Saturday, July 14, 2007

Transformers and sound

CBS Sunday Morning featured a story about the new Transformers movie, which I just watched in my local theatre.

Before I talk about the story, maybe I'll briefly talk about the experience. Many professionals have complained that the level of compression on movies and music has been, well, bothersome. In popular music, the result of compression is that the dynamic range of music is squished, so to speak, so that the "punch" is lost (following the links for a video demonstration if you are unsure what I am talking about). In movies was can see some of the same things - only in this case paired with image.

That audio-visual contract, the ear hearing what the eye sees, combines to add value to the overall effect. Watch an old film sometime (I use 1931's Dracula with Bela Lugosi in class). Pay close attention to the sound. In Dracula there is hardly any sound whatsoever. For an audience raised on modern horror films, the near total lack of music or sound is often described as "flat", "not scary" or even worse, "boring" by my students.

Star Wars was probably the signal event in the development of sound (as it was for so many other cinematic developments as well). Lucas and the sound designers added character to nearly everything that appears in frame, including spaceships in total vaccuum (unlike Kubrick, who purposely leaves space empty and barren). Since Star Wars, film sound has gotten...well...noisier. Today's movies, especially horror and action films, are not only a visual assault, but a sonic assault as well. I could go on about this at length (I probably have already!) but let's move on to Transformers.

A sound designer's job is not an easy one - very little "ambient" sound actually gets recorded. I've heard rumors that over 90% of Lord of the Rings dialogue was recorded on a sound stage, not to mention every single other sound you hear in the movie. That means that a competent Sound Designer must not only add in all of those sounds you hear in a movie - but they often have to fabricate the sounds as the "real" sounds aren't punchy enough. Yes, that's right...I'm saying that the audio-visual contract works in such a way that we accept a substitute sound as "real" when in fact it's nowhere near "authentic." (sorry about all the quotation marks, but I'm using them in this case to emphasize those concepts which are not as they seem).

Consider Transformers. In this movie, the Sound Designers are given the daunting task of not only adding all of these sounds, but making them seem believable. While watching the movie, I was struck by many of the tactics that were utilized, such as high frequency electronic sounds that appeared whenever we saw a Transformer onscreen or were talked about. This is much like LOTR where not only the music, but the sounds were used as characters. Appropriately, the same team worked on this film. to make the sound of one of the Transformers footsteps (what DOES an alien robot car sound like walking anyway?) they slowed the sound of a car door closing to 25% of it's original speed (that's 4x slower). There were other adjustments, particularly filtering, used as well...but at it's root is the sound of a car. Neat, eh?

However - if I have a criticism of the sound design, it is the same that I had about LOTR and most modern films. It was just too much, too over the top. Granted, my aesthetic is continually headed in the direction of softer sounds (my last piece had only 10 notes, each 30 seconds long, but the sheer volume (both in loudness and in number of sounds) combined with the images was dizzying. There were some excellent moments in both cinematography and in sound (not always at the same time) but I felt like a boxer afterward.

Oh, and the CBS story? It's a description of the work that the sound designers did. It's a good story that is easy for a layperson to understand. LINK. Next time you're at the movies, pay a bit more attention to the sound!
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