Search This Blog

Friday, February 19, 2016

Eight Great Films That Use Sound To Enhance Dramatic Effect

sound in film
Sound in film can sometimes be seen as an afterthought; the final icing on the cake of a medium that is so visually driven. However, this is certainly not the case as many filmmakers and composers view music and sound as a much more integrated aspect of the film, one that can even play a huge role in the development of the drama as much as any visual element can.
Certainly the idea that combining different media to create a much more coherent and powerful medium is not a new concept, and can be seen back as far as the opera of composers such as Handel Mozart, who combined music, drama and word to create what was then a new artistic medium.
However it was in the late 19th century with the music dramas of Richard Wagner that really started taking the idea of a combination of different art forms to a new level. This inevitable progressed into the film world many years later, composers such as Max Steiner used aspects of Wagner’s compositional style in their film scores.
As this list discusses, there are more ways that sound can contribute to the drama of the film outside the idea of a soundtrack, which is really where directors started to think about sound and integrate it into film in many ways to challenge the visual medium.
Here are eight films that use sound and music in ways that work with (or against) the visual to add another layer to the drama of the story.

1. Pi (1998)
pi 1998
Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 debut Pi brings the audience into the schizophrenic world of Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a number theorist who uses numbers to try and understand the world around him. Whilst using his computer to predict the stock market trends, it prints out a mysterious 216 digit number. Although initially skeptical, Max believes that this number is the key to understanding nature and our existence.
The film follows Max as he tries to evade a menacing Wall Street firm who believe the number can be used to predict the stock markets and a religious organisation who believe the number to be the unspoken name of god.
A low budget and surrealist styled film, Pi is a frightening and vivid experience for the audience that uses the relationship between sound and the visual to its advantage. In particular to this film, sound is used to allow the audience to transcend into Max’s world and experience the surroundings from his perspective.One such scene that really showcases Pi’s use of sound to heighten our relationship with Max occurs around the 52 minute mark. After a failed attempt at a calculation on his computer, Max suffers from a cluster headache. The following scene artfully blends digetic and non digetic sound to create an uneasy and chaotic experience for the viewer.The trigger for Max’s headache comes from hearing a sexual encounter from next door, although it is unclear whether this sound is actually coming from Max’s own head (meta-digetic) or is actually an off screen real sound.A shrill drill sound can also be heard which is a noise that we are to interpret as within Max’s own head. This sound combined with the ambiguous sexual noises and the pained cries of Max create an uneasy, schizophrenic and distressing experience for the viewer and really allow us to understand the characters paranoid world.This combined with a fantastic performance from Sean Gullette and some great editing of the visual powerfully carries the sense of discord to the audience, creating an emotional response that would not be achievable without both media being executed simultaneously.

2. Antichrist (2009)
AntichristPerhaps one of Lars Von Tier’s most disturbing films, Antichrist is a fascinating movie that explores concepts of sexuality, human suffering, depression and mental illness. Perhaps sometimes overlooked due to its graphic sexual nature alongside its infamous ‘scissors’ scene, Antichrist is an artfully created and multi layered film that confronts many unsettling aspects of human behaviour.Containing a fantastic soundscape created by composer Kristian Eidnes Andersen, the soundtrack relies heavily on prolonged eerie silences combined with burst of distressing sound design which add to the films disconcerting nature. However it is the first scene in which the sound and visual relationship is perhaps at its most interesting.Shot in black and white, the opening scene is a stark contrast between the beauty of love and the anguish of death. This is achieved visually by capturing the passionate love making of protagonists He and She (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) woven between shots that portray the horrific accidental death of their child unfolding.Sonically, we have the beautiful aria Lascia ch’io pianga by George Frederic Handel from his 1711 opera Rinaldo being performed. A delicate, beautiful and moving piece of music that tonally suggests feelings of love, beauty and calmness. This corresponds with the use of its musical key signature F Major, which 18th century composers associated with calmness and clarity.The resulting audio visual juxtaposition creates a unique dramatic affect for the viewer, in which their senses are being toyed with by Von Tier. Visually, we are witnessing moments of beauty intertwined with the unfolding of a horrific accident, whilst sonically we are hearing this beautiful calming music that is only in tone emotionally with one of the visual events we are seeing.This creates a sense of emotional confusion to the audience as the music and visual are not working together to convey the same emotion, but almost working against each other conveying contrasting feelings to the audience.

3. Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho is a landmark film in the world of horror cinema whose many infamous scenes have inspired countless of filmmakers.The movie follows the story of runaway secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) who steals a lump sum of money from her employer and whilst running away, ends up checking into Bates Motel, which proves to be a fateful decision. Ran by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and Mother, the infamous twist at the end of the movie remains a pivotal point in modern cinema.What is interesting about the sound in Psycho is the fact that the overbearing character presence of Mother is portrayed completely by sound, with no physical visual of the character attached to this sound. This poses quite an interesting scenario for the viewer, who for the main duration of the film is lead to believe that Mother is in fact a real and physical character until the reveal at the end of the movie.When we learn that Mother is in fact an illusion in Norman’s mind, we view many scenes in a different light when analysing the sound and visual relationship. For instance, when Marion first arrives at the motel and is invited to eat with Norman in the house, Mother’s voice can be heard arguing and disciplining Norman for inviting another woman into her house.With no physical manifestation of Mother onscreen, this character is entirely performed from the use of sound, used in such a way that gives the character of Mother an almost all seeing/knowing element that adds to the suspense of the movie. The term for this type of use of voice in film is acousmêtre; a term coined by film theorist Michael Chion.Not only does this give the character an almost omniscience role, it achieves a layer of suspense to the drama that in the case of Physco has the power to completely change our response to the drama upon first viewing and further viewings once the twist is known.The voice of Mother also blurs the lines between being a non-digetic and meta-digetic sound in the final scene, where we are hearing Mother’s voice from the inner thoughts of Norman for the first time, transcending from its previous manifestation as an all powerful and dominating presence to that of the inner ramblings of a psychotic murderer.

4. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Apocalypse NowFrancis Ford Coppola’s pivotal war masterpiece brings the viewer on a dramatic journey through the Vietnam war from the perspective of an American platoon. Boasting an incredible cast and powerful story, this film is a must see for any cinema fan. As with all Coppola films, Apocalypse Now employs a great use of cinematography combine with great sound choices that strengthen the story telling power of the film.Sound designer Walter Murch worked with Coppola to combine an unique sound design into the film making process to create a sonically and visually stunning work.Even from the opening sequence, the importance of the relationship between the sound and visual is clear. Fading out of a blank shot, Murch expertly creates a sound scape that suggests the image of a helicopter by integrating the pulse of a helicopters blades into the Doors track “This is the End”.This enhances the lucid dream like sequence of Captain Willard (Martin Sheehan), integrating shots of the fan in his room with suggested sounds of helicopter activity outside the hotel room, but ultimately confusing the viewer as to the source of this sound.However it is perhaps the most famous scene from this film that is a multi-layered sound and visual experience that combine to enhance the layers of drama for the viewer. With Richard Wagner’s composition The Ride of the Valkyries being played as a digetic sound over shots of the american soldiers flying to attack an innocent Vietnamese village. The music sounds menacing and has perhaps associated this particular piece with a negative association in cinema since its use in Apocalypse.In the scene, Captain Killgor (Robert Duvall) acknowledges the menacing sound of Valkyries by asking his soldiers to turn it on by saying; “It will scare the hell out of the slopes – my boys love it!”. The use of the music here adds a particular satirical feel to the scene, perhaps suggesting the disregard that the soldiers have for the life of the innocents they are firing on.However, the epic and grand sound of the music as is so often associated with Wagner also contributes an element of power and force to the fleet of helicopters as they swarm over the sea preparing for the attack.Again this is an example of music being used in a suggestive sense to bring out more emotions of a scene than just that of what the visual is portraying. This is an important and effective use of sound as it allows for many more conceptual layers to be added to the film, which provides the viewer with a deeper level of drama to grasp on to.

5. Atonement (2007)
This beautiful Joe Wright WW1 drama follows the story of lovers Robbie Turner (James McEvoy) and Cecilia Tallis (Ciara Knightly), whose lives are thrown off course due to the unfortunate misunderstanding of younger sister Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) who falsely accuses Robbie of committing a crime.
The repercussions of this accusation separates the couple and follows the life of Robbie as he enlists to fight the war to end his prison sentence whilst Cecilia volunteers as a Nurse to help the war effort.
When we reach the end of the film we discover that what we have been watching was the retelling of the story through the eyes of a much older and remorseful Briony, who in fact had changed the reality of what actually unfolded in the years following the accusation into fiction, to allow her sister and Robbie to have the happy ending they always hoped for.
Throughout the film, the excellent sound design delivers clues sonically to the audience that suggest that the story might not be as it seems, mainly by form of the sound of a typewriter – the author’s tool. A key element of the score and dramatic plot itself, the film opens with the sound of someone using a typewriter, which is revealed to be a young 13 year old Briony finishing a play.
Interestingly however, as Briony rushes through the house to announce the completion of her play, the typewriter becomes a non digetic sound and integrates itself as a prominent feature of the musical scoring. This musical infusion of scoring and typewriter sound appears throughout the film sparsely, but always during peak moments in the story.
Again, this musically integrated typewriter sound can be heard during Briony’s false confession to the police, and again when we are brought back into the world of Briony as a young woman nursing during the war. These sonic additions add to the twist of the film, and can be interpreted as sonic clues that add another layer of drama to the audience; acting as sonic reminder that we are in fact witnessing the telling of Briony’s fictional novel as opposed to the actual documentation of events.
Of course this can only be interpreted as such upon second viewing of the film, but once the reveal at the end is known, it becomes apparent that the inclusion of the sound of the typewriter has quite an important role in the story, as opposed to simply being aesthetic.

6. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s 2014 story of a failed actors attempt to reinvent himself is a beautifully shot film, with an edgy and frantic feel about the cinematography and soundtrack throughout. Consisting of a soundtrack primarily performed on drums, the music adds to a schizophrenic performance by Michael Keaton. However, one scene in the film employs the use of an excerpt of Symphony No. 2 in E minor Op. 27 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.
This scene is very interesting sonically as the film really come out of the world of realism realm of scene which is not in tone with the rest of the movie. In this scene Riggan Thompson (Keaton) leaps off a building which has strong undertones of a suicidal attempt, but instead of falling flies through the air imitating his only role that he became famous for, the Birdman.
Before he takes the leap, Riggan says the word “Music”, which cues the start of the Rachmaninoff. Already this gives the scene an element of fantasy, surrealism and allows us to understand that we are now in the characters universe.
The Symphony used for this scene is uplifting, empowering and follows the journey of Riggan as he flies through the city, eventually landing outside the theatre where he points at an usher and asks him to “Stop the music”, which again cues an abrupt stop of the Symphony.
What is interesting here is the usher’s reaction to this is one of confusion, which suggests the viewer that this entire sequence was a fantasy, dream sequence that Riggan imagined in his head. Furthermore to suggest this, as Riggan enters the theatre a taxi driver who drove him to the theatre follows him demanding his fair.
This is important within the context of this scene, as it alludes to the mental state that the character is currently in at this point of the movie. From the outset of the film it is clear that Riggan suffers from some schizophrenic tendencies, and this event at this section of the story alludes to the idea that his mental state has deteriorated substantially since the start of the film.
Again as in Pi (1998) this could be defined as a meta digetic sound that allows us into the world of the character, allowing us to see from their perspective which in this case is one of mental instability and delusion.
A subtle but incredibly useful approach that is a great example of music being used as a tool to enhance the dramatic element in a way that the visual medium could not achieve on its own.

7. Jaws (1975)
Steven Spielberg’s 1975’s shark thriller is a classic example of a film that utilises music and sound to enhance the drama for the audience. Possibly one of the most well-known musical motifs of all time, John Williams two note shark motif has become as infamous as the film itself.
The technique employed by Williams is called a leitmotif, where a specific musical phrase is designated to a specific character. The history of the use of leitmotif’s goes back to the operas of Richard Wagner, who was the first composer to conceive the idea and designate specific musical motif’s to represent characters. Early film composers such as Max Steiner started integrating the technique into their work in film and its popularity grew from there.
What is great about the use of leitmotif is that the character in question can be suggested by the music without having to appear on screen. This gives the director the opportunity to suggest the presence of the character, or even insinuate the characters involvement in an event without the character being visually present.
In the case of Jaws, Spielberg and Williams more often than not use the leitmotif to great effect, to the extent that the foreboding music is almost as much of a character as the actual shark itself. The nature of the music suggests the presence of a hunter, quickening pace as it closes in on its prey which t times in the film is all that is needed to portray the terrifying lead up to a shark attack.
One such scene occurs 25 mins into the film, where a fisherman falls into the water due to the shark dislodging a part of the pier he is standing on. While we do not see the shark in the following frenzied attempts of the fisherman to escape from the water, the music suggests the frantic and frightening presence of the shark who is getting closer to the potential victim.
Fortunately, he escapes unharmed, but this scene executes the power of the leitmotif flawlessly, creating a sense of the shark hunting down its victim without the shark being visually present.
This scene artfully uses the idea of the leitmotif to suggest a character of the film without having to show the character onscreen. The sonic representation of the character is as strong as a visual shot, and in this case particularly the music moves in such a way that suggests a victim being hunter by a predator, which ultimately succeeds in achieving a frightening scene using only a musical reference to the character.

8. American Psycho (2000)
Christian Bale’s stellar performance as Patrick Bateman in Mary’s Harron’s American Psycho is a fascinating look into the mindset of a serial killer. Shot with a dark sense of humour, the film is an interesting twist one the traditional serial killer style film. The following scene is a perfect example of this dark humour, and use of music to carry this black humour across.
The scene in question is the famous Huey Lewis and the News murder scene where Bateman invites Paul Allen (Jared Leto) back to his apartment for a quick drink with side of murder.
In the lead up to the killing, Bateman talks in great depth to Paul about his love of Huey Lewis and the News, eventually putting on his personal favourite track ‘You don’t have to be hip to be a square’ through his sound system. Suddenly, he attacks a drunken Paul with an axe, chopping away at his body while the upbeat sounding music continues to play.
Quite a famous scene due to its use of that particular song, the music brings a certain irony and satirical feel to what could have otherwise been a horrific and sadistic scene. Think about it, if Bateman had killed Allen to the soundtrack of Bernard Herrmann’s strings from Psycho’s shower murder, this scene would have a completely different feel and impact on the viewer. Instead it provokes feelings of unease and a sensory confusion.
While the viewer’s ears are being treated to a funky and upbeat song that one would associate with feelings of joy and happiness, their eyes are witnessing a horrifically brutal and aggressive act being committed onto a human being.
This creates a juxtaposition between the visual and the aural, which challenges the viewer’s interpretation and emotional response to the scene. Ultimately, it makes for a much more memorable and stand out scene that defies the expectant norms usually associated with scenes of brutal murder.
Author Bio: Joey Ryan currently resides in Cork city, Ireland. He is a recent graduate of a Masters in Music and Cultural History degree and has a keen interest in the relationship between sound and the visual.

Read more:

No comments:

Post a Comment