It’s not very usual (here at CINEMA SHOCK) to write about various examples of cinematic storytelling and use the same film again and again to show it or demonstrate it. Sometimes it happens though, like in the case of American Beauty, where we’ve discussed camera angles, body language, colors etc.
However, this is for the first time to show another example of cinematic storytelling in the same category (film sound design) and use the same film to demonstrate it. On the other hand, in this case, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise, because the man behind the sound design is one of the main innovators and heroes in this field – Gary Rydstrom.
Most of the time, sound is simultaneous to the image that we see on the screen. This is the most common temporal relation which sound has in fiction films. Noise, music, or speech that comes from space of the story occurs at the same time as the image (1).
Well, sound can also be non-simultaneous. This way, sound can give us information about story events without showing them to us (1). One of these manipulations with sound, i.e. making it non-simultaneous to the image, is to play sound from the previous scene over images from a later time (2). This is called sound flashback or sonic flashback.
Sound Flashback in Backdraft
Brian McCaffrey (William Baldwin) and Donald Rimgale (Robert De Niro) are on the trail of a serial arsonist who sets fires with a fictional chemical substance, trychtichlorate (3). During the investigation, they are attacked by the arsonist. Firstly, Brian wrestles with him and shoves him against a shorting electrical plug (4).
Then Rimgale finds them and throws the man off Brian. They fight together, but the arsonist runs off (4).
Later in the movie, Brian sees Axe (friend of his father) in the shower. He notices a strange burn on his back, shaped like an electrical socket. Brian realizes it was Axe that he fought in the house and he is the arsonist (4).
Now, when he realizes that it is Axe who is the arsonist, the sounds from the earlier scene (when they fought) are played back. This way, the audience knows exactly what Brian has just realized. And thanks to his POV, the sounds work seamlessly in the scene. So here it is, sound flashback used as a storytelling device.
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