Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Performance Design: An Analysis of Film Acting and Sound Design

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Performance Design: An Analysis of Film Acting and Sound Design

Article excerpt

MOST ANALYSES OF CINEMATIC PERFORMANCE focus on three areas of an actor's performance style: his or her gestures, facial expressions, and vocal qualities. This paper examines the third of these in great detail, utilizing and expanding scholarly concentration on accent, intonation, and the unique timbre and materiality that belong to a particular voice. Although voice continues to stand at the heart of the actor's sound performance, the greater issue of sound and performance includes an array of other matters, such as the interplay between sound and image, including the animated image; the effect of changes in sound technology; the relationship between the dialogue track, music track, and effects track; and the question of agency in determining who-the sound technicians or the actor-actually creates the performance. My interest in these issues derives from a larger concern with defining film acting as distinct from theater acting. This focus on medium specificity, though sometimes relegated to the background of a given analysis, guides the three sections of this paper. By highlighting the uniquely filmic components of sound and performance, I hope to suggest some of the ways both sound creation by the actor and sound crew and sound perception by the spectator function across the sound era to characterize and complicate what counts as film acting.

The influence of sound in shaping performance has been central to the filmic medium-and to the comparison of film and theater-since the introduction of sync sound in the late 1920s. Critics writing at the time, such as Rudolf Arnheim, proclaimed that "sound film ... [is] a means of'canning' theater," a "replacement for theater," and that "sound film is theater which has been technically perfected" (29-51). Those who focused on the work of the actor, specifically, also remained tied to a comparison with theater. René Clair, however, also identified differences between the two, ascribing a more nuanced and realistic style of acting to sound film. Writing in 1929, Clair praised cinematic actors for the "total lack of theatrical affectation in their voices" and claimed that the "actors show remarkable flexibility... their acting with speech is as natural as was their silent acting in earlier films" (43). These quotes clearly illustrate two important points: the perception of film as "the same" as theatrical performance because of the synchronicity in the actor's visual and aural representation, and the perception of film acting as different from theatrical performance because of the availability of a more realist mode of speaking.

Sound/Image Interplay: Trouble in Paradise, Sunset Boulevard, and Pickpocket

Although Arnheim and Clair argue different sides of the sound debate, neither fully examines how the inherent separation of sound and image in the production of film versus theater impacts the possibilities of performance. Although many examples exist that demonstrate early sound directors' experimentation with sound-image interplay, I will examine three films that put this interplay to work specifically in regard to the performance of its lead actors. Roughly halfway through Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932), we spend almost two minutes watching medium close-ups and close-ups of a series of clocks while listening to voice-over dialogue from Lily (Miriam Hopkins), Gaston (Herbert Marshall), and Madame Colet (Kay Francis). In this sequence, the actors' performances are transposed from the visual arena to the aural one. Marshall and Francis, in particular, exploit the separation of sound and image to create meanings both inside of and outside of the narrative of the film. The heightened phoniness Marshall and Francis employ vocally allows their characters to hint at the sexual interest between them, while at the same time it allows the actors to wink to the audience extra-textually. Marshall and Francis seem to be telling the audience to use its imagination to create the romantic interlude hidden offscreen. …

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