In pursuit of the seventh art, I have always paid close attention to the craft of sound. During my recent shoot I was struck by the range of noises heard in an otherwise empty house: the ticking of a mantle clock, the tiny roar of the gas boiler, the creak of floorboards, reminding myself there’s no such thing as silence. Or is there? During the shoot of my second feature film, “Solid Air” (2003) our tame sound recordist, Douglas Kerr, captured what is possibly the closest thing to a sonic void when he placed a microphone beside a velvet cloth draped over a coffin in the chapel of Linn Crematorium. As the coffin descended – it was a committal scene – the crew held its collective breath until, twenty or so seconds later, Douglas issued the all clear, remarking, “That’s one for the collection” having just recorded a wildtrack of complete silence.
Already I’m thinking about sound and how best to use it in the film. While making “The Devil’s Plantation” I recorded over 800 separate tracks in my shed, mostly at an ungodly hour and using only what I had to hand – files gathered over the years, from the sound of various types of weather to street ambiences and birdsong as well as other, abstract noises patched together from various plug-ins. A massive job, but not as massive as it used to be, when audio was recorded on reel-to-reel tape before being transferred, track laid, mixed and fused to film. Today the process is much easier but like picture editing, it’s not about the tools, it’s about the sensibility one brings to the work because I’m not attempting to recreate reality, but movie reality, often elusive and even more so than usual since “Voyageuse” is not a conventional, naturalistic film, having no on-screen actors and no sync dialogue, so the balance between picture and sound is critical.
It’s early days of course, but never too early to assemble a library of noise that works to tell the story. Among these is a set of different bell chimes – doorbells, telephones, church bells and a small hand bell bought as a prop for the recent shoot in the house – see previous blog – and used to underpin Erica’s various moods, a reference to Ivan Pavlov, mentioned in the screenplay due to his behavioural experiments and their influence on Erica as she sought to understand and attempt to alter her own precarious mental state.
Similarly, I’m planning to create sounds that disquiet the listener. One of my favourite films of recent years is “Berberian Sound Studio” (2012) which nods to Italian Giallo films and features a stunning sound design. Indeed some of the best and most effective soundtracks are found on horror films, a genre that relies not on big budgets or name talent but rather, on sound design to provoke dread in its audience. More practically, especially for micro-budget productions such as this, sound is relatively cheap when compared to the cost of acquiring images, which probably accounts for a tendency among some filmmakers to overdo it, just as many a film is ruined by wall-to-wall music in the hope of masking discrepancies.
In less than a hundred years of film sound, audiences have grown accustomed to all manner of bizarre audio tropes. For instance, who was it, I wonder, who first decided on the unfeasible yet enduring sound cue that accompanies every standard fist fight? Which Foley Artist devised the red hot poker stabbed into a watermelon to replicate acts of torture? A few years ago, listening to a BBC Radio programme I was fascinated by a description of how certain sound effects were achieved, from the use of a leather glove as a stand-in for a bird in flight to why custard powder provided the right level of crunch as a substitute for the sound of footsteps on snow, demonstrating how the ingenuity of the sound department knows no limit.
As Alfred Hitchcock said – ‘if it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on’ – which may be true but not as much fun, especially when it comes to musicals.
The photograph is of Erica’s husband, Dr. Gwynne Meyler Thomas, taken during an expedition to the Antarctic from 1956-1958.