Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

The Labour of Breath: Performing and Designing Breath in Cinema

Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

The Labour of Breath: Performing and Designing Breath in Cinema

Article excerpt

All that is solid melts into air

(Marx & Engels, 1848, p.11)

Ross Gibson suggests that conscious and deliberate actions by the actor and editor can ultimately shape our experience of breathing performances in cinema (2013, p.18). It is important and necessary to extend this collaboration to include the work of the sound designer. This article will focus on the creative choices made by the sound designer and the post-production sound crew, using close textual analysis, archival research material, and interviews to document the creative choices made. The post-production sound team's collective work enhances our experience of a breathing character in fiction film. With a specific focus on two films, The Elephant Man, the second feature film that the sound designer Alan Splet collaborated with David Lynch on, and Rising Sun, the last film Splet completed, I will discuss a number of instances of breath that feature in sections of the Sound Mountain archive.

I have chosen here to analyse The Elephant Man and Rising Sun as there is a prominent use of breath in both films. I will discuss and problematise each in turn. However, it is important to note that these are ostensibly different films. They have significantly divergent approaches to the soundtrack owing to their narrative concerns and generic conventions. I am interested here in exploring issues in relation to the auteur and the collaborative role of the sound designer, discussing both the form and content of sound design in fiction film. I will also consider the depiction of disability and gender through breath in two different environments. The Elephant Man is set soon after the industrial revolution in London, England, and Rising Sun is set in 1990s Los Angeles, USA, during a new digital revolution with diminishing oil reserves. The environmental air quality becomes an important sonic indicator of the concerns of the time, and this is played out through the narrative and the laboured breathing of characters within each film. Thus a focus on air and breath allows a way to consider the characters and their environments more fully. This interest in air and breath is a recently emerging area of research in cinema studies and beyond, and yet, in the main, it has not been considered in film sound studies.1

Sound Mountain Archive

Splet worked together with his partner and wife Ann Kroeber until his premature death in 1994 after a long battle with cancer. Kroeber has continued to work as a sound designer and sound effects recordist and she maintains the sound effects library Sound Mountain. This is an archive containing their collective sound works and one that I have drawn from for this article. Splet worked closely with a number of filmmakers, including David Lynch (The Grandmother [1970], Eraserhead [1977], The Elephant Man [1980], Dune [1984], Blue Velvet [1986]); Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion [1979], Never Cry Wolf [1983], Wind [1992]); Peter Weir (The Mosquito Coast [1986], Dead Poet's Society [1989]); and Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being [1988], Henry and June [1990], Rising Sun [1993]), among others.2 These films are all catalogued and preserved in the Sound Mountain archive.

In October 2004, as part of my PhD research into Splet's sound design, I made contact with Kroeber and she informed me of her library of sound effects from the films they had both worked on. Also contained within the archive was a collection of sound effects from the American Film Institute (AFI). Splet had compiled this archive while he headed up the sound department at the AFI in the 1970s. On a week-long visit to the Sound Mountain archive in Berkeley, California, in March 2005, I got an overview of what was contained within the library. I had time to listen to some of the AFI sound reels and the later Splet/Kroeber sound files, but this was limited and involved merely an early exploratory investigation. While there I photocopied the Blue Velvet catalogue, but it became clear that the paper was becoming fragile and was too delicate to be put through photocopying machines. …

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