Sound as vision: Riding the blind giant

September 26, 2006

Watching a good movie is like falling under a spell. Gradually, without realizing it, you take the limits of the screen for the limits of the world. Everything else is forgotten, your heart opens up and your mind surrenders to the will of the filmmaker. Ninety minutes later you gain consciousness and walk out of the theatre a little different than how you got in. It begs the question: What was it, exactly, that got you this far?

Most people would say it was the gripping story that glued them to the screen, or the suspenseful way it was told. Others would argue their sympathy for the main character drew them in. A few would mention the intoxicating gaze of the camera, the movements, the rhythm, the colors, the shapes. But who would be clear-headed enough to give credit to the invisible? We don’t just watch a movie, after all: we listen, too.

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In his central work The World as Will and Representation, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 -1860) compared the human intellect to a lame man who can see, riding on the shoulders of a blind giant. The Mind does not control the Will. The same metaphor applies when you take a look at how people experience and interpret movies. In the filmic universe, our window on the world is framed by the vision of the director, but this vision may not be carried by visuals primarily. If we wouldn’t spend most of our time revering the mighty Image, we might realize the extent to which our thoughts and feelings are guided by a blind giant called Sound.

Why do critics and academics refer to cinema as a “visual” medium even though that word only covers half of the definition? When every Special Edition DVD comes loaded with a wealth of behind-the-scenes material, highlighting every detail from location scouting to CGI effects–how come only, say, 0.01 percent of these extras go into the craft of sound recording, sound mixing or sound design? Show off hands: Which of you cinephiles can name five movies supervised by the Godfather of Film Sound, Walter Murch, without checking the man’s IMDb page?

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The fact that audio in motion pictures is often overlooked can be largely explained by its abstract nature. You can point out the lipstick on a husband’s collar, or spot the bad guy holding a gun in the crowd, you can freeze a frame and enlarge it, but it’s hard to put a finger on the disturbing effect of a faintly detectable bass drone accompanying a series of seemingly ordinary shots. Images are frontal and direct, triggering a primarily cerebral response; sound tends to work on a subconscious, more emotional level.

To clarify the difference between how we perceive the two, the aforementioned Walter Murch came up with a brilliant analogy based on the sideways position of the ears. It goes something like this: While we – the audience – are “answering the front door” by looking at the screen before us, sound sneaks in through the windows, the back door and the floorboards, encompassing us in a 360° spherical field. As it resides in the shadows, its subliminal presence becomes a conditional force, affecting the things we’re consciously aware of. According to Murch, “The strange thing is that you take the emotional treatment that sound is giving, and you allow that to actually change how you see the image. You see a different image when it has been emotionally conditioned by the sound.”

That’s right, sound’s a sneaky bastard! Our minds may focus on what there is to see, how we experience the view is often heard. Anyone who’s ever spent a good deal of time experimenting in the editing suite will back this up. In my capacity as a filmmaker and editor, I’ve witnessed and creatively exploited this phenomenon time and again. To radically change the emotional impact of a sequence of shots, I have often simply replaced a piece of music in post production. Oddly enough, replacing the shots themselves never results in something quite as drastic. Just how fundamentally a soundtrack can alter our perception becomes clear in the following mock trailer edited by Robert Ryang, which re-imagines Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as a sparkling family comedy. Hear: a single music cue is all it takes to switch around the mood and snap the viewer into an appropriate state of mind.

One of the finest recent uses of conceptual sound design, however, can be heard in the trailer for the upcoming Todd Field film Little Children. This one and a half minute long miracle was created by Mark Woolen and Associates, a trailer company that was briefed to come up with something without music, elaborate dialogue or story. The result is nothing short of breathtaking and one can only hope that the film is able live up to its promotion (so far, opinions are divided). One thing’s for sure: Unless you’ve ever been tied to the railroad tracks, the sound of a train horn never sounded more foreboding…


Embarrassing Movie Posters #5

September 21, 2006

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Black Book in primary colors: Verhoeven’s back!

September 16, 2006

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Between invisible apes strapped to operating tables and pretty Jewish girls who dye their pubic hair in extreme close-up, the choice is easy… Welcome home, Paul Verhoeven! Zwartboek, Verhoeven’s first Dutch film in over twenty years (if you include 1985’s Euro-pudding Flesh & Blood), is the work of a director doing exactly what he wants, and nothing else. So it’s good, then? Oh yes. I’d go so far to say it’s Verhoeven’s best.

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Paul Verhoeven has never been afraid of the Big Gesture. It’s what he’s all about. Zwartboek is no exception. In a recent interview, actor Thom Hoffman (who starred in De Vierde Man as well as Zwartboek) compared Verhoeven to the abstract expressionist painter Karel Appel, known for his motto “I paint like a barbarian in these barbarian times.” The comparison makes sense. Verhoeven’s style is the cinematic equivalent of CoBrA action painting: exploding with robust imagery, primary color schemes and violent brushwork. But don’t be fooled–this Dutch Master’s broad strokes often work together to paint a finely nuanced picture. Behind Zwartboek‘s brawny sense of adventure is a cautiously calibrated morality play.

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Not that it should come as a complete surprise. In the case of Zwartboek, Verhoeven and regular screenwrite Gerard Soeteman (Turks Fruit, Soldaat van Oranje, De Vierde Man) took twenty years to do their homework and refine their script until it snapped, crackled and popped, referencing a rough total of 800 documents, articles and books on the Dutch resistance. They based their film on real events and concocted a fictional storyline to glue those facts together.

Thematically, the film is rooted in Verhoeven’s experiences of growing up during WWII. Back then, the parents of one of his best buddies were members of the NSB – a Nationalist party that sympathized with the Nazis – convincing him that there were endless shades of grey between black and white. Verhoeven set out to make a picture in which no single character is purely innocent or strictly evil (although I believe he permitted himself one or two out-and-out villains). This in itself is not a radical philosophy – especially not in these trivial times – but it’s a truthful one. Zwartboek leaves you with the impression that the Liberation never came, that human atrocity lives on forever and people are not to be trusted… But hell, life’s sure worth the ride!

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All people behind the scenes worked miracles to make 17 million euros look like 70 million dollars. They had a hard time to raise money for this picture in Europe, but on the bright side Verhoeven gained access to an unbelievable pool of available acting talent. The lovely Carice van Houten as Rachel/Ellis, especially, is radiant in her leading role and Verhoeven quite rightly calls her the most talented actress he’s ever worked with. Here’s a heroine that modern audiences need to see more of: strong, down-to-earth and witty. When this brave young woman finally breaks, you’d have to be a cold-hearted stump of a being to not break along with her.

The same quality level can be found on every level of the production. I take back my initial doubts about director of photography Carl Walter Lindenlaub (Independence Day). His crisp lighting style is a good match with Verhoeven’s larger-than-life sensitivity. Lindenlaub wisely avoided shooting in black and white, sepia-tone or using a bleach-bypass process and based Zwartboek‘s look on German color films from the 1940s instead. (Whether Lindenlaub succeeded in his approximation is not for me to judge–it’s been a while since I saw one.) Anne Dudley’s score sounds like a cross between the military marches that Rogier van Otterloo composed for Soldaat van Oranje and Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie-ethereal main theme from Basic Instinct.

Frustratingly enough, the critical reception in the Netherlands doesn’t seem to be very positive. Some things never change. It just shows how good the Dutch are in underestimating their own artists. Until they die, that is.

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Production notes

After the principal photography of Zwartboek was completed, I’ve worked with a couple of its crew members on two of my own projects (the camera dolly we used was still marked with a “Carl Walter Lindenlaub” sticker). They told me that Verhoeven prefers to shoot in sequence to keep his actors in the moment, which meant that the lighting constantly needed adjusting as soon as the director decided to switch over to a reverse angle. And the man never, ever shoots a master. It’s in his contract, simply to avoid impatient producers going: “We’ve got the scene, I just saw it. Move on!”

Now listen to this: Apparently, Sharon Stone called Verhoeven on the set of Zwartboek directly after the release of Basic Instinct 2. When she asked him if he liked it, Verhoeven exclaimed in his clunky Dutch accent: “But Sharon, you look TERRRIBLE! How could they’ve DONE this to you!” Tact was never his thing. Thank heavens for that.


Help, I’m turning into a Whovian!

September 7, 2006

The far future. Humanity faces the dawn of an intergalactic war as Earth is invaded by a giant fleet of evil mutants. A Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey plans a pulse of energy that will decimate the invaders, but may kill off the human race along with it. His trusted companion, possibly the only person who could put an end to the unfolding cosmic tragedy, is stranded oceans of time away. Twenty minutes to Armageddon… and the fucking screen goes to black.

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I have a problem. A big one. Last weekend, the last episode of the new Doctor Who series (starring Christopher Eccleston as the 9th Doctor) was aired on Dutch television. I made sure to program my DVD-recorder in order not to miss it, and now it turns out that only half of the episode has been recorded. Apparently, the hard drive was full! My eight-year-old son Rasmus, who’s become a die-hard Whovian over the course of a single season, is not amused. I don’t blame him–I nearly can’t get over it myself.

I’ve never been a Trekkie, I’ve just about lost all interest in that famous galaxy far, far away, but there’s no way I can resist the Whoniverse! Doctor Who is swiftly becoming a new obsession of mine. It’s gotten to the point that I ordered a pack of Doctor Who Top Trump cards over the Internet, along with two fully illustrated guides documenting every foe, robot, alien and monster the Doctor has ever encountered. How did it come to this?

As a young kid, the classic BBC series with Tom Baker freaked me out. The electronic theme music was enough to chill me to the bone (I still think it outdoes Mission: Impossible in terms of contagiousness), let alone the eerie planetary landscapes and baddies made out of egg cartons. Back then, I was unaware of the Doctor’s rich history in television and I soon lost track of the British sci-fi phenomenon altogether (mind you, we’re talking about the longest running sci-fi series ever, with 23 seasons shown from 1963 all the way through to 2006). But the new series, produced by Russel T Davies, has finally shown me the Righteous Path…

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So what hooked me? In spite of some pretty cool creature designs and CGI-effects, the production value of the new Doctor Who is still nothing to write home about, and the quality of the individual episodes is far from consistent. What really got me excited, though, is the the unexpected depths of its profound silliness, the amazing flexibility of the Doctor’s quirky universe and the speculative audacity of his mind-bending escapades. This series, much like its protagonist, doesn’t avoid uncharted territories. It embraces change and finds shades of grey in the most black-and-white of concepts.

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Take the Doctor’s most notorious nemesis: the Dalek. Simply put, the Daleks are the most ruthless race in all creation. Indeed, you can’t get any more black-and-white than that, but here it comes: While they appear to be armoured robots, their casing is in fact the survival chamber for a hideously mutated alien life form. Mutated how? By one thousand years of exposure to chemical and biological warfare, for starters… Followed by a little tweaking courtesy of the crippled alien scientist Davros, who morphed what was left of his species into lethal creatures in travel machines, devoid of any emotion save hate–without pity, compassion or remorse. The implanted Dalek survival tactic is simple yet effective: Exterminate all life forms other than your own.

Watching the episode Dalek, I started out chuckling over the title character’s ridiculously impractical pepper pot design, before being completely caught up in the suspense of the story. By the end, the poor lonely creature trapped inside its tank-like mechanical cage, lost in its own destructive thinking pattern, had almost driven me to tears. Quite a feat! This is the kind of nuanced imaginative fiction that you’d love to see handled on a Hollywood budget, but seldom will.

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For an impression of the first new series, check out the YouTube clip below. (In the UK, David Tennant as the 10th Doctor has already picked up where Eccleston left off.) To see two ultraviolent reenactments by my two boys and me, click here and here. I know: I’m beyond redemption…


It’s brilliant, and it’s French!

September 5, 2006

Somebody came up with an answer to my question about a brilliant piece of animation found on YouTube. No one less than Amid Amidi, the animation Oracle writing for the consistently eye-opening blog Cartoon Brew, found out about the people behind the scenes of Minuscule.

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Amid writes:

Turns out that MINUSCULE is a TV pilot co-created by Hélène Giraud (production design) and Thomas Szabo (direction). The show has been picked up and they’re currently creating 78 dialogue-less 6-minute shorts chronicling the adventures of the entire insect kingdom. The production company is France’s Futurikon and the series is slated to air in the US on Disney Channel.

There is justice in the world after all! Can’t wait to see the other 77 shorts. Thank you, Amid!


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