Background Tracks in Recent Cinema
We do not see and hear a film, we hear/see it.
—Walter Murch, 01 October 2000
WHAT WE HEAR affects what we see. Each of the three kinds of movie sound—voice, background sounds, and music—has important functions in our experience of film narratives. Though background sound was used only sparingly until the late 1960s—notable exceptions occur in films such as Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window—in the last three decades, new technologies have made it central to how narratives function. Sound editors combine location sound with sound recorded in postproduction to create specific audio identities for each scene; the resulting sound cements the visual and other audio elements of the scene into what feels like a continuous whole that feels real and reinforces the scene's mood. Background sound, like music, also alters the thresholds of our awareness both of the visual and of larger narrative and emotional processes, altering how we experience visuals and narrative rhythms. Meant to be unnoticed, it is a catalyst for our reactions to nearly every element of our experience of films.
What we know about sound in cinema is not solely the product of academics but also of practitioners. Sound studies is among the few areas in cinema studies in which scholars and artists often turn up at the same conferences, contribute to the same Internet list-serves, and seem to respect one another's views. 1 Among the practitioner-theorists, the most prominent is the sound designer and film editor Walter Murch. Murch has evolved a pragmatic esthetic based on the limits and potentials of aural perception, with close attention to the ways in which sound and sight work together. His theories (and the example of his sound tracks) augmented by the work of close collaborators such as Randy Thom (sound designer and mixer for Skywalker sound facility, George Lucas's postproduction center) provide a basis for approaching sound in the cinema.
For those unfamiliar with sound usage in cinema, it may help to review basics. Dialogue and some background sound are recorded during shooting. The film is edited using location sound. Once the film is edited using location materials, additional or replacement dialogue is “looped” in, and background sound and music are added. Filmmakers divide sound into three general categories: voice (usually dialogue); background sound (comprised of location “presence” and specific effects (most of which are created by Foley artists, who are specialists in creating sound effects); and music. From the beginning of sound movies in the 1920s, clear and comprehensible dialogue has been central to main