Film Atmospheres – A Sonic Focus Pull

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Film atmospheres
Audium Post

By Audium Post

Audium Post is a boutique audio post production company based in London

My Craft – Sound Design

“We gestate in Sound, and are born into Sight, Cinema gestated in Sight, and was born into Sound”
– Walter Murch

Filmmaking is such a subjective art that writing about an approach seems somewhat redundant; it’s different for every project and every individual and what works for one person may not work for another. However, for this post I thought I’d give you a little background on the company I run, Audium, our philosophy, and then concentrate on a specific approach and technique we use in a lot of our work, citing a recent film as an example.

First, a little background on Audium Post. My name’s Tom Jenkins and I’m one of the founders and Supervising Sound Editors. Audium Post is a boutique audio post production company based in London. We pride ourselves on providing unique, bespoke, sound and music treatments for digital media and moving image. We work on everything from Feature Films, Documentary, TV and shorts to Adverts and VR and sound installations.

The Convergence of Sound and Music

Fundamental to our approach to any project is the belief that sound and music should be intertwined right from the inception of any creative conversation. They should be treated as one; the soundtrack should be treated as a whole, not as constituent, unrelated parts that come together at the very end of a mix. These elements should always be considered in relation to one another, inseparably intertwined, working as one symbiotic whole to elevate story.

Now all of this is not to say that in every project, there is no distinction between score or sound design. Some projects require upfront traditional score, whilst some require subtle and nuanced soundscapes, what we do is always motivated first and foremost by the story and its emotional subtext, never by technique or technology. The most important consideration is to ensure that at the inception of any creative discussion, both sound and music are spoken about in relation to one another. They must be thought of in consideration of one and other; feeding off each other. It’s about the fluidity of sound and music to occupy each other’s role and elevate the story.

Once the philosophical approach to a project is set, we can have an open and honest discussion with the director, producer and creative minds on the show about what a project needs and how to achieve it.

Decontextualizing Sound

One of the most integral parts of our job as sound designers and composers is being able to listen to sounds out of context. We have to be able to decontextualise sounds from the source of what creates it; from the predetermined emotional perception of what things sound like. It is a hugely powerful tool, being able to listen to sounds removed from their source and being able to appreciate the cadence of a sound, the texture and timbre, its inherent rhythm and modulation and how we can harness these sounds to effect and control an audience’s emotional connection to the story. Once we start looking at sound in this way, we realize it’s merely a texture, another colour in our palette, another tool by which to compose with.

This is the most important part of what we do, for after all of the intellectualizing of the philosophical approach to projects, it is all a platform, all a way in to ensure that we use the soundtrack as a device to elevate story, emotion and audience escapism. Now, let’s look at a more specific example of how we can employ this philosophy in our approach to film.

Audium Post still image

Atmosphere’s and The Emotional Mis En Scene

What are atmospheres? Depending on the country, these atmosphere sounds can be referred to by different names; backgrounds, ambiences, atmospheres, naturals, constants. They all refer to the natural sounds of the scene; the wind, the sounds of the city, birds, children in the background, the elements that make up the natural world of the film. The supremely talented Tim Prebble said, in a way for more eloquently and poetically than I ever could, that “they achieve their effect via the most understated duplicitous act: ideally an audience doesn’t notice them, but is deeply affected by them”.

How can we employ the sounds in a film to help inform the emotion of the story? One commonly used way of doing this is orchestrating and manipulating the ambiences of a film. There is an underlying Emotional Mis En Scene of every specific scene in a film that we as sound designers, composers and filmmakers more generally have to learn to read. It’s the space between the dialogue and the movement and the geography that lets us read and understand the emotional trajectory of a scene the characters within. Once we can read this, it’s about harnessing sound to help us control it.

A Filmic Example – Pili

One example of this was a feature film we worked on last year called “Pili” by Leanne Harmann. Pili is the story of an HIV positive woman named Pili and her struggles with the stigma of HIV in a small village in Tanzania. The film was shot completely in Swahili with a Tanzanian cast, yet despite this, would mostly be shown to English speakers. Yes, it was subtitled, but it meant that our soundwork had to be purposeful and deliberate to ensure we accurately used sound to tell the emotional story of the film.

We can use these atmospheric sounds to great effect to achieve two things. We can use them to bring the viewer closer to the world of the film, making them feel the dust, the insects, the animals, the wind in leaves. However, arguably more importantly, we can also use these sounds to heighten the audience’s connection to “Pili’s”s struggle, to her emotional state throughout the films- we can make the audience feel what Pili is feeling.

Audium Post Still Image on a hill

In the case of Pili, we utilized insect as our palette. We were inspired by their inherent musicality and movement and began sourcing and recording as many insects sounds as we could. Through long recording sessions and gathering of as many sounds as possible, we began putting together various sample based instruments. We created sample based percussive elements, keyboards and various other sound instruments all created from these insects sounds.

This gave us a little more flexibility to play these sounds into a scene. Other than simply laying them on the timeline in a linear fashion, we were able to simply look at the screen, watch the film and play them on a various keyboards and control surfaces. It helped get us out of the linear, editing and chopping word of sound design and into the emotional realm of music composition.

Insects could help us define to tone of a conversation. We played them naturalistically during a fairly unremarkable scene, emotionally speaking. As the scene heightens, tensions heighten, the insects slowly morph to a more grating, almost electric buzzing sound, undulating and vibrating as the emotional arch of the conversation heightens. Then they then begin to drop away, dispersing to reinhabit the soundscape of the natural world. This is all done subtly and, for the most, part barely registers with the viewer on a conscious level. But subconsciously it allows us to orchestrate the emotion of a scene and the characters emotional connection with the audience.

Film Pili still

Another example. There is a scene in the film in which Pili suffers an HIV induced migraine. We were playing around with ideas on how to compliment and heighten this effect through sound. Again, insects came into play again. We begin by establishing the insects and part of the natural sound of the scene, as part of the natural ambience. They then begin to orchestrate the subtext of the scene, the emotional mis en scene to heighten the audience’s connection and understanding. As the migraine worsens, these insects start to shift from naturalistic, to score and morph to a throbbing, electric tone, raising in level and pitch with the intention of the migraine. As the moment passes, these insects disperse to become naturalistic again; a mere subconscious part of the ambience of the scene.

As I touched upon at the start of this post, film is an incredibly subjective medium, each project will have its own bespoke approach that works for one but may not for another. However, what doesn’t change is the way we approach the medium; it’s always driven by the story. Be it through music, atmospheres, foley or any other subsection of the soundtrack, the pallette of sounds will change, its function will differ, but it’s always there to support, and heighten story.

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