Saturday, August 23, 2014

Project 13: Non-diegetic sound

Diegetic is sometimes known as ‘source music’ and non-diegetic as ‘scored music’.  Some directors use it as more than just a pleasant accompaniment. Tarantino movies are legendary for their soundtracks and it is hard to imagine the spaghetti westerns without Morricone.  Films such as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing who how much it can add to the richness of the experience.  The warring cultures are characterized by their musical preferences.   Music often gives clues to neighbourhoods or class stereotypes or ethnic groups.

Intentional confusion of diegetic and non-diegetic

  • Barton Fink – a violin confused with the sound of a mosquito. This is a great film to explore for sound generally – good write-up on this here: 
  • In Bladerunner the piano scene mixes playing with a jazz soundtrack and the film also uses narration to add atmosphere
  • The Pippin’s song sequence in Lord of the Rings mixes diegetic sounds from two scenes with a diegetic song and then a score to create a powerful sequence conveying the sadness of war and the unpleasantness of Denethor.

Sound that is hard to identify as either diegetic or non-diegetic

  • In There Will Be Blood, when the oil gusher explodes and deafens the boy, we hear the rushing sounds and some gurgling. Tension is often created in the movie with the use of the Col Legno violin technique
  • In Amour, we hear what we think a soundtrack until one of the characters turns off the radio and the music stops. This is a great way of giving the viewer a change of pace, some time to contemplate what is happening and then pulling them back into the story
  • The opening of Atonement uses a typewriter sound to lead into the credits. It merges with the non-diegetic and sets a lovely pace to the movie

Music (non-diegetic) used to identify social and cultural references

  • A friend suggested the brilliant scene from the Big Lebowski when Jesus is bowling and we hear Hotel California but by the Gypsy Kings
  • Boyhood uses music throughout to underpin the narrative and help place the characters in time
  • 8 Mile uses rap very effectively

Music and other non-diegetic sound used to create atmosphere, tension and emotion

  • Up – some very mournful music accompanies the imagery showing the married life of Carl and Ellie.
  • Miss Gulch on her bike in the Wizard of Oz, heading determinedly to collect Toto.
  • There are thousands of examples in horror movies and thrillers.  People have commented for example that Woman in Black is only scary because of the music (and our imaginations, of course).

Non-diegetic sound that sets the pace of a scene

  • Bee Gee’s Staying Alive for the opening sequence of Saturday Night Fever
  • The obvious ones are Jaws and the shower scene in Psycho!
  • The drumming in the chase scene in Memento – this starts as we realize that Guy Pearce is being chased
  • The opening scene to the Apartment has Jack Lemmon narrating at a fast pace to set the scene of his daily grind. The musical score underpins this with a beat being added to match the movement of the machine on his desk, adding humour and energy.  This is called ‘mickey mousing’

Non-diegetic sound that gives clues or cues to action

  • Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries as a battle cry in Apocalypse Now:
  • Lou Reed’s Perfect Day during Renton’s overdose in Trainspotting taps in to the euphoria of the drug hit but quickly becomes ironic as we see the horrific side of the addiction
  • In the Long Goodbye, the theme song is placed in the background as supermarket muzak, leading us into the scene

Notes on sound

This is an interesting article on how best to use diegetic and non-diegetic music in films.

The opening sequence of Welles’ Touch of Evil provides a good example of sound perspective.

In the 30s and 40s orchestral music was mainly used, sometimes with popular songs but rarely with singing as the disembodied voice was perhaps considered to be too distracting.  This was incorporated diegetically (often in the format of dreadful musicals). Things started to change in the 50s and 60s and now music is often a huge part of the filmic experience.

The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first successful feature film with sequences of synchronized sound and as always technology has had a great impact on how things developed. In the early days, cameras would have been restricted to a single spot and the story would rely on the dialogue.

Some directors (formalists) were hostile towards synchronous sound recordings and found them to cause problems with editing and continuity.

‘Stingers’ can represent a moment of shock or high emotion. Sometimes the term ‘sweetening’ is used.

According to Louis Giannetti (Understanding Movies, Pearson, 2005), a popular theory of sound design in Hollywood is know colloquially as ‘see a god, hear a dog’ meaning that if a dog appears on screen, the audience will hear traditional dog sounds.

The new realism in sound meant that acting styles also became more natural and more subtle.  And people with great voices became stars.  In the 60s, directors also started preserving extraneous noises on soundtracks to provide more realism. Our brains select what we choose to hear but recording equipment cannot do that. Jean-Luc Godard was an exponent of this and used it as technique to underpin some of the themes in his movies (such as violence and lack of privacy or peace).

Sound effects can be atmospheric or a direct cue to meaning.  Pitch, tempo, volume affect our response to a noise.  Suspense scenes often use high-pitched noises.  Low-frequency feels more full and heavy, denoting solemnity.

Off-screen sounds can bring the off-screen space into play which can expand the image we are seeing.

Sound effects can also be symbolic such as heartbeats, clocks. Absolute silence can also be extremely powerful.  It is often used to convey a moment of death, sometimes in combination with slow motion.

Key learnings and considerations

Need to understand what the result should be in terms of the narrative or atmosphere rather than worry so much about the technical side (find an expert)

How will you orchestrate sound in each scene?

Will there be any distortion and if so, why?

Will there be any symbolism?

Any repeated motifs?

Decide if you are going to use non-diegetic - be aware of how impactful that can be!

Does the music represent class or culture?

Does it add to the characterisation or the narrative?

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