If you try to say two or more things at once, usually you end up saying nothing, they say.. But what follows are examples of very effective storytelling, where sound effects were used to tell two things at the same time – well thought out and very cinematic, watch the examples below:
We can see the first gun shot, but the second one we can only hear. This is really powerful, because it combines sounds of splashing water as well as the gunshot itself. Nice, elegant and very effective example of killing two birds with one sound.
This scene takes place in the Bronx. At the very beginning it is established, that somewhere in the neighborhood is an elevated train. We can hear sounds coming from the train several times during the dialogue between Michael and Solozzo. What follows now is an excerpt from article called Stretching Sound to Help the Mind See, written by Walter Murch for filmsound.org:
Sounds, however, that do not relate to the visuals in a direct way function at an even higher level of dimensionality, and take proportionately longer to resolve. The rumbling and piercing metallic scream just before Michael Corleone kills Solozzo and McCluskey in a restaurant in “The Godfather” is not linked directly to anything seen on screen, and so the audience is made to wonder at least momentarily, if perhaps only subconsciously, “What is this?” The screech is from an elevated train rounding a sharp turn, so it is presumably coming from somewhere in the neighborhood. But precisely because it is so detached from the image, the metallic scream works as a clue to the state of Michael’s mind at the moment — the critical moment before he commits his first murder and his life turns an irrevocable corner. It is all the more effective because Michael’s face appears so calm and the sound is played so abnormally loud. This broadening tension between what we see and what we hear is brought to an abrupt end with the pistol shots that kill Solozzo and McCluskey: the distance between what we see and what we hear is suddenly collapsed at the moment that Michael’s destiny is fixed.
Again, the sound here helps to establish the place/environment, but at the same time helps to convey what goes through Michael’s head.
This scene was actually a theme of the very first article written for Cinema Shock, you can read more about this scene here, but just briefly: The sound (thunders and lightnings) describes how T.J. feels and at the same time, they work as a sound bridge to the following scene. This is genius! If you’re a filmmaker, I hope this article sparked some new ideas. I think trying to kill two birds with one stone is almost always a good idea. You can do it with sound, you can do it with camera or you can even try to combine camera movement with sound effect. P.S. I am currently working on a short project, where together with sound designer Matt Cavanaugh we try the last-mentioned: to combine a camera movement with sound effect. I’m looking forward to share it here in the near future!
Helicopter scene at the end of Mission Impossible is another amazing example of sound sweetening. It’s very similar to the Velocipod scene in The Incredibles. The scene looks great, but doesn’t really work unless it FEELS like Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is about to be chewed up by the helicopter blades, that’s where sound sweetening comes into play.
Sound(s) used to sweeten up the helicopter blades might be sound(s) of a circular saw, but maybe it is something completely different (dental drill?). But no matter what sounds were used, they made the helicopter blades sound and FEEL really dangerous and life threatening. And that’s virtually all that matters, really.
P.S. I originally uploaded the scene to YouTube, but it is blocked in several countries (almost all English speaking). Nevertheless, you can try to watch it by clicking here.
In this article, I want to introduce the idea and technique of split focus. In cinematography, the concept of split focus was explored mainly during 1970’s to the early 1980’s, namely by Brian De Palma and Robert Wise.
But even to this date, this technique is still used, probably as homage to these directors. Interestingly, the concept of split focus can also be found in sound (more in the examples below).
What always interests me is the narrative motivation for specific concept or technique, so here are 3 possible narrative motivations for the use of audiovisual split focus:
to introduce multiple elements without editing
to intensify the viewer’s emotional response
to add sense of realism
To discuss this technique in more detail, we have to briefly introduce/remind few facts about depth of field (DOF).
Depth of Field (DOF)
Depth of field (DOF) is a great and very powerful tool how to direct or guide the audience where to look at, i.e. how to tell them what is important in the image.
If you look at the image below, your attention most probably goes to the girl, which is in focus.
Technically speaking, DOF is the distance range in the image along the Z axis that appears acceptably sharp (=area perceived as being in focus). Although the lens can truly focus only at one distance (plane) along the Z axis, the transition between area in focus and out of focus is gradual; therefore we can talk about “field” (instead of plane).
In cinematography, a large DOF is often called deep focus (think Orson Welles and Citizen Kane) and a small DOF is often called shallow focus (think Gus van Sant and Paranoid Park).
Unfortunately, things are little bit more complicated than this; DOF is influenced mainly by the aperture of the lens: Larger aperture produces shallow focus, while small aperture produces deep focus.
But at the same time, aperture controls how much light hits the film or digital sensor, so you have to find the balance between DOF and exposure by:
some kind of compensation (additional light for small aperture, ND filters for large aperture)
using optical tricks
using a device called split field diopter.
Split field diopter
With the invention of split field diopter, it is possible to achieve the look and feel of deep focus (=large DOF) without the need of using additional lights (to compensate for the small aperture).
A split diopter is half convex glass that attaches in front of the camera’s main lens to make half the lens nearsighted. The lens can focus on a plane in the background and the diopter on a foreground element. (1)
A split diopter does not create real deep focus, only the illusion of this. What distinguishes it from traditional deep focus is that there is not continuous depth of field from foreground to background. Because split focus diopters only cover half the lens, shots in which they are used are characterized by a blurred line between the two planes in focus.(1)
Note: The following text consists of excerpts taken from the article “Notes on the split-field diopter” by Paul Ramaeker, available after free registration at jstor.org.
The split-field diopter lens simply permits focusing on a very close object on one side of the frame, while a distant subject is photographed normally through the uncovered portion of the prime lens; in this way, the shot may be focused on both near and far subjects simultaneously.
The split-field diopter, while it could not provide true deep focus, could create an impression of considerable depth, without the requirement of any additional light. Previously, such effect was only feasible by combining two separate shots in an optical printer via a matting process.
While the edge of the glass at the split between the diopter portion of the lens and the flat glass is invisible, the diopter part itself has an extremely shallow depth of field. As a result, the region where the lens is split, in the center of the frame, will appear blurred due to the focal differences between the diopter and the prime lens. In order to maintain the illusion of depth and obscure the use of the diopter, this focal difference must be hidden in some way.
For example, the edge of the diopter lens may be positioned so that it lines up with a straight edge in the background – such as the corner of a room, the edge of a column or a bookcase. A neutral background, of uniform color and texture, may hide the split, but may not always be feasible.
Two examples from Dressed to Kill, 1980
Unbeknown to either detective Marino or Dr. Elliott, Peter (the young man sitting outside) is bugging the conversation inside detective’s office. The staging and use of split field diopter functions here to unite a disparate group of characters variously connected to a woman’s death and to denote their differential access to narrative information.
Peter times exits from Dr. Elliott’s office so as to judge what sort of delay to put on the camera he is hiding at the scene.
Blurry line between audio and visuals
By now you’ve probably noticed the blurry line between the two areas in focus. Well, the same blurry line can be found between audio and visuals. These two guys have more in common than you might think.
My favorite example is when Walter Murch talks about editing in relation to Beethoven’s music or when Janusz Kaminski talks about shutter angle and describes actor’s movement using musical term.
“Imagine if you could have shallow DOF with like 4 different areas on the screen, your audience wouldn’t know what to focus on […], so imagine sound as being somewhat similar in some ways to playing with DOF, visually.”
Now, we know that split field diopter enables us to have two subjects simultaneously in focus at different distances along the Z axis. In other words, it creates two separate DOFs and the look and feel of deep focus (=large DOF). And I was wondering, what would be the equivalent in sound?
Club scene in Social Network
There is an amazing scene in Social Network, where Mark Zuckerberg meets Sean Parker in a club called Ruby Skye. It’s essentially a business meeting happening in the loudest possible environment.
There is this incredibly loud music firing from the speakers and at the same time, there is a dialogue happening between Mark and Sean.
Visually, try to think of this scene as a scene with deep focus (=large DOF). Both the foreground element (dialogue) and background element (music) are in focus. Except there is no visible blurry line between them :-).
In this scene, loud music adds to the sense of realism – we are in the club, people have to shout to hear each other! Second reason for having such loud music is that, to paraphrase Ren Klyce, David Fincher wanted to achieve that feeling of being Mark Zuckerberg completely overwhelmed, he has never been to club. (2)
This article serves more or less as an introduction to visual thinking about sound. I hope that it sparked some ideas! Writing about DOF in relation to sound was really exciting and this type of article is definitely not the last one on CINEMA SHOCK!