Guest Contriubtion by Randy Thom
Acoustic Authenticity Versus Entertainment Value
When designing a set for a film, the art director tries to use what is good about the real world place where the scene will be shot, but also tries to avoid being straight jacketed by what is there. The cinematographer usually has a similar approach in deciding what to shoot and how to shoot it. The director may want to put some local people in a scene, but they probably won’t be leading characters.
Sound design should be the same, I think. With the proliferation of multi-channel microphones in recent years, some with “5.1” channels and more, the promise of being able to capture and reproduce the aural sensation of being in a real place with three dimensional acoustics is definitely closer to being real…but is it desirable? I’d say the answer is usually “no.”
Achieving the right amount of authenticity in art is always tricky. Absolute authenticity is often a bore; too little authenticity seems…inauthentic. A clever composer I know often says “Authenticity has minimal entertainment value.” So what do we do? We tip our hats to authenticity, but don’t let it dominate us. The tiger scene in Apocalypse Now is a good example. As Captain Willard and Chef wander into a Southeast Asian forest to look for mangos there is no music, only the actors’ voices, movements, and the creatures of the jungle. The bird and insect sounds certainly make you feel like you are in a jungle, and they surround you in the theater, but they are not “real” in a strictly authentic sense. I recorded several of the principal bird sounds used in that scene in the San Francisco Zoo aviary. The insect sounds were mostly electronically synthesized by Richard Beggs. Using those raw elements, Walter Murch composed and orchestrated it all. The original sounds were either mono or stereo, but they were panned in the mix to move them through the x and y axes as desired.
If Nat Boxer, the production mixer on that film, had made recordings in five or six channels, nearly all of it would probably have been useless. They might have been acoustically “correct,” but correct for what? Our perspective as audience members is constantly changing as we experience a film. What is in front of us in one shot is behind us in the next shot, and the same for left and right. Capturing the sound of a parrot flying and squawking from left front to right rear can be a beautiful thing to listen to by itself, but shoehorning that recording into a film scene is going to require so much manipulation of the timing and spatial characteristics of our original beautiful recording that we might as well just start with a mono recording of a parrot flying by, and pan it manually….which is basically how the ambience in that Apocalypse scene was done.
Recording sound effects on location should be mostly about finding good sounds to record, not about what equipment you use to record them. In a sense what we do is cast sounds, like a casting director casts characters. As sound designers we’re always listening (through the corners of our ears?) for sounds we can use. We then try to figure out how to get a recording of that sound with a minimum of environmental noise. Those two processes, finding a great sound and making an isolated recording of it, are 90% of the job of collecting sounds in the field. Making an acoustically accurate recording of the place where the sound happens can sometimes be nice icing on the cake, but don’t let it distract you from getting the 90% part right.
Recently returned from collecting sunny sounds in southern Italy.