Guest Contribution by Randy Thom
I’m on a plane from San Francisco to New York, May 3, and I see that the Designing Sound theme for May is time. Two notions relating to time and sound design come to mind. One is that fiddling with time in storytelling is always a playground for sound. Jumps to the past or the future in a movie swing the door wide open to using sound in a subjective way, and sound is almost always most powerful in a story when it expresses or reflects subjectivity. Our ears are subjective tools. They are easily tickled and excited by ambiguity. In the final version of Coppola’s rewrite of the John Milius script for Apocalypse Now the first line of description is: “Coconut trees being viewed through the veil of time or a dream.” As he made the movie Coppola gradually turned Milius’ brilliant, but mostly objective, script into a carnival of subjectivity. We hear and see the war through the highly filtered senses of those young American soldiers. Walter Murch was one of the chief designers of the filters, and I had the incredible luck to be there as it happened.
The second idea that comes to me about time and sound design has to do with the stretch of time from pre-production to post production on any given project. It makes no sense that sound design is relegated to “post production.” I think of the wonderful scene in the Coen brothers’ film Barton Fink when the title character checks into the hotel. He walks across an empty, smoky lobby to the clerk’s counter, but no clerk is there. He taps the bell once, but the bell rings, and rings, and rings, and rings way longer than a bell like that should ring after being tapped only once. When it has been ringing for about twenty five seconds the clerk finally appears, climbing up through a trap door on the floor behind the counter. He calmly touches the bell with his finger to stop the ringing.
Obviously, the Directors wanted to make this place, this hotel lobby, feel odd. They had a variety of tools at their disposal to accomplish that goal. Many less imaginative directors would have chosen to use an odd piece of musical score as their main sonic tool. The Coens chose to use no score at all. Instead, they staged the entire scene around a bit of sound design. The strangely lengthy bell ring, and the odd twist it gives to the place, are the focus of the sequence. The actors, the cameras, the lights, the props, etc. were directed to serve the performance of that bell. Why aren’t more scenes structured in this way, allowing a sound idea to influence the creative decisions in all the other crafts? One reason is that we, and the directors we work for, are used to thinking of sound as icing on the cake. The last thing in the process. The best sound is baked into the cake beginning in pre-production, from the earliest…. possible…. time.
Speaking of time, as I mentioned before, I’m writing this on May 3. Regarding tomorrow… May the Fourth Be With You.