The Art of Noise – how Hollywood breathes magic into movie sound

If great hi-fi brings you closer to the reality of the musical experience, the best home cinema systems perform a subtly different function: they transport you to another environment altogether.

Proper home cinema systems are intended to recreate the sound and vision of your local multiplex. If your system is working as it should, you should feel ‘there’ – every bit as involved in the film as you would be watching it from the best seat in the best cinema in town, with the added advantage that you can better control your environment (and the volume levels of your fellow viewers) than you can in most cinemas.

And just like the real thing, great home cinema is about more than boom and bang: clarity and realism are vital elements of the experience too. A quality home cinema system should relay the emotion in a voice, the detail in an ambient surround effect and the subtlest nuance of a music score – in other words, it should be every bit as accurate as a decent hi-fi system.

That said, there’s an important distinction at work here. The perfect music recording adds as little as possible to the original performance. Especially with live recordings – but also with some studio presentations, depending on the creative preference of the artist concerned – the end result should be as if the musician or musicians are actually there in your room, performing especially for you.

By contrast, many sounds within a cinema soundtrack are entirely artificial. Most, whether artificial (think Star Wars) or carefully captured from authentic sources (Saving Private Ryan) are either added in or generated after the film itself has been completed. Even the human voice is re-recorded in a studio and mixed back into the soundtrack to ensure perfect dialogue clarity and minimal sibilance (a process known as ADR or Automatic Dialogue Replacement).

Of course, sound designers have more freedom of manoeuvre if the effect they’re creating is outside the realms of normal human experience. From Godzilla’s roar to R2-D2’s trademark beeps, film sound abounds with ‘best-guess’ sound effects and carefully crafted constructs designed to heighten the cinematic illusion. As Gary Rydstrom (sound designer on Jurassic Park) observed, “No-one knows for sure what kinds of sounds dinosaurs made, or even if they could make a sound at all. So when we were doing the mixes for Jurassic Park, all Steven (Spielberg) said was ‘just have fun’ and that was that. So we used samples of all kinds of living animals – sometimes slowed down, sometimes mixed together – to create the various different dinosaurs in the picture.”

Perhaps paradoxically, the challenges intensify if the intended sound effect echoes (or evokes) reality. Nobody knows for sure what an X-Wing sounds like because clearly, X-Wings don’t exist – but many of us will have some idea of what gunfire or an explosion should sound like (even if, hopefully, we’ve never actually experienced either for ourselves). According to Black Hawk Down’s sound team of Michael Minkler, Myron Nettinga and Chris Munro, during the course of the film’s production over 37,000 rounds of ammunition were fired off each day, with director Ridley Scott insisting that each individual weapon should sound as realistic as possible. To that end, each was meticulously recorded and its distinctive sonic signature captured. Scott also demanded that each firefight was portrayed in its own, realistic acoustic space, whether down a tight alleyway or in an open square: only in this way could the sonic ‘signature’ of the battle be delivered convincingly. And that effort paid off, too: according to a Ranger veteran who attended the film’s premiere, “That is what battle sounds like. You nailed it”.

If that’s impressive, Chris Boyes’ work on Titanic was borderline obsessive. He used a gravity-fed concrete car crusher and some aged oak beams to replicate the sound of the ship’s deck snapping as her hull broke in two. He also embedded microphones in the ice at Yellowstone National Park to capture the sounds of ice cracking under pressure (caused by his own body weight), and even went down to the US Naval Reserve dockyard at Suisun Bay armed with a wide selection of metal objects – bike chains, in particular – to capture the sounds of impact and stress on ship hulls.

Yet for all this focus on ‘creating’ realism, the sound designer’s art is also constrained by the need to preserve the most crucial element of the movie soundtrack – the dialogue – intact. Most directors object to having their scripts obscured in a sonic melee, and are prepared to sanction some quite unusual sonic tricks to preserve clarity. Jurassic Park follow-up The Lost World features a scene that perfectly illustrates the point: while Jeff Goldblum and Julianne Moore debate what to do with the baby tyrannosaurus they’re attempting to treat, the camera moves from inside the caravan they’re standing in to outside, into the teeth of a rainstorm. Yet their dialogue never changes in clarity or volume which is, of course, impossible. So why do it? Simply because dramatically, it worked.

Similarly, surround effects should only ever contribute to the action, not distract from it: the money is up there on the screen, and neither the director nor anyone else involved in the production of the film would want you looking away from the images in front of you to focus on a speaker behind your head. So often, whole passages of a film can feature little but ambient effects – which the film industry refers to as ‘envelopment’ sounds – punctuated only sparingly by precisely defined ‘localisation’ sounds. The moral of that story? Don’t turn your rear speakers up too much – and if you’re not hearing too much from them during the course of a particular film, don’t worry: it’s more than likely meant to be like that.

Of course, if you don’t have a home theatre system or a high-performance soundbar such as the Panorama 2, you don’t have to concern yourself with any of these issues. But given how much effort has gone into delivering great sound in any film worth its salt, why on earth would you want to miss out? George Lucas once averred that “sound is 50% of the movie experience”: clearly, if you want to better understand what he was talking about, you’ll need better speakers than those built into your TV. Just remember that unlike hi-fi, home cinema is not about delivering realism: it’s about creating the illusion of it, or whichever version of it the director and his or her sound effects team is attempting to convey.

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