When Men Wore Hats

•December 11, 2008 • 1 Comment

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As the year draws to a close and the movie award season gets going I have begun to look backward. Customarily I immerse myself in the latest releases and play catch-up with the critics. This year, however, I have the urge to look back on film history and discover some films that got away. In this respect, my move back to Toronto has been terrifically therapeutic in that I am finding the energy and time to devote myself to movie watching, which is something that was ironically lost during my years of B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. film course work. As I stare down the long gun barrel of my Ph.D. thesis I am returning to the safe confines of the (home) cinema, where I am finding new things to admire, discuss, and even write about.

Lately, my attention has been captivated by two filmmakers in particular: Samuel Fuller and Jean-Pierre Melville. There isn’t much connective tissue between these two directors, nor would I impose any arbitrary similarities to the two of them, but their work blends effortlessly. As a student at the University of Toronto and Carleton University I had very little exposure to Fuller and Melville, except some passing references in course readings. (I can remember one article referring to the glories of a Fuller close-up, and I am still trying to decipher what makes a Fuller close-up a Fuller close-up). The recent discovery of these filmmakers was made by accident, I suppose, much like my interest in Westerns was fueled by an undergraduate essay I wrote on the music of Ennio Morricone.

As cinephiles I cannot help but think that even as we mature in our taste, we cling to the fundamentals that structured our initial love for the movies. While educated in the finer points of movie snobbery, I still hold dear the deceptively simple power of genre cinema, from 40s noir to 50s sci-fi all the way to 70s Italian horror and AIP exploitation. This curiousity has also deepened my interest in film music recordings, which has led to some wonderful discoveries: the cool and methodical writing of Jerry Fielding, the eccentricities of Jerry Goldsmith’s 1970s sound, and the diverse works of Michael Small.

More than anything else, my taste has expanded over the years, which has made me more open to different avenues of cinema. For me, that is the real test of cinephilic maturity: the ability to grow into other modes, genres, periods, and styles. Such detours occur spontaneously, without planning, and account for real moments of discovery and surprise.

My changing taste has endured one casualty, which is a thickening skin. There are fewer breathtaking moments of genuine surprise. You can’t fall in love with movies for the first time again. The early experiences that made your imagination race and appetite grow feel more tempered and controlled now. Movie maturity brings a heavy nose of nuance, which replaces the punch in the gut. Can you really marvel now at Hitchcock’s elaborate camera movements with the same kind of enthusiasm that struck you as a teenager? I used to worship at the alter of Psycho, but now treat it with a clinical distance that befalls so many films of my youth. They become exercises in analysis instead of emotional experiences. Which is why I hesitate to study certain films, to put them under the microscope and lay bare their mechanical and technical properties. I would sincerely love to write about Back to the Future — my favorite film — but I know better than to do it. It’s like Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) in Saving Private Ryan holding his memory of the rose bushes to himself, keeping it a mystery to his soldiers and the audience. There are some things best left unanalyzed.

Now, it’s about the subtleties. My latest discoveries hinge on a greater corpus of films, which is why I don’t think I’d be so taken by the films of Fuller and Melville if I didn’t know what came before and after them. Their work stands out to me because of the nuances, the small stuff. A tilt or pan, a particular framing, a certain way of using environmental sounds.

I came across these directors by accident a few weeks ago on a trip to the video store, but it is startling to see how well they go together. With Fuller and Melville I have unconsciously turned my attention to the era when men wore hats. I said earlier that there isn’t much connecting Fuller and Melville, but I can’t help but think Melville admired the street-wise Fuller, who was enamored with the dark alleys and lonely lives of “cannons” [pickpockets] and the disillusioned. Both men were boisterous, provocative, and perhaps more famous than any of their films. Melville’s white Camaro and stetson set him apart from other New Wave directors, who pushed against the walls of classical American genre cinema. Melville — if I can extend this metaphor — painted those walls a different color but relished living inside them. Fuller, with his briny New York-ish accent and trademark cigar, used his camera and sound track to enhance ordinary tales of human greed, sacrifice, and heroism. Their films are tightly edited glimpses into a strange world that feels far removed from our own.

Larger budgets alluded both filmmakers, but they did the most with minimalism. In fact, Melville made it an art. Fuller moved his camera to approximate movement, but knew when to leave it still. Martin Scorsese has said that the beating sequence in Pickup on South Street is particularly brutal because the camera is locked down. As Joey strikes Candy and drags her across the room, we witness it in a medium long shot. It unfolds in one shot, unlike the final subway fight which is cut in a more conventional way with establishing shots and closeups for emphasis. There’s no need to emphasize Joey’s behavior with Candy because Fuller demonstrates it with a cool, detached camera angle. Scorsese uses a similar technique in the pistol whipping scene from Goodfellas.

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Melville’s characters are no less violent, but he rarely attempted such brutality. The closest we come is the strangling at the beginning of Army of Shadows, which achieved real horror not from the image but from the sparse sound track. The silence of the room is shattered only by the muffled cries of the captive traitor. In Le Samourai, Alain Delon’s methodical assassin, Jef Costello, is so icy that the opening murder is accomplished with clinical flair. Melville’s title character is detached and sworn to a code like a Japanese samourai, but owes an aesthetic debt to Alan Ladd’s Raven from This Gun for Hire. Both find themselves attached to female nightclub entertainers. However, throughout Le Samourai and his other noirs — including Le Deuxieme Souffle and Le Doulos — Melville builds his narrative out of extended silences and what can only be called an existential quality that evades most American precursors. Melville’s authorial stamp is, indeed, comprised of homage and extension. It’s easy to see how he extended the quintessentially American crime film to include a distinctly French attitude. These films are steeped in American tradition but drip with French personality.

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As one French filmmaker put it, Melville lets his compositions “breathe.” His mise en scene is decidedly sparse, especially in Le Samourai and Army of Shadows where characters are often shot against a deserted background. In his color films, skin tones are more blue-green than pink, drained of any warmth. It was said he hated warm tones. As a result, the sound tracks often fill in the missing details with effects and musical cues that stress the loner qualities of the characters. In Shadows, the sound of wind and the ocean fills the empty space by enhancing the desolate environment. In Un Flic and Le Samourai, raindrops compete with near silences and distant traffic noise. It is as if Melville insulates his characters in the sounds of the real world, but separates them visually by placing them in empty rooms, on empty streets, as lone wolves on the hunt.

Fuller, on the other hand, used his technical skill to fill the frame with objects and movement. His use of black-and-white CinemaScope in Forty Guns is remarkably innovative for its time: extreme closeups and low angles that we once thought were the sole property of Sergio Leone. In the Poetics of Cinema, David Bordwell breaks down a complex shot from Forty Guns involving a pyramid of action using the extremes of the CinemaScope frame and deep focus. In the early days of Scope, he notes that Fuller fully illustrated “what could be done with nearly all the items on the menu.”

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The subtleties of these films showcase the real artistry of their creators. Melville once said that he didn’t believe filmmaking to be a true art because of its collaborative nature; real artists were solitary workers, much like his protagonists. On the other hand, Fuller seemed to embrace his auteur status bestowed to him by French critics and American filmmakers. If there is any connective tissue between these two men, I believe it’s in the details. They certainly didn’t redefine the medium, but then again I seem to be drawn to crafstmen who work within the walls of the studio playground. Sometimes the very best in innovation and experimentation happens in there.

And to think I have not even touched on Fuller’s war films like The Steel Helmet, Merrill’s Marauders, Fixed Bayonets, and The Big Red One. Another post, I suppose. My tastes might have changed, but I’m as curious as ever. The wonderful thing about the movies is that there’s always another that you haven’t seen, just waiting to be discovered.

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Confessions of an Early Adopter

•November 24, 2008 • 2 Comments

Shopping for Blu Ray

Yesterday I took the technological plunge and brought home my first Blu Ray player. In fact, I am surprised that it took me nearly two years to make the decision to buy one, since when it comes to most tech toys I’m eager to adopt right away. Especially home cinema hardware. And so far I regret nothing. True, while most of my beloved films are not yet available in the high-resolution format, film studios are releasing new and catalog titles at a breakneck speed, no doubt fueled by the upcoming Christmas shopping season. However, the question that plagues any adopter of new tech is whether or not there is a marked difference between the “new” format (that being Blu Ray) and the “old” (that being DVD, and for those that never took that plunge, VHS and LaserDisc).

The short answer is “yes.” The slightly longer answer is “yes, if you have a high-def television and audio processor.” If you’re still living in a world of tube televisions and rudimentary stereo sound, then HD media is of no importance to you. Scanning a recent thread of a home theater forum, I read one post where someone asked if they should invest in Blu Ray technology even if they still have a CRT (tube) television. To me, that would be like fitting a spoiler onto your Ford Focus. Or purchasing the finest culinary equipment when your idea of cooking is dialing for Dominos delivery. In other words, why bother? Either way, I believe it’s safe to assume that HD technology is hear to stay. And, pardon the hyperbole, once you’ve tasted the quality of HD broadcasting and other HD media, it’s hard to go back to standard definition.

In my field, which is academic film studies, there is a certain pride in being a technological luddite. One of the purveying philosophies of the film scholar is that if it’s not projected on film (16mm or 35mm), then it’s not “authentic.” I use that term very loosely since — as I suggested in my last post — we cannot assume there is an original or definitive experience of any film. They are, for the most part, approximations. Used incorrectly, this framework can become a catch-all excuse for even the poorest quality film presentation. And it does not dispense with the erudite film scholar’s preference for a 35mm presentation over that of DVD. I once endured a 35mm screening of Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry in a fourth year seminar that was almost entirely pink from wear. So, not only was Harry Callahan’s face a warm shade of lavender, but also the San Francisco skyline was bathed in shades of salmon and amaranth. Could this be part of Siegel’s mise en scene? No, just the professor’s preference for the feel of film over the pixely grains of digital. By this logic, even the poorest 35mm print is superior to the most pristine digital one.

The pride of celluloid authenticity makes little sense in this case. I’ve spoken to some professors who feel they’ve been pushed into the digital realm because of simple economics. It’s far cheaper to house a collection of DVDs than a library of 35mm prints. It has also become more convenient to find early cinema shorts and a wide range of international titles on high-quality DVD transfers than on expensive 16mm or 35mm prints. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the age of video that this dichotomy seems so trivial to me.

Make no mistake, I can see and hear the difference between a celluloid presentation and a digital or analog video presentation. But with the state of film studies departments as they are — at least the ones I’ve visited — I would hardly call the classroom presentation “pristine.” My study of sound film in the classroom has been hindered by poor sound reproduction to the point that some rooms are not even equipped to handle simple stereo playback! In some lectures and conference presentations I’ve had to cue my audience to low frequency stings because bass is non-existent.

My embrace of Blu Ray partly stems from this frustration. There’s no doubt in my mind that I fetishize the cinema experience to the point that I complain about poor maskings in theaters and poorly aligned loudspeakers. I appreciate the control of my own cinema environment. I like the lights to be dimmed to a certain level, the conversation hushed, and I especially like the comfort of my own sofa and ottoman. Even though I question the relevance of the “pristine” movie experience I, too, fall victim to its trappings.

Of course, sound mixers hate to hear that their work is being tampered with by over-eager cinephiles who insist on cranking the subwoofer and rear channels to “enhance” the sonic experience. If they could control how you set up your living room equipment, they would surely try.

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Which brings me back to Blu Ray. After doing some simple A/B comparisons of the same film on DVD and Blu Ray, the visual and aural differences were striking. DVD colors seem dull and lifeless by comparison. Re-watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind again on Blu Ray I was immediately struck by the level of detail that was missing from the previous DVD incarnation. I specifically chose a film that I thought I knew very well, and I was surprised to notice textures and definition in the alien spacecraft and visitors.

Ironically, the A/B comparison of this film highlighted for me the remarkable quality of 35mm film to be able to retain such deep blacks, vibrant colors, and sharp detail. For the last thirty years video has tried to play catch-up with little success. Remember when we were told that VHS came so close to capturing the details of real life that we could hardly tell the difference between the two? Now, “Is it live or is it Memorex” is down-right comical. Similarly, we’re being told now that HD media produces “the look and sound of perfect.” So, does that mean it’s better than real life?

And yet as I embrace this format I fear other developments such as digital movie downloads. Apple TV is one example of a growing number of services that allow users to download films onto their computers or media center hard drives. Do I really want to watch movies on my laptop? My iPod? No. Will “new media” encourage vew viewing habits? Perhaps, but I have a hard time believing that digital copies will completely replace hard copies. In this sense, Blu Ray discs encourage viewing habits of the video age: pop something into a player and watch it on your television. However, companies like Apple who have invested in the wireless, objectless future with products like the MacBook Air and Apple TV have recently expressed concern with adding Blu Ray players to their products. Steve Jobs, as recently as October, stated that Blu Ray represents a “bag of hurt” due its licensing and hardware obstacles. Or maybe Apple is betting that the digital download will emerge as the real format winner.

Blu Ray isn’t perfect, though. There are some drawbacks that will invariably affect the way I watch movies. For one, there is the whole issue of repurchasing a slew of titles on Blu Ray. So, that means that now I have three copies of Close Encounters: Criterion LaserDisc, DVD collector’s edition, and now the 30th Anniversary Blu Ray. To connect the dots to my earlier post on multiple versions, I’d like to point out that this new edition contains all three versions of the film: the theatrical cut (1977) , the special edition (1980), and the final cut (which excises the interior of the mothership sequence, which Spielberg admits he should “never have done”).

The Blu Ray format also possesses some limitations. I can’t, for example, upload any Blu Ray frame grabs since my computer DVD drive does not support the format. That goes for classroom showings and conference presentations, too. So for the meantime if you want to see and hear How the West was Won in its Cinerama glory, you’ll have to knock on my door or invest in a player yourself. We will also have to wait for some prized films to be released in the format; namely the first Star Wars trilogy, much of the Criterion catalog, and my own personal favorite the Back to the Future series.

Thanks to DVDBeaver.com for this BluRay capture

Thanks to DVDBeaver.com for this Blu Ray capture

So, while Blu Ray may be another video format destined for the garbage heap in a decade’s time, it seems to provide the closest approximation yet to 35mm and uncompressed audio clarity. Even the purists must admit that these high-res formats force major studios to revisit their catalog titles and remaster worn out negatives and re-release forgotten gems. It’s no surprise that Blu Ray received a boost in credibility when the Criterion Collection announced earlier this year that they too will be releasing select titles in the HD format to satisfy their own interest in preserving and presenting acclaimed films in their finest quality. And to those who prefer to watch a pink Dirty Harry, I respect your commitment, but I’ll stick with the shiny disc.

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Film and Variations: On Multiple Versions

•November 11, 2008 • 7 Comments

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For the last few weeks I have been reading through back issues of Mix to get a sense of how the magazine has reported on the development of digital sound technology in Hollywood. One article that stood out from the rest examined the theatrical re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy in 1997. Larry Blake, the author of the piece and a sound practitioner himself, confronted the whole question of whether or not George Lucas was committing heresy by tampering with the “original” films. Essentially, Blake found that even in 1977 there were multiple “originals” in theatrical circulation. This finding also supports my view that, in some sense, we can never really discuss any film as a text without variation. There are, of course, expanded releases, “director’s cuts,” “special editions,” “remastered editions,” and “restored editions” that alter the ways in which we can study a film. There are also more subtle variations that quietly subvert a totalizing view of film as text. We need to consider the aural and visual differences between a film’s theatrical presentation and its home video release. And as Blake’s Star Wars analysis suggests, we also need to consider how multiple versions of the same film can exist in its initial theatrical run.

To this end, I support what Rick Altman has already called for in his “heterogeneous” approach to film study, whereby film is understood as a experience or event that is mediated by various factors. Altman suggests that by “Ostensibly analyzing the film, cinema critics have been at pains both to homogenize the lived experience of film-viewing and to avoid undermining that homogeneity. Rather than recognize the legitimate existence of multiple versions of a film, based on diverse social and industrial needs (censorship, standardized length, colorization, foreign-language dubbing, etc.), critics have regularly made a fetish of locating the ‘original’ version.”

Calling attention to the heterogeneity of the film experience, Altman offers a film-historical approach that removes the need to refer to the film as a single phenomenon. Instead, we should embrace the multiplicity of spaces and versions of the cinema experience. To put this another way, Altman worries that by homogenizing film as a singular, unchanging text we miss an opportunity to explore the diversity of spaces in which films are presented and the various “social contexts in which the film is seen.” Specifically, he is pointing to silent film exhibition where feature films were shown with differing musical accompaniment or different ticketing and seating policies, thereby contributing to an altogether different experience of the same film.

The modern exhibition environment offers the same variation, even if it is less obvious than silent film practices. There are first-run theaters, second-run houses, drive-ins, and countless combinations of home cinema applications that skew any sense of a singular film experience. Can we honesty say that a state-of-the-art screening of, say, Wall-E at a digital cinema will be the same at a run-down mall multiplex? Or during a screening geared at mom’s and tots? David Bordwell has recently noted that at such parent-friendly screenings the “theatre is a little more illuminated than normal, the sound a little softer.” This ties back to Altman’s call for film studies to incorporate broader parameters in the analysis of films. Indeed, we might learn more about film viewership and audience trends if we consider the conditions under which films are exhibited.

One of the most understudied components is, of course, home viewing. When films were first shown on television, they were — arguably — poor imitations of what audiences experienced in the theater. In the post-widescreen era, films were truncated to fit on the relatively square-shaped TV screen, the audio mixed down to accommodate the puny mono TV speaker, and color films were often seen in black-and-white by home audiences who did not own a color set. By the time of VHS and Dolby Surround, home audiences were closer to experiencing the version of a film that filmmakers intended, but sound and picture were still augmented to accommodate the different platform. Even in the age of Blu Ray and High-Def TVs, mainstream films are translated to video in a complex process that often results in color and sound being slightly “off” from the theatrical (i.e., celluloid) standard.

In recent advertisements, Dolby Labs tells us that their latest home cinema technology, Dolby True HD, offers unprecedented audio clarity to home theater buffs by including uncompressed “lossless” audio that mirrors what filmmakers heard during the mix. It’s an outstanding format, but Dolby and other home audio manufacturers have been marveling at their ability to “bring the theater into your home” for decades now. The tools may be new, but the offer is the same. Which is why it is important to consider that there is no tangible way we can achieve equivalence between home and theater viewing.

This brings me back to Larry Blake’s Star Wars article. During the original release of Star Wars in May 1977 Twentieth Century-Fox released no fewer than four versions of the film to North American theaters. While audiences may have seen the same film, they heard three different ones. Star Wars was one of the first films to be mixed in Dolby Stereo and the very first film to employ a low frequency effects (subwoofer) channel, resulting in some very experimental mixing techniques. No one was quite sure how to best create a multichannel mix and the tools were not yet in place to ensure that the Dolby Stereo mixes were problem-free. By my count, there were four separate mixes readied for distribution: a 4-track master (LCRS, or Left, Center, Right, Surround), a 6-track version (LCRS+LFE), a 2-track Dolby mix (LR), and a mono track.

To be sure, the differences among the sound tracks were not merely cosmetic. Some sound effects, foley, and dialog were missing from some mixes. Ben Burtt recalls that as he and his sound crew scrambled to create the various mixes in the weeks leading up to the film’s premiere “there was a lot of stuff [in the 2-track version] that wasn’t in the stereo optical [4-track], including lines of dialog and sound effects, because opticals were being cut in after the mix.” Burtt notes that the simple-stereo 2-track mix “was the first mix finished and was also the least complete creatively, because at that time the stereo optical [format] was an unknown quantity and Dolby wanted to test it and find out how it was going to work. That mix was rushed out of the door, and we didn’t think it was that important because it was only going to be heard in a few theaters.”

The second mix the crew readied was the 6-track version with the added low frequencies for 70mm engagements; these were considered the roadshow engagements and numbered only 35 across North America.

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Blake goes on to suggest in his article that “Even after the film was in theaters…the mix was continuing at Goldwyn, in order to creat what Burtt says was considered by Lucas to be the genuine article…in mono!” Since the majority of theaters were still wired for mono sound, George Lucas and his crew felt that most people would experience Star Wars that way. Unfortunately, this meant that Burtt needed to create an entirely new mix, one that was fundamentally different than the stereo versions. Recalls Burt, “By the time we go to the monaural there were even further developments: more changes in dialog, more changes in sound effects, different processing.” He goes on to joke that “There was an offscreen line of Threepio’s, where he says, ‘That’s the main power station tractor beam switch, and you’ve got to go there and turn it off.’ And that was not in the 6-track version of the movie; it was only in the stereo optical [4-track]. It wasn’t even in the mono print, and I don’t know how it happened, but we found that line and now it’s back in.”

Thus, even before the 1981 re-release — wherein the subtitle “Episode IV: A New Hope” was added to the title crawl — and long before the CGI upgrades and Han-Greedo dilemma, Star Wars was released with multiple sound mixes. So, will the real Star Wars please stand up?

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title crawl

Some might suggest — as Ben Burtt has — that the 1997 redux version represents the most complete sound mix to date with every line of dialog, foley hit, sound effect, and music cue created for the film. But what about the more nuanced differences between home and theater presentations? Can a music or sound effect sting pack the same wallop at home as it does in a THX certified auditorium? More importantly, how do these changes in exhibition affect the film experience?

To help facilitate a broader discussion of this phenomenon, I believe we need to consider Altman’s “cinema as event” thesis. Even if we do not engage with the social dimensions of his platform, it is important to ask if a film text is a singular entity. We are conditioned to speak about films as singular texts. We tell our friends that we went to see this film or that film, not a version of that film.

To some, these variations are very minor and do not intrinsically change the nature of a film as text. But, as Altman contends, if we claim to understand the technical and cultural implications of a film, then it is important to consider the ways in which multiple versions contribute to this discussion. The “cinema as event” thesis affords us a more general flexibility to tackle this issue. It also provides a means by which we can discuss more dramatic changes to films.

Here I am referring to the process of renewal that we know as “remastering.” When E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was being prepared for its DVD release in 2002 Steven Spielberg remastered the original print, added some material, and (infamously) removed other material, including the replacement of guns with walkie talkies in the hands of the government agents. Some have reported that the line about Mike not being allowed out on Halloween dressed as a “terrorist” was changed to “dressed like THAT” in the VHS release from 1988 and “dressed like a hippie” in the 2002 theater/DVD release. (Note the compositional changes in the two frames below: Elliot’s head and E.T.’s basket have also been repositioned).

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et retouch

As such, it becomes harder to differentiate among versions when filmmakers and studios prohibit earlier versions from being distributed. In an eleventh-hour decision by Spielberg, the 20th Anniversary E.T. DVD set also included the original 1982 theatrical version. Many applauded this decision because it provided audiences with the option of experiencing Spielberg’s first “draft” or his latest draft of the film. This is a trend that has continued with the releases of multiple versions of Blade Runner and Touch of Evil, but many fans of the Star Wars saga are still clamoring for a yet-to-be-released “original” version of the first trilogy. I’m sure there are countless other major and minor examples of films that have been irrevocably changed, where original versions remain unavailable on video or extremely rare.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone have made it clear that they believe these works of popular art belong as much to the fans as to the filmmakers who created them. In a South Park episode titled “Free Hat,” Cartman and the gang learn that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are planning to release a remastered version of Raiders of the Lost Ark in order to “improve history.” Parker and Stone mock the “re-re-re-release” strategy of studios and filmmakers with send-ups of Saving Private Ryan (the word “Nazi” is replaced with “persons with political differences”) and The Empire Strikes Back (where all characters were replaced with Ewoks). Traveling to Skywalker Ranch to confront Lucas and Spielberg, the boys plead with them not to tamper with Raiders. Parker and Stone essentially argue that the film belongs to the world and to change it would mean changing history and memory: “movies are art and art shouldn’t be modified.” A very recent episode of the series suggested that Lucas and Spielberg “raped” Harrison Ford and, by corollary, the boys for having Indiana Jones meet interstellar beings in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

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I have outlined two approaches to the study of multiple versions; one considers the technical differences between mixes and presentations, and the other considers the cultural impact of the altered, er, “remastered” version on the movie-going experience. They are very different approaches, since the more fine-grained model requires the critic to be mindful of different material conditions as opposed to obvious content differences within a film. Both, however, demand critics and scholars to be more precise about the definition of a film as a text or an event.

To help facilitate discussion on this topic, I don’t believe it is necessary to point out an appropriate method by which to release or “restore” a film. I sympathize with those who feel utterly betrayed by filmmakers who change their films. To take a macro view of this trend, we should consider that perhaps we experience approximations of films that change over time. I doubt that even directors and editors experience their films in the same way from venue to venue, year to year.

As a film student this can be incredibly frustrating. One of the chapters of my Master’s thesis was devoted to the innovative sound design of Apocalypse Now. Right in the middle of my research it occurred to me that my analysis could be deemed completely subjective and baseless since I was hearing the film in my home, on DVD, in an audio format that did not exist in 1979 (5.1 Dolby Digital). How could I honestly write with authority about the movement of sound, the spatial dynamics of sound, and the textures of the sound track when I was hearing an altogether new mix?

This is a question plagued by many film scholars who give themselves the job of historicizing the technical and aesthetic qualities of cinema. To study early Technicolor (as Scott Higgins has admirably done) or sound design in the 1970s requires a caveat: material conditions change. Can we productively analyze Technicolor stock qualities based on a remastered DVD of Gone With the Wind? How about the study of mise en scene using a full frame copy of Blow Out? If we tow the party line of film studies, then there is no real difference. A film is a film is a film. But we know better, don’t we?

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“I believe in America”

•November 6, 2008 • Leave a Comment

obamahope

I’m in the middle of writing a new post but did not want to miss an opportunity to express some thoughts on the recent U.S. election. As many of my readers know, I’m a Canadian citizen, so I couldn’t vote. But my connection to the U.S.A. runs deep. My mother grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and I share her enthusiasm for the people and institutions of the country to the chagrin of many of my fellow Canadians.

When my grandfather became a U.S. citizen in 1960 he took great pride in his ability to vote in the presidential election. I always admired that. He taught me many things, not the least of which was knowing your place in history and being a part of it. He passed away in 2005 but I wish he had been around to see the election of Barack Obama. Not only because he lived through the civil rights movement and recognized the struggle of black Americans, but because of the hope that Obama has infused into the international conversation. It’s the same sense of hope and possibility that he inspired in me as a child. He was adament about the love he had for his adopted country, so much so that I used to tease him that he sounded like Bonasera at the beginning of The Godfather: “I believe in America.” Just imagine a German accent instead of an Italian one.

My wife likes to point out that my family is resolutely committed to the hope and optimism that is routinely ridiculed by contemporary cynics. We’re about apple pies and trusting the nightly news. It’s a decidedly old world attitude, but one that seems more relevant today than ever before.

“From here on in, absolute silence.”

•October 22, 2008 • 12 Comments

If we break down a modern film sound track into its component parts, traditionally we’d have three indispensable units: dialog, music, and effects. Each of these elements can be further sub-divided into types of dialog (voice-over narration or diegetic speech), music (source or score), and effects (footfalls, gunfire, or ambiences). But there’s a fourth component that often goes unnoticed, mainly because of its muted presence on the sound track. I am talking about silence. As filmmakers and audiences continue to complain that modern films are too loud, relying on heavy doses of ear-splitting passages to convey the intensity of an action sequence or dramatic moment, it’s worth noting some impressive forays into sonic silences.

Walter Murch has stated on occasion that today’s films risk overloading digital sound tracks with too much sonic information in a way that can lead to muddy, incomprehensible, and unnecessarily loud passages. For example, with up to eight loudspeaker channels to fill on an SDDS (Sony Dynamic Digital Sound) track, sound editors and mixers (along with some directors and producers) can become greedy. A simple dialog sequence between two characters in a park can turn ugly if the ambiences of the park are amplified to such an extent that the characters’ words are competing with the breathing sounds of nearby squirrels or the tweeting sparrows that flutter past the camera. But are the birds and other ambiences really necessary to the main conversation?

In 1979, Murch pioneered the use of the modern multichannel sound track with his work on Apocalypse Now, where he very much designed the ways in which sound moved around the theater space. In the film’s hellish combat sequences, Murch incorporated the split-surround channels to convey the spacious geography of the battle. But in other sequences, where we are plunged into the mind of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), Murch shrunk the sound space down to one channel (the center channel) to literally “focus” the audience’s attention on one or two distinct sounds. Just as a camera operator focuses on narratively pertinent objects, the sound designer can accomplish the same goals with the manipulation of our modern multichannel sound space.

Now, very few films have attempted what Murch accomplished in 1979. To this date Apocalypse Now still feels experimental. But the principles outlined by Murch — which he discusses in Michael Ondaatje’s The Conversations — have influenced a generation of Hollywood sound practitioners. One such principle applies to the use of silence in sound cinema. Writing on the interrogation scene in The English Patient, Ondaatje notes:

When Caravaggio says, “Don’t cut me,” the German pauses for a second, a flicker of disgust on his face. We see the look on the German. And now we know he has to do what he was previously just thinking about. To emphasize this, Murch, at that very moment, pulls all the sound out of the scene, so there is complete silence. And we, even if we don’t realize it as we sit in the theatre, are shocked and the reason is that quietness.

Interestingly, Murch has said that he makes a conscious effort to find a moment of silence in all of his films, where the “shock” of it will resonate more than any sound effect could. The shock of silence in modern movies is due, in many respects, to its foreignness on the sound track. There’s a certain discomfort that comes with a silent sound track. In life, we’re surrounded by noise emiting from our environment, televisions, personal stereos, and other media outlets including the movies. When that noise is silenced, there’s a good chance that something has gone wrong. Imagine the street traffic outside your window ceases and you’re left with the thin sound of the wind and the beating of your own heart.

As television commercials are growing increasingly louder than the programs they sponsor, it’s downright eerie when an ad opts for a sparse sound track, devoid of any loud music stings or portentous voice-overs. I can say the same thing for movie trailers. When was the last time a trailer impressed you with moments of relative silence?

Obviously, the shock of silence is only effective when used in conservative amounts. Gary Rydstrom — who designed the sound for Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, among others — believes that effective sound design begins with contrasts:

But it’s also about how frequencies work together. There’s a trick to making a gunshot big using multiple layers of elements. You take the high snap of a pistol and add to it the low boom of a cannon and the midrange of a canyon echo. You orchestrate it. On an über scale then, we do that to the whole soundtrack, making sounds work together.

For a sound to be perceived as loud, it makes sense to sandwich it between quiet sounds. For instance, there’s a wonderful moment of shock in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster when Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) threatens Tango outside the diner by pointing a .45 pistol at his head. We’re unsure if Frank — who stands stone-faced — will actually shoot Tango in broad daylight, in the middle of a busy street corner. Scott focuses the camera on Frank as he makes up his mind, even though Tango is slightly visible at the left side of the frame. Frank hears enough from the insolent thug and fires the pistol at his head. The gunshot is noticeably louder than any other sound in the scene — richly detailed and sharply defined. It’s startling because Frank actually murders Tango in cold blood, but also because of the hyper-real sound of the gun firing. Scott and his sound crew force the audience to listen intently as Frank stands in silence before upsetting the balance with an unusually loud gun shot effect. It’s a stylized move from Scott to intensify the drama of that moment, when Frank becomes a feared figure in Harlem.

Rydstrom’s concept of contrasts dovetails nicely with Murch’s notion of sonic silence. The contrast from loud to quiet can be intense, as Murch demonstrated with the interrogation scene in The English Patient. Slowly, Murch builds suspense by pulling sounds out. It’s subtle and doesn’t last for too long, but long enough to register a sense of discomfort and eeriness. In some sense, sonic silences constitute the uncanny, that which is unfamiliar and unsettling. By pulling sound out of a scene we are faced with an otherwise “unrealistic” situation: by all accounts we should be able to hear what the characters are saying and what their natural environment sounds like. In this way, the rules of sound cinema are violated and we are plunged into an unfamiliar sonic environment.

Rydstrom continues:

Silence can be thought of as a type of sound. It’s like when somebody years ago figured out that zero was a number. And silence is just as valid as an amazing sound. Every sound editor can’t help but think of how to fill up a track; it’s what we’re paid for.

Because of its ability to distance the audience from the narrative, most filmmakers avoid complete silences. In many cases silence can be achieved through what Michel Chion has called the silence around the single instrument. If we think of an orchestral solo, the entire orchestra is silent except for the lone soloist whose sound fills the entire hall. With film, the solo instrument can be a single sound effect played through one loudspeaker channel, while the others remain empty (or simply carry the reverb of the solo effect).

The T-Rex attack in The Lost World: Jurassic Park offers a fine example of this type of silence. The angry dinos have pushed the research trailer over a cliff, leaving Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Sarah (Julianne Moore), and Nick (Vince Vaughn) dangling inside. Sarah loses her grip on a door handle and falls to the bottom of the trailer, landing on the back window, which slowly begins to crack. She lies motionless as the cracks widen and grow like spiderwebs around her hands and legs. When Spielberg’s camera is on Sarah and the glass, the sound track deadens to a low frequency hum (a combination of music score and effects). On top of this hum is the sound of cracking glass. The glass effects build over time as more and more cracks appear around Sarah’s body. When Spielberg cuts away to Malcolm and Nick, the sound track resumes with other effects that connote the chaotic environment: creaking metal, shouting, and rain ambiences.

Much like the close-ups on the cracking glass, Spielberg’s aural close-ups convey a more immediate sense of danger. As the cracks intensify, their sound grows more heavy: the next one could crack open the entire window! Finally, the tension is released when the mobile phone drops through the window just as Sarah grabs something to hold on to. The final smashing sound is the proverbial crescendo to this mini-sequence.

This is not a pure example of silence, but something we might call “near silence,” where the air around the solo sound is silent. That might sound pretentious but it speaks to the psychological weight of sound in modern cinema. With so many loudspeaker channels and tracks available to sound mixers today, sometimes it’s a single sound surrounded by its own echo that communicates the most information.

Another modern example I find effective is from Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. At the end of the film when Munny (Eastwood) is about to kill Little Bill (Gene Hackman) Munny cocks his rifle and takes aim. The sound track deadens and we wait as Bill speaks his dying words. Then, in near silence, we hear Bill inhale for the last time. The sound of his breath — metaphorically, his life — fills the front channels right before the rifle is fired. It is a quiet sound, but one that is surrounded by thick silence. It’s no surprise that pauses during dramatic confrontations sometimes represent the most tense moments, since there is often little to no sonic accompaniment. I’m thinking specifically of Hitchcock’s tense finale to Rear Window when the only rear sound is that of Jeffries’s flashbulbs. Randy Thom’s work on Cast Away (2000) is another case where near-silences dominate entire sequences. When we’re on the island with Chuck (Tom Hanks), the sound of the ocean often fills the empty sonic space to remind us that he isn’t quite alone. He’s immersed in the natural environment, which has its own set of sounds.

So it seems relatively common for filmmakers today to imbue sound tracks with near-silences that focus narrative attention to a solo sound. What about absolute silences? Remarkably, I have encountered very few films that incorporate moments of absolute silence, where even room tone and other “natural” ambiences are stripped from the sound track in favor of an empty track. As I have already suggested, a muted track can potentially distract an audience because of its utter foreignness. We’re just not used to hearing nothing when we go to the movies. Or, perhaps more accurately, we’re not accustomed to hearing the people around us in theater move around in their seats and chew on their popcorn and candy.

One of the more impressive moments of absolute silence occurs in Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator. After Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) has locked himself in his office and he begins to hallucinate, Scorcese pulls the sound of the scene. Hughes is naked, watching his own films on a loop. We stare at Hughes in a medium-long shot and as he sits in his chair the sound track goes mute. Not even the sound of the projector. Not even the sound of Hughes breathing. Nothing. It’s a stark moment because at this point he has sunk so low into depression and sickness that he finally alone. The silence lasts for only a few seconds, but its presence is hard to ignore.

Absolute silence is certainly rare in longer sequences, especially in mainstream movies. It may be an effective dramatic device, but the fear of distraction often trumps aesthetic experimentation.

My last example is a mix between near and absolute silence. It’s hybrid character is unique among Hollywood movies in that it takes an opportunity to underline the importance of sound (or lack thereof) in dramatic situations. Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible includes an impressive sequence within the headquarters of the C.I.A. in Langley, Virginia. Ethan Hunt and his team of operatives must infultrate a secured vault and retrieve a set of computer files. The only problem is that the room is sound and heat sensitive, so any increase in body temperature or noise will set off the alarm.

Ethan must be lowered into the vault — which bears a striking resemblance to the design of several sets in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — and retrieve the hard-disk files without breaking a sweat or making any noise. This becomes even more difficult since he is lowered upside-down and the room temperature must remain below 73 degrees. De Palma and his sound crew take this opportunity to engineer a sequence that unfolds in relative silence. Before entering the vault Ethan tells his team, “From here on in, absolute silence.” We then cut to a close-up of the vent grate being removed and then a close-up of Ethan being lowered down, face first. Following Ethan’s directive, we are treated to the same silence that Ethan experiences in the vault. For a moment there’s a faint hum from the computer terminal, but even this is reduced to a whisper as Ethan continues his descent.


There is some sonic reprieve each time we cut back to Krieger (Jean Reno), who is holding the rope apparatus, and Luther who is in a separate location handling surveillance. Their sound spaces are filled with ambiences and mild effects, while Ethan’s vault space is sonically barren.

Gary Rydstrom recalls working on this scene:

I remember a scene in the first Mission Impossible in which Tom Cruise breaks into a computer room at the CIA, for which we’d added all these sound details for equipment he was using to
lower himself in. Yet the idea was that if he made any sound over a certain level, he would trip the alarm. Brian De Palma ultimately said, “No, take it all out.” And for the most part, that scene plays with nothing on the track. I went to see it with an audience and it had the desired effect: It made everyone lean in, pay closer attention, get nervous. Tension comes from the silence of that scene.

I remember watching this sequence in the theater and realizing that in the silence everyone stopped eating and moving. There was stillness for those few moments. Not only was their tension in Ethan’s descent, but also in the audience’s self-consciousness at being exposed. You could hear a kernel of popcorn drop.

It becomes obvious that sound has been pulled from the vault shots when the rope apparatus makes no noise when Ethan is prematurely lifted out. Sound returns to the vault when the C.I.A. employee enters and the chamber is unlocked with a crisp thudding effect. When Ethan gets the data he is pulled up once again, but this time the wires make a distinct noise that was not heard when he lifted earlier. The rope begins to rub against the vent, creating a tearing sound that threatens to cross the sound threshold of the vault security system. To make matters worse, just as Krieger takes the disk from Ethan, he drops a long knife. We follow the knife as it falls through the air — no sound, just a tense sigh from Ethan. The knife hits the desk simultaneously as the C.I.A. employee returns and disarms the alarm. Throughout the sequence, a cluster of problems arise that threaten the security of our protagonists, each tied to the element of sound.

Brian De Palma is no stranger to aesthetic experimentation and innovation (see his use of split-screens throughout the 1970s), and so it doesn’t surprise me that he would try to stretch the extent to which silence can be deployed in a Dolbyized multichannel environment. He does it convincingly by having the silence grow organically from the plot, which lessens the extent to which we can be pulled out of the narrative. It is surprising, however, that all of these techniques are not used more often to pique interest, drive narratives, and communicate meaning. Silence is a powerful sound that does something that no other element of film sound does: it forces the audience to listen more intently to the air between the sounds.

The Slow Burn

•October 2, 2008 • 1 Comment

Earlier this summer I found myself wondering how I could best describe the work of film composer Hans Zimmer. In many respects, Zimmer’s contribution to modern film scoring is extensive as it is expansive. With this post I’d like to discuss the constitutive elements of the Zimmer “sound” and how it works with the image.

Since the 1980s Zimmer has written for various genres, from intimate dramas (Rain Man) to summer blockbusters (Gladiator), and has established himself as one of the most versatile figures in modern film music. His Remote Control studio (formerly Media Ventures) is a veritable training ground for young composing talent, which has arguably led to a definable Remote Control “sound.” The fabric of Zimmer’s approach is evident in the works of John Powell (The Bourne Identity), Steve Jablonsky (Transformers), Klaus Badelt (Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl), Harry Gregson Williams (The Chronicles of Narnia), and other proteges of Remote Control.

The sound I am talking about can often be misunderstood as synthetic, loud, and lacking compositional complexity. As a listener and collector of film music, I am quite familiar with the criticisms leveled on Zimmer and his colleagues, which emphasize the music’s lack of counterpoint, intimacy, and tradition. Zimmer himself has gone on record a number of times to point out that his music is indeed performed by an orchestra, even though it often sounds synthesized, modulated, or processed.

The power anthem

The Zimmer sound has also contributed to a distinct trend in modern orchestral film music. What we might call the power anthem has emerged as a dominant texture of not only movie music, but also music for sporting events and television advertising. The power anthem is a muscular, brassy motif with considerable synthesized augmentation, and the occasional anvil hit. Which is why it finds a comfortable home in the world of sports montages and commercial advertising. At the Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays’ starting lineup is announced to Badelt and Zimmer’s main theme from Pirates of the Caribbean. Composer Mark Isham (who does not appear to have any affiliation with Remote Control) composed the Army Strong music with a strong power anthem at its core. On television, a power anthem was used in the opening credits of the short-lived reality series The Contender, starring Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone utilized a Remote Control protege, Harry Gregson Williams, to compose the score to Team America: World Police in the same style. In this case, the intent of the score was parody. At the time of Team America‘s release in 2004, the anthemic approach had achieved such a profound ubiquity that the South Park creators were only too willing to acknowledge and mock. Much of the Team America score is overwrought with muscular horns and percussive hits with nary a hint of subtlety. Parker and Stone’s parody is as much of the Remote Control sound as it is the style of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer productions such as Top Gun and Armageddon.

The resounding strength of the power anthem, no doubt the result of its transparent melody and brassy flourishes, has been tied to military themes. However, I hesitate to identify the music as being inherently masculine or patriotic or militaristic. There is nothing — that I can tell — that is distinctly militaristic or masculine about the anthem trend, unless we are willing to define brass and horns as distinctly “masculine” instruments. At the same time, the power theme has been used in this way to convey militaristic themes of honor and masculinity. We might be able to define the use of the power anthem as a stylistic choice favored by Jerry Bruckheimer. His own dislike of wind instruments and preference for emboldened brass underlines the power anthem structure, which has become a staple in most of his productions.

Roll Tide

The military anthem is certainly not new to film music or ceremonial music, but its modern incarnation is very much rooted in Zimmer’s output in the 1990s. In fact, one of the earliest manifestations of this motif can be found in the fourth movement of Anton Bruckner’s olympic eighth symphony. Listen to a snippet here and here, and tell me that you don’t hear the driving bass lines of most modern action film music. The principal theme of this movement reminds me of both Danny Elfman’s Batman (1989) and Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s newer Batman cycle.

Back to Zimmer and the power anthem. There is Black Rain (1989) and Backdraft (1991), but for me the real birth of the Zimmer anthem came with Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide in 1995. The relatively intimate submarine drama relied heavily on closeups of Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington, but Zimmer’s score was much grander, much wider than that. The “big speech” delivered by Hackman’s character, Captain Ramsay, comes on a rainy night as he addresses the crew of the Alabama. While he attempts to inspire the troops, the soundtrack fills with the tinny sound of rain, the low-end rattling of thunder, and Zimmer’s rising orchestra. As Ramsay intones that the ship belongs to the “greatest country in the world,” we cut to a wide shot of the ship and its crew spread across the length of the Panavision frame. The power anthem arrives on the cut to emphasize the scope of the moment. Not even Denzel Washington’s ironic smirk can dilute the epic seriousness of this sequence.

Following Crimson Tide, the power anthem structure was clearly audible in The Rock (1996), The Peacemaker (1997), and Gladiator (2000), where Zimmer turned it into a battle waltz. In some sense, it’s not that surprising that the anthem became a de facto element of big-budget Hollywood music, considering Zimmer’s collaborative approach to scoring. The Remote Control environment is one of open collaboration, where several composers take turns sewing the musical fabric to different scenes. Which is why it can sometimes get confusing when Zimmer admits — for example — that he wrote the Pirates theme, but did not score the actual film. The risk being that the Remote Control composers write in a similar fashion. As a result the power anthem has reached a point of saturation that even Zimmer has begun to lighten his use of it in muscular projects such as Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Asked why the anthem-driven motif for Batman in the first Nolan film was not used more, Zimmer stated simply that the character had not yet grown into the heroic figure worthy of such a grand statement. By the time of The Dark Knight, Zimmer virtually abandoned the motif in favor of a less sure-footed theme. To be sure, the anthem is still present in the score, only in fragments.

Which leads me to my next point regarding Zimmer’s sound. The power anthem may be the most recognizable and disseminated technique popularized by the composer, but it says nothing of his art. There is a much more instinctive scoring technique that Zimmer continues to employ in film after film that has evaded considerable focus and attention.

I’ve called this technique “the slow burn” in order to emphasize the ways in which the music rests underneath broad sequences to unify the diegetic space and slowly build to a satisfying crescendo. Avoiding musical punctutation, Zimmer’s musical building blocks are expansive, sweeping, and blanketing. Through percussive overlays, rhythmic counterpoint, and cyclical ostinatos, Zimmer allows his music to breathe through sequences and culminate in a crescendo that is not otherwise indicated visually.

In this way, Zimmer does not deviate from established Hollywood practice; he still emphasizes dramatic action and underscores the emotional textures of scenes. I would not go so far as to call this musical minimalism in the vein of John Adams or Steve Reich, but there are hints of the sparse rhythms and repeated motifs of these American minimalists. One major difference between Zimmer and the minimalist phenomenon is that Zimmer will introduce a thematic motif and develop it throughout the piece, reaching a full statement at the climax, then decaying in the final moments.

Do we hear film music?

The old Hollywood adage goes: we shouldn’t hear film music, we should feel it unconsciously. The slow burn method, emphasized by Hans Zimmer, fulfills this traditional perspective since the music is based on textures and ostinatos that seems to exist only in the ether. It’s mesmerizing precisely because it is not immediate. It grows over time, builds to a climax then disappears again. Arguably when film music is “heard,” it interrupts the diegetic sound flow. Suddenly room tone is eviscerated by a battery of horns. In other words, it is an an inorganic element. I have spoken with many film PhDs who argue over these two approaches: the less-is-more and the more-is-more traditions in film music. I’ve even heard arguments over these varying techniques used by the same composer:

“Well, Bernard Herrmann’s over-the-top Seventh Voyage of Sinbad pales in comparison to the minimalist tones of Cape Fear.”

“Really, Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is much more involving and thematically diverse than his minimalist works for Cronenberg.”

Zimmer’s functional aesthetic with the slow burn anticipates the need for unity and emotional resonance without an overt call from the orchestral pit. There is an impressionistic quality to this music, even if the images are overly literal. The technique works best, however, when the images are equally impressionistic and open-ended.

In The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s poetic World War II drama, Zimmer’s score provides a dream-like haze over the sprawling narrative. While Malick’s narrative never quite congeals in the classical sense, the original score unifies the disparate plot and ties together the multiple voice-overs with a handful of recurring motifs. Zimmer wrote much of the score before the film was completed, leaving Malick with large swaths of music from which to pick and choose in the editing process. In this way, Zimmer could write elongated passages that were not scene specific, but rather mood specific.

The Japanese bivouac sequence underlines this approach. I am not one who regards Malick’s narrative as an exercise in the sublime, but I will say that Zimmer’s music in this sequence is a near-perfect exercise in image-sound relations. The visual narrative of the bivouac sequence is deeply layered, with shifting perspectives throughout, yet Zimmer composes not for intricacy, but for movement.

Lately I have become fascinated with how filmmakers achieve movement, whether through framing, editing, or sound. It’s a complex phenomena that I shall return to in later posts, but for now let us examine Malick and Zimmer’s cinema of movement in the bivouac sequence.

The slow burn

The sequence begins as Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) stares at the remains of a Japanese soldier, whose entire body — save a small portion of his face — is covered in dirt and ash. Witt is captivated by the face, which seems frozen in time, and he imagines the voice of the soldier speaking about the meaning of death and honor. We then gradually move with a battalion of American soldiers as they make their way to the Japanese encampment, through a dense fog. When the soldiers emerge from the fog they are enveloped in a chaotic battle scene, where some Japanese soldiers are firing at them and others are wounded on the ground, screaming in pain. Their words are not translated, leaving the audience (and American soldiers) to interpret only the sounds and not their meaning. While some Americans attempt to console the wounded, others fire at them. The sequence ends with Private Doll (Dash Mihok) asking, “Who’s doing this? Who’s killin’ us…?”

Malick’s camera remains fluid throughout the sequence, in search of a focal point, but never finding just one. He panaglides from one soldier’s face to another, registering the utter disbelief and horror on their faces. Each of them seems to be asking themselves, “What are we doing here? What do we do?” In the midst of the chaos, a lone Japanese soldier meditates. Another tries to hide in an above-ground fox hole but is killed by a mortar explosion.

The score cue — known on the soundtrack album as “Journey to the Line” — runs the length of the sequence. The music grows out of the mist as Zimmer employs a series of rhythmic pulses over the principal motif, which is performed on low strings. These pulses underline the entire sequence, while Zimmer continues to add orchestral layers, including further instrumentation of the mourning brass figure.

At the four minute mark, as the soldiers enter the encampment, taiko drums are added to the mix to intensify the rhythmic properties of the piece. Everything continues to grow out of the main theme, with horns carrying a soulful three-note descending motif that cascades over the rest of the orchestra. We’ve reached the height of the sequence: a terrified Japanese soldier covers his ears from the sonic chaos that we can barely register.

Before we know it, the horns have subsided and the rhythmic pulses return. Low strings pick up the main tune without the drama or intensity as before. As the soldiers assess the situation, Zimmer introduces a high-string element that works through several prolonged chords before evaporating into the sound of the jungle. In the film, Zimmer’s music gives way to a quotation from Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question.

The passage from near-tranquility to chaos and back again is accomplished through the blanketing texture of this cue. The sound grows without any specific visual cues; it simply exists. Yet, the sequence is unified by the singular theme that grows to full maturation at the mid-way point.

We might say that Malick’s roaming camera presents a variety of dramatic vignettes without any context. Zimmer’s music concretizes the emotional weight of the sequence by building the layers, piece by piece, until the tension and drama is fully realized. Then it dissipates, evaporates.

In a 2007 interview with soundtrack.net, Zimmer commented on this approach:

Here’s the thing. If I come up with an idea like the Thin Red Line thing, for instance, it’s not finished when I finish that piece: it’s just a jumping-off point to try to get better at that. So I’ve been going back to that idea because I think, as a composer, you have a duty to develop. It’s evolutionary, not necessarily revolutionary always. So the idea of these patterns and these things building on top of each other is really just minimalist music taken to a romantic level. The whole Da Vinci Code score is sort of based, I suppose, on minimalist ideas…

It’s a very open piece, and what it does in the movie is that it lets you in, it lets an audience participate. It’s not like a normal tune, which has a start or end; it’s asymmetrical on purpose and breaks all the rules, so it’s more like a question than an answer.

As he says, the slow burn is also utilized in climax of The Da Vinci Code when the location of the Grail is revealed. The scene itself is rather flat, with Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) walking from his hotel to the inverted glass pyramid at the Louvre. Zimmer scores the sequence much the same way he did The Thin Red Line with an organic motif that builds to a full statement over four minutes. Beyond the exposition of the sequence delivered by Hanks in voice over, Zimmer’s arpeggios suggest a mystery about to be solved, while the choral and high-string ovelays provide that much needed sense of release. Throughout, the sequence moves on the wings of the music, as it does with The Thin Red Line.

The “romantic minimalism” of this approach offers a sense of movement that is entirely dependent on the sound track to provide such momentum. Thus, the movement derives not from the rhythmic properties of the music, but from the slow evolution of the thematic motifs. The music drives the sequences, setting up the audience for a reveal, a culmination, a release at the end that the image does not convey. With the finale to The Dark Knight, Zimmer underscores Commissioner Gordon’s speech to his son: “Because he’s the hero that Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now…and so we’ll hunt him…because he can take it…because he’s not a hero…he’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector…a dark knight.” Throughout the monologue, Zimmer (and James Newton Howard) builds a musical fabric from the Batman motif developed earlier in the film, and wisely chooses to conclude without a culminating chord. The end credits begin on a higher note, but not one that entirely satisfies.

It’s not a groundbreaking function of film music, but it is one that continues to fascinate me. To unify the image, enhance the drama, and move the audience with music is surely a difficult task. Zimmer has stated on occasion that even though he is quite prolific, he tends to experiment with musical ideas across an array of films until he feels a creative satisfaction that a concept or motif has been perfected or exhausted. The creative process is much like a puzzle, sifting through the pieces to find the right order and reveal the big picture. With film music, it is about finding the right tone, the right accompaniment, or the right set of notes. At one end of the Zimmer spectrum is the power anthem: aggressive, catchy (in pop music terms), and direct. At the other end is the minimalist romanticism that punctuates the dramatic action by blanketing it with a build-and-release rhythmic arc. The musical function that I have described as the slow burn is as much an exercise in long-form composition as it is a different way of scoring to picture. It represents a musical option in the composer’s arsenal to complement the dramatic action without being tightly bound to the confines of the image.

Paul Newman (1925-2008)

•September 27, 2008 • 3 Comments

I was profoundly saddened this morning to hear about the death of Paul Newman. Monica and I had been following the reports about his battle with cancer, but somehow thought he’d overcome it. Of course, we didn’t know Paul Newman, but like so many others we respected his activism and greatly admired his outspoken beliefs in social issues and his fifty-year marriage to Joanne Woodward. Much of the news coverage today has focused on the notion that he was one of the last great screen icons, and one of the few Hollywood personalities to have exuded such sincerity both on and off the screen. In so many films he projected an air of confidence that was both commanding and self-effacing.

Do yourself a favor this weekend and check out Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When Sundance (Robert Redford) tells Butch that he can’t swim, Butch reacts with an infectious laugh that I’ve never forgotten. One of those little moments that can define a film and an entire career.

We’ve lost one of the good guys.

In the Mix with TIFF

•September 18, 2008 • Leave a Comment

As a resident of Toronto I would be remiss not to comment about the recent Toronto International Film Festival, otherwise known as TIFF. My wife and I took in a small dose of five films this year, focusing on fare that would not otherwise find a large release in North American multiplexes. Having spent the last five years in cultural isolation, we weren’t sure we could handle many more — though my wife’s previous Festival record is twenty-two. We were initially baffled that we received all five of our “top five” picks despite being one of the last boxes in the festival lottery.

When it comes to TIFF, we are certainly not cinemaniacs, willing to endure three or four films a day. We’ll read up on many of the films in advance in order to gauge some level of interest, and we tend to avoid certain categories such as Wavelengths, which is devoted to experimental shorts and features. We also avoid more mainstream picks that tend to find theatrical releases within weeks of the Festival. Our logic: Why see the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading when we can avoid the lines and inflated ticket prices and see it next week? We were disappointed to learn that festival organizers have even separated certain acclaimed films from the regular lottery system, thereby allowing higher prices on selected works. In the past it was common for Gala premieres to be excluded, but now even the second and third screenings are off limits to standard buyers, unless you’ve paid extra.

Nevertheless, it is still possible to see a great many films at TIFF even without a press pass or an industry connection. This remains one of the joys of the Festival, in that it is open to anyone, no matter what the Canadian press says about the corporate takeover of the fest. Despite such hyperbole, it was obvious that festival turnout was very strong among cinephiles and cinemaniacs, as this lineup demonstrates.

The Movies

Among our favorite categories at TIFF include the Real to Reel documentaries, the world cinema picks, and the Midnight Madness selections. The first two are self explanatory, but the third remains one of the real gems of the entire Festival, a category devoted to midnight screenings of internationally marginalized or cult genre films. Here, enthusiastic crowds embrace the transgeneric as if they were works of high art. In past years there have been Japanese yakuza flicks, zombie horrors, rockumentaries, Borat, sexy killers, and other brands of the weird and crazy.

This year the best film we saw at TIFF came on the first night of the Madness screenings. In fact it was hard to top this pick, which slowly generated buzz among festival goers until its premiere. This was evidenced by the winding rush ticket line that was longer than the ticket holders line. The film was JCVD, which by now many people know as that “surprisingly good Jean Claude Van Damme” movie. I hate to sound like one of those surprised audience members, but yes…Van Damme can act. He gives what is probably his most personal and riskiest performance, playing a slightly fictionalized version of himself.

The self-reflexive nature of the film is the least interesting aspect of JCVD, since it has become a relatively common narrative device in film and television comedy. For example, Larry David does it on Curb Your Enthusiasm. JCVD is an accomplished work because it does not rely on this device to deliver the film’s key punchlines and narrative arc. We are instead invited to follow Van Damme as he deals with two overlapping crises: a personal meltdown due to a bitter divorce and child custody case, and a robbery in which he finds himself a hostage. After returning to Belgium to escape his personal turmoil in LA, Van Damme is the victim of bad timing when he walks in on a robbery of a small-town post office. The authorities, however, believe Van Damme to be the criminal, since he is forced by his captors to communicate with the lead investigator by telephone. While Van Damme is highly revered by the townspeople, he is also known to be rather unstable, which explains their willingness to believe that he would hold up a post office.

The film itself is highly stylized without becoming a distraction. What was most impressive was the degree to which the director, Mabrouk El Mechri, relies on complex long takes over rapid cutting and extreme close ups. El Mechri demonstrates that tension and speed can be conveyed through spacious framing and longer shot lenghts. The opening title sequence virtually sets up this stylistic thematic that will govern the rest of the film. Over the titles, we observe Van Damme acting out a complex action sequence that takes him to various areas of a rainy soundstage, where he punches and kicks his way through an army of goons. And it’s all done in one seamless take (unless, of course, there have been some CG transitions). By the end of the take, Van Damme completes the action and retires to his make-shift trailer and stares longingly into space. He’s older, slower, and the desire to be an action star has faded along with his popularity.

El Mechri balances the action set pieces with wit and irony that play well together, even as the film wants it both ways. We want to see Van Damme kick ass, but we’re forced to recognize that even if this is not the “real world,” Van Damme is only a guy in a post office, a recovering drug addict and worn Hollywood star. This synthesis reaches a climax during the film’s most profound and touching segments, a soliloquy from Van Damme who literally rises above the set to address the audience. Over an orchestra of mulling strings, he confesses to his drug addiction, his pursuit of fame, his dream of Hollywood stardom, his humble beginnings, his family meltdown, and his love of martial arts.

None of it may be true, but Van Damme convinces us with a heartfelt appeal. It’s one of those moments where you’re caught off guard by such a decision that initially leaves you wondering if it worked. In retrospect I believe it does work, not because El Mechri twists the genre to be provocative, but because it feels genuine and it grows organically from the rest of the film. Yes, Van Damme can act, but more importantly he is sincere. Which is something that most films lack.

Runners up

There were others…including The Real Shaolin, about the lives of four students of traditional kung fu in China. Worth a look if it is ever released. There’s nothing groundbreaking about its style or structure, but it fuses four very different stories with compassion and honesty.

Not Quite Hollywood, which documents the rise and fall of Australian “exploitation” films, had a lot of potential to tap into the social and cultural nuances of the Australian film industry in the 1970s, but it ended up being a rather benign love letter comprised of lengthy clips from some classic Ozploitation flicks such as Mad Max and Patrick and some forgotten gems such as Razerback and Roadgames. While the film gave me a shopping list of new films to search out, I don’t know if I learned anything about the state of the Australian industry or why these films were so popular at that time. Quentin Tarantino’s running commentary added a necessary dose of context, but like the filmmakers seemed to be on hand more as a fan than an expert.

There was also Restless, an Israeli co-production about a strained father-son relationship, that we found uneven but still engaging, even though it relied too heavily on extreme close ups that disrupted the spatial dynamics of several scenes. While emotion is often conveyed in the eyes of an actor, there’s no need to emphasize this with entire dialog sequences shot so tightly. The women seated behind me were also confused, since they kept asking each other which character was which. Never a good sign. However, these were also the same women who, at the sight of guns or blood, reacted as if they had never seen either before in a movie.

And finally there was The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World, a disappointing documentary about…you guessed it: the biggest Chinese restaurant in the world.

Close Encounters

Of course, with TIFF comes the ubiquitous star gazing in Yorkville, Toronto’s posh mini-neighborhood where Hollywood celebrities are more common than Starbucks locations. This year, prior to an afternoon screening, I was sitting in Starbucks and watched Brian De Palma walk in, order a coffee and sit at the window with what appeared to be his assistant. My wife and I passed Mark Ruffalo, who was having a conversation out front of Roots, and we nearly bumped into Ivan Reitman who was walking and talking on his phone about seeing Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno.

At Festival time Yorkville also swarms with paparazzi. They’re pretty obvious to spot: slouchy types with backpacks and digital cameras with long lenses hanging out in front of various mid-town hotels. With a chunky D-SLR camera around my neck I’ve even gotten some stares from people who might assume I’m hoping to sell some photos to TMZ.

So, another year at TIFF comes to a close. We missed several notable films that we’ll be sure to catch later this fall including Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, which was one of the films that had incredible word-of-mouth buzz, and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which received the People’s Choice Award. For us, the Festival belonged to Jean Claude Van Damme and next year we’ll double our efforts and try for ten films.

Studio Logos by Association

•September 5, 2008 • 11 Comments

A recent Variety article investigated the changing nature of studio logos in the context of their growing running times. The author, Peter Debruge, suggests that not only are studio logos increasingly reliant on splashy animated sequences which can run half-a-minute in length, modern feature films can also suffer from pre-credit logo overload. With the proliferation of co-financing deals between production companies, the majors aren’t the only ones anymore with logo flair. As Debruge highlights, “Everyone from Tom Hanks to Mel Gibson to Ben Stiller has a company these days, and they all want placement.” I would argue that one of the key reasons behind such cramped pre-credit sequences is the decline of main credit sequences (discussed here). It seems likely that production companies want recognition up front before the end credit surge.

While there do not seem to be any rules governing the placement or length of production logos, Debruge does suggest that major distributors prefer to go first, and no one likes to be outdone by longer sequences, which is why most cap at sixteen seconds. A quick visit to YouTube seems to confirm this point. However, the article raised a few more questions in my mind about the nature of studio logos. While Debruge discusses the visual panache of some logo designs, he does not mention one key effect of the studio logo sequence: its associative effects.

Thinking about studio logos, I remember their iconic resonance on my childhood. As a budding cinephile I took note of studio logo designs in different eras of Hollywood history. As a teenager I wondered if there was such a thing as “house style” in contemporary movies as there seemed to be in the classical era. Some authors have pointed to a distinct house style in the 1930s (see Thomas Schatz and Paul Grainge), when MGM’s Leo the Lion symbolized the opulence and grandeur of musicals (The Brodway Melody of 1938) and epics (Mutiny on the Bounty); Warner Bros. distributed “gritty,” social dramas and gangster films; Universal produced low-budget horror films (Dracula); and Paramount’s distinctly “European” flavor, employing emigree directors such as Josef von Sternberg and Ernst Lubitsch.

It might be harder to observe definable house styles today as the modern studio is little more than a distribution channel for smaller production companies. There are certainly trends in studio output, in that audiences can discern the type of film from a particular distributor. In recent years, the art-house crowd would be remiss not to trust the Miramax brand for its attention to European and Asian filmmakers and imports, intimate dramas, and award season prestige pictures. In the 1980s and 1990s New Line Cinema established a unique brand by releasing Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street series alongside John Waters’ Serial Mom and other horror and fantasy films. Perhaps now New Line is most often associated with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

However, the majors have avoided this type of catalogue branding, if only because they risk missing on specific markets by remaining loyal to particular genres or styles. In many ways, the contemporary major studio — like in the past — specializes in a range of genres, franchises, and styles. We should remember that Warners is not only home to Harry Potter, Superman, and Batman, but has remained a home to Clint Eastwood and was also the permanent home of Stanley Kubrick.

Instead of looking for particular groupings or inherent “house styles” among the modern majors, I offer an alternative criterion by which to assess the impact of studio style by way of the logo sequence. In less than twenty seconds the logo sequence must convey a message in image and sound that defines an identity to the audience. If a studio was not interested in conveying a brand identity, then why advertise itself so verbosely before every film?

I am suggesting that these unique logo sequences offer associational frameworks by which audiences identify studio output. These associations are by no means homogeneous, since we all have different cinematic experiences. But it is likely that we have associations with studio sequences that have shaped our understanding of specific genres, filmmakers, and (most obviously) studio style.

For me, the associational nature of pre-credit sequences can have a Pavlovian effect. Let me explain. I’m flipping channels one afternoon and I happen upon the “zooming globe” Universal Pictures logo. Based on the animated design, I am immediately attuned to the era of the logo (the 1970s and early 1980s); I listen for any musical clues that might identify the forthcoming film. The presentational value of the logo extends to my own personal history with the logo and the films associated with it. Thus, I identify the Universal globe with a particular era of studio filmmaking, one with which I have always been fascinated.

The associational value of the pre-credit sequence is very much rooted in my adolescence, when I discovered new things about cinema every day. To put it not so romantically, I watched a lot of movies and over time some of them actually stuck with me. What also stuck with me were those iconic emblems of Hollywood studios. And, more often than not, the emblems symbolized not studio style but a particular film experience.

I have already mentioned the Universal zooming globe, which gave way in 1990 to a more three-dimensional animated sequence that paid tribute to all previous Universal pre-credit sequences. You can see it here. This sequence, which signaled the studio’s 75th anniversary, was supported with music by James Horner and premiered with Back to the Future III and later reverted to a shorter intro minus the montage. This serene sequence was replaced in 1997 (attached to Jurassic Park: The Lost World) with the current “shimmering” Universal globe, which carries a Jerry Goldsmith fanfare.

Watching the 1990 incarnation of the logo, I am instantly reminded of my trip to the theater to see Back to the Future III. The 1970s logo carries memories of the original Back to the Future, Jaws, and American Graffiti. You could make the argument that the films I have mentioned belong to a certain filmmaking or stylistic category, which could constitute a certain house style. In the 80s it was not uncommon to refer to Universal at the studio that Steven Spielberg revitalized. Indeed, the studio’s top grossing films of the late 70s and early 80s are Spielberg productions: Jaws, E.T., and the Back to the Future series (which he co-produced). However, this does not explain MacArthur, Animal House, the surge of John Hughes comedies in the 1980s, Field of Dreams, and Born on the Fourth of July to name just a few deviations from the Spielberg “style”.

In much the same way, I associate the DreamWorks sequence with Steven Spielberg, even though not every DreamWorks film is connected with the bearded one. But there are several subtle textures that point to a Spielberg style: the use of music by longtime composer John Williams, the moon and child imagery, and the little fact that he co-founded the studio. As a side-note, I never understood why Spielberg’s Amblin logo sequence never preceded films, but always appeared after the end credits.

Warner Bros. constitutes another fascinating example of associative logic. For reasons that remain a mystery to me, Warners did away with the traditional WB shield logo in the early 1970s and replaced it with a far more abstract design pictured below. This design reeks of the 1970s — even though it was used well into the 1980s — since I associate it with one of Warner’s premiere franchises: Superman. No matter what film proceeded it, the abstract “W” logo meant Superman: The Movie. For my wife, Monica, the traditional Warners shield is strongly associated with the Harry Potter series. In each film, the shield is desaturated, surrounded by varying cloudscapes, and seems to move past the screen as a 3-D image.

I would be taken to task if I did not mention what is perhaps the most famous associative connection in modern studio logos: the transition from the 20th Century Fox fanfare (composed by Alfred Newman) to the Star Wars main title (composed by John Williams). The two musical statements have worn well together, leading some to think that they were composed together. Newman’s original Fox fanfare premiered in 1935, which was later extended in 1953 to include a logo for Fox’s CinemaScope widescreen process. The extended fanfare appears over the Lucasfilm Ltd. credit.

As a trend in franchise pictures or prestige films, more and more studios are altering their current logo sequence to support particular films. I first noticed minor changes in the 1990s with films like The ‘burbs, The Flintstones (both of which played with the Universal globe), and Gladiator (which simply used a sepia-toned Universal and DreamWorks logo to convey the color scheme of the film). There are many other examples, but some perennial favorites include David Fincher’s use of “vintage” Warners and Paramount logos for Zodiac and, of course, Spielberg’s Paramount dissolves from the Indiana Jones series. The decision to use the Columbia logo from the 1970s for Superbad — complete with a VHS stutter — is an interesting statement, but I was left wondering if the humor was ironic or if the filmmakers had a genuine connection to a particular 70s aesthetic.

As more studios are lending their logos to the narrative/stylistic patterns of particular films, the associational logic of film-to-studio seems appropriate. However, studios have little control over an audience’s association with an untouched logo. Why, for instance, do I consistently think of Friday the 13th and the Star Trek films whenever I see the vintage Paramount logo sequence that dissolves into a sky-blue relief of itself? Some may think of Robert Evans and his tenure at Paramount in the 1970s, but for me it’s the lousy VHS dubs of Star Trek I-IV and even lousier copies of the Friday series.

Then there are those abstract sequences that simply transport me back to my childhood. The Tri-Star sequence (seen here) which has been parodied by Joe Swanson on Family Guy. And the Touchstone logo (seen here) which I never quite got, even though I saw it enough growing up with fare like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Studio logo sequences have always fascinated me, but I’ve never been able to explain why. The mini narratives and advancing animation keeps me interested in new concepts and revisions of old formulas, but there is something much more intangible to my interest in pre-credit designs. Perhaps they work on a nostalgic level, as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull demonstrated earlier this summer. Perhaps they are symbols of larger cinematic histories, specifically the history of cinema-going. Or, perhaps they work on a much more associative level, whereby the familiarity of logo sequences are rooted in the experience of a particular film.

Nevertheless, the unspooling of a classic or contemporary pre-credit sequence is an exciting moment, filled with possibility and the knowledge of what has come before.

What are your own memories of studio logo sequences?

The Voice Amidst the Noise

•August 12, 2008 • 27 Comments

It’s been a few weeks since my last post, which focused on the technical possibilities and implications of IMAX technology in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Since then I’ve read a number of reviews and appraisals of the film at various film blogs and news sites (many of which make up my Links section), which tend to emphasize its direct and indirect allegorical and symbolic textures. Most recently, Ted Pigeon over at The Cinematic Art has written a sharp piece of criticism that highlights the social and political tone not of Nolan’s film but of these reviewers’ responses to the film.

It would seem that in the weeks since I’ve seen the film, the dominant conversation has shifted away from Knight‘s technical and stylistic achievements to a more interpretive, if not totally reductive, schema that aims to set in relief the political overtones and undertones of Nolan’s film.

As a piece of alternative programming, I’d like to redirect the focus a little bit and explore one of the most fascinating aspects of The Dark Knight: the sound design. There are a number of interesting sonic elements in the film — the propulsive bass, the blanketing textures of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s score, the crispness of artillery fire, and the supple sounds of Batman’s cape — but the vocal track stands out as a real accomplishment for reasons that you probably did not even consider.

The construction of any vocal track begins with the production sound mix, captured by the boom operator and sound recordist on the set. For large and small films, production recordists must contend with environmental ambiences, crew noises, unwanted reverberation, mumbling and poor enunciation from actors, among other annoyances. The goal, as dialogue editor John Purcell notes, is “to make every single word as clear as possible. He or she has to remove any and all distractions, noises, or mumbles to make the words as clear as a bell.” If a production track cannot be salvaged for whatever reason, the job is left to a dialogue editor to piece together a usable track from an alternate take or through ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement), a post-production process whereby the actor “loops” (i.e. re-records) her lines in a studio. The dialogue editor then assembles the track using the re-recorded dialogue.

With the modern blockbuster, production recordists have their work cut out for them. A film like The Dark Knight requires noisy air conditioners, smoke machines, movable rigs, characters speaking through masks and heavy makeup, unforgiving studio reverb, and don’t forget those ultra-noisy IMAX cameras. Which is why it is estimated that most Hollywood productions rely on post-production sound services to balance, sweeten, and clarify what could not be captured live on the set. I think I’ve become rather savvy when it comes to distinguishing between production sound and ADR. In fact, I became a little distracted by the piecemeal looping in Step Brothers, a film that seemed to rely on heavy improvisation, which explains the need for ADR to tighten the continuity.

The remarkable thing about The Dark Knight is the amount of production sound that made it into the final mix. A casual listener might not be able (or care) to distinguish the difference between production and post-sync dialogue, but some have argued that the separation of voice and body — or, the act of re-recording a piece of dialogue weeks or months after the initial shoot — results in a bifurcated performance devoid of the energy and focus of the original. While “good” ADR can approximate the spatial signature of the set/location (e.g., echo and reverb) and the nuances of the original vocal performance, Christopher Nolan has repeatedly indicated his preference for production tracks. In the June issue of Wired, Nolan says “I just think separating the voice from the face and the body is very tricky. It is, after all, blatantly unreal.”

In some sense, the preference for production audio is tied to Nolan’s entire approach to the Batman series, which eschews excessive cinematic artificiality in favor of practical effects and solutions. Even with a healthy number of CG elements, many effects shots were captured the old fashioned way with a camera photographing actors in a real environment. In the same Wired interview Nolan stresses that practical shots, such as that of Batman being air-lifted out of Hong Kong by a KC-135, restore “the human element of choice: the little corrections, little imperfections. Certain uncertainties.” And, in my mind, this attention to practical solutions also restores a certain faith in the ability for filmmakers to accomplish complex maneuvers without an over-reliance on animation. (I will be sure to return to this topic in another post).

With the death of Heath Ledger in January 2008, it was clear that the actor had not completed any post-sync “looping,” which could have jeopardized the final sound mix. However, supervising sound editor Richard King and production recordist Ed Novick have revealed that ADR sessions were not necessary for Ledger’s performance. In other words, Novick and his crew managed to capture the entire performance “live” on the set.

It’s hard to dismiss the nuances of the Joker’s vocals — the giddy highs, the ferocious lows. One would automatically think that the Joker’s laugh — the character’s signature quality — was re-recorded in post production. However, Richard King tells Film Sound Daily that it was either recorded during an actual take or between takes, in what is known as a “wild take.” Even with the practical pyrotechnics and complex machinery, Novick and his team were able to construct a beautiful production track, which often competes with real-world ambiences and crowd noise. As Novick notes, “Chris likes to use the production sound for the final, yes. And if during shooting I can identify a problem – that’s fine. But he expects me to have a solution, as well.”

Indeed, the preference for using production dialogue seems to be a dying art in modern movies. While some films may loop nearly 1000 lines of dialogue, Nolan’s quest for production purity is a noble endeavor. (Part of the research for my thesis hopes to address this element of sound production, since dialogue continues to be central to the narrative fabric of any film, yet its technical and practical nature remains relatively unknown.)

Perhaps the penchant for live vocals and gritty recording has set in relief the instances where Nolan opted for sound with an artificial halo. Some people have commented to me that despite liking the film they found the voice of Batman to be distracting and altogether “unrealistic.” I haven’t been able to find any sources that account for the process by which Batman’s voice was modulated, but even to the untrained ear it sounds heavy and thick with a great deal of bottom-end added to Bale’s original track. Perhaps the bat suit comes equipped with its own voice modulator that ensures Bruce Wayne’s identity is never revealed. I admit that at times I found it hard to decipher what he was saying because of his lower pitched voice.

The opening bank heist sequence is also notable for what appears to be post-sync dialogue. As the Joker’s masked goons execute the robbery we follow them from the roof to the bank vault. They converse with each other during the process, questioning the identity of the mastermind they call the Joker. My wife pointed out to me that these exchanges had the vocal feel of Batman: The Animated Series and feature-length film Mask of the Phantasm. The goon’s voices are exaggerated, even comic, impressions of thugs we associate with the gangster film. That these thugs are wearing clown masks gave Nolan an opportunity to stray from an avowed “realism” and embrace a broader stroke of comic book pastiche. Granted, it’s a small moment in a very long film, but the devil is in the details.

The importance of voice in film can never be over-estimated. The voice provides immediate access to inner character psychology; a line reading can change the meaning of an entire scene; a vocal inflection can change the meaning of a word. Close-up recordings, like that of Willard’s narration in Apocalypse Now, envelop us in his tormented mind and bring us to the edge of comprehensibility. The absence of voice pushes us to strain our ears to hear what is not there, to listen through the screen and capture the elusive whispers of Lost.

Additionally, there are those sound-theoretical issues that aim to draw a distinction between the voice captured “live” and that re-recorded at a later date. The seemingly unnatural separation between body and voice is a concern shared not only by Nolan but also by film sound theorists like Mary Ann Doane, Rick Altman, and Steve Wurtzler (see this anthology). ADR technology allows actors to re-perform, re-capture, and reform the performance, much like different “takes” of the same shot affords similar flexibility.

It might be naive to assume that what we’re hearing is Heath Ledger’s “original” Joker vocals, untouched. Of course, it is probable that different vocal takes were utilized to match Nolan’s preferred image take, which completely removes any sense of an “original” performance. We must remember that modern film sound production is governed by the construction of a representational event. James Lastra has argued that, indeed, there is no original sound event! After levels are tweaked, takes are swapped, and voices are electronically modulated and edited, we are left with a constructed sound event that owes very little to the pro-filmic event (i.e., the thing that is being filmed or the location being filmed). In the Film Sound Daily interview with Richard King, King admits that the Bat Pod sound, which can be described as an always-ascending tone (see the Shepherd Tone), replaced the actual sound of the Pod, which was that of a small Kawasaki engine. Thus, the Bat Pod exists only in the film and within its spatial confines that are outlined by the cinematographer, set designers, and sound designers. In this sense, there is only the representational nature of the cinematic space (the diegesis, to use a film nerd term).

Yet, despite this film theoretical rhetoric that attempts to shatter the illusion of live performance, there is something so immediate and unfiltered about hearing (and seeing) Ledger’s performance as a unified whole. Even if things were sweetened, even if different takes were ultimately used, the real sense of “liveness” still resonates with me.