Magazine article American Cinematographer

TV Sounds of War Vary Greatly

Magazine article American Cinematographer

TV Sounds of War Vary Greatly

Article excerpt

"Namsomething. That's what I've heard China Beach called," smiles Michael Payne, a supervising sound effects editor, speaking of the show that's shot just down the road-in Valencia, Calif.,-from Payne's Tour of Duty. It's a nickname which has apparently caught on, from the set to the dubbing stage, referring to a TV series characterized by melodramatic plots and moody, contrasty camerawork.

"Bam bam, let's get them." That's how Walter Newman, supervising sound editor for China Beach teasingly describes the sunnier, more action oriented Tour of Duty.

And what about the show said to be the "original TV series about Viet Nam,"(despite its Korean War setting)? "M*A*S*H." according to writer Suzy Kalter, "became famous for its ability to deliver a laugh and a cry in the same show." M*A*S*Hs original sound effects editor, Bill Hartman, remarks, "I can't imagine why you're including us in an article with the other two. You see, the sound effects weren't a driving force like in those other two shows. They're much more realitydriven than M*A *S*H ever intended to be. We purposefully minimized the concept of violence."

"This is a close-up gunshot," says Michael Payne, drawing a diagram with an editor's Sharpie that looks like an AIp springing from a forest. Next to it, he draws a distant gunshot, which looks like a very tiny AIp springing from a very tiny forest. The second diagram hardly seems "realistic." Distant guns do not create the distinctive "kaboom" that close-up pistols do - the residual bass tones of the blast get dissipated with space. But Payne reveals a strange and fascinating truth. Despite the realistic orientation of the writing and camerawork of Tour of Duty(which in its first year occasionally employed "documentary" techniques such as a shaky camera and grainy footage), the sound effects aren't meant to be realistic at all.

"Hollywood guns" are what Payne calls the arsenal of M-16's, AK-47's and other guns he uses. "Bigger than life. We want the gun battles to sound more ferocious than they might have sounded then." Moreover, Payne includes in the Tour of Duty soundtrack only what the audience can see. It's a stylistic touch. "Our attitude for this show is: 'see a dog, cut a dog.' If we see a jet flying by, we put it in. If we don't, we don't, even though there were plenty of jets flying over the jungle continuously. Otherwise it would be distracting, and our goal here is to keep you focused on the story."

In this show that lives and breathes on the battlefield, music and effects often seem most effective when used as counterpoint to the action. "We had one show where our guys were getting picked off by the Viet Cong one by one. Instead of action music, our composer, Joseph Conlan, played a long sustaining cue that reflected the sadness rather than the events. We made our gunshots low and echoey, and when people got hit, their yells reverberated. It had a nice feel, as opposed to our usual bang-bang-bang."

On the other hand, in China Beach, the purpose of sound effects is to enhance. "We never stick to just what you see, or the track would go dead," affirms Walter Newman. "We had one episode where one of the guys, Dodger, goes to rescue someone who's been shot. They're sitting there talking, and of course, you hear all sorts of things offstage - helicopters, machine guns close by, ADR (automated dialogue replacement) of people shouting to each other, Foley of men running by with their packs. In our show, you don't always see the battle, but our action always takes place just west of it, so it's essential to keep it alive. …

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