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Articles Design: Laura Llopiz. Design: Laura Llopiz.

Sound, the silent friend of the image

100 years ago the cinema was born and it was born silent; 30 years he lived trying to start "talking" and During that time, what was initially a fair show became an artistic expression with its own language. The stories in the cinema became more complex, the poster with the dialogues or the explanatory paragraphs hindered the rhythm of the story and it was evident that the new art needed sound more and more. 

At the end of the 1920s, the development of incipient electronics made it possible for the first time to record and reproduce sounds synchronized with the image in the exhibition hall. Such an event had contradictory consequences, like all childbirth, so much so that perhaps even today we still suffer a lot from the negative consequences of that event. The stories of actors who lost their jobs are well known, either because their voices did not adapt to the precarious recording systems or because they had a foreign accent. The natural sets were abandoned and the talkies went to studios acoustically treated to avoid noise; the cameras lost their mobility and were inserted into glass cases to isolate their own noise. The scenic movement was put in function of the place of the microphone. So brutal was the impact that many directors saw in the sound the danger of the disappearance of cinematographic art.

It is logical to infer that the pioneers of sound were not movie people, but rather came from branches such as radio and telephony. They had a very primitive technology and, because they had not lived through the development of cinema as an art, they were unable to creatively join the new possibility. Also for many creation teams of the time, the sound appeared more as a technical attraction than as an expressive possibility, surrounded by a great halo of complexity and commanded by a man who easily repeated “that can't be done”.

 a lot of that hard relationship with sound, it survives in the film industry today. Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Aleksandrov in their article Orchestral Counterpoint, in 1928, were already trying to outline a conceptual proposal for the use of sound in cinema: “Only the use of sound as a counterpoint to a piece of visual montage offers new possibilities for developing and perfecting montage. Sound treated as a new element of montage (and as an element independent of the visual image) will inevitably introduce a new and extremely effective means of expressing and solving the complex problems that we have hitherto encountered and that we have never seen before. come to resolve due to the impossibility in which we find ourselves to find a solution with the help only of the visual elements”. And they warned:The movie Sound is a double-edged sword and it is very likely that it will be used according to the law of least effort, that is, limiting itself to satisfying the curiosity of the public”.

Frame of Battleship Potemkin / Design: Laura Llópiz.

frame of The battleship Potemkin / Design: Laura Llópiz.

It must be said that, in general, the sound in the cinema has played the sad role of ratifying what happens in the image. In movies, the accompanying synchronous sound is usually used, which almost always makes it an element of redundancy, with a rather poor level of suggestion. When a film requires dramatic reinforcement, it inexcusably turns to music. This has a lot to do with the history of cinema itself and with the fact that music itself is an artistic manifestation with its codes established and easy to communicate with the public. When talking about the soundtrack of a film, many understand that it is about music, sometimes even specialized critics. For many years, movies were seen that had music on their soundtrack from beginning to end. 

When talking about sound in the cinema, some try to establish mathematical proportions by saying that the sound is the 50% and the image is the other 50%; others solemnly declare that sound is very important. In my opinion, the central problem of creativity in the soundtrack today lies in the habits and forms of production established by the great world film industry, which contaminate any attempt to make a film, however independent and creative the proposal may be. .

Throughout the history of cinema, a large number of audiovisual specialists have opined that sound is still not used as an active element that interacts with the stories that are told, but rather, and with rare exceptions, it appears as a passive accompaniment of visual discourse. "As a certificate of presence that what we see is," says the Frenchman Michel Fano. 

I am referring to the fact that sound is not part of the narrative approach from its initial phases. Sometimes I comment with my students, a little jokingly and a little seriously, that I have the impression that, despite being in an era of great technological advances, with modern digital reproduction systems with six or more sound channels high-quality audio and sound editing stations with an infinite amount of sound manipulation possibilities never before used by cinema, there are many films whose sound treatment corresponds to the type of what I call “deaf films”. They are those in which the characters do not hear anything from the world around them, or where the sound that is heard in the film does not care; it does not motivate them to action in any way. Even when the huge explosion sounds that sends them flying up to 100 meters, they don't even cover their ears. In these films the sound does not work on the emotions, the movements or the action of the characters. In which, probably, when reading their scripts we discover that the sound is not part of the story.

Frame of Hiroshima, mon amour / Design: Laura Llópiz.

frame of Hiroshima, my love / Design: Laura Llópiz.

Even some books about the script express themselves in these terms: “Don't worry about the sound, it is something very complex that will be worked on in the laboratory once the editing of the film is finished. There the specialists are in charge of placing the sounds and the music”. Thus, the function of sound is reduced to a simple filling of the gaps and, if there is a lack of emotion in a scene, then “Music, Maestro!”. The most terrible thing about this conception is that the person who turns to these texts in search of knowledge is marked forever by the disastrous idea that this is only a technically very complex matter, "for advanced electricians", as a friend says, and that the only possibility of expressing some feeling through sound is found in music. Hence, when talking about soundtrack, the expression refers only to the music of the film: soundtrack, they say. This harmful conception has spread to the field of film criticism, and conveys to the public the distorted idea that the only thing that matters in the sound of a film is the music.

There are also scriptwriters who argue that the script is a literary work and that there is no reason to put "technical" indications on the sound, that this is up to the person who does it. As if the sound engineer could rewrite the script to insert sound, wherever it goes in the story. Perhaps, in some cases, a sensitive director can add certain sound treatments at the technical script stage and even during filming. But what is central to the story, in terms of image and sound, strictly speaking, should already be limited in the script. 

Some colleagues recommend describing the actions of the story and the dialogues in a column or block on the left, and in another on the right to describe the sound. This form is generally used in show scripts, radio and television. I am convinced that this format leads the audiovisual writer to think of action and sound separately. Writing like this, the story is on the left and on the right only passive accompanying sounds: ambient birds, crickets, noise of the sea, soft wind, music, etc. Sounds that interact with the story and the characters are hardly ever found there.

My experience is that if sound does not appear as an element of the narration in the original script, we will be facing a story that basically rests on visual elements and that is how it will be filmed and edited. The advisable thing, I think, is to conceive the story in its entirety, with all the visual and sound elements, and describe the interactions of the sound with the characters, the actions and the evolution of the story. Otherwise, when trying to incorporate sound as an expressive resource, we will notice that the task is very difficult and almost always impossible, since the sound is not in the story. And that's when it's best to use music. 

I believe, as I have already pointed out, that the causes of these difficulties must be sought in the history of cinema itself: in the unfortunate way of introducing sound; in the deformation of the concept of the role of the sound engineer, generally considered as an “advantaged technician”; in the production mechanisms that prevent a deeper participation of the sound engineer in the projects; in the mostly commercial and standardized production that prevents experimentation and research; and, fundamentally, in the lack of integrality of the creators that obstructs the necessary interrelationships with other areas for the maximum use of their expressive resources, throughout the process of gestation of a film. 

Of course, we are talking about achieving maximum use of sound in terms of expressive effectiveness. Not to give it an absurd and far-fetched prominence. Each film, each story must have its own sound as it has its plot, its images, its characters. Every attempt to establish formulas fails. Perhaps here lies the difficulty that some film theorists find to systematize some ideas about the use of sound (those who try). What works well in one movie, turns out to be disastrous in another. Fortunately, there are many films in the history of sound cinema, in which the innumerable possibilities of voices, sound effects, sound atmospheres and music itself are evident. in its different textures and perspectives when they are integrated in a structured and coherent way to the cinematographic story. If we deeply analyze these films, we discover that the audio is an inseparable part of the story, that without these sounds the narration is incomplete, that the story is told based on the interrelation of sound and visual elements. They are those movies that cannot be appreciated with low volume.

Frame of Once Upon a Time in the West / Design Laura Llópiz.

frame of once upon a time in the west / Design Laura Llópiz.

Then a film can appear that basically rests on dialogue as a sound element. If that dialogue is conceived in a poetic way and well interpreted by the actors, with a musical sense of intonation, rhythm, accents and intensities, and if their voices coherently harmonize with the characters, we will be facing a film with a band sound of extraordinary beauty and perfectly integrated into the story, as happens in hiroshima mon love by Alain Resnais. In other cases like Rififi, by Jules Dassin the sound effects and handling of dynamics show his ability to create great tension. The pre credit of Once upon a time in the West, by Sergio Leone, rests for 10 minutes in a series of situations in which the sound effects create a highly expressive musical fabric. Another anthological example is the second sequence of Once upon time in America, also directed by Sergio Leone, where the sound and visual elements harmonize almost perfectly. There is a perfect interactive intertwining between these in their relationship to the story. Another reference is Hitchcock, who fully exploits the acoustic space and sound perspective in the sequence of the discovery of the child in The man that knew too much.

Sound perspective and acoustic space are also exploited by Jean-Jacques Annaud in the labyrinth sequence of The name of the Rose. David Lean in Ryan's daughter It fully exploits the narrative possibility of the sound effect of an electric generator motor to sometimes express space, sometimes time, and that same sound becomes the symbol of a character; at other times he uses the different volumes of the sound of the wind over a field of flowers to underline the intensities of a love scene. And what better movie to talk about sound from the script than bartonfink, by the Cohen brothers, a film in which the sound is harmonically linked to the narrative structure of the story, which creates a platform on which the actors make music with their dialogues, the sounds merge with the story and the sound montage complete the story naturally and harmoniously.

In these examples, the planning prior to filming is evident, which has allowed the conditions to be created for the visual and sound elements of each sequence to interact in an intertwined manner at the time of editing and sound. In most of these cases there is planning from the script; It could also be done from a technical script, but always before shooting. Of course there is important creative sound work during the post-production stage, but never with the expressive power of these examples in which the sound has been inserted into the story.

In the case of Cuba, and with exceptions that confirm the rule, I feel that what has prevailed, especially in creation for fiction, is the supporting music. In the news and documentaries, as they moved with greater freedom and spirit of search, creativity advanced more in the use of sounds and montage. With the advancement of digital technologies and the influence of the film schools that were established in the country, we began to talk about sound design and other relevant terms to designate a greater degree of intervention of sound in the audiovisual production process; something that was difficult in the analog age. Already in the most recent Cuban cinema that imprint is noticeable and it is to be hoped that in the coming years it will become much more evident. 

Jerome Labrada More posts

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