Tag Archives: film sound design

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Ambient Sound: the Presence We May Not Notice

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Here’s the thing about ambient sound: we tend to put it out of mind even when it is having its way with us.

There is always a scenic dimension to the various physical elements that limit or enhance our actions. The funny old aphorism that ‘everybody has to be someplace’ is a reminder that our lives must unfold in some particular space. Sonics are always a part of a scene, even if they are hardly noticed. Pure silence is almost never an option; even a “quiet” place is full of ambient sound that affects the qualities that shape any particular moment. For example, ambient sounds are what transform stilted film dialogue captured on a set into conversations that seem to be happening in real space. Like the visual cues of color and texture, aural cues define where we are: anywhere from a busy playground to a space deep in the woods. More than we might acknowledge, it is ambiance that defines a desert from a busy city street, a cathedral from a conference room, or a busy office from a bedroom.

I was reminded of the importance of ambiance several years ago, when I was working on a chapter about film sound design. Since mics can barely do more than capture dialogue, Foley artists and sound editors recreate sonics that were inadequately captured on location. They add the aural details that make a place real.

In crowded places like midtown Manhattan we often want to escape what has gone beyond ambience and become intense noise. The constant racket of the city is the number one complaint of its residents. And we know that heart rate, irritability and blood pressure rise in very noisy spaces. But I know from experience that some of those same folks transported to the quiet acres of rural forest may also find the stillness pretty creepy. Though not loud, small Eastern Screech Owls at night are dependable producers of the kinds of quiet cries we might expect from ghosts passing through the trees.

Here’s the thing about ambient sound: we tend to put it out of mind even while it is having its way with us, increasingly making us anxious, annoyed, impatient or—too infrequently—calmed. Our brains scan the information that we obtain from incidental sounds. And while our ears aren’t as sensitive as many other mammals, they are good enough to detect an oncoming car we still can’t see, or an air leak in a window that is supposedly sealed.

The films Blow Out (1981) and The Conversation (1974) are good explorations of how we rely on incidental sound to make sense of the world. Both show technicians using just ambient sound to solve crimes. More happily, Joni Mitchell subtly embeds one of her signature songs with the soothing ambience of summer crickets.

Sound anchors us to a scene. Experiencing a completely silent environment, as in an anechoic chamber, is unnatural and, for most, unpleasant. A quiet spot is one thing, but we are only too happy to be in the presence of enough sound to blot out the sounds of our own heartbeats.

Americans living near cities and traffic often live within what has become sewers of noise. Tokyo and Mumbai are also bad, but we have our own unique mix. Aircraft noise is often a constant presence. And American reliance on gas engines is even more prominent, with most towns falling short of reining in the constant din from sources ranging from souped up motorcycles and cars, to the horrible pollution of machines we use to manicure green spaces. A recording studio built in most towns must be built like a bank vault in order to keep all of that chaos at bay. One science writer has cleverly imagined that if noise pollution could be seen, its scale would produce a level of filth we would never tolerate.

But the basic point here is simpler. We need to give the tiny sensory organs behind our ears a break, and the chance to hear quieter ambient sounds. That was always a birthright of our species for millennia before the relatively recent mechanical and electrical ages.

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About That Sword. . .

The sound of a lightsaber was the first of a series of earworms that Ben Burtt would invent, entering the culture as a sonic benchmark.

One classic piece of Hollywood lore is how the fabled sound designer Ben Burtt created the sounds of “lightsabers” slashing through the air. The distinctly electronic noise from the Star Wars series is now burned into our cinematic memories as much as Alfred Newman’s 20th Century Fox Fanfare (1933) or Jim Henson’s voice for Kermit the Frog. Before he was known for his work on such innovative films as WALL-E (2008), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and American Graffiti (1979), Burtt was a graduate student at the University of Southern California and a new hire at Lucasfilm. The idea of the lightsaber was born when George Lucas first conceived of the Star Wars saga, partly a traditional space fantasy and partly the result of his interest in hero-making myths. The sword was to be a beam of light a bit longer than the medieval variety, but even more lethal. In Lucas’ story the sabers were the preferred weapons of the future, but also a throwback to the swashbuckler films of the 1930s and 40s. Every film needed a master dualist who could intimidate and slice his way to dominance with villains like Darth Vader. The first film in the series was actually Episode IV: A New Hope, released in 1977 to audiences who became instant fans. If you somehow missed being around bedazzled youth at the time, it is enough to know that the plots of the series regularly featured face-offs on the edge of space, where lightsabers were potential tools of instant death.

What makes a lightsaber so interesting? Without its auditory buzz it is a bright but not-very-intimidating flashlight. Its lethality was in how it sounded. Working out a way to give the beam a fearsome presence was the first challenge. Burtt came up with a blend that included sounds of an old projector motor at USC, in addition to a nasty interference hum he discovered when his microphone got too close to an old television set. Back then, a household filled with radios and televisions was an endless source of spurious electric interference that could make a living room sound like Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory. That intrusive hum up picked up by the microphone gave off a noise of bleeding electrons not so different from what someone might hear standing near a high-voltage substation. But a lightsaber was not fixed. It’s sound needed to change when it sliced through the air. Burtt found that if he took the recorded sound from his two sources and played them back, he could then wave another mic around and near the speaker, creating a Doppler effect where the pitch slightly raises and lowers as the mic passes by. It’s the same auditory sensation a person experiences when a train or plane rushes past them.

The saber was the first of a series of earworms that Burtt would invent which would enter the culture as benchmarks, including Darth Vader’s labored breathing, Chewbacca’s expressive howls, and the beeps and whirrs of the faithful droid, R2D2. This was five years before he gave E.T. its voice in the later Steven Spielberg film. Burtt picked up an Oscar for “special achievement” in Star Wars, and it has since gained the status of one of the most influential films ever released, even receiving the rare honor of its own U.S. postal stamp in 2007.

–Excerpt from the forthcoming The Sonic Imperative: Sound in the Age of Screens (2021)