Sound in Film is an extremely broad term and can be broken down into a variety of components: dialogue, music and SFX. These, in turn, can be broken down even further. It can compliment, transcend, or oppose what we see on screen, and is a vital tool for storytelling and generating emotions in an audience.
Sound in film has had a shorter history than cinematography, with commercial films being mostly silent, save for a soundtrack, for several years before the use of dialogue. Thomas Edison experimented with sound and picture together as early as 1885, around forty years before audio in film would become commercially viable. Audiences were entertained by silent film for years, through the 1920’s, with orchestral or piano accompanying the images on screen. Audiences were content, but film studios were hard at work. American companies such as Warner Bros. and RCA formed Vitaphone, which produced the first sound system to work alongside film. It worked by hooking a large phonograph on a disc to the film projector using leather straps. It was eventually replaced by celluloid prepared for sound, that runs in sync next to the celluloid used for film.
This new invention was groundbreaking, despite it’s issues (the original sound and camera equipment was so loud it had to be kept in it’s own soundproof room), and started a new wave of cinema – the Talkies. Films like The Jazz Singer and Don Juan are excellent examples of early sound production in cinema, and Singin’ in the Rain funnily gives some examples of the problems sound produced in filmmaking. Genres morphed; comedies started to have spoken jokes, musicals blossomed, and drama gained depth. It developed further and further, reaching the giant soundscapes we expect from blockbusters today.
Its use in storytelling is very important. It can be used to signal things off-screen both to characters and the audience, to convey information, or to make environments feel more ‘real’ than they are (for example, music playing in a shop). These are direct examples of sound that affect the narrative quality of the film. It is also used subliminally. The film’s score, timing of sound effects and atmosphere tracks combine with the visuals to create the mood of a scene, and often sound can do far more than just an image can. An orchestral swell during an emotional moment can enhance an actor’s performance, or even silence can create a powerful atmosphere. Because the music is written to accompany the film, its purpose is to help inform the audience of the scene’s intent. Technology in sound and cinema allows filmmakers to create rich soundscapes that can be played in surround sound, enveloping the audience and making a film viewing a more encompassing experience. There are many great examples of this, one being Jaws. The famous low-end theme tells the audience that something dangerous is happening, it can fill the room with dread and matches with what we see on screen. Imagine the ‘Get out of the water!’ scene without that theme. Would it have the same level of suspense and tension?
Examples of excellent sound design include Apocalypse Now, the first film to use a computerised mixing board, with sound designer Walter Murch and director Francis Ford Coppola wanted the audience to feel like they were in a warzone, and the use of surround sound brought viewers into the jungle with gunfire coming from all angles in the cinema. More recently, Gravity used an intense score and dialogue to create the tension where Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is trying hard not to be knocked out into space by crashing debris. We don’t hear the devastation around her, as there is no sound in space (something that Hollywood ignores for the most part), but this ‘gap’ is filled in by the close combination of frantic vocal lines and the music. Gravity won Oscars for Best Music and Best Sound Design, so this unorthodox method of filmmaking proved to resonate with audiences.
It will always play an important role in cinema, and is a necessary power to harness the true potential of a film. Its use can make or break a film, and deserves respect. Be on the lookout for the small details, as they can often overlooked, and are a joy to discover.