, is an arbitrary construct created by the story-tellers. There is no justification within the narrative as there was in Saving Private Ryan. We are not placed in the events with these victims; we are meant to feel separate from the events. So we watch, and listen, from afar. The sensation created then is shock and horror. A horror that can then be heightened when we return to the little girl in the field of sunflowers (1:36)…the tranquil sound of insects, and the silent Reapers (alien warships) approaching. The Reapers are not truly silent. We already know what sound accompanies them. Depriving us of those sounds leaves us the ability to imagine what comes next; a far more powerful and personal interpretation of the coming violence.
The combination of presented and imagined atrocities leads way to anger, as a time lapse brings us to the aftermath in that field (2:03). Those sensations are what gives the ensuing battle weight and excitement. It creates a need for the battle to happen, a need for participation. That’s what is being offered to the viewer…a chance to participate. “Buy the game, and you can fight this battle…become salvation.” A similar setting, and even some similar techniques, to that in Saving Private Ryan, but a different purpose. What differentiates the two is how those choices in deprivations and barriers complement the visuals…how they tie to the narrative.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Francis Wargnier, Damien Bera, Dominique Gaborieau
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Schnabel, 2007) presents something wholly focused within one character’s perspective. With two brief exceptions (one a dream, and one a flashback), the film spends the first 17 minutes in a form of perceptual purgatory. The effect is to lock us into Jean-Dominique Bauby’s (the main character) perspective and emotional experience. The camera frame never contracts or expands. We are subjected to viewing close ups and medium shots of characters that barely come into focus, and never quite become entirely visible within the frame.
Jean-Do is confused and struggling to establish a cognitive awareness of his surroundings. This barrier that both he and the viewer are fighting with is a mental and physiological one resulting from the stroke he recently suffered. The movement of those outside of his being exert control over the sounds we hear. As one character asserts dominance over the image, so too does he claim ownership of the aural. We hear the voice and movements of only that one character at a time. There are no background sounds, no room tone, barely perceptible sounds of that person’s clothing…only the figure in the foreground and Jean-Do’s voice. His voice is its own point of interest as well. He goes so far as to say, “I just did,” in response to a doctor’s repeated requests for him to name his children. The fact that he is not speaking had escaped him, for he seems to be able to hear his voice as clearly as the viewer does.
The effects of this restricted perception are extremely uncomfortable. The narrow field of vision, the depth of field, and the perception of only one acoustic being at a time firmly seat us within Jean-Do’s mental state. We are alone, tortured by a state of sensory deprivation, where the only tangible pieces of reality are those that come to the foreground of our limited vision. If we cannot see them clearly (as clearly as he is able to, that is), we cannot hear them. This combination is so effective that it is a noticeable relief when we are finally given a third-person view of his hospital room. Room tone and ambience suddenly appears, and the environment comes to life with the voices and bodies of health-care workers. There is a sense of release; and, in a way, the return of the acoustic world is a bit cathartic. This sudden re-emergence of sound signals the beginning Jean-Do’s new journey in life.
Fight Club: Ren Klyce, Richard Hymns, Michael Semanick, David Parker, Todd Boekelheide
Up to this point we have been discussing deprivations and barriers that have either solely affected the viewer’s perspective, or those that have connected both the viewer and the characters within the film. While it provides a number of similarly natured examples, Fight Club (Fincher, 1999) also gives us the opportunity to examine these ideas from exclusively within the diegesis. Our focus here is on Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter).
The two central characters are the narrator (Edward Norton), a character many people refer to as “Jack” (a convention which I will adopt here for simplicity’s sake), and Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). As the central perspective of the film is the collective experience of Jack and Tyler, the viewer sees and hears from a position relative to them. Marla, as the third main character of the story, “suffers” from a barrier that deprives her of understanding the perspectives of Jack/Tyler and the viewer. This barrier is sanity. Marla is Jack’s “power animal.” She is both the trigger that spurs Jack and Tyler’s meeting, and the voice of reality attempting to enlighten Jack to his duality. The clues she gives come from apparent gaps in their perspectives of sensory information, the most overt of which are auditory…though “overt” may be too strong of a word.
I’m going to point out two examples. The first of which is when Jack is caught peering, through a cracked door, into the room where Tyler and Marla are having sex. Tyler whips open the door to tease Jack. The scene ends just after this conversation, but we are given one important exchange before it does. As Jack walks away, and Tyler turns back, Marla’s head pops up and asks, “Who are you talking to?” Tyler’s response? “Shut up.” Her question raises the spectre of revelation that Tyler is not yet willing to allow. It’s an innocuous enough question, but Tyler is the only one that understands what is going on. If he allows her to persist, it could lead to further questions from both her and Jack. It is one of the reason he forces Jack to swear never to talk about him with Marla.
The second example is when Jack and Marla are conversing in the kitchen. Jack asks her, “What are you getting out of this?” It’s a question that skirts along the edge of the forbidden subject matter…Tyler. As their conversation continues, spiralling directly towards the nature of their relationship, Jack begins to hear the sounds of construction from within the basement. They become an increasingly insistent distraction. He asks Marla if she can hear the sounds, but her response is a quip about “changing the subject.” Of course, to Marla it seems to be nothing more than a cheap excuse to do just that. She can’t hear the sounds that Jack can. It is a dangerous tactic on Tyler’s part to derail the conversation, as it highlights the gap in perception. Tyler needs the conversation to end quickly. He does not want them discussing him or their relationship, and he does not want the fact that only Jack can hear these sounds known. The latter may be a bit of a stretch in the context of Tyler’s self-assurance, but it is essential in terms of the narrative. The nature of Jack/Tyler can’t and shouldn’t be revealed just yet.
Marla’s sensory deprivation (albeit a subtle one) provides a series of clues to the viewer and Jack, leading to the revelation that Jack and Tyler are the same person. Jack remains oblivious to these clues until Tyler’s ambitions overwhelm his ability to manipulate Jack. As more people enter Jack’s life through Project Mayhem, the number of clues begins to increase rapidly. When Jack finally begins to understand what Tyler is, it is Marla that provides the final proof. She confirms his belief, and their history of shared experiences (including her expressed perceptions) takes on a different level of significance and impact.
I’ve gone through a number of examples, but I wish to reiterate a few points. Few of the elements in any of these examples operate independently as sonic experiences. They need help; from the visuals, script, the story and from the direction. The deprivations are complimentary of the inclusions, as they only gain meaning within the context of what is shown. The ideas of deprivation and barriers are a means of adding depth and dimension, imbuing meaning, within a narrative. Also, as I mentioned in the previous article, those meanings are personal in nature. If you do not “lay everything out” exactly as it should be, then you leave room for the viewer to interpret (I consider this a good thing). In light of that, I do not present the interpretations in this article to be hard and fast truth; these are the meanings that I derive from the editorial choices embedded within the films. I hope you will take the time examine these examples from your own perspective, and share your thoughts.
If you decide to write up your own thoughts on these scenes, or others, from the perspectives of Deprivations and Barriers, please let me know. I will happily compile a list of abstracts and links into their own post here in the future. I would love to see these ideas applied to other mediums as well. In particular, if any game audio gurus out there feel the desire to cover them from the aspects of interactive narrative and story-telling (and not game-play mechanics…unless it relates directly to the story, of course), I think that would be an article well worth reading. It would seem to be an enormous challenge though, since gaming by nature allows for less rigid control of the individual experience and requires far more active participation than film viewing. Impossible, no…merely difficult. Then again, perhaps that is merely attaching the tropes of another medium to one that is still developing its own language. Perhaps the “experience” is a more appropriate aspect to discuss. I look forward to any and all responses.