Secret to cinematic storytelling

Visual effects guru Rob Legato unfolds the secret to cinematic storytelling, sounds exciting? Watch the video below:

What do you think about this talk? I thought it was pretty awesome! Especially the part where he talked about how we remember events.

Reality vs. Perception

There is a huge difference between what we perceive (visually and audibly) and what we remember. To quote Rob Legato: “When we’re infused with either enthusiasm or awe or fondness or whatever, it changes and alters our perception of things. It changes what we SEE. It changes what we remember.”

Now, notice that I emphasized the word see in the sentence above. That is because Rob Legato thinks visually. But exactly the same can be applied to sound, we can change it to: “When we’re…it changes what we HEAR.”

Sound design guru Randy Thom said that in sound design you begin by trying to forget for a while what it would really sound like and start thinking about what it would feel like. (1)

Some of you may argue that this is a different approach (what we remember vs. what it feels like), but it is the same: Emotional experiences, whether good or bad, leave strong traces in the brain. (2) These emotional experiences are likely to be recalled more often and with more clarity and detail than neutral events. (3)

For example, I could describe you in vivid detail the evening when I cooked a meal for the first time for my girlfriend, but I wouldn’t be able to describe what I did that day in the morning, because there was no emotion connected to this.

The art of creating awe

The point is, we as storytellers (sound designers, VFX artists, cinematographers, editors, you name it…) use this emotional memory to enhance the story and make it emotionally true and real. In other words: We don’t replicate reality, we create perceived reality.

Apollo 13 (1995)
Apollo 13 (1995)

This is why Rob Legato replicated the launch sequence in Apollo 13 based on what people remembered and thought was memorable. (And memorable doesn’t necessarily mean real or accurate.)

Secret to cinematic storytelling

Sound designers use sweetening, cinematographers color palette etc., because this is how it would feel like, this is how we would remember the event. To paraphrase Martin Scorsese: “The idea behind sound effects in Raging Bull is to give impression of the battles inside the ring. It’s the way the character would perceive it.”

Again, we as filmmakers don’t replicate reality, we create perceived reality. And this is the reason why I fell in love with filmmaking and became completely obsessed with cinematic storytelling.

Resources

  1. filmsound.org/randythom/machinery.htm
  2. www.scholarpedia.org/article/Emotional_memory
  3. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotion_and_memory

Links

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Audio Black Hole!

In one of the previous articles, we talked about how different shot sizes and framings bring different level of intimacy and tension. Well, another interesting way of looking at this is in terms of contrast and dynamics.

Master shot juxtaposed with medium shot or close-up creates contrast. Contrast creates drama and drama is interesting to watch.

Now, contrast is not only interesting to watch, but is key to storytelling. Look for example at the painting by Rembrandt below, where dark blacks are contrasted with bright light:

Rembrandt: The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp
Rembrandt: The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp

We naturally tend to look at the brightest spot. In this case, the brightest spot happens to be the dead man on the table. And this is exactly where Rembrandt wants us to look at; this is what the painting is all about – an anatomy lesson.

Now, there is an infinite number of ways how and where to create contrast. But in this article, we’ll take a look at one specific example in sound design.

Audio Black Hole!

Audio black hole is one of the more subtle, but highly effective sound effects. It involves insertion of a short interval of absolute silence in the audio track just prior to the explosion, gunshot, hit, blast or any other kind of impact. (1)

Needless to say, the most potent sound is the single perfect sound played against silence. (2) This creates not only beautiful contrast and dynamics, but also helps to enhance and accentuate the resulting impact in the mind of the listener.

I prepared a short video to show this sound effect, but before you’ll watch the video, read what sound designers Ben Burtt and Erik Aadahl said in their interview for designingsound.org about this sound effect.

Ben Burtt (Star Wars: Attack of the Clones)

I think back to where that idea might have come to me…I remember in film school a talk I had with an old retired sound editor who said they used to leave a few frames of silence in the track just before a big explosion. In those days they would ‘paint’ out the optical sound with ink. Then I thought of the airlock entry sequence in 2001. I guess the seeds were there for me to nourish when it came to the seismic charges. (1)

Erik Aadahl (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen)

One of my favorite scenes is the “hut scene”. Sam and Mikaela are hiding out from Decepticons on the hunt. It’s the silence that I like. We tried to get very quiet, so we could hear the terrified kids trying to suppress their breaths and not be heard. We wanted the audience to hold their breaths too. We go as quiet as we can, before Starscream rips the roof off of with a BANG! Dynamics are the key to both storytelling and sound.

It’s fun to make audiences lean in, have them strain to hear something, and then give them a jolt. I like this kind of filmic emotional manipulation, and I think anyone who enjoys a ride on a roller coaster does too. (3)

How about you, do you enjoy the ride on roller coaster?

References

  1. designingsound.org/2009/09/septembers-featured-ben-burtt
  2. designingsound.org/2010/03/erik-aadahl-special-exclusive-interview
  3. designingsound.org/2010/03/erik-aadahl-special-the-sound-design-of-transformers-exclusive-interview

Links


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Sound flashback in Backdraft

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.

(Non)Simultaneous Sound

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).

Backdraft (1991)
Backdraft (1991)
Backdraft (1991)
Backdraft (1991)

 

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).

Backdraft (1991)
Backdraft (1991)
Backdraft (1991)
Backdraft (1991)

 

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.


As always, shoot me any comments you might have and if you like this article, share it with your friends on Facebook or tweet it to your followers, or both! 🙂

References

  1. http://filmsound.org/filmart/bordwell3.htm
  2. http://classes.yale.edu/film-analysis/htmfiles/sound.htm
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Backdraft_(film)
  4. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0101393/synopsis