Robert Altman's Innovative Sound Techniques
Levin, Lear, American Cinematographer
How this inventive producer/director has evolved a style of overlapping dialogue tracks, improvisation and a constant audio undertone to create an effect like that of a painter coating his canvas with layers of color
Robert Altman is a friendly but irascible man who saves his straight answers for his actors and crew. An interviewer rarely has a chance of getting on the inside. Concerning the actual use of his sound system, all information is technically factual. With regard to the director's style, the opinions are purely my own.
Altman has directed or produced more than twenty feature films in his career and his awareness of the sound track has always been an integral part of his work. His use of overlapping dialogue tracks, improvisation, and a constant audio undertone have become his trademarks. This style was first brought to prominence in MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER. This work, however, only provoked a deeper interest in his desire to record multiple dialogue tracks at the same time. His wish was to create a condition figuratively similar to that of a painter who might coat his canvas with layer upon layer of color, allowing each brush stroke to give character and texture to the final rendering.
Aitman is basically a shy man and I believe this quality, coupled with his desire to play it loose and not offend or inhibit his performers, has formed his approach to sound. He prefers to be a voyeur, an eavesdropper, a critical observer with both his eyes and ears exploring separate parts of the whole. This is often accomplished while a slowly moving zoom takes us in for a close look at the action, or a long lens follows one of his actors through a crowd. Radio mikes are always the order of the day and as many as 14 recording channels are constantly at his command. Probing longbarreled mikes are kept far away from the actors.
His camera technique also reflects his personality.
Two cameras with zooms are most often employed and although this creates compromises in lighting and staging, he prefers this method for its spontaneity and swift coverage. The end of the zoom is used for obtaining closeups, rather than the selection of a specific lens and best distance for each actor's expression. A long focal-length lens will not intimidate the performers nor violate their space and they need not be confronted by the mechanism of the camera. By staging this way he makes a sacrifice in visual quality, but one he feels is necessary to his overall approach.
To me, the most obvious measure of his laissez faire approach to shooting are his film scripts, and if the script of HEALTH is any example, they are solely embarkation points for his ideas. On HEALTH some of the actors have written a great deal of their own dialogue, which is not uncommon on an Altman film, while improvising lines as the camera rolls is practically a way of life.
The story of HEALTH takes place in St. Petersburg Beach, Florida, in the midst of a health food convention. The enclave brings together such bizarre characters as an 80-year-old somnambulistic virgin, female impersonators, several madmen, a few talking vegetables, a government agent and a long list of self-seeking personalities caught up in an organizational power struggle. This thinly veiled political satire features stars like Carol Burnett, James Garner, Glenda Jackson, Lauren Bacall, Dick Cavett, Henry Gibson, Paul Dooley, Dinah Shore and a list of supporting characters and speaking parts which runs to infinity. The intrigues which develop make for good conflict and spur the kind of games that are often visible in Altman films.
His set has a homelike atmosphere which is demonstrated by the amount of family and friends constantly at hand. The usual six-day-week location schedule is adhered to, but his 8-to-5 daily shooting hours make a family and social life quite possible and keep the film's temperament relaxed and cordial. The director is always available to his cast and crew and his patience is boundless. …