As a small kid, I used to watch serial called JAG. I remember, that with each new scene, you would see a green text appearing in the lower left corner of the screen, telling you what time is it, place and location. It is a great way to establish the scene, but there is even better way.
Stories happen in time and place, which (both time and place) can be characterized by soundscape or acoustic environment. The acoustic environment can be created by sound effects, spoken word, music or all of these elements in combination. What is really important here is that it really doesn’t matter so much which elements will be used, but how they’ll be used and to which purpose.
For example, if you were to establish a movie scene using only acoustic environment (without any visuals), you’d probably think a lot about the sounds, which are really specific for the given time and location.
The sounds you’ll hear during the day will be probably much different from sounds you’ll hear during the night, the same holds true for seasons like summer or winter. Sound can also be used to establish time period as well, think of sounds of 19th century (steam locomotive) or sounds of 1990’s (tape recorder).
Sound works also very well for establishing locations. You could for instance use sounds of drilling machine, cable crane etc., to establish a construction site. Or a dialogue between doctor and nurse to establish a hospital environment. Or music.
At certain point in the movie, IMF team led by Ethan Hunt has to go to India. The scene starts with the picture above, but what’s interesting here is the music playing in the background.
You’ll hear light percussions, sitar and other instruments typical for eastern music. In other words, the music establishes the location, telling us that we are in India now.
If we come back to establishing scene (both time and place) using only sound, we have to mention also some drawbacks. This method works mostly only with general locations (like construction site, but not specific, or 19th century, but not a specific year). For example, it would be really hard to establish the place where I live using only sound, unless someone would mention the name in the dialogue.
Nevertheless, if you have the opportunity to establish the scene using sound, by all means do it, it’s cinematic!