Sound and Music: Activity 6

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Sound Mixing

The final sound mix, called the rerecording mix, combines and balances separate dialogue, sound effects and music tracks into one final soundtrack.The rerecording mixer sets the level of each sound element to highlight the most important sounds. Generally, the mixer emphasizes dialogue and key sound effects while softening background noises like car engines or street sounds, unless the story demands that dialogue be difficult to hear, as in a battle scene.

Contrast between sound and image or between sound and silence is effective to build tension or to deliver more information. The final shootout in Road to Perdition takes place in a downpour. Instead of the expected pounding deluge on the soundtrack, we hear only the whisper of gentle rain, a subtle cue that this is a scene envisioned many years later by the killer’s son. Loud sound effects are more jarring if they are followed or preceded by soft sounds or by silence.

Because the film viewer cannot hear everything that is seen on the screen, sound mixers must direct the viewer’s attention to the important elements. One way to do this is by using sound as it might be heard by a character in the film. This is called “point of audition.” At one point in the D-Day invasion scene in Saving Private Ryan, the sound-track is muffled because we are hearing sound from the perspective of a character temporarily deafened by the bombing. Just like a movie camera, sound can move the viewer from a “long-shot” to a “close-up.” By fading noisy background chatter in a crowded room, a filmmaker can direct the audience’s attention to an intimate conversation between two people.

Movie sound is usually associated with the people and objects onscreen. When the film shows a woman walking a dog down a busy street, the audience hears her voice, the jingle of the dog’s leash, and the roar of the passing cars.This is called “source sound.” Narration, voiceovers and musical scores are the most common examples of non-source sound. Other offscreen sounds can alert the viewer to a change in scene, mood or character. In The Last Samurai, for instance, the audience hears the almost supernatural sounds of the advancing samurai troops for some time before they emerge from the mist.

Overlapping sound can connect unrelated settings, places or times. At the beginning of Apocalypse Now, the synthesized sound of helicopter blades is merged with that of a ceiling fan, taking the story from the main character’s memories of fighting in the Vietnamese jungle to his present location in a Saigon hotel.

Sound differs depending on a scene’s mood, location, historical period and time of day. It can be used to enhance characterizations. When Michael Corleone kills his dinner companions in The Godfather, a train outside thunders past like an unuttered scream,mirroring his disturbed emotional state. The soundtrack, as much as the visual effects, help the animated characters in Stuart Little hold their own with the live actors.

Modern 35mm film prints can carry up to four separate sound track formats: Dolby stereo, an analog system, Dolby SR-D digital, SDDS (Sony Dynamic Digital Sound) and DTS (Digital Theater Systems). By using this combined format, one film print can be screened in any theater, no matter what sound system is in use.

Have your students think about the following scene:A boy and girl walk down a quiet road. Turning a corner, they see a menacing bulldog behind a sagging chain link fence. The angry dog lunges against its restraints, banging into the fence. The children give the dog a wide berth, but the boy slips in a puddle of water.The girl pulls him up by his hands, and they run quickly to safety.

Ask your students to identify the characters, objects and actions in the scene and list the sounds each would make. For example, the boy’s footsteps would sound different from the girl’s. When they spot the dog, they would try to be quiet, but their breathing might be loud and ragged.Then ask them what sounds might be heard in the background. Have them discuss how the sounds would differ if the scene were comic instead of scary.

Supplemental Activity

Twentieth-century composer John Cage has stated,“there is no such thing as silence.” Even someone in a completely soundproofed room would hear the sound of his own breathing or her heart pounding. In films, silence is usually conveyed by the use of a “quiet” sound. Because a crackling leaf underfoot is a soft sound, the viewer knows it must be very quiet for it to be heard. Show your students a short scene or sequence from a film that uses silence as an important part of the soundtrack. Some suggestions are Road to Perdition, U-571, The Thin Red Line, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and Three Kings. Ask them to discuss Cage’s statement and what it means in terms of a movie soundtrack. You might also ask them to compare the use of silence on the soundtrack with the use of slow-motion in visuals.

Sound: The Power to Enhance the Story

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Complete Sound and Music Activities Guide (PDF)

Activity 1: The Origins of Sound Film

Activity 2: Dialogue

Activity 3: Sound Effects

Activity 4: Musical Score

Activity 5: Songs

Activity 6: Sound Mixing

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